The polymorphous Mr. Peretz

November 2023
On The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center by Martin Peretz.

Martin Peretz’s memoir, The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center, is at once deeply interesting and profoundly sad. Interesting because, in his long career at the center of America’s most elite culture-shaping institutions—he was the owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of The New Republic for thirty-seven years and, for nearly half a century, a teacher and later the head of Harvard’s Social Studies program—he taught, mentored, and employed a constellation of notables from Al Gore and Lloyd Blankfein to Stanley Crouch and Charles Krauthammer to Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kinsley. His journal became, as he rightly boasts, “the most influential political magazine in Washington,” a fixture at “the center of American political discourse.” His sketches of the personages he encountered are pungent, his account of the political and cultural currents of his era thoughtful, his formula for lively and serious journalism well worth heeding. And he has insider’s gossip to dish.

Yet he relates, with pained bemusement, how it all ended badly. His magazine began hemorrhaging money, and he had to sell it. The jeers of a know-nothing mob brought down the curtain on his Harvard career. His once-happy marriage failed. The improvements he sought to make in the America he loved didn’t materialize as he’d envisioned, and the culture and politics that emerged have instead filled him with misgivings.

But the sadness the reader feels on closing the book doesn’t spring only from the memoirist’s regrets. It rises as well from the growing realization that the narrowness of Peretz’s elite vision, for all his gifts, made some of his judgments wildly wrong, tarnishing his contribution to the national debate. And several of the people he chose to mentor and support don’t inspire respect.

The personal misjudgments are surprising, given Peretz’s fascination with the quirks of individuality and the influence of personal history on character. We are not undifferentiated units of mortality, he writes, but are formed in large part by a family, a time in history, a culture with its own thick morality, a specific nation or tribe and its institutions. Accordingly, he starts his book with an account of his own background, so the reader will know “that the Martin Peretz who will tell you this story . . . is such-and-such a man, with such-and-such limitations and preoccupations.”

He was born in the Bronx in 1938 under the shadow of the Holocaust, his Polish-Jewish immigrant parents anxiously listening to the war news on the radio, his mother tearful and his combative father angry as they waited for letters from family that never came. Almost no relatives survived, but a few landsmen did; after the war, Peretz’s father sought them out and helped them, and the boy spoke Yiddish with these refugees during his childhood. At thirteen, he addressed the crowd in English and Yiddish at the renaming of a Lower East Side square in honor of his father’s cousin, the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz. He absorbed Zionism in his Yiddish after-school classes and summer camp, and Jewishness pervaded the Bronx High School of Science when he went there, with 80 percent of the students, and many of the teachers, Jews.

His father combined Zionism with fierce American patriotism. America had been good to him: he owned a handbag factory and several Washington Heights apartment buildings, and he prospered. In his view, “capitalism and democracy smoothed things out,” Peretz writes, and molded a nation that “would keep us safe.” Even though that smoothness didn’t extend to the bullied household of this harsh man, he nevertheless passed these views on to his son.

As an undergraduate at the new and promising Brandeis University, Peretz came under the spell of two wildly different mentors. Herbert Marcuse dazzled students with a novel mishmash of Marx and Freud, asserting that the road to political liberation from the consumerism at modern capitalism’s core lay through sexual liberation—the more varied or “polymorphously perverse” the better. This is an idea particularly seductive to college-age kids, Peretz remarks, and it had special resonance for him, given the “gayness” he admits to in this memoir, though he is decorously reticent about details. This was in the late 1950s; Marcuse was a harbinger of the ingenious sophistry, best unlearned in later life, that distorted elite college education ever more bizarrely in the following decades.

