Learning from Victor Navasky (1933-2023)
An appreciation for my first boss, the longtime editor of The Nation and a lifelong defender of free speech and questioning authority. Plus, the worsening news from Israel/Palestine.
A week ago, just after I pushed send on that edition of The Connector, I learned that Victor Navasky, the longtime editor of The Nation magazine, had passed away at the ripe old age of 90. I wouldn’t be who I am today if Victor hadn’t taken a call in the spring of 1983 from the journalist Gloria Emerson, a college professor of mine who was a friend of his and agreed to meet with 21-year-old me. I had written my college senior thesis on the Israeli peace movement, a topic that Victor was interested in, but the main value of our first meeting was his suggestion that I apply to be a Nation intern for the next fall. I was accepted and my life turned in a completely different direction; instead of moving to Israel after college to try life on a socialist kibbutz, I started learning the ropes of opinion magazine journalism as well as the complex landscape of what we then called the “liberal-left.” I would spend my next thirteen years working for The Nation, eventually becoming associate editor.
That wasn’t the only way Victor changed my life. In the fall of 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait put the US on a collision course with Iraq, I was helping steer The Nation’s coverage of the region. Most Americans had little to no historical knowledge of why the US was so deeply engaged in the Persian Gulf (starting with the commitments FDR made after WWII to protect the Saudi oil kingdom in exchange for them providing the US with abundant cheap oil) and we were deluged by readers asking for more background. I had an idea for an anthology that would try to fill that gap, and to my great fortune Victor introduced me to his friend and sometime collaborator, Christopher Cerf, who had a similar notion. That led to my first book, The Gulf War Reader, which Chris and I pulled together in just slightly more time than the six weeks it took General Norman Schwartzkopf to liberate Kuwait.
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The only point to sharing these personal stories, though, is to add more to the historical record of Victor’s generosity and generativity. By leaving the cushy confines of his New York Times job and taking over the burden of sustaining The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published weekly magazine (since 1865), he shouldered an immense burden of tremendous value to the liberal-left in America. Along the way, he changed many lives and nurtured many careers. To get more of a flavor of that impact, go read David Corn (Washington editor of Mother Jones) and Michael Tomasky (editor of The New Republic)’s lovely reminiscences. Or those of Katrina vanden Heuvel, his successor (though you have to deal with The Nation’s maddening website).
Victor’s passing made me go dig out some old files that I’ve saved from my years at The Nation, and glancing through them I was reminded of just how intense a place it was. The battles between liberals and leftists (or, if you prefer, institutionalists and insurrectionists) didn’t just appear in the pages of the magazine; they were also fought continually across the magazine’s staff. Sometimes we all agreed, as when Arthur Carter, a Wall Street mogul who bought The Nation in the early 1990s because he wanted to dabble in publishing, threatened to clamp down on its more irreverent side (an episode that centered on censoring a classified ad for “Penises of the Animal Kingdom” that I’ve written about here, but was really about defending the counterculture in an era of reaction). Other times internecine disputes were more hidden, surfacing mainly in jousting between different editors over who to assign what article or editorial, or in the typed or scrawled notes people would add to a draft manuscript that was being evaluated for publication.
Seemingly floating above it all was Victor, who generally didn’t engage in long memo writing himself. As many have noted this past week, he managed to be (almost) everybody’s friend, loved to instigate debates between liberals and leftists where The Nation (and its letters pages, which I oversaw for a while) could be the forum, and he usually responded to a detailed written editorial proposal or critique with two words, “Let’s talk.” Those of us who were on the editorial staff would lurk near his office waiting for the best time to do that (definitely not after he came back from a one- or two-martini lunch), and only sometimes we would manage to wrestle a topic to the ground. Looking back on the process now, and re-reading some of those staff “open letters” and single-spaced squabbles between columnists and contributors, I can only chuckle at just how seriously we all took ourselves. Being a leading opinion journal of the liberal-left in the 1980s and 1990s was a constant pressure cooker, in part I suppose because there just weren’t that many other places that seemed to have any standing in the national political arena. The Internet has changed all that, probably for the better overall, though your mileage may vary.
The Nation under Victor’s editorial stewardship was hardly a perfect avatar of progressive values. It was mainly edited and written by white men; women, gays, and people of color all were under-represented in its pages and had to fight for standing. If Victor had had his way, in the spring of 1988 the magazine would have endorsed Michael Dukakis (who he went to Swarthmore with) in the Democratic presidential primaries instead of taking the much better and bolder position of being the only white publication to endorse Rev. Jesse Jackson. The staff, with some key help from the magazine’s editorial board, won that particular battle. But under Victor, the Nation also took some big risks—publishing a scoop from Gerald Ford’s memoirs that asked if Nixon’s pardon had been part of an unseemly deal (which led to a very unfortunate copyright lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court), questioning the official story about the Soviet shootdown of a Korean civilian airliner, and almost undoing Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid in 1984 with a story claiming he had ignored warnings that a Marine barracks in Beirut was being targeted by terrorists.
