A Matter of Opinion
by Victor S. Navasky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 426 pp. $27.00

Even if this memoir tells only part of the story—as is clearly the case—Victor S. Navasky, who was born in 1932, is certainly among the most cheerful men in the world and may just be the most satisfied. Although the book mainly focuses on Navasky’s experience since 1978 as the editor, and more recently the publisher, of the Nation, America’s foremost leftist journal, both his understanding of the world and his complete comfort with that understanding seem to have been fixed in him from the time of his childhood and youth at the Little Red School House and Elizabeth Irwin High School, the linked private schools in New York City that from their founding were dedicated to left-wing politics and culture.

Some former students at these schools have moved well beyond their influence. But among Navasky’s most pleasantly unshakable memories, he tells us, are such transfiguring experiences as listening in elementary school to the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and singing “the anti-fascist songs of the International Brigade in Spain.” Without necessarily knowing its name, he and his classmates were being inducted into the ideas and prescriptions of the Soviet-organized Popular Front of the mid-1930’s, one of whose most memorable slogans was “Communism is 20th-century Americanism.”

Over the years, Navasky admits, he has learned—from reading George Orwell, from Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of the crimes committed by Joseph Stalin, and, more recently, from the “Venona” decrypts of Soviet diplomatic messages—that “some things were wrong with this particular naïve internationalist vision,” which remained a fixture of a certain Western mindset far beyond its brief life in Soviet doctrine. But then he quotes the words of the late Michael Harrington:

Though the Popular Front was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than to promote kindness, for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it. . . . My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade.

“Mine, too,” adds Navasky.

That “mine, too” bespeaks a spirit lastingly untroubled by the horrors, social and political, visited upon the world by the implementers of Navasky’s still-cherished radical beliefs. Nothing in Navasky’s universe, it seems, has ever been sufficiently cataclysmic to shake his steady faith in the goodness of socialism and the evil of American capitalism. As we learn from him here, virtually his whole pre-Nation career as a journalist, which included freelancing for and serving as an editor at the New York Times Magazine, was devoted to the search for instances of government malfeasance—the government in question being that of the United States—and the spirited defense of perfectly innocent Americans whose only crime was to hold “naive internationalist” views. (See Naming Names, his whitewashing book about the Hollywood Communists.) In that sense, the Nation was only the next stop on the train.

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Of course, the Nation had a storied and checkered career in the history of American journalism long before Navasky took the helm. As, moreover, a weekly magazine of opinion, it has continued under his stewardship to range somewhat more widely than its editor, and has been open to the full scope of left-wing political and literary interests. Navasky has been sufficiently hospitable to these to have kept the magazine’s readership well satisfied week by week, year by year, for close to two decades as editor and a decade more as publisher. (Under Katrina vanden Heuvel, whom he appointed as editor in 1995, neither the policy nor the substance has changed.) Without that satisfaction, either he or the magazine would have been long gone.

Which means that, as an entrepreneur, Navasky has been nothing if not active on the Nation‘s behalf, and the story of his activity makes up by far the most interesting part of this book. He has pushed along the careers and burnished the fame of a number of leftist writers; trained a number of interns to become editors; successfully raised money when he has needed to; maintained both complete editorial freedom and happy relations with the magazine’s angels; served the leftist literary community as an occasional mobilizer, as when in the 1980’s he stirred the long-moribund Writers’ Union back into life; organized public programs, lectures, and panel discussions without number; and even put together what he hoped would be an annual conference to discuss problems of common concern with the editors of various conservative magazines. All this, while writing, lecturing, debating, and in general reacting to the myriad alleged injustices imposed upon American citizens and the world by the militarism and concupiscence of successive Washington administrations (bitterly disappointing to Navasky when run by Democrats, literally criminal when by Republicans).

Much of this activity is spoken of by Navasky in a tone of high good humor, as if his life as editor, publisher, and opinion-maker were a cheerful walk in the park. Indeed, so at ease has he remained in his ideological skin that, with one partial exception, he seems never to have felt the need to reassess his acceptance of just about every last item in the Moscow-inspired version of modern political history. That partial exception has to do with the atomic-espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, belief in whose innocence had long remained a crucial test of loyalty for the old Popular Front; in the end, Navasky appears to have reconciled himself to the now generally held verdict that Julius, at least, was guilty as charged.

