Why ‘The New Republic’ Resignations Baffled So Many of Us

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Everyone who values loyalty has a fantasy of being the Renee Zellweger to Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire. Not in the “you had me at hello” scene, but in the “who’s coming with me?” scene, when the sports agent dresses down the execs who fired him and tries to incite a mass departure by his fellow employees. Of course, only the secretary with the crush actually packs her things and follows.

That’s because most of us capitalist drones, when it comes to our livelihoods, are cowards. It’s very hard to stand up to a power structure and threaten to walk away from a paycheck over a matter of principle when your salary and welfare are at risk. Even the most radical critics of the establishment get this fact about workplaces.

This explains why so many women and people of color in journalism were shocked by the immediate, almost gleefully nose-thumbing mass resignation of a group of talented, pedigreed, and largely white, male writers from the masthead of The New Republic. These storied writers and editors quit with a flourish and an onslaught of angry tweets immediately after the unceremonious and reportedly nasty ouster of the magazine’s top two editors, Leon Wieseltier and Franklin Foer, by owner and publisher Chris Hughes — who has a plan to update it as a digital media company.

As #blacklivesmatter protests about Ferguson and Eric Garner left a blazing trail of righteous anger across social media, the “Dear Sir, I Too, Quit TNR!” tweets in their midst seemed incongruous.

Indeed, my Gchat windows began to explode with fellow writers asking, “Why is this happening?” Loyalty to your editor is laudable. Yet younger, more diverse writers wondered: if it was that simple a decision for Ryan Lizza, Jonathan Chait, and company to use their very positions on staff as a bargaining chip, and if they were that devoted to the ideals of journalism, why hadn’t some of these fellows put their jobs on the line in solidarity with the diverse slate of writers, editors, and thinkers who have historically been excluded from — or been belittled by — the masthead and pages of this magazine?

The ability to flounce off your job indicates a good deal of privilege. You’re not going to starve, essentially. And the ability of staffers to band together to make a statement like this demonstrates power (almost like collective bargaining!). So why, it felt incumbent upon us to ask, had that power and privilege, now blatantly apparent, not been used in other circumstances, to make the magazine better and less elitist? For many decades, The New Republic was as notable for floating racist ideas as it was for cogent criticism, with major missteps including “The Bell Curve” and a notoriously racist anti-welfare cover. And its staff list was never a model of showcasing voices beyond white male Ivy Leaguers.

An op-ed from a former New Republic staffer in Politico describes the magazine moving further and further to the right, sometimes the racist right, over a period of many years. Liberal writers were replaced, at times, but even in these dark days, there was no quitting en masse for the sake of slandered single moms, or to demand the hiring of a female or black editor who might have been more sensitive to their plight.

Again, this isn’t to say that employees, whether factory workers or writers, are under the imperative to up and quit every time their employer isn’t perfect. Rather, it’s simply telling that these staffers have chosen to die on this particular hill and not so many worthy others.

As the political blogger Digby noted, in a long post about TNR in light of the closing of businesses across America, TNR’s editorial staff once fulminated against Occupy Wall Street and defended capitalism. Now they’ve fallen prey to the hallowed “market’s” devouring instincts.

Fortunately for the people who are no longer employed at TNR, they will all likely end up working somewhere else doing what they do and being successful at it. After all, Washington DC is one of the richest, most thriving cities in the world right now. But a lot of Americans who have suffered this experience are not so lucky — the death of their company spelled the death of their town and the end of their middle class lifestyles as well. But one can at least hope that some of those editors who were so disdainful of the impulse that led people to take to the streets and protest this ongoing, painful economic dislocation might have a little more empathy now.

The resigning writers have said in their co-authored letter that the magazine was less a business and more a public trust. But of course, in capitalism, almost nothing is above the demands of the market.

As an admirer of both print magazines and long-form journalism, I hope TNR continues to publish excellent work online and in print. But I hope it does so with a staff that understands the concepts of loyalty and solidarity as something that isn’t just extended upward in the power structure, but downward, sideways, and in global directions.