Some of the obituaries and memorials about Victor have suggested that he didn’t have strong politics of his own, beyond an abiding distrust of authority (see The Experts Speak, probably his most commercially successful book, also coauthored with Chris Cerf) and a fierce commitment to free speech and anti-anti-Communism. The joke around the office was that, under Victor, The Nation would never stop refighting the battles of the McCarthy years, when the post-war liberal-left was deeply divided. And indeed, the magazine definitely gave Alger Hiss and defenders of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg tremendous due. But there’s a reason those fights mattered: they defined the edges of what was considered respectable thinking, and for his whole life Victor believed that McCarthyism and anti-communism did terrible damage to this country.
I was reminded of that this past week as I read Victor’s last major public work, The O’Dell File, an Amazon Kindle Single that he published in 2014. The book, which is short enough to read in one sitting, uplifts the story of Jack O’Dell, a key leader of the Black Freedom Movement who was a trusted adviser to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That is, until the Kennedy White House put intense pressure on King to sever his ties with O’Dell because J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was convinced he was an unreconstructed Communist and dangerous subversive. After leaving King’s circle, O’Dell continued as an organizer and teacher, and later played an important behind-the-scenes role in Jesse Jackson’s PUSH operation and his presidential campaigns. But was largely robbed of his standing in the larger firmament of civil rights heroes because of the rabid anti-communism of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, O’Dell had been a member of the US Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, but for reasons that today most of us would respect: it was the only political party in America committed to integration and equal rights for Blacks. Victor conveys all of that with immense respect, and without hiding his own more liberal, slightly Cold War-ish views from his early days writing about these matters (in 1968 he was one of the first journalists to report on Hoover’s wiretapping of King, but didn’t quite convey the full import of that abuse of power).
But here’s where Victor’s political values shine through. What happened to O’Dell—the sundering of his relationship to King and his casting into the political wilderness—denied all Americans the potential of a different approach to the urgent issues of our times, he wrote. O’Dell was an internationalist and a small-d democrat and undoubtedly a fierce critic of American militarism and empire (which King later expressed too). As Victor writes, “Jack O’Dell was as far from the Hoover-McCarthy-inspired caricature/stereotyped image of a Red—an unthinking party-line Stalinist—as it was possible to be. In fact, if anything, he was the citizen (albeit with a Marxist orientation) all thoughtful theorists of democracy hope for when they make the case for government of, by and for the people….How many other potential enrichers of our democracy dialogue did we miss out on because of the domestic cold war and attendant anticommunist hysteria? If they all joined the chorus, would Democrats and Republicans still be singing the same old tune?” This sense of democratic possibility as well as humanism was the heart of Victor’s politics. May it live on and may his memory be a blessing.
Cry, The Beloved Country
That’s the title of Alan Paton’s 1948 novel about pre-apartheid South Africa, but it’s just as apropos to what’s going on in Israel/Palestine now, where the conditions of life for Palestinians in the occupied territories are already terrible, where both sides are lashing out violently at each other, and, if the new ultra-rightwing Israeli government keeps its promises to annex the West Bank, where several million Palestinians will become full-fledged second-class citizens. The near future looks really bleak. A recent joint Palestinian-Israel survey shows the two sides are further apart than ever; among Israeli Jews, more favor a non-democratic Jewish state than a two-state solution. Young Israelis in particular are more rightwing than their elders, who still express support for two states, the poll found.
If you think polarization in America is bad, consider these findings from the survey: “90 percent of Palestinians and 63 percent of Israeli Jews believe their victimhood status entitles them to do whatever is necessary to survive. Mirroring each other, 93 percent on each side see themselves as the rightful owners of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They also negate the other’s claims to the land (93 percent of Palestinians and 68 percent of Israeli Jews).” Both sides also mutually overestimate each other’s extremism: while two-thirds of Israeli Jews think Palestinians want to conquer them, only 37% of Palestinians agree with that goal while 51% favor regaining some or all of the territories occupied in 1967. Conversely, 65% of Palestinians believe Israelis want to expel them; in fact just 18% of Israeli Jews support that idea. Both sides believe a new intifada is on the horizon. Staving that off is going to take a lot more than a symbolic half-hour meeting between a visiting US Secretary of State and a handful of Israeli civil society organizations; it’s long past time for Americans, Democrats and American Jews to speak up and make clear to the Israeli government that we are going to start conditioning aid to Israel on actual respect for human rights and for progress towards a two-state solution.
It's not an exaggeration to say that since Israel’s government came into power a month or so ago, many Israelis who were previously complacent have become vocal opponents of the regime. In the last four weeks, there have been massive demonstrations every Saturday, and not just in Tel Aviv. That’s not because they’re all peaceniks, but more because they are trying to defend Israel’s judicial system from being neutered in a self-coup led by Bibi Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister (or as many call him, “crime minister,” who is clinging to power) and by rightwing politicians who want to impose Orthodox, anti-gay and anti-secular values on the whole country and who resent the how the Israeli High Court has acted sometimes as an independent check on state power.