Wholesomely counterbalancing Marcuse was the syndicated columnist and visiting lecturer Max Lerner, then at the height of his fame. He quickly became Peretz’s father figure, and Peretz his sidekick. An idealized version of Peretz père, this dumpy immigrant was a generous, genial believer in the endless adaptability of American capitalism to respond to new social needs, to iron out differences, to allow Jews like himself to flourish and be famous and happy at the heart of things. He even claimed to have had affairs with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and Peretz inherited one of his many actual mistresses, adding a second, Marcusian string to his sexual bow. A decade later, when the New Left Ramparts magazine, of which Peretz was a funder, savaged Lerner for his support of the Vietnam War, and when Marcuse angrily rebuked his former student for defending Lerner’s decency and maintaining a friendship with someone holding such forbidden views, Peretz made his choice. To his credit, he took friendship over ideological purity.

Enrolled as a Ph.D. student in government at Harvard in 1959, Peretz felt he had taken “a social leap into the domain of ruling Protestant America,” and he became an instant “Harvard patriot.” He soon realized, though, that the centuries-old Protestant culture that had welcomed him was “decadent.” It had lost confidence in the old verities that had anchored it, the Western civilization and its ethic that Harvard used to teach, but which many now scorned as colonialist or racist. Even its sense of its Americanness, its understanding of what that meant, had withered to indifference. Nor were the students interested in what constituted the meaningful, well-lived life. They were careerists, wanting to arm themselves for success as experts in the new, transnational technocracy, though they were tolerant of the few political radicals among them, whose ideologies in time surged in to fill the intellectual vacuum and whose passionate intensity filled the emotional void left by the prevailing lack of all conviction. That’s why the impending cultural revolution of the 1960s succeeded so quickly: it met little opposition.

When Peretz had started teaching as a graduate assistant, still under Marcuse’s spell, he fatuously informed his class that “Freud plus Marx equals truth.” But his view of his task changed as he settled into his permanent, untenured faculty position. The sociologist Daniel Bell, taking the measure of the nation’s new college students, had told him that the universities’ principal task now would be to “humanize the technocracy,” and the idea hit home. Peretz set out to teach his students, the aspiring corporate, government, and opinion-making elite, how to live lives “subject to scrutiny and evaluation, even to moral reasoning.” For him, the basis for the examined life was social science and political theory, soil much less nurturing than the discarded humanities, which deal explicitly with such issues. But the object was commendably the same, and the students who passed through his seminars included such future eminent journalists as the New York Post op-ed editor Eric Breindel, the Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, the New Republic editors Hendrik Hertzberg and Michael Kins­ley, the Columbia journalism dean Nicholas Lemann, and such future government officials as Antony Blinken, Merrick Garland, Jamie Gorelick, Chuck Schumer, and Peretz’s favorite student, Al Gore.

In 1967, Peretz married the “astoundingly, alienatingly rich” Anne Labouisse. Her great-great-grandfather was a founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, whose product revolutionized clothing manufacture in the mid-nineteenth century and made its proprietors tycoons. Great-great-grandfather Clark grew even richer by investing his huge industrial profits in farmland in what became Manhattan’s West Seventies, stretching from Central Park to the Hudson River, and his sale of it in brownstone lots was one of New York’s legendary real-estate killings. Grandfather Clark, in turn, became the chairman of the Metropolitan Museum and a founder of the Museum of Modern Art. Anne’s stepmother, with whom the couple stayed when they were in New York, was the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie. The marriage attached Peretz to the American aristocracy and vaulted him into the donor class. “For her, I was an escape,” he writes. “For me, she was an arrival.”

The couple gathered a talented circle at dinner parties whose spirited conversation, facilitated by Peretz’s gift for friendship, made them a Cambridge institution. A favorite guest was the Burke biographer Conor Cruise O’Brien, “a giant, eloquent, jolly, drunk Irishman” with the knack of diffusing happiness. The architect Moshe Safdie and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma were regulars, as were Lawrence Summers, later Harvard’s president and the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and the future Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, a hyper-assimilated Jew married to the daughter of a viscount, who sometimes, writes Peretz, “used me a little bit as a Jewish confessional.” Lillian Hellman was an early regular, until a political blowup ended the friendship, with Peretz barking, “At least I wasn’t a fellow traveler for Stalin.”

