Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:37

A Continuing Survey of Conservative Periodicals

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A Continuing Survey of Conservative Periodicals

Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin

Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.

To found a magazine of opinion and maintain it successfully requires an extraordinary character. When, for whatever reason, the founder leaves, carrying on the enterprise in the spirit of the founder proves, finally, to be impossible. He was more than ordinarily gifted, and such a one does not surround himself with equally strong characters. Those who carry on the magazine may be competent, but they cannot replace the lost leader. Without his spirit animating the magazine, it begins to lose its character. It may remain a fine publication, but it will never be the same.

So National Review, the premier conservative biweekly for over sixty years, has been in a slow decline since William Buckley retired from active involvement some years ago. Still a good magazine, it is no longer the Delphic oracle of the movement, not just because its political judgments have become uncertain, but because the editing has gone slack and the special zest that used to be NR's hallmark is gone. This shows most obviously in "The Week," those paragraphs of topical comment at the front of the magazine. Once a pungent delight, they are now mostly damp squibs. The widely varied columns of Buckley's day have been replaced by dull pieces (and in some cases, unreadable ones). Only Rob Long's humor column is first rate. (After a prolonged absence, the incomparable Mark Steyn is back, as of the 3/21 issue!)

The issue of 2/21, we are happy to say, belies to a degree our gloomy remarks: it is true that "The Week" is limp, but all comments on Egyptian affairs, including essays by David Pryce-Jones and Anthony Daniels, are level-headed, more than can be said for some conservative magazines. There's an illuminating article about the wastefulness of our pseudo-space program, and three of the four features, one about Jeb Bush, a profile of Thomas Sowell by Jay Nordlinger, and one on the Pigford fraud, are excellent, but the one about the Senate by William Vogeli is too academic for this venue. Three of the four book reviews are good. Since both of us stopped going to the movies many years ago, we cannot comment on the film column. So of the eighteen items, we derived something of value from eleven. Some of the pieces - on Jeb Bush, space waste, and the Pigford fraud - were news to us.

Israel News is a four-page weekly newsletter from a Toronto synagogue that reprints five or six articles published in the U.S., Israel, Canada, or Great Britain analyzing Middle East affairs. There are nearly always pieces by such brilliant analysts as Caroline Glick and Barry Rubin. Essential reading for Israel sympathizers. Subscriptions: Israel News, 613 Clark Ave West, Thornhill, Ontario L4J 543, Canada. $50/year.

Access to Energy is a monthly four-page newsletter started more than forty years ago by Petr Beckmann, and a brilliant publication it was, exposing absurd environmental fears, and making the case for energy development, especially nuclear. Unfortunately, he died young, and he turned the publication over to Arthur Robinson, a scientist with his own lab in Oregon. At first, Robinson carried on with environmental news, and he was a driving force behind the petition of scientists against Al Gore's climate change agenda. Unfortunately, he has pretty well dropped environmental issues in favor of Tea Party diatribes (he ran unsuccessfully for Congress last fall), something we need much less than critical analyses of Greenism.

Environment and Climate News, a monthly twenty page newspaper published by the Heartland Institute, is a compendium of news stories about Green issues - States' struggles with the EPA, the cost of "renewable" energy, schools teaching Green propaganda, etc. Since it does not examine these matters in any depth, it is really no more than a series of memos reminding readers of current Green issues. It is no substitute for thorough analyses of every aspect of Greenism, and where are we going to find that? Until very recently conservative publications were embarrassingly ignorant about Greenism, and the only consistently anti-Green magazine was the libertarian Reason. The most reliable conservative magazine on this issue today, beside our own Review, is The American Spectator, where George Gilder leads the attack. It is most unfortunate that conservatives have been so backward about this, an inevitable consequence of their tendency to focus exclusively on politics, ignorant of how Lefties carry their politics everywhere, even into the countryside.

An example of the unreliability of conservatives on this subject turns up in the feature article of the 2/28 issue of The Weekly Standard, "Green Power, Red Light," about Greens at war with themselves about energy projects. The project, a huge solar energy setup in the Mojave Desert is now being sued by the Sierra Club. The author shows how solar (and wind) power generation uses much more land than conventional generation, thus greatly increasing potential regulatory challenges. It's obvious that these projects, strenuously promoted by the government at the same time that every obstacle possible is placed in the way of conventional energy development, are wasteful disasters, and that should be the real story here, the scandal which should be getting maximum conservative attention. But that isn't the point of the essay, which is that if the government wants to promote this nonsense it must reform the regulations so that the usual frivolous azreen suits cannot block the projects. The rest of the article is an outline of how to improve the regulations. Incredible.

The Washington Times is a forty-page newspaper owned, we understand, by Sun Myung Moon (hope we've got that right), so it covers news from China, especially military news, assiduously. We do not read it for news, nor do we think anyone else does because most of the stories sound like press releases: "GOP Hearings Put Obamacare, Oil Spill Under Scrutiny," "Senator Paul Says Tea Party Holds Power on Hill." The intellectual level is not high; the paper's conception of conservatism pretty much begins and ends with the Tea Party. We subscribe for the columns, ten or more every week, and they are indeed worth reading: Michelle Malkin, Dennis Prager, Thomas Sowell, Wesley Pruden, Mona Charen, Lawrence Kudlow, Tony Blankley, Pat Buchanan, to name the most prominent. The editorials are usually good, too.

