Victor Navasky’s memoirs, which discuss his longtime relation to the Nation and how he came to publish that magazine, create for the reader two misleading impressions before he gets beyond the dust cover.  Contrary to the blurbs of Bill Moyers, Barbara Ehrenreich, E.L. Doctorow, and Kirkus Reviews, this book is neither “elegant” nor “subversive” nor “entertaining.”  And George McGovern and I obviously read different texts if, in the news-release blurb, he can assert that Navasky has written an “engrossing work” and that “his literary style is masterful.”  Navasky’s is the dreariest tome I have perused since being forced, as a graduate student, to read Bishop Stubbs on English constitutional history.  The writing is self-congratulatory and stylistically minimalist (like Bill Clinton speaking on social programs).  There is no opinion given in this book on McCarthyism, fascism, the Religious Right, or Navasky’s attempt to steer a middle course between holocaust remembrance and Palestinian claims to statehood that is not predictable and vapidly stated.  After a few pages of his colorless prose, Navasky’s leftist party line bounced off me like rainwater hitting a tin roof.

In the opening chapters, Navasky dwells on his family’s incapacity for business.  His father, Macy, loving language, was economically inept—yet, somehow, the son managed to attend New York private schools and, after that, Swarthmore College, before going on to Yale Law School.  Navasky’s benefactors, he keeps assuring us, cared more about social justice than about climbing the greasy ladder of capitalist success.  However, the money never lacked for plush progressive New York schools and for a costly leftist mag, although it is never quite explained how someone who has sacrificed so much for socialism has managed to live so well—with an expensive publication, an apartment in Manhattan, and a weekend getaway in Upstate New York.

Having devoted many paragraphs to caviling at the accusation that Alger Hiss engaged in Soviet espionage (this in the face of the supposedly conclusive Venona decrypts and Allen Weinstein’s biography documenting Hiss’s activities as a Stalinist spy), Navasky maintains, without proof, that the Moral Majority are “the real anti-Semites.”  There is reason for this selective nitpicking, however.  In Navasky’s worldview, which operates in certain sections of Manhattan’s Midtown, communist spies never existed, while any organization that opposes the social left is, by definition, “antisemitic.”

Indeed, it is impossible to establish a criterion by which any leftist friend of Navasky, or “victim” of a congressional investigation, could have been a communist sympathizer—let alone a Soviet agent.  Navasky sees anyone who kept communist friends, joined Soviet-American friendship leagues, and/or was accused of passing secrets to the Soviets as a civil libertarian, American patriot, or idealistic antifascist.  The lifelong Soviet apologist Corliss Lamont is hermeneutically transformed into “the progressive philanthropic humanist.”  Although he does admit that Julius Rosenberg was probably a Soviet agent, Navasky then goes on to stress how pitifully little Julius blabbed to Stalin’s henchmen and how Ethel Rosenberg was executed along with her husband for not turning state’s evidence against him.  I wonder what Navasky or his friends might say about someone who divulged American military secrets to our Nazi enemy in 1942.  As in today’s multicultural Europe, being an antifascist or having been declared one is the sole justification needed for anyone who fronted for Stalin being awarded a clean bill of health by Victor Navasky.

Navasky also refers on occasion to good “anti-Communists,” such as Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., whose major historical achievement was coming to the defense of suspected communists cited before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Although it might be unfair to tar Rauh with a red brush, it is ludicrous to hold him up as an “anti-Communist” for having tried to keep the far left Emergency Civil Liberties Committee from falling directly under Stalinist control.  Nor did it occur to Navasky or Rauh that there were documentable communist agents whom the House Committee had good reason to investigate.  And if the committee did actually perpetrate civil-rights violations, these continued for years against people who showed insufficient enthusiasm for the crusade against fascism that preceded the one against “godless communism.”  In this case, it is a question of whose ideological camp is being put under government scrutiny.

The only benefit I have been able to extract from this otherwise tedious printed matter is the confirmation of something I had long suspected: namely, that close ties exist among members of the New York magazine community.  For those Plattländer in Gary or Des Moines who believe that all successful scribblers in New York must be thick with one another, there is more than enough on these pages to prove them right.  Moreover, the social contacts one discovers in Navasky’s book cross ideological lines.  Despite the Nation’s publication of Gore Vidal’s attacks on Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, Navasky dwells on the fact that the ensuing fireworks damaged his friendship with his two longtime New York acquaintances.  Vidal had taken to task those whose company Navasky apparently valued.  Reading his account, it seems that balancing social relations may have been, for him, a more important activity even than shielding communists.

Navasky also tells of hosting get-togethers with the staff of National Review and the New Republic and rejoices at the common ground he shares with their editors.  It is enlightening how conciliatory National Review editor Rich Lowry became when Navasky invited him to speak to his class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.  Lowry fell over himself comparing their two magazines, which (he alleged) “exist to make a point rather than a profit” and are “fighting for ideas that are out of favor.”  (Note that Lowry was courting someone who had devoted his career to defending communists and communist fellow travelers and who had invariably opposed Western resistance to Soviet expansion.)  As for Navasky, he returned the kindness by contrasting Lowry to those reactionaries who are addicted to “spewing right-wing propaganda.”

Certain questions occurred to me as I contemplated this lovefest.  Would Lowry reach out to a paleoconservative magazine editor in the way that he did to his Stalinoid host?  Why is he so much more indulgent of the Nation than he is of the “unpatriotic right” that David Frum savaged in his National Review?  Are anticommunist paleoconservatives who protest against a global-democratic foreign policy less socially acceptable than American opponents of the Western side in the Cold War?  The answer to the last question—and at least indirectly to the others—may be: It depends.  It depends on who can advance the careers of aspiring magazine employees located in New York City.  No matter how these careerists work to differentiate their products, they are selling similar merchandise.  Above all, they are selling themselves.


[A Matter of Opinion, by Victor S. Navasky (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux) 458 pp., $27.00]