Peretz’s first big splash as a political fat cat proved a bellyflop, and the failure clarified for him just what kind of Democrat he was. He sponsored a 1967 conference to formalize the joining of the civil-rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, but it produced not an alliance but a new split, between the old, democratic Left and the radical New Left, which Peretz rejected as anti-Semitic, utopian, and dictatorial. He saw the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination as an analogous, if milder, conflict. He enthusiastically backed Eugene McCarthy, citing the senator’s respect for strong communities and civil liberties and his understanding that the crooked timber of humanity meant that politics, while it could make lives more manageable, couldn’t solve all problems.

By contrast, when Robert Kennedy joined the race, Peretz recoiled from what he saw as the Kennedy circle’s belief that “a government run by experts in resourceful institutions could do anything—solve poverty, beat the Soviets, achieve black liberation, redeem humankind, save the world.” In that spirit, he dismissed Jimmy Carter and his advisors as even more naive “do-gooders who thought good intentions were enough,” as opposed to good results. Bill Clinton, whom he nevertheless supported munificently, struck him as not much better: a self-made and therefore self-righteous idealist who sought a better world and personal success, but who, when put to the choice, would take personal success every time. So he ended up a mere “public opinion pragmatist,” a fancy version of careerist.

Such opinions mattered when Peretz was only a big political donor; they came to matter a lot more when, in 1974, he and his wife bought The New Republic for $380,000. Founded in 1914 to influence the shaping of the new administrative state, the magazine was still a pillar of Washington liberalism sixty years later, but it was tired and in the red. Its circulation was around fifty thousand and comprised mostly “genteel liberal[s] who believed in ‘justice and peace,’” writes Peretz wryly. He resolved to wake it up, bringing in a new editorial team of Michael Kinsley, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Charles Krauthammer and, later, Leon Wieseltier as literary editor. He aimed to refocus its politics, to carve out a new center for a Democratic Party in transition as the nation moved from an industrial to a consumer and technological economy and the party’s base changed from the old, unionized, white working class to a new, mobile middle class increasingly concerned with environmental and social issues. The magazine would be outspokenly anti-Communist and pro-Zionist. Above all, it would be brainy.

It would reflect Peretz’s lifelong love of real argument, a passion the book’s title underscores. For him, arguing is almost a competitive sport, usually good-humored but with a serious purpose. It is “arguing for the sake of clarifying, holding others to account,” considering all sides of a question in vigorous debate, after first formulating your own view “by arguing with yourself.” His magazine would conduct “argument at the level of philosophies, of worldviews, of conflicts that couldn’t be elided and couldn’t be reduced.” It would “put forward a clear editorial stance and also dissents; you would see different opinions and not be confused about where the magazine stood.” But you would know the main arguments on the subject, so you could judge for yourself.

As illustration, he cites the magazine’s coverage of the conflict between the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who’d overthrown a right-wing regime in 1979, and the Contras, who in 1981 began fighting to restore that old regime with the Reagan administration’s support. Peretz liked neither side, but, holding his nose, he preferred the authoritarian Contras to the Communist and totalitarian Sandinistas, whom many of his staff and writers, and most of the Left, supported. In 1984 and ’85, as ferocious arguments raged in The New Republic’s editorial meetings, the magazine ran dueling articles, arguing first for one side and then the other. “Some people don’t understand the function of vigorous debate in a democracy,” Peretz mildly concludes. “But this was not my problem.” The tension certainly made for a lively magazine and an exciting place to work.