But thus far, and no farther. Take the Hiss case, a no less crucial test of “progressive” loyalties. According to the unswerving line of the day, Alger Hiss, a selfless public servant, had been traduced by Whittaker Chambers and monstrously framed by the FBI in the late 1940’s as a Communist agent. But then, in 1978, a sensational book on the case by the historian Allen Weinstein, who had undertaken his research on the assumption that Hiss was indeed innocent, ended instead by proving his guilt. A number of former believers were, reluctantly, convinced by Weinstein’s argument. Not so, Victor Navasky. He recounts here how he went through Weinstein’s Perjury with a fine-tooth comb, finding phony evidence here, irrelevant evidence there, improper manipulation of evidence elsewhere: in sum, a case not closed.

What followed was a public altercation with Weinstein from which Navasky still believes himself to have emerged the winner. After this came further battles, especially in the 1990’s when, with the fall of the Soviet Union, fresh evidence turned up in Russian files. In 1995, the scholars Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, in The Secret World of American Communism, made use of this evidence to demonstrate authoritatively Hiss’s guilt. But still Navasky remained, and still he proudly remains, obdurate. He will, he says, continue to wait patiently for “a reasoned assessment of the evidence.” We need not hold our breaths.

Still another test of Navasky’s serene imperturbability occurred in 1982 when Susan Sontag, facing an audience of her fellow radicals at Town Hall in New York, proclaimed her own emergence from the progressive dreamland by denouncing European Communism as “fascism with a human face.” Even more breathtakingly, she went on to assert that, down through the decades, a follower of the Reader’s Digest would have learned more about the terrible reality of the Soviet Union than a follower of the Nation or the British New Statesman.

The shock of this unimpeachably true assertion, and the enraged public ruckus that ensued, are hard to overstate; at the time, no one may have been more shocked than Sontag herself, who never again dared repeat her statement or anything resembling it. But Navasky has sailed on.

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There is something central to the nature of Navasky’s Nation that I have already touched on but whose existence is scarcely allowed to mar the genial, engaging surface of A Matter of Opinion. And that is the magazine’s general enmity toward the United States of America and virtually all of its works and ways, foreign and domestic. Latterly, this same enmity has been extended to the state of Israel as well.

The magazine’s ideological posture has, if anything, grown only stronger since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the reason is not far to seek. After a point, it became impossible to hold, as Navasky had been brought up to do, that Communism was the real 20th-century Americanism—for, by the end of the century, there was no Soviet Communism left. There is still, however, a popular front, bereft of Soviet backing but helped along by an energetic cadre of West Europeans, and it has a new slogan. Anti-Americanism is the new Americanism.

In the public prints, the Nation is one of the primary headquarters of the new popular front. But what does any of this have to do with the genial, engaging Victor Navasky, author of the genial and engaging A Matter of Opinion? If anyone were to accuse him of anti-Americanism, let alone of anti-Semitism, he would surely feign dismay and hurt. After all, is he not a nice guy? Does he not fight only for truth and justice? Does not his magazine faithfully fulfill its reformist mandate as America’s loyal opposition by democratically taking part in lobbying campaigns and by supporting and opposing candidates for public office? (This last point has financial implications; if Navasky were to register the magazine as a non-profit, tax-exempt charity, which would compel him to forgo certain forms of explicit politicking, his lot as a fund-raiser would arguably be easier.)

Is he not, then, truly on the side of the angels? And thus sheathed in virtue, how can he be faulted if the wonderfully diverse opinions voiced in his magazine happen to have included the openly anti-Semitic canards of his late dear friend Edward Said and others, or the vicious anti-American propaganda of Alexander Cockburn, or the accusation by one especially venomous writer that Norman Podhoretz, of all people, has been guilty of disloyalty to America on behalf of the interests of the state of Israel—a “libel,” as David Greenberg notes in reviewing this book for the liberal journal American Prospect, that Navasky characteristically shrugs off with a jape? How, indeed?

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So here he stands, happy ringmaster of the country’s most successful anti-American circus. In the center ring parades a small army of revolutionists, apologists for terrorism and/or left-wing dictatorships, professionally angry blacks, women, homosexuals, environmentalists, pacifists, even anarchocommunists and Luddites. All are sincerely devoted to doing damage to the republic.

So far, the republic has managed to withstand them—to the good fortune, ironically, of Navasky and his merry band. For only misfortune would await them in a society that had surrendered to their prescriptions and promptly removed the protective institutions against which they have sworn eternal battle. No wonder, then, that Victor Navasky is so pleased with his achievement. Being an American radical means never having to say thank-you, and never having to say you’re sorry.

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