The Current:
Spring 2007
Current Q & A: Myron Kolatch
Reuven Garrett

At the end of last semester, Columbia announced that it had acquired the archives of The New Leader magazine. The New Leader had ceased to print after 82 years of publication, and had been looking for a home for its archives. The acquisition of the archives gave Columbia a rich, as-yet-unorganized collection that documents the historical role The New Leader played in American politics and culture.

The list of writers who wrote regularly for The New Leader provides a window into American intellectual life in the mid-twentieth century: Daniel Bell, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hans Morgenthau, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, George Orwell, and Bertrand Russell were just a few. As a liberal anti-Communist journal, The New Leader was interested both in domestic issues—it was the publisher of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"—and international affairs, publishing articles from dissidents and defectors, as well as Nikita Khrushchev's speech on the crimes of Stalin's regime.

Last month, The New Leader began its 84th year of publication—only at thenewleader.com—with the help of Columbia, proving that small magazines can have, as the website declares, "life after life."

I sat down with The New Leader's long-time executive editor, Myron Kolatch, in his office in Butler Library for a conversation about small magazines, New York intellectuals, and life on the Internet.

Reuven Garrett: What exactly is the place of a journal of ideas in American society today, and where do you see The New Leader standing now that it is pub­lishing on the web?

Myron Kolatch: To begin with, a journal of ideas—which is a very general description of a whole host of things in the current political cli­mate—really becomes a journal of ideology be­cause we've increasingly become polarized in our society, politically. The result is that there is a lot of support for publications on the Right and publications on the Left, but publications that don't fit into that mold and don't want to fit into that mold and indeed want to engage ideas from a variety of points of view are not very much in favor. They don't have a signifi­cant audience and are slowly disappearing.

You mentioned the Partisan Review, and the most recent casualty in this respect is probably The New Republic, but the fact is that on both sides magazines like the National Review and The Weekly Standard are doing well. When I say that, it doesn't mean that they are paying their way. No serious journal in the history of this country has ever paid its way except for one year—I think it was 1929, of all years—where The Nation under its editor at that time man­aged to pay its bills. It didn't make any money but it did pay its bills. The current Nation also claims to be either breaking even and some­times they claim they are making money. It really doesn't matter, because if you look at the history of these magazines, in their heyday—they've had several heydays over the history of the country—but in modern times they were financed by wealthy women. For example, the best of these magazines, in my opinion, was the Reporter, which started in 1949 and lasted through the Vietnam War, which destroyed it internally. Anyway, the editor of the maga­zine, Max Ascoli, was married to a Rosenwald, which was a very wealthy family. They bought a shipyard to write off the loss of the magazine. The New Republic has had, over the course of its 92 year history, the McCormick-Reaper for­tune and the sewing machine fortunes—these were the wives of various editors along the way. Indeed, The Nation, at the moment, has as its editor a woman—a talented woman—who, however, comes from a wealthy family and has very good connections in a world that believes in that point of view. People like Paul Newman and Gore Vidal and a host of other wealthy people are among the supporters of that maga­zine, in addition to whatever the editor's own finances are. So that is how these magazines have always survived.

When you go back and look over the his­tory of these journals—like [H.L.] Mencken's American Mercury—these magazines have come and gone over time, and one can lament that, but one could also make the case that maybe that makes a certain amount of sense. The magazines that have survived longer have invariably changed over a period of time, be­cause as times change, magazines that deal with the circumstances around them in the world have to move with it. Now, you can move with it in a variety of ways—the neocon­servative movement, which grew out of a gen­eration that I knew well, some would say that it is now coming to the end of its rope. I think that that may be overly optimistic, but, never­theless, I think that it certainly will not have the drive and the ride that it has had from at least the Reagan era all the way to the present hapless administration.

RG: Do you think that that is because of the passing on of the New York intellectuals who were the drivers of these magazines? Do you think that their passing on is affecting the intellectual climate?