Still, it’s worth noting how so many leaders of Israel’s vaunted high-tech sector have spoken out against these changes, compared to how little most leaders of America’s tech sector stood up against the Orange Cheeto when he came to power in 2017. They’re warning that Netanyahu may tank the Israeli economy, and that may be one check on his power that he can’t ignore. Papaya Global, a multibillion dollar company with 500 employees based in Israel, has said it is withdrawing all of its funds from Israel, and Disruptive and Disruptive AI, two venture capital funds, said they would also move a quarter billion dollars aboard due to concerns of economic instability on the rise. Several hundred rank-and-file high-tech workers went on a brief work stoppage last week to also express their dissent.
The Color of Money
Black Americans are three to five times more likely to face tax audits than whites, according to a groundbreaking piece of data journalism done by the RegLab, which got access to 148 million tax returns and 780,000 audits, and used taxpayer names and census demographics to estimate the race of any given filer. This, on top of an unprecedented study just released by the Treasury Department finding that white families get more than 90% of the tax benefits that come from lower tax rates for capital gains, more than 90% of the tax benefits from itemized charitable deductions and 90% of the deduction attached to qualified business income -- all while representing an estimated 67% of families.
Odds and Ends
—Let’s give a big hello to Regina Wallace-Jones, the new CEO of ActBlue, perhaps one of the most important jobs in the whole Democratic ecosystem. Wallace-Jones succeeds Erin Hill, who led the organization ably for fourteen years. She has a deep background in tech, having come from eBay, Facebook, Yahoo and most recently LendStreet Financial, where she was COO, and from politics, including a stint organizing for the Obama 2012 campaign and as a city councilor and mayor of East Palo Alto. While ActBlue has become THE clearinghouse for Democratic and liberal fundraising, it remains to be seen if it will expand its product offerings or take a more assertive role in addressing problems in the world of digital fundraising like manipulative and deceptive emails.
—If more down-ballot Democratic candidates are actually taking the time to go door-to-door themselves to talk with potential voters, that’s partially because of recent research showing the effectiveness of that tactic, writes Eric Levitz in New York magazine, but also because funding networks like the States Project have poured big money into promoting more of that kind of targeted behavior.
—Moms for Liberty has competition. It’s called Defense of Democracy, and it’s a network of parents, students and educators that started in New York’s Hudson Valley but now has 20 chapters in 17 states, reports Will Solomon for The River.
—Donations to the National Rifle Association’s PAC dropped significantly before the 2022 midterms, with just 5,300 NRA members making contributions of $200 or more, down 45% from 2018, Will Van Sant and Champe Barton report for The Trace. The PAC is only allowed to take money from NRA members, and this is the first time in a decade that it hasn’t exceeded the amount collected in the prior election cycle.
—Molly White is not having any of it from Sam Bankman-Fried, and neither should we!
Why has the Republican party veered so far to the right in recent years? The answer, according to scholar Bradley Onishi, a former member of an evangelical mega-church, is decades of religious grievances combined with years of institution-building colliding with a sense that democracy itself would not defend white Christian nationalism, so the hell with democracy. In a long and fascinating interview with Ian Ward in Politico, Onishi says, “What set in during 2016 — and has remained with us ever since — is militant rhetoric that says, “It’s now all-out warfare.” What I’ve seen … is an exponential rise in the rhetoric of spiritual warfare. You have pastors who have influence over hundreds of thousands of people saying, ‘It is time to get your swords bloody, it is time to realize you’re in the battle for your life, it is time to realize that the demons controlling the Democratic Party, the deep state and the United States government will not stop until they have rooted out God from this country.’ And that kind of rhetoric is not something that you see from the Jerry Falwells or the Ronald Reagans of the ’70s and ’80s. That kind of acceleration, I think, is what enables political and actual violence to be legitimated from religious communities and by religious people.”
Lovely piece, Micah, and love the memo! It reminded me of the impact Victor’s first amendment absolutism had on me. (A ton. It was a big part of why I made a 180 degree turn on Dworkin’s anti-porn stuff). It also reminded me of the brown bag lunch you (I think it was you) organized with Lambda Legal and GMHC in the hopes it would lead to the magazine covering AIDS and other LGBTQ issues, but Victor missed it because he was in the Midwest giving a speech about McCarthy. I sometimes wonder how my life might have gone differently — what I might have learned from Victor, and all y’all, what contributions I would have made — if I hadn’t run off to J-school and stayed at The Nation longer.
Sweet stuff One day, maybe, I will share with you some of my own O’Dell stories. Hint: he was board chair of a certain network of leftist radios. Imagine if had pursued your idea of going to live on a Kibbutz You might today be in the Knesset...or in jail! :) hugs from Chile