You might call this polymorphous journalism, and the philosophical pluralism didn’t stop there. Peretz set out to argue with his readers and the Democratic Party more directly. He didn’t like the early Clinton administration’s statist worldview, its arrogant, utopian belief that government’s task is to remold society and perfect individual souls. He recoiled from Hillarycare, the administration’s proposed national health-insurance plan, and he assigned a conservative Manhattan Institute analyst, Betsy McCaughey, to critique it. In her view, the scheme, hatched in secrecy, was a technocratic power grab that “would end up with doctors and patients subjected to a single unaccountable bureaucracy.” Whatever this was, it certainly wasn’t liberalism. “Liberals,” says Peretz, in what might serve as his credo, “were supposed to care about individuality and freedom.” The article, which sandbagged President Clinton just before his first State of the Union speech and killed off Hillarycare, outraged many Democrats and got Peretz stricken from the state-dinner guest list. But though he now wishes the piece had been a little softer, he doesn’t regret stopping the government from ramming the plan down the nation’s throat.

He sparked even more outrage when he published an excerpt from Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), arguing that genetics accounts for some of the discrepancies between the life outcomes of different races. Since IQ is heritable, and whites on average inherit higher IQs than blacks, it follows that, absent even a scintilla of racial discrimination, proportionately more whites than blacks would fill positions requiring high intelligence. Indeed it would be unexpected if this were not the case. Thus the rationale for affirmative action—that by “leveling the playing field” it only puts blacks where they would be if discrimination were not barring them—collapses. That conclusion harmonized with Peretz’s opposition to affirmative action’s racial spoils system as divisive and contrary to the spirit of the civil-rights movement, which lay at the core of his politics. He also saw in Murray’s article the complementary idea, which Peretz himself had long held, that “people come from specific cultures in which they are raised” and which shape their beliefs, behavior, and fate. Maybe the ghetto culture celebrating hip-hop, drugs, single parenthood, and contempt for authority was not a recipe for success—though again, according to what Peretz calls The New Republic’s “complex middle ground,” maybe that culture was itself the product of poverty and oppression.

His staff was no less aghast than many of his readers that he’d published the piece. But Murray’s argument was important and influential, he countered, so New Republic readers needed to see it firsthand and judge for themselves, rather than read a reflexively dismissive review of it. “The point was to open a discussion,” he explains, with confidence in “your readers’ power of reason.” What’s more, under his editorial mantra of “My bullshit goes in, so does yours,” he in turn gave staffers leeway to publish articles he didn’t agree with. Under his leadership, that attitude made the magazine unfailingly interesting and indispensable—though the free rein also gave scope to such plagiarists as Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit.

We magazine editors, believing that ideas shape policy, like to imagine that what we publish can change the world, as The New Republic’s Hillarycare story did. But some ideas, however well-meaning the intentions behind them, have bad consequences, unintended or unforeseen. Two causes Peretz endorsed, one as an editor, the other chiefly as a political contributor, had that effect. Pitched at the social and environmental interests of the new middle class that he saw as the modern Democratic Party’s emerging base, these ideas contributed to the party’s radicalization and—in my view, at least—have changed the nation for the worse. I confess that these notions, when I first heard them long ago, seemed to me too preposterous, too at odds with reality, even to merit refuting. How wrong I was.

The first was gay marriage. When most publications were keeping their distance from the AIDS epidemic, Peretz, with his own streak of “gayness,” sympathized unreservedly with the afflicted, to his credit. Nudged by his richly talented, Oxford-educated, conservative-leaning gay writer Andrew Sullivan, who had been tending some of his sick friends, Peretz put a pink triangle on The New Republic’s cover in 1986, announcing solidarity with the victims (in time to include Sullivan himself, who recovered). Musing over the question of gay rights in the society of that time, Sullivan asked Michael Kinsley, then editor: “Why don’t we just have the right to marry?”

“Write that,” Kinsley shot back. “It’ll piss off all the right people, on the Right and the Left.”

