Told  /  Book Review

Friends and Enemies

Marty Peretz and the travails of American liberalism.

Under Peretz’s leadership, The New Republic was a lively magazine that invented a style of neoliberal snark and sometimes irreverence that, while not as hegemonic as it was in the 1990s, still has journalistic imitators. Echoes of this style continue to reverberate in many publications, from Slate to Tablet to The Atlantic to The New York Times’ op-ed page. Peretz’s TNR hired and nurtured scores of talented journalists, chief among them Hendrik Hertzberg, John Judis, Robert Wright, Margaret Talbot, Peter Beinart, and Michelle Cottle. True, the staff leaned heavily white and male and also toward Harvard alumni, highlighting privileged voices even more than the dismal standards of the rest of the media. Further, the magazine also published more than its share of unsavory characters and fabulists: Stephen Glass, Charles Murray, Steven Emerson, and Michael Leeden, among others. Peretz says his publishing philosophy at The New Republic, when working with his editors, was: “My bullshit goes in, so does yours.” In aggregate, this meant Peretz’s New Republic published an enormous amount of bullshit—his, but that of many of his editors too. The magazine promoted many of the worst decisions in modern American history–the killing fields in 1980s Central America, the invasion of Iraq, the downgrading of diplomacy in preference to military solutions in foreign policy, the neoliberal economics that has fueled inequality and instability, the brutalization of the Palestinians, the revival of scientific racism, and the persistent whittling-down of the welfare state. And this is only a partial list.

Having said that, The Controversialist is an absolutely terrific book that I can’t recommend highly enough. Anyone who cares about American politics should read it. To be sure, Peretz is often in error: To pick just one example, he claims that “the first time that journalists were regularly on TV” was in the 1980s, on shows like The McLaughlin Group. Meet the Press, which first aired in 1947, would like a word. And many of his other claims or characterizations of people are demonstrably false or absurd. Yet, despite this, The Controversialist clarifies how a powerful segment of the ruling class thinks and operates. There’s no other book that so clearly illuminates the moral, intellectual, and political corruption of neoliberalism. Susan Sontag never gave him thanks, but I will. Thank you, Marty, thank you!