The New Criterion is an eighty-page monthly magazine of the arts, very high-toned and austere, not to say snooty. For instance, information about the contributors is so sparse as to suggest that a reader's curiosity is voyeuristic. The editor and founder, Hilton Kramer, once the art critic of the New York Times, is very attached to modern art, and that's the central subject in the magazine, with seven or more pages always taken up with an essay by Karen Wilken, usually on a major museum exhibit, followed by short reviews of gallery shows. The Wilken essays, which may be about any kind of art (not necessarily modern) suffer from lack of illustrations, but the reader is made to feel that the articles are for readers who have been to the exhibition or who know the paintings so well that they don't need illustrations. If the reader can make little sense of Wilken's essay and doesn't care for modern or contemporary art at the galleries, this section of the magazine is a dead loss.

There is a growing tendency to turn over the main section of the journal to symposia, always a sign of editorial desperation. Of the four issues since last November, three have special sections devoted to one topic. These may or may not interest the reader, but they are certainly less interesting than a varied group of essays would be. The one on Art in the December issue has an illuminating essay on Art Nouveau by Michael Lewis, and the symposium in the January issue - "The Anglosphere and the Future of Liberty"- has interesting essays by Anthony Daniels, Mark Steyn, Keith Windschuttle, and James Bennett. The February symposium - "Limited Government in an Age of Uncertainty"- is not so good, probably because the writers, like Andrew McCarthy and Amity Shlaes, have a limited repertory of well-known ideas, so the reader learns nothing he did not already know.

Let's look at the November 2010 issue. After brief and refreshingly acerbic "Notes and Comments" by Hilton Kramer, there's an essay on J. S. Mill by the lively (if uneven) Anthony Daniels, a dull (because we know the story by heart) piece on the decline of the New York Times, an excellent essay on Fanny Kemble, and one on Mahler. As always with the main essays, they are thorough, concise, and well written. NC publishes three or four poems in every issue, nearly always interesting and sometimes excellent. First Things publishes religious poetry, and National Review publishes one poem per issue, but the ones in NC are the real thing. Kevin Williamson reviews plays, always at too much length. The art section follows, and then the music column by Jay Nordlinger, a fine writer on all kinds of subjects, but trivial and shallow on music. The media column by James Bowman is usually the best thing in the magazine, but it suffers from a mannerism which seems to be growing on Mr. Bowman: he tends to write long convoluted sentences that are almost incomprehensible. Five book reviews follow, well written and intelligent, usually on subjects, like art and culture, not found in conservative magazines.

Editorial slackness shows up in a couple of shocking instances when the magazine published wholly inadequate essays on the deaths of two eminent writers - J. F. Powers and Louis Auchincloss - written by people who knew hardly anything about the author's works.

The magazine's strengths are its good writing, its concern with the arts, and its publication of superior poetry.

Range, a quarterly of eighty-six pages that bills itself as "The Cowboy Spirit in America's Outback" may seem an odd choice for this survey, but the magazine and the Westerners who read it are adversaries of Greenism and its governmental collaborators who are pushing Westerners around and locking up Western lands. Remember that Greenism is opposed to productive land use anywhere. The voices that are heard in Range are authentic voices of ordinary Westerners, and it is refreshing to hear them. The magazine features excellent photography, as well as "Red Meat Survivors," old ranchers who are still hanging in there, recalling their struggles and scorning the vegans. There's a large letters section and much argument about issues Easterners seldom think about, like the proper way to deal with feral horses, and so on. Range's value is that it opens new vistas for us, expands our horizons. Unfortunately, its performance is very uneven.

The Claremont Review of Books is a quarterly of seventy outsized pages aptly calling itself "A Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship." Considering the Fall 2010 issue there are, in addition to Charles Kesler's editorial and the letters (thoughtful), four essays on political thought, nineteen book reviews, and a concluding one-page essay by Mark Helprin. All but a few of the reviews fulfill the magazine's description, and these are related cultural matters: lives of Arthur Koestler, Henry Luce and Somerset Maugham (Conservative editors should never consider literary figures, like Maugham, because their judgments are invariably shallow). If Commentary is intellectual without being academic, The Claremont Review is the reverse. That is a criticism, but it is not so damning as it sounds: so many of the books discussed are written by academics for university presses, and the Review's writers are almost all academics that the magazine is bound to smell of the lamp. Other academic stigmata are a lack of cogency and concision. Its conservatism is a little belligerent, hostile to neo-conservatism.

In any case, The Claremont Review has made for itself, in a short time, a serious position among conservative periodicals, and we always look forward to its appearance.

The April issue of First Things has arrived, and a new editor has taken over. The editorial is fatuous, and the two short initial essays are very dull (and dubious). The four feature essays, averaging seven pages of double columns, are long and dense: about the Soviet war against the Catholic Church, about aging, about Evangelical squabbles, about a Catholic boyhood in the 1950s. The magazine, originally ecumenical and inter-faith, has become steadily more Catholic, and now its readership is like to be confined to seminaries.

The immediate purpose of this survey is to acquaint readers with a wide spectrum of conservative thought. We hope also to sharpen our perception and improve performance. It is a part of our effort to make the Review a specific voice in the conservative medley, a voice that will be known as wide ranging in its outlook, having something cogent to say about economics, the countryside, about high culture, and about the life of ideas. By showing varieties of conservative thought, the survey should help to make the Review known as the foremost magazine of critical conservatism.

In the next issue: The Magazines and the Middle East. *

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