With some misgivings that such an article might spark gossip about himself, Peretz backed Sullivan and Kinsley. Their cover story, a first for the mainstream media, created “a huge fuss,” Peretz recalls, and “prodded the idea into Washington.” More gay-rights stories, with purposely (even offensively) provocative covers to match, followed. Half a century later, Peretz purrs, “I’m proud of the small part we played” in making gay marriage legal.

Except that, to conservatives like me, the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing gay marriage was yet one more step in the demotion of traditional marriage between a man and a woman from a sacrament to a contract and then to just one more “lifestyle choice”—a decline in its prestige that in part accounts for the 8.6 percent decline in the U.S. marriage rate from 2011 to 2021, bringing the total decline over the last half-century to 50 percent. Since every statistical indicator of success as adults is higher for children raised in intact, two-parent families than in single-parent homes—the only reason government has any business giving special privileges to married couples—that decline is bad news for American society. Moreover, Obergefell did much less to enhance the dignity of gay Americans than to hasten the culture’s detachment of sex from biology, one of several developments that have made the 2020s seem disconcertingly an era of unreality.

Peretz’s deep affection for Al Gore, his former student whom he long thought would be elected president, and to whose unsuccessful 2000 campaign he lavishly contributed, led him to support a second notably destructive idea, the climate crisis. He read an early draft of Gore’s 1992 bestseller, Earth in the Balance, and lauded it as “not only a good book” but “an important book.” But as a pioneering popularizer of climate alarmism, and like its follow-up book and movie An Inconvenient Truth, it is sheer ideological mythmaking.

It’s not just that Gore’s pronouncement that human industry is causing earth’s climate to grow so hot that agriculture will fail, polar ice caps will melt, and swollen oceans will engulf coastal cities rests on supposed science of the sloppy and ideologically distorted variety that has grown drearily familiar in the age of covid. After all, climate fluctuates naturally; such level-headed climate experts as Steven Koonin and Bjørn Lomborg have shown that, whatever is happening to the climate now, it is no emergency. Over the last millennium, colder periods have alternated with eras of warming, caused perhaps by solar and volcanic activity, perhaps by shifts in ocean currents, certainly not by human actions, which even in our era are not on so cosmic a scale. Moreover, our hard climate data only go back to around 1900, and the satellite-imaging data are much more recent. The climate effects of the Industrial Revolution’s start in late eighteenth-century England or the opening of the railways in the 1830s can’t be measured so accurately, let alone the earlier climate fluctuations of the last millennium or of the post-Cretaceous period since the dinosaurs died off 66 million years ago. All this is to say that there is no climate science precise enough to allow Gore to predict—wrongly—in 2009 that within five years global warming would cause the Arctic Ocean to be nearly ice-free. Nor did he have any scientific basis for saying that such warming as might occur would be caused by man-made increases in carbon dioxide.

But of course the purpose of such predictions is to justify a sweeping remaking of American, and indeed Western, industry under the control of an ever mightier, ever more unaccountable government—a new version of the utopian belief, normally scorned by Peretz, that “a government run by experts in resourceful institutions could do anything.” Gore started down that path in his first book by proposing an array of statist programs, including a carbon tax, and, as vice president, he negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce greenhouse gasses that America never ratified. This was the prologue to the frenzy that came later: electric car mandates and subsidies, windmills that kill eagles and marine life, solar farms that blot out the landscape, the phasing out of fossil fuels (ending America’s energy independence), even bans on incandescent lightbulbs and gas stoves. As government interferes ever more deeply in Americans’ lives, China has grown rich making all this dubious technology, burning ever more coal to run the factories that churn it out, and ravaging the earth for the rare materials that go into it. While the West makes itself poorer, the developing and undeveloped countries join China in burning coal and oil, so the Earth’s atmosphere benefits not a whit. Left unanswered is whether a Power Fairy will be found to run all the electric cars, stoves, and furnaces that Washington bureaucrats mandate with abandon, making this just another aspect of the era of unreality.

