Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin
Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.
In May we received a call from Commentary: the magazine was polling its readers to test reactions to a possible shift in publication from a monthly to a biweekly. We would guess that Commentary, like all publications, is feeling the effects of competition from the Internet, a general name for all those forms of instant communication available today. So the editors (we suppose) thought they could better compete by being more timely, by publishing every two weeks rather than four. Stated like that, you see the fallacy: no printed work, not even a daily paper, can be as timely as the Internet.
We have been using "timely" as if we all understood its meaning, but it really is a most elastic term. The dictionary says "opportunely; in time," but if we think about it, timeliness is a presence in every political magazine, no matter how infrequently it is published, for the obvious reason that such publications exist to comment on current public affairs. What we're really talking about are degrees of timeliness, and magazines handle this issue in various ways.
Among the dozen or so publications we survey, it might be thought that The Washington Times, a weekly newspaper, would be most timely. While the articles (as we have noted before) read like press releases, they are about current events - "Romney leads GOP Hopefuls in Filling War Chest," "Violent Mexican Drug Cartel Leader Taken Into Custody" - but we would not call them timely because they lack any sense of time pressing on the moment; that is reserved for the columns, and not all of those either. In the July 11 edition Steve Milloy has a first-rate column, "Last Chance for GOP to Stop EPA Train Wreck," so timely that the reader feels the urgent need to make Congressmen read it and take action at once.
A key to any strategy for addressing the EPA problem is for . . . Republicans to drop their fear of the agency and its enviro-activist allies . . . it is no longer 1970. In 2011 America, the air, water, and the rest of the environment are clean and safe. . . . Republicans must recognize that the EPA is largely driven by left-wing ideologues, not people who are more concerned about the environment or exist on a higher moral plane than the rest of us . . . [who] use the agency to increase government control over the use of energy and to stifle economic development.
Milloy enunciates a strategy for controlling the EPA now, via the appropriations process. This - dismantling growth-inhibiting regulations, promoting economic resurgence - is the most important issue for Republicans to champion, and it is a burning issue now. Timely indeed. The issue of August 8 has another fine piece by Milloy on the EPA's new ozone regulations that makes the same point, that we have to confront directly the environmental arguments of the Greens and show their falsity.
Pat Buchanan has a column, "Homosexuality and the Death of Moral Community," certainly timely, which quotes an Archbishop:
A new kind of America is emerging . . . and it's likely to be much less friendly to religious faith than anything in the nation's past.
We are entering an era when communities will secede from one another and civil disobedience on moral grounds will become as common as it was in the days of segregation.
So it is the columnists who are most timely in the sense that they write about current issues that are burning, urgent.
National Review has a classic format: "The Week," dealing with matters that can be contained in a short paragraph, is the timely feature of the magazine, but two of the columns in the back by Rob Long and Mark Steyn (the only worthwhile ones), are also timely, Long in a comic way, Steyn in his incomparable ironic style. Steyn's essays always convey a bleak sense of realism about our prospects that gives them a sense of urgency.
The American Spectator, a monthly, tries to have the timeliness of a biweekly and the depth of a monthly, but it doesn't quite make the latter grade because the feature articles are nearly always second-rate. The test of depth is that you go back to the essays to reread them, and that can only be said of the regular columns by James Bowman, Roger Scruton, and Tom Bethell. Timeliness is achieved by Tyrrell's feature "The Continuing Crisis" in the front of the magazine, by reprints of two of his syndicated columns at the end, and by James Taranto's "Presswatch" column. One aspect of Internet timeliness we haven't mentioned is its preoccupation with the trivial, the tawdry, and the sensational, and "The Continuing Crisis" makes use of such items in a comically deadpan way, putting them in their place.
So what did we tell the caller from Commentary? Why, to stay the course as a monthly, and later we wrote to the editor, invoking the authority of this column, pointing out the value of the thoughtful essays Commentary is famous for, essays rarely found in other publications. An extraordinary magazine, it seldom publishes anything second-rate (aside from fiction). Partly this is because, unlike a magazine like National Review, which is largely staff-written, its essays are written by men of affairs like John Bolton and Elliot Abrams, and such men are usually likely to have more profound things to say than journalists.
