Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin
Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.
We have long thought that an ongoing survey of conservative publications would be useful and interesting: useful because it would alert readers to noteworthy articles and also make editors aware of critical opinions of their product; interesting because it would help readers to think about what they read in a more conscious way. The plan is to describe each magazine fully and then to comment from time to time on especially good issues or articles.
Without more ado, let us consider Commentary, the premier neoconservative monthly. It must be said that it is no longer the intellectual feast it was before Norman Podhoretz retired some years ago, but it may be that the highly serious men and women who wrote for and read the magazine have all passed from the scene. The Letters section in those days was unparalleled. When John Podhoretz took over we expected a decline, and we got it. But we are happy to say that there have been great improvements lately. Even the Letters column is better.
The February issue (72 pages) contains six articles, six book reviews, two columns, an editorial, a story, and a Jewish joke told by Joseph Epstein. A good way to measure a magazine is to note the proportion of duds to live articles, and this issue comes off very well: an essay on the Tea Party movement says nothing new or penetrating, but the next three, on Rush Limbaugh, Irving Kristol, and terrorism and piracy, are excellent, and the one on Kristol by his widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is a profound exposition of his thought, worth reading and rereading. The next piece, on the anti-Western and anti-Jewish nature of Middle Eastern literature, is platitudinous and much too long. The last article, on the roots in the thirties of Lefty dominance in the arts, is good, but mistaken: Lefties began infiltrating artistic culture before World War I. Commentary is the only conservative magazine that publishes fiction, so it's a shame that this is always so bad, quite devoid of feeling or meaning. The book reviews and columns (one on music by Terry Teachout, and one about the press by Andrew Ferguson) are very good. This issue is worth a year's subscription if only for the essay on Kristol.
The Weekly Standard is another neoconservative magazine, a weekly of forty pages, and that's its problem. National Review also began as a weekly, but Buckley soon saw the impossibility of bringing out a magazine of ideas of any quality every week, and changed to a bi-weekly. So too much of the magazine is filler. The issue of 1/31 opens with the "Scrapbook," a couple of pages of satiric comment on incidents of the day, followed by a one-page "Casual," in this case a rueful look at our cultural change over the last fifty years. Then there are three strong editorials, often the best thing in the magazine. Five articles follow, dull fillers about Obama and one about a new congresswoman, and only the last, about government healthcare rationing by Wesley Smith, stands out. The two feature essays, one about Green success in banning phosphates from cleansers, the other about the Justice Deprtment's harassment of big city police departments, are very good. Four of the five reviews - about Yeats, Galileo, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Prohibition - are fine, but one, about the career of Michael Jackson, is a waste of three pages. The "Parody page," supposed to be amusing, is rarely so.
The Weekly Standard's strength is its focus on foreign policy (not evident in this issue), too often slighted these days in conservative magazines, and its weakness is its desperate need for filler, hence the low quality of many articles and indulgence of some dreadful, prolix writers. Compared to National Review, it's a lightweight.
The American Spectator, an eighty-two page monthly, is a very mixed bag, but it contains so much (twenty-six entries in the February issue), and so many of its writers are superior, that it offers the most sumptuous and varied fare of any conservative magazine. R. Emmett Tyrrell, the founder and editor, who once fancied himself as Mencken redevivus, is ever present and tiresome, and he gives space to turkeys like Ben Stein and Conrad Black, but in this issue there's an excellent piece on liberalism by James Piereson, one of the best essays of the month in any magazine on Greenism in California by George Gilder, and thoughtful essays by Roger Scruton, Tom Bethell, James Taranto, and James Bowman. Two of the book reviews, one by Aram Bakshian about V. S. Naipual's latest book on Africa, and one by Dan Peterson about Nancy Pearcey's book on the intellectual undermining of society over the past two hundred and fifty years, are first-rate. The magazine is not so closely edited as Commentary, so the individual voices are more apparent, enlivening its pages.
Because the range of interests is so wide, readers are sure to find some satisfaction.
First Things, a seventy-two page monthly published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, was founded by Richard Neuhaus to bring religion into the public conversation. Its orientation is generally conservative, emphasizing religion and culture. Marriage and abortion, for instance, are constant concerns. Neuhaus, a prolific writer and very sharp critic, was the genius of the magazine, and his column, "The Public Square," was a closely reasoned meditation on a religious issue, while the accompanying "While We're At It," paragraphs about topical events, sardonically observed, crackled with his acerbic wit. The magazine has not yet recovered from his death, but it is improving.
It has a good "Letters" section, full of serious argument. After the editorial and two short articles, (in the February issue) one on evangelicalism, and the other about yoga (very stupid), there are five essays, three about religion, one about Alisdair MacIntyre's faulty economics, and a searching essay on Heidegger by David Bentley Hart, the eminent theologian. The book reviews, mainly about religious books, are generally pedestrian, and "While We're At It" quite lacks Neuhaus's wit.
We found the essays on MacIntyre and Heidegger worth the price of admission, and anyone interested in religious and cultural issues would enjoy the magazine, but there is no question that, with the passing of its founder, it is a sadly diminished thing.
In the next issue of The St. Croix Review we shall discuss National Review, and we shall again deal with a magazine suffering from the departure of its founder, a seemingly perennial problem with conservative magazines. *