MK: Well there is no question that their pass­ing on will affect the intellectual climate. On the other hand, every generation has had its own group of people like this. That generation was outstanding in many respects and so has gotten a lot of attention and is sort of the text­book case. It is taught in schools, and there is a very good documentary that was made about that, but that is not to say that in previ­ous generations there weren't other people. I think that you can't really just hang it on a half-dozen people. Those people did give rise to a great deal of really valuable arguments and original thought where politics and literature and international affairs were concerned but the younger generation is going to produce people like that too, and generations like that have passed in the past.

RG: Do you see anyone or any institution now that is sort of carrying their torch?

MK: No. I think one of the reasons you see these magazines moving in stormy waters is that at the moment, at least from where I sit, none of these magazines has quite the attrac­tion let alone the authority that was true in the past.

A good example is the National Review. When Buckley started that magazine in around '53 or '54 it was something relatively new on the horizon—not that there weren't other right-wing publications around—but he moved into a new kind of weekly journalism that made him involved in daily events. Be­cause he is a clever writer and because he was an effective editor, he put together a combina­tion that attracted attention not only for what it said but for how it said it. You could read Buckley and totally disagree with him, but you would, if not admire it, certainly notice his style. And there was a sense of humor to the right-wing drivel that they were pushing out. That attracted attention beyond those who would just normally be interested because of what he was saying or what the National Review was saying. The National Review today, it exists because they seem to have the funds to do so, but it is hardly something that is getting a great deal of attention.

On the other hand, The Weekly Standard, which is the modern version of The New Re­public, even though [editor] Billy Kristol might not like to hear that, is a pale shadow—utterly predictable, mostly boring. It nevertheless succeeds—not necessarily succeeds, because success is a hard word to use with any of these magazines, but it goes on, because [Rupert] Murdoch who owns it wants a voice in Wash­ington and this suits his purpose. Murdoch, while having a generally conservative point of view, is primarily a businessman, and so he can walk on several sides of the street simultane­ously if it is going to be profitable.

RG: So in a historical perspective, not in terms of the business, the power of the magazine has been the way it has been able to look at politics and the world in new ways?

MK: That is true to a very large extent, be­cause new conditions require new approaches. Now, this may be carried to an absurd extent in some cases like Angelina Jolie being a mem­ber of the Council on Foreign Relations, but that, as The Weekly Standard pointed out, may say more about the Council than anything else. But there will always be people who will come along who are bright and who have a way of looking at things that brings out problems and possibilities that others didn't see before. Then there are certain things that are utterly predictable. One of the problems with most of these magazines is that they are almost all utterly predictable. My son, who was visiting from Washington, picked up a magazine that we got in the house for many years and he said "My god I haven't seen this in five years and nothing has changed—same articles, same writ­ers." After a while that is another reason why some of these magazines tend to go under.

At the moment it is fair to say that the whole communications world is in a transi­tory stage, because the Internet makes things available instantly across the globe. If I want to find out what the Germans are thinking about a particular policy, I don't have to wait to read it by some specialist in one of these so-called journals of ideas, I just need to click on the computer and I can look at newspapers or magazines there. The other thing is that your generation and even more so genera­tions following are not readers. Most of them were brought up on the computer, they were taught a lot on the computer, like how to count and how to spell all before they were going to school. By the time they were three years old they were playing these games on the com­puter which were basically educational games. And so today I would wager—and I don't have to wager, just look at the newspaper sales—do you read The New York Times every day?

RG: Not every day...

MK: So their circulation has gone down. The Times at the moment claims to be investing more in its computer operations than in its publishing operations, and I believe that's true if you look at all that they are doing on the com­puter. The reason for that is because they are a business, and they want to stay in business. Now, I don't think print will ever disappear as such, just it will become less of a factor. All of these magazines that you are talking about also now have websites, not a website like The New LeaderThe New Leader is just doing a vir­tual magazine on the Web. The other websites are designed to be news and opinion pieces that keep up with what is going on every day, which seems to me to be a rather foolish thing for them to be doing, because no matter how much they do it, no matter how much they in­vest in it, they will never to be able to invest as much as The Washington Post and the L.A. Times and The New York Times can. If I want that kind of information I am not going to see what The Nation's website is going to say about it unless I am a dyed-in-the-wool ideologically driven person who needs to know how I should think about whether it is okay to integrate schools or some such nonsense.

