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James Warren

James Warren

Posted: November 2, 2008 07:01 PM

This Week in Magazines: What's at Stake in the Election, Atlantic's Redesign and The New Yorker's Brainiacs


What's really at stake in Tuesday's election? Many usual suspects are opining in the cable universe and fact-challenged blogosphere, so for a cerebral alternative there's "A Fateful Election" in the Nov. 6 New York Review of Books.

Those weighing in are very brainy folks not found on many TV bookers' Rolodexes. They include Yale English professor David Bromwich, Columbia University American-studies expert Andrew Delbanco, writer Joan Didion, legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, Oxford academic icon Timothy Garten Ash, former New York Times Editor Joseph Lelyveld, writer Frances Fitzgerald, former New York Times columnist and PBS host Russell Baker, and prolific historian Garry Wills, among others.

Given their political thrust, one discerns where a President Obama will face mine fields on the political left (a reason to also track down Rachel Maddow's excellent, revealing Obama interview on MSNBC last week). One example is Bromwich bashing Obama's Iraq views, about withdrawing "responsibly" and also being willing to go after al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan and expanding the Afghanistan war. "Obama has in this way greatly impaired his value as an educator of public opinion." One envisions the Yalie wagging his finger with condescension.

"So long as he vouches for the War on Terror--the larger 'war we are in,' as he calls it--he cannot possibly explain the hollowness of a war against terror-as-such, a war against a technique," Bromwich writes, contending Obama is buying into a "dangerous consensus" on needless militarization of foreign policy. He finds Obama's position "dismaying" and even quotes British political philosopher Edmund Burke: "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle."

An important issue, not really raised on the campaign trail or generally understood, is broached by Wills and involves the unitary executive theory of the Constitution promulgated by Vice President Dick Cheney and others. It's the analysis driving justification of undeclared wars, renditions, creating military courts, domestic surveillance, and brutal interrogations, all the while giving a middle finger to Congress. Coincidentally, it is also the backdrop for "Vexing Legal Questions Await Next President" in Nov. 1 National Journal, a Shane Harris exploration into the Justice Department opinions supporting a variety of anti-terrorism policies.

The Bush administration responses to those questions explains why Wills points to selection of Supreme Court justices as the greatest stake in the election since it's clear that four current justices (John Roberts, Joseph Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas) buy into the theory. "Add a fifth justice to them, and the Constitution will be under the severest siege in its history," he concludes.

---November Atlantic unveils an ever-so-slightly questionable redesign while remaining a gem of a publication. Hanna Rosin is excellent on growing debates in the scientific community on the nature of gender, underscoring "an almost Victorian notion of childhood innocence" in which parents can think that a child's being gay can be changed. James Fallows offers examples of China's seeming rank stupidity when it comes to worldwide image. Clay Risen does really well with a profile of iconoclastic Washington, D.C., public schools boss Michelle Rhee, making inroads in a disastrously screwed-up system and possibly providing a template for others (though her real challenge, hinted at here, may be whether she can bargain bona fide change into long-restrictive union contracts). Jeffrey Goldberg's analysis of the gaping holes in our airport-security system correctly pillories the no-fly list of the Transportation Security Administration, even if it doesn't really step back to focus on whether our obsession with airport safety reflects future threats from bad guys (wouldn't we be better off worrying about subways, trains and water-filtration plants?). Blogger Andrew Sullivan praises his brave new world and still reminds us that "the triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious" and suggests that "blogging's gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less."

Per usual, there's much more here, knock on wood. As for the redesign, the inaugural cover is a bit of a jumble and loses the Atlantic's simple elegance of old, while one also finds, sadly if unavoidably, the print media tendency toward shorter, shorter, shorter in the magazine's various departments. Fortunately, shrewd and creative editing will override the illusion one can design one's way to larger audiences. A new editorial hierarchy here maintains a tradition of intelligence.

---After reading Sullivan, perhaps check out the Nov. 1 Economist with its market analysis of media, concluding that skewed news reporting may not be a hint of the world coming to an end but "a sign of healthy competition." This relies heavily on a University of Chicago analysis that finds congruence between the degree of slant in a publication and the degree of slant seemingly critical to maximizing profits in the publication's particular market. Of course, proving "that newspapers have a political slant that is economically rational" doesn't quite get at the issue of unadulterated bias.

---HBO's John Adams series won lots of critical plaudits and awards, but young historian Jeremy Stern of Princeton University begs to differ with a chunk of the praise in his "What's Wrong with HBO's Dramatization of John Adams's Story" on the History News Network Website. He finds it ironic that the drama's protagonist chides artist John Trumbull's depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence by warning, "Do not let our posterity be deluded with fictions under the guise of poetical or graphical license." He argues that the writers of the series did just that, and needlessly so, even if Stern fully concedes the appropriateness of fudging history for any dramatization. Within what he acknowledges was a fine drama with great acting he finds way too many serious distortions, many "pointless and needless," and catalogues same here. Reality "is consistently rewritten to mold Adams's image to the writers' needs, and to exaggerate his centrality, frequently at the expense of his contemporaries' achievements and reputations. Adams does not need such revision: he was a great man despite his flaws."

---One hopes that strong business publications, like BusinessWeek, aren't imperiled by the debacle on Wall Street. Its Nov. 10 issue is worth Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School competitiveness savant, making the case for the U.S. desperately needing a long-term economic strategy, focusing smartly on the desperate need to significantly improve the structure and performance of our public schools. He's on the mark there, even if somewhat mistaken about the importance of funding. "The problem is not money," he declares. Yes, places like Washington, D.C., are awful despite tons of money. But he should take my kid to his Chicago elementary school, where the pre-K teacher implores parents each week to bring toilet paper and other basic supplies; the music and art teacher now share a single position and thus each work a half week; and there's nobody to routinely deal with the school's badly outdated computers.

--Nov. 10 New Yorker profiles a brainy master at self-branding, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, while checking out intriguing brain research on psychopaths, in particular prison inmates. The latter is fascinating for raising the question as to whether we'll conclude one day that psychopathy is a distinct mental disorder and that its victims are not really responsible for their often-heinous actions. But, writer John Seabrook wonders ultimately, even when we have significant data bases on the subject, will we ever be sure what propels people to act without conscience?