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Our World In Stupor Lies
December/January 2016/17

William F. Buckley: A lost era of influential ideological magazines (Bert Goulait)


In Cold War Manhattan, there appeared to be no greater enmity than the hatred between Victor Navasky, editor of left-wing magazine The Nation, and William F. Buckley Jr, editor of National Review.

The Nation was, if not pro-Communist, then at the very least anti-Nato. Buckley’s aim, by contrast, was to destroy the liberalism of the Republican party and build a red-blooded conservative movement in its place. (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.) They argued about everything. Navasky was right to condemn conservatives’ support for McCarthyism and their opposition to the civil rights movement. But history has vindicated Buckley’s attacks on the Left’s myth that Soviet agents in America were innocent victims of the state.

In 2008, after Buckley had died, Navasky confessed to getting on well with his old foe. They both edited ideological magazines that had an influence far beyond their small circulations. They both despised the profitable mainstream media, which stuck to the daily news schedule. They wanted to find new ideas and stories the big news organisations chose to ignore or simply did not see. They challenged rather than informed their readers. Above all, “whenever we found ourselves within drinking distance”, they shared a bottle and despaired of their backers, who in their innocence expected small intellectual magazines to make a profit.

Buckley’s commitment to free enterprise would have led to his magazine closing. But, Navasky explained, he would excuse his appeals for charitable donations by saying, “You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?”

Their world is dead. I don’t know if there are intellectuals left in Manhattan. Certainly, here in London, when cliché-ridden hacks throw around the insult “Hampstead intellectual” they show only that they do not realise that no intellectual has been able to afford to buy a home in Hampstead since Michael Foot’s day. Where there were once second-hand bookshops for inquiring minds, there are now boutiques for second wives.

Gone too is the assumption that there exists a profitable mainstream media for mavericks to rail against. I spent the weekend in the company of an editor from the New York Times. Trump’s victory had driven him to despair, but he still found the spirit to reject my accusation that the US press had failed to do its job. It had reported on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It had exposed Donald Trump’s scams and tax dodging. But its exposés had no effect. New technologies had locked Americans in belief systems as rigid as anything the Cold War imposed. Where once the totalitarian state had controlled the news, now Facebook algorithms ensured subscribers only received information that confirmed their prejudices.

The objection that people always bought newspapers which suited their politics does not wash. Even though a left-wing New Yorker would have read The Nation and his or her counterpart on the Right would have turned to Buckley, they did not and could not immerse themselves in their ideological comfort zone. Broadcast news had to be impartial. It forced them to confront awkward facts and arguments they would rather not hear. In the US, famously, Ronald Reagan abolished the fairness doctrine for broadcasters and allowed the creation of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. But it is vital to understand that regulated British broadcasting is not in much better shape.

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