Running these websites is costing those magazines, which are already having to raise money in order to survive, a great deal of mon­ey. At one point The New Republic claimed that, or at least someone at The New Republic told me that, their website was virtually bankrupting them. Now I'm not big on blogs either because I think they are just a bunch of hot air. But think about it—you are living at a time when anybody who wants to sound off can sound off and just put it on the air which is in this case is the Internet and international. In most cases people will not know whether this somebody is authoritative or a clown, so the question also is how long are magazines like this going to sur­vive if people aren't reading them.

RG: Do you think there is a place for serious maga­zines on the Web, or do you think the Internet is a place where people just get the summaries and then move on?

MK: It is hard for me to tell. I think there is a place for everything—there may be a small place, or there may be a large place. One of the things that seemed to surprise people the most about The New Leader on the Internet was that it was just The New Leader on the Internet. It was not some new, up-to-the-minute Internet operation. For us we stopped the print opera­tion for economic reasons. We were enabled to do this because of Columbia, to which I am greatly indebted. Columbia in turn has our ar­chives, and it is a relationship which is not only a good one, but which historically makes sense because people at Columbia have always been among the major contributors to The New Lead­er going back almost to its inception. But if you ask me whether I personally miss having the printed edition, the answer is yes, I do, but that is also because I come out of that generation.

RG: Perhaps there is something to be said for having the print edition in your hand....

MK: Yes, there is and that is one of the reasons we did it as a PDF [on The New Leader website], so that you could print it and have it in your hand. Since I was a kid I was very interested in the whole growth and development of typog­raphy and moveable type, and I was in print shops, so I care a lot about graphic design. I care about the appearance of the magazine, and I don't want anybody messing with it.

RG: When you say Columbia University has the archives—does that mean that they have the internal memos?

MK: The archives are very interesting, and they will be very interesting for me too, be­cause I have not had a chance to go through them. It means that every scrap of paper that we have and that we've saved—basically cor­respondence and things of that nature from 1924 to the present—is now part of Columbia's library. You can reconstruct a whole era from looking at the correspondence and the people who were involved in publications of this kind. In the case of The New Leader, you will find cor­respondence from people like T.S. Eliot and John Dos Passos—just a host of people. I have no doubt that several Ph.D.'s will come out of this. The archives need to be cataloged, some of the typewritten and handwritten letters are very fragile and need to be preserved and can only be done by specialists in the field. Here at Columbia the archives are part of the Rare Books Library. The reason for that is because they are in many respects rarities and they do have a lot of history in them. I am also trying to have everything that The New Leader pub­lished, every issue from 1924 to the present, digitized so that it is available on the Internet for people doing research.

A lot of misinformation exists. Someone told me that there was a Wikipedia article about The New Leader—I was kind of surprised, so I took a look at it and everything about it was wrong. They didn't have one date right. I don't know who put it there, but there it was. So if somebody went to look up information about this magazine and they came to this Wikipedia thing, how do they know that it is not accurate and that we did not put it there, but that someone else put it there? So we cor­rected it, because the other thing about Wiki­pedia is that anybody can change anything that is on there. Why it's on there I don't know, and why so many people pay attention to it, I don't know, but there it is. That is one of the dangers of the Internet, so what we are trying to do is that everyone should have access to the original material.

RG: A phrase that caught my attention, perhaps you coined it, is "intellectual breastfeeding." I'd like to know what you mean by that. I assume you are not just encouraging people to look at what the other side is saying because that's not....

MK: No, No, No. Intellectual breastfeeding was a phrase I coined which I hadn't realized was going to become so popular, but it seems to be quoted every place anyone talks about The New Leader. What I had in mind simply was that because we are such a polarized society, especially now, people tend to read, and to want—they read these magazines because they get sustenance and support for their points of view.

If you really hate George Bush, and you read the editorials of The New York Times or something like that, then you get real emotion­al support. I was going to say The New Republic but The New Republic, because it is somewhat confused about where it stands, would not give you a lot of emotional sustenance. A good ex­ample of this kind of thing: in the case of The New Leader during the Vietnam War, you could have read a very impassioned article by John Roach who was a very respected political sci­entist and Lyndon Johnson's sort of house in­tellectual, if you will, making the case that Vietnam was the most important war that liberals had fought or had to fight. A couple of weeks later—not because I asked him to counter that or because I was running a war page, which is what the New York Post once used to run that they had one side and then the other side—Ar­thur Schlesinger, who had preceded Roach as a White House intellectual under JFK, wrote an article which made exactly the opposite case. Now if you are a schizophrenic, you would have liked that because you got both sides making very intelligent and impassioned views, but if you had a real feeling about that war—pro or con—then you would have only wanted to see one of them. That would have supported your point of view and you could say "See they said exactly what I would have said, that's exactly what I believe." And that's the way it goes with most of these magazines. There are two kinds of people who read The Weekly Standard. I would say 90% of the people who read it are people who approve of its neo­conservative point of view—the other 10% read it for kind of negative reinforcement.

RG: To see what the other side is saying....

MK: Right, some to see what the other side is saying and there is some attempt at humor there at times. So basically what I meant by "intellectual breastfeeding" is that people tend to read what supports their position. Maga­zines would like to believe that they created that position in that person, and in some cases they probably did, but I would pretty much wager that by the time people come to these magazines they have already got a point of view and that they are looking for support for that point of view. If you ask me what the key to the failure of The New Leader was, I would say that its failure was not having a definite political point of view that people could rally around and that you could wave your flag at. I also thought that that was one of the nicest things about The New Leader. I had to enjoy it, and if I had to enjoy it then that was the way it was going to be because I haven't got any pa­tience for the "—ologies." People who are ideo­logically driven have blinders on them and they see only what they see in front of them. The world is too complex for that. So I think that, in time, there is going to be some other format developed for a lot of the same things that went on in these magazines. Also, in addi­tion to the electronic transition there has been a radical change in the world with the end of communism....

Once communism became an interna­tional threat and concern, then everybody was focused on it. Much of our politics had to do with how we were dealing with the Soviets and what gains and losses we were having with them. The collapse of the Soviet Union, some people would argue, eliminated the need for a magazine like The New Leader. Well, I think those people are pretty myopic.

Did these magazines help bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union? I hope so—they certainly worked hard on it. But I don't think any one single thing is easily identified as the cause. Now you have a world in a state of flux.

I have an uneasy feeling that Putin may be a twenty-first century variety of Stalin, which would make him very different from Stalin, but nevertheless not someone whose eyes I would look into and see stars. The world is never without terrible horrendous things. All you need to do is look at parts of Africa, parts of Asia. Look at Darfur, look at the Palestin­ians—it may be very easy to place all the blame for their unhappy and miserable lives on the Israelis, it is a very simple solution but the fact is that they were not in any better condi­tion before there was an "Israeli problem" for them. The other fact is that no Arab country has lifted a finger to help a Palestinian ever, ex­cept if it is going to in some way impinge upon the Israelis. So the world is not without places that need attention and that need some serious and original thinking. The world keeps on get­ting smaller, so that it becomes in a way more urgent, which leads me to suspect that maga­zines, like this one and those that exist at the moment, will in one form or another continue to exist and sometimes make a useful contribu­tion.

These magazines are not only political magazines. They are also cultural and literary magazines. They do have an impact on the lit­erature of the times and on young people who are interested in writing—in writing fiction and writing non-fiction—and that is a good thing. I have always felt that they should also be train­ing grounds, and so we try to let people know that we are very open to new young writers who feel they have something to say—we may not agree after we have read what they are offering—but I think that a lot of people have passed through this and other magazines like it. This is where they were introduced into the world that they wanted to be a part of and I think that should be a function of these maga­zines. But if they are not going to exist it is going to be harder. And that's pretty much where we are.

Reuven Garrett is a sophomore in Columbia College. He is a Managing Editor of The Current. He can be reached at rpg2103@columbia.edu.

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