Press Box

The Perpetually Perfervid Peretz

The New Republic co-owner practically begs me to reprint an old column.

Avast! Peretz drunk on his own bilge!

High-stick another writer on the playing fields of journalism, and he’s as likely to shrug it off as one of the profession’s occupational hazards as he is to deal you payback. If he intends retaliation, it may arrive in a minute, a day, a week, or a month in the form of a snub, a punch, or a published counterattack. But when a target waits for better than a decade before seeking revenge, consider the reprisal a dividend on your original investment.

New Republic Editor in Chief, Co-Owner, and Head Shvitzer Martin Peretz issued such a bonus to me last week in his entry on the New Republic’s blog, “The Plank.” Titled—not surprisingly—“Mayhem in Gaza, Continued,” the item sounds the single note that makes Peretz the most minimalist composer this side of Steve Reich before he digs his finger into the damage I inflected on him long ago in Washington City Paper and stirs vigorously.He writes:

Every time I see Jack Shafer’s name, as I did on The Plank this morning, I recall him writing a nasty squib about me in the Washington City Paper some 20-odd years ago apropos my obsession with the Syrians thinking that Lebanon and other independent states (including Turkey and Israel) were actually parts of Greater Syria. Squib, squat. Now, Shafer knows just about squat of the Middle East, let alone the Syrians’ view of their historic destiny. But recent events—like the Syrian assassination of Rafik Hariri after the nearly three decades occupation of poor Lebanon—also stirred my memory of Shafer’s haughty ignorance. Did you, dear reader, know for example that Syria never had an ambassador in Lebanon? What does that mean about Syria’s ambitions and designs?

For the record, my nasty “squib” ran 1,600 words; I published it 15 years ago, not 20; and as for my “haughty ignorance” of things Middle East, I don’t know how Peretz can deduce such a thing as I’ve never written about the region or spoken about it in a public forum. The closest I’ve come to discussing the Middle East with him came shortly after my piece appeared, when I introduced myself to him at a New Republicparty and he lectured me about Arabs for 60 seconds. I didn’t get a word in edgewise.

The April 12, 1991, City Paper piece to which Peretz refers drew on 90-plus pieces he’d written for the New Republic to paint him as a self-promoter, braggart, Arab-hater, name-dropper, and bad writer. To lift the fog from Peretz’s mind, I’ve secured City Paper’s permission to reprint the piece, which follows:

The Perfervid Peretz

By Jack Shafer

“Am I the only writer on the Middle East who has not been invited by PBS or NPR to speak about the Gulf?” Martin Peretz bawls in the April 15 New Republic. “I have a mite more scholarship behind me than, say, Jonathan Schell, who, knowing nothing, is one of NPR’s cognoscenti on the region.” I can just picture the New Republic editor-in-chief going half-mad from media neglect during the gulf crisis, trundling down 19th Street NW from the magazine’s offices to the NPR studios at 2025 M St. at 7 a.m. each weekday, pressing his nose against the glass, and brandishing his latest New Republic column in hopes that Morning Edition’s Bob Edwards will wave him in.

Peretz’s spin on the Middle East has not been suppressed: It’s had a thorough airing in the New Republic, which he bought and revived in 1974 with his heiress wife’s millions. Flapping on the TNR clothesline each week is at least one editorial, article, column, or book review fragrant with Peretz’s views on the intifada conspiracy, Israel’s meshuga Orthodox, the wily oil sheiks, the PLO, the Butcher of Halabja, the lazy Middle East press corps, the Butcher of Hama, the West Bank dilemma, or the cowardly king of Jordan.

But like Mort Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report’s vanity owner/editor-in-supremo, Peretz isn’t content to fertilize the policy debate with droppings in his own magazine. After all, anybody with a few million dollars can buy a magazine and pop off wise in its pages. Only a somebody can have all those millions and still get published in or interviewed by somebody else’s media outlet. That’s why Zuckerman dies and goes to heaven every time the New York Times Op-Ed page accepts one of his ponderous pieces. And it explains why Peretz lusts for the validation that he would win as a talking head on NPR or PBS.

Peretz may be a relentless self-promoter, but at least he’s honest about it, confiding in his New Republic column that he leaned on NPR News Veep Bill Buzenberg for just a little mike (to no avail) and that he told PBS’s Jim Lehrer he wouldn’t turn down a date on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, either. (Jim was non-committal.) Headlining his column “Blacklisted,” Peretz finds evidence that the Great Public Media Boycott against him extends beyond the Beltway. “I don’t even get asked to appear on my local PBS outlet, Boston’s WGBH, which routinely offers its audience Anthony Lewis and Roger Fisher, who, to put it delicately, have not exactly been prescient about Arab affairs,” he pouts.

The way Peretz sees it, he has been downright clairvoyant about Arab affairs. He boasts that he predicted two-and-a-half years ago that Iraq “would soon move against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” But my guess is that his gifts of prophesy don’t explain the “bias” NPR and PBS bookers hold against him. Perhaps they’ve done as I did this week: read the 90-some-odd pieces Peretz has authored, submitted to himself at the New Republic, and approved for publication. Of them, 40 or so jab, revile, or otherwise shellac the 200 million people who call themselves Arabs.

Even a novice booker would recognize that Peretz the thinker and writer works from a limited palette. He’s an insufferable name-dropper, he’s gratingly pedantic (he can’t avoid the word “perfervid,” using it five times in those 40 columns), and he’s so enamored of his own wit that he can’t resist recycling his previously published punch lines. “If [Amin] Gemayel is a researcher on anything, I am an astronaut,” he wrote in the May 8, 1989, New Republic. Six months later, in a dispatch from Paris, he wrote, “[I]f the Palestinians are any closer to actual independence in the West Bank and Gaza than they were a year ago, then I am an astronaut.” OK, Marty! OK! You’re an astronaut!

Peretz’s view from space is easily summarized. The Arabs are an undifferentiated mass, consumed by antique tribal hatreds, fated to fratricide, torn asunder by their religious sectarianism. The “general afflictions of Arab politics,” he wrote March 14, 1988, are “the principal resistance to compromise, the intoxicating effects of language, the endless patience for vengeance.” How about that for a MacNeil/Lehrer conversation-stopper? “[The Lebanese] fight simply because they live. And the culture from which they come scarcely thinks this is odd. Their men fight on and on, and the women and children bleed” (March 19, 1990). Has a guest slot opened up on Washington Week in Review? The moderate Arab “is a figment of the imagination” (May 7, 1984). Has Oprah called yet?

One definite Peretz theme that clangs in column after column is that there are no Arab nations. The partisan of Zion hasn’t staked this position for the convenience it lends in delegitimizing the call for a Palestinian state. Nor has he adopted it to make it easier to repel the arguments of those who would paint the nation of Israel as a counterfeit creation of Western imperialism. Peretz actually believes what is in his clips.

“There are many Arab countries, but there is hardly an Arab nation-state,” he wrote September 3, 1990. By that he means the Arab polities have not aspired “to the kind of solidarity that goes beyond political difference” and results in what he calls “nation-building.” “[T]here is no Lebanese nation…there is no Iraqi nation….Not that Kuwait or Saudi Arabia is a nation either.” This definite idea grows so definite as to become self-parody: “The problem with Saudi Arabia is that there are no Saudi Arabians. Most of its people