For instance, in the July issue John Steele Gordon has an article, "Growth: The Only Way Out of This Mess," adapted from a speech given at a Federal Judicial Circuit conference, which argues that the way out of the depression is by promoting growth, specifically by freeing energy development from the restraints imposed by the administration and the forces to which it panders, like the Greens. He develops the idea from a persuasive account of our resources and our history, by the way making the point that concentrating only on spending reduction is not enough and is also politically risky. Focusing on promoting energy development as well as spending reduction would be not only a winning political strategy but a platform of governance. This is not a new idea, of course, but the author argues the case so persuasively that it takes on a fresh luster. An essay like that is not uncommon in Commentary.
The magazine also prints pieces that are timely in the immediate sense, like Andrew Ferguson's two-page column, "Pressman," at the end of the magazine. In July he dissected the hosannas that greeted the appointment of Jill Abramson as the new executive editor of the New York Times, emphasizing "the liberalism that suffuses the work of even the most careful reporters is so deep-seated as to be altogether unconscious," of the variety he calls:
Timesism: the bizarrely inflated opinion that many readers hold of the Times. . . . Timesism is a strain of American liberalism, the liberalism that dares not speak its name.
Try convincing a Times reader that it expresses a point of view, not Reality or Truth.
We recommend the quarterly newsletter of the Property Rights Foundation of America, P.O. Box 75, Stony Creek, NY 12878, which is concerned with private property issues and the assaults thereon. The annual meeting in upstate New York in October is terrific, a day-long series of excellent speakers from the front lines of struggles over property rights all across the country. We have to travel a long way, but we never miss a meeting. Cost of membership: $30.00
Of course, being a monthly or quarterly does not guarantee profundity. We had high praise for National Affairs in the last issue, but its summer issue is a complete dud, rehashing old themes and arguments.
Random notes: NR has an excellent, thorough profile by Robert Costa on Michele Bachman in its July 18 issue, much better than the sketchy one in The Weekly Standard. And Adam White has a thoughtful essay on the legal thinking of Justice Alito in the latter on July 18. Both essays show that a weekly or biweekly can publish essays of solidity and depth, essays that we want to reread and rethink.
The summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books contains several interesting articles and reviews, most notably by Scott Yenor on the American Presidents series which not only assesses individual volumes but shows their conceptual failure, what can be called the historicism of Progressive thought, "reminding us of the need for constitutional history of the U.S. premised on the importance of first principles." William Voeglis' thorough essay on the pathologies of the 1960s people and their liberal apologists then and now is timely and important.
One of the best things about the magazine is its letters section, so good that it reminds us of the letters in Commentary 20 years ago, and that's no mean compliment. Such a lively and intelligent column is a great asset - and a great benefit to readers. It creates a discussion as it extends, contradicts, and deepens the argument in the original essay. In this issue Lino Graglia has a letter about an article by Hadley Arkes in the spring issue, a letter which very effectively shows the subjectivity of Arkes' theory that natural law must be the basis of constitutional law and judging. Arkes is a sympathetic figure, an author of several weighty books, but we have always felt the dangerous subjectivity of his theory, and the exchange between Graglia, clear and concise, and Arkes, vague and insubstantial, confirms our fears. As Graglia says:
. . . when a judge looks outside the text of the Constitution in a constitutional case, he looks nowhere but in himself, to his own policy preferences.
So we have learned something significant by an exchange of letters.
The August issue of Environment and Climate News has an excellent two-page piece by Rael Jean Isaac, "Environmentalists vs. Renewable Energy," showing that Greenism is really about "cutting the supply of energy, not finding alternative sources." Indeed, John Holdren, Obama's energy czar, in 1973 declared that the goal must be to "de-develop the U.S." *