Early in the new millennium, Peretz’s life began to fray, with 2005 marking an inflection point. That year, he and his wife stopped living together; their divorce became final in 2009. Too much polymorphous perversity, it turned out, wrecked something he cherished. Also in 2005, with losses mounting fast as the internet’s advent shrank his never-profitable magazine’s readership, he had to take on the first of a series of new investors, and control of The New Republic began slipping away. For solace, he began a blog.

One non-negotiable constant in his magazine had been his vocal support of Israel, which entailed a rejection of “the bogus claims of Arab nationalisms” and a dismissal of the PLO as merely a “gang that claimed to be a nation,” led by the mountebank and murderer Yasser Arafat. In 2010, a chorus of left-wing attacks on Israel for its supposed ill-treatment of the Palestinians increasingly irritated him and sparked an intemperate blog post slamming American Muslims for not condemning Islamic terrorism, making them unfit, he wrote splenetically, for First Amendment protection.

Instantly, left-wing denunciations assailed him and didn’t let up. Harvard student groups urged the school administration to scrap its announced plans for honoring him at the upcoming fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Social Studies program and to reject the $700,000 his former students had raised for a research fund named for him. Students picketed the celebration, chanting “Harvard, Harvard, shame on you, honoring a racist fool.” Yet another of Marcuse’s key notions—“liberating tolerance,” the mendaciously named idea that all left-wing speech should be allowed and politically incorrect speech canceled—was causing him grief. The keynote speaker turned the celebration of him into a denunciation, contemning both him and the fund named in his honor. So ended his fifty-one-year association with Harvard. “This was,” he writes, “the most painful episode in my public life.”

In 2011, Peretz and his partners sold The New Republic to a Facebook founder, a representative of the new-money technocracy that Peretz found both alien and shallow—as he now finds so much that had been familiar and valuable to him. Harvard, he thinks, “has returned to its roots training ministers for a theocracy.” Its new rote dogma is social justice, globalism, and, ironically, the environmentalism his student Al Gore popularized—virtue-signaling and moralism rather than morality and wisdom.

The Democratic Party his magazine championed and tried to mold has also grown rancid. Peretz already had misgivings about Barack Obama’s diffidence toward Israel before he met him, and, when Obama told him at their first meeting in 2007 that friendlier U.S. relations with Israel-hating Iran would be the key to Middle East peace, Peretz had all the information he needed to foresee how foreign policy would unfold under an Obama administration. Nevertheless, he allowed his hopes to stifle his doubts and became a zealous campaigner, eager to elect the first black president. Therefore he could not claim to be surprised at the new administration’s détente with Iran or Secretary of State John Kerry’s later assertion that Israel and the terrorist Palestinians were equally to blame for Middle East tension, which could therefore only be resolved by concessions to the Palestinians. Nor was he surprised by the young whippersnapper and White House advisor Ben Rhodes’s overbearing tactics in pressing Obama’s Iran nuclear deal on congress and the public. “This was the voice of the Democratic Party—no longer my Democratic Party—rejecting the possibility of rational discourse in American political life and embracing top-down political force instead,” Peretz ruefully concludes.

What did surprise him, though, was the silence of Samantha Power—a writer of his before she was the ambassador to the United Nations—at the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s gassing of resistance forces in 2013 and her failure to resign in protest of Washington’s tacit acquiescence. Had she not written a New Republicpublished book deploring America’s repeated failures to prevent the kind of genocide that Assad was committing? But principled resignation “wasn’t the way the new generation, the achievers, did it,” Peretz writes. “I was so disappointed in her.”

With his mixture of hope and doubt about the Biden administration, brand-new as he was writing his book, one wonders with what disappointment Peretz would now view his former student Secretary of State Blinken’s role in the administration’s particularly pigheaded effort to resurrect Obama’s anti-Israel Iran policy. And what would he say of his former student Attorney General Garland’s breathtaking corruption in covering up the Biden bribery scandal?

This is the humanized technocracy?