I’ve been mulling over writing something about “the Marty Peretz situation” (as it has been called at Harvard University). The occasion for the current controversy is that there are plans to endow a research fund in Peretz’s name at Harvard. Many people, both at Harvard and elsewhere, are justifiably upset about these plans because Peretz has a long history of making bigoted comments about Muslims (exemplified by his recent statement, later retracted, that Muslims didn’t deserve First Amendment Rights) as well as equally heinous comments about various racial and ethnic groups (notably African-Americans and Hispanics).
Here are a few notes:
The last word? Almost the last word on the subject belongs to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic blogger who brings a large heart and an incisive mind to everything he writes about. You can read Coates take here and here. What I especially liked about Coates essays is the way he notes that Peretz’s bigotry extends beyond Muslims to other groups, and also the impact that this bigotry has had on the actual contents of The New Republic. The Stephen Glass affair, for example, is usually presented as an example of a journalistic fabricator who pulled the wool over the eyes of his editors. Yet Glass made his first big fabulist splash with a front cover story in The New Republic in large part because it catered to Peretz’s racist worldview.
A long history. Some people have argued that Peretz’s recent comments were an aberration, and we shouldn’t judge the man by a few sentences. This line of argument is effectively refuted by looking at the Peretz Dossier blog maintained by Matt Duss, which highlights many bigoted comments by Peretz. And the Peretz Dossier only goes back to 2006. If it covered the whole of Peretz’s career, it would be an anthology of ethnic spite and xenophobic malice the size of War and Peace.
It’s good to be rich. It’s taken a while to get my thoughts together on this because “the Marty Peretz situation” is an extremely depressing example of how money allows you to get away with almost anything. If Peretz didn’t have money, he’d be an old coot at the corner of the bar spouting off about how the Muslims are animals, the blacks need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and the Mexicans are ruining the country with their drugs and corruption. But because Peretz had the money to buy a major American magazine – he was majority owner of The New Republic from 1974 to 2002, and held on to a stake in the journal until 2007 – he was able to foist his prejudices on the public for decades, with only the mildest pushback. Even today, he retains an impressive cadre of defenders, many of whom are stalwart names in American liberalism, notably Al Gore and the editors of the Boston Globe.
Liberalism and race. Peretz’s peculiar relationship with liberalism is worth noting. I think it is fair to say that politically Peretz is not really a liberal at all: his views are much closer to conservative magazines like Commentary, The New Criterion, and The Weekly Standard than they are to that of The New Republic. And of course, the major achievement of American liberalism has been its championing of civil rights since World War II. This makes it all the more note-worthy that The New Republic has indulged Peretz for such a long time. The New Republic is a good magazine and some of its writers are my favorite political analysts (I’m thinking here especially of John Judis, who has himself been maligned by Peretz). But it’s hard to regard the magazine continued honoring of Peretz as anything other than sad and pitiful. I don’t know how the magazine can extricate itself from Peretz at this point, but I imagine that in the future there will have to be a reckoning with his legacy.
Friends or enablers? Sometimes it seems like Peretz has many friends, people who don’t share his worldview but are willing to defend him. But are these really friends or are they enablers? If he had real friends, wouldn’t they have taken him aside a long time ago and said, “Marty, you got to cut out the racist crap. You’re destroying your reputation by writing stuff like this.”
Maybe It’s Not Good to Be Rich. Peretz is 72 years old but age hasn’t given him wisdom or prudence. As anyone who reads his blog knows, he’s become more and more scabrous with each passing year. What legacy can he look back on? He’s been the publisher of an important magazine, but I think history will conclude that his role at The New Republic has largely been a corrupting one. He’s been able to publish his political thoughts unedited for many years, but it has to be said that he’s such an inept writer that his political pieces mainly serve to discredit his own ideas. To take one example: he’s a strong Israeli nationalist, yet I can’t imagine that anyone gets a favorable opinion of Israel from reading Peretz. Quite the reverse. Peretz has poisoned everything he’s touched.