Victor S. Navasky Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Journals of Opinion and the Work of Democracy: Conversation with Victor Navasky, Publisher and former Editor of The Nation, September 16, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Opinion Journals

Let me show your book again for our audience: A Matter of Opinion. There are several very important themes that you look at in this book, and I want to pick up on some of those now. book coverWhat is the role of a journal of opinion in our society? Here we're talking about magazines that are as diverse as National Review, Commentary, The New Republic, and The Nation.

One of its roles, and it depends who's in power, is as a dissenting journal. I think that's one of its most valuable roles. In the case of The Nation it's dissenting from the powers that be, corporate or political or cultural. A second is to put new issues on the national agenda. A third is to rally the troops in time of trouble. You want to let people know that they're not alone, [especially] if they have ideas that are offbeat. In the first issue of the National Review, Buckley said something like, "Our goal is to stand astride history and yell 'stop!'," because everything was moving in a liberal direction.

Another function is to nourish writers and ideas, and cultivate them, and bring them to fruition -- and then they get picked off by the politicians! Well, they nourished all these crank ideas that became supply-side economics and other notions that the Reagan administration adopted as policy, they got Goldwater by what they call "fusion" where Buckley used the glue of anti-communism to bring together various strands on the conservative map -- the libertarians, the old-fashioned traditionalists, and some of the new isolationists and some of the more jingoistic right-wingers. That had a profound influence on national politics.

I got interested in the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and I went to see him and asked him the question you asked me. I said, "What is the role of a journal of opinion in this age of conglomerated, homogenized, sensationalized, Murdoch-ized, Oprah-ficated journalism?" He said, "Oh, that's obvious." It wasn't obvious to me. In effect, he said, "It is to set the standard for reasoned argumentation." And that's a pretty noble aspiration and a marvelous role for these things that are regarded as relics of the eighteenth century by many people.

A good example of some of these elements -- I believe your journal was the one that published E.P. Thompson's essay on the issues raised by the nuclear buildup in Europe ...

Yes. "Protest and Survive," it was called.

Then that would be an example of putting ideas on the agenda in a way that doesn't necessarily result in victory, but it changes the intellectual approach to a set of problems.

Yes. A publisher named J.W. Gitt from York, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the 1940s election, when they were arguing about whether The Nation should support the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace or Harry Truman, and The Nation didn't support anybody, said, "The Nation is a magazine for the permanent minority." At first, I thought about that and I said to myself, "Well, that's not so great. Who wants to be permanently in the minority?" Then the more I thought about it, I said to myself, "Hey, just a minute. It was founded by abolitionists, who were in the minority when they began the abolitionist movement." Over the years, on a whole range of issues -- including the nuclear issue that you mentioned: it brought the danger of living in a nuclear age to national attention -- it fought for civil rights laws which are now accepted as law of the land; it was in favor of Roe vs. Wade, which the latest Supreme Court nominee says is encoded as the law of the land. So, if being in the permanent minority means that you are permanently ahead of your time, that's a pretty good place to be. So, I don't resent that, but that's one of the roles that it plays.

Does that tell us what the link is between radical insight and political activism? In other words, it may help churn political activity but let's not count on that change that's being proposed happening right away.

People who call for immediate action wouldn't put it that way and I wouldn't quite put it that way. One of our roles is to be a forum for the debate between the radicals and the liberals. People tend to think that the journal of opinion -- there's a cliché about it -- preaches to the converted or it preaches to the choir. My view about that is that if we preach to the choir, anyone who reads our letters page will see we have the least harmonious choir in the history of journalism. It's the dialogue, it's the conversation, both inside and with the culture, that distinguishes it; and it's the content of the dialogue that distinguishes it from the mainstream press.

So, for example, we have debates in our pages that just don't come up in the mainstream press, or don't usually come up. They cover the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans, we may cover the difference between the Democrats and the Socialists, or we may cover -- and give expression, voice to -- the differences between the radical feminists who believe that pornography should be banned and the civil libertarians who believe that nothing should be banned.

We had a review by Carlin Romano of a book by a feminist who believed that pornography was rape, and he began his review with the following outrageous sentence: "Suppose I raped Catharine MacKinnon?," who wrote the book. Well, outrageous statement, but he meant it to be outrageous. It provoked a lot of anger. He said, "Yes, you should be outraged. But pornography isn't rape and you shouldn't use that formulation lightly." That was his argument. She had a response, and that's part of our function, the same way we have debates in our magazine between the pacifists and the human rights interventionists. That's a very different debate than the one going on about should we be in Iraq or not, which we also play a significant role in.

One of the agendas that you brought to The Nation that emerges in your account of your work there is bringing an even greater international focus to issues and working with comparable journals abroad, even exchanging journalists with journals like The Statesman in Great Britain. What led you to that, and do you think you accomplished something there that was good not only for The Nation but for the national agenda?

Yes. First of all, when I came to The Nation, I thought it was important we have at least one piece that covered international affairs, foreign policy, per issue. Within a few years we'd only run one domestic piece in some issues. We had to deal with the globalization of the culture and of the economy and of the media. So, how do you cover that? Now, before the Internet, in almost every major country in the Western community, there was an equivalent [of The Nation] -- not quite the same, but in England it was the New Statesman and in Italy it was Il Manifesto, in Sweden it's Svedvenskaya Dagblater, in Denmark it was Informacion. So we decided to call a conference of all these journals and discuss ways we might cooperate in investigative journalism on international problems, because how do you investigate the transnational, multinational corporation? It's very expensive and they are insulated, and they know how to keep journalists at bay.

Our thought was that we could collaborate on stories with journalists in these different places. That our fees were modest, but if you pooled them all, we had a shot at paying a journalist a decent wage, and that we might get some foundations to put up travel money. So we had a series of international conferences and the way we organized them was we'd find a partner and we'd raise the money to bring people over and they would raise the money to house them and feed them and have a place where they could meet while they were there. We had one in Amsterdam, one in London, outside of London, one in the former Soviet Union, where it met at the Moscow State University Journalism School. These were very productive sessions. We tried to set up a network that would survive in between conferences. Then the Internet came along and sort of outdated it a little bit and we all got occupied with other things.

But the impulse for international exchange of information, collaboration remained. Also, we thought we could publicize stories, so instead of saying, "Today The Nation magazine said this," you could say, "Today The Nation magazine in New York, the New Statesman in London, Svedvenskaya Dagblater -- all claimed ..." and you might highlight in each story a different thing that dealt with what was happening in their country, but you have the universal story be the same -- whether a story about intelligence agencies in secret collaboration, or some corporate pollution story. It was a very exciting project, I'm sorry it's still not ongoing, but we made acquaintances and have relationships that endure to this day, and run articles by people who showed up at these conferences, or people who were put in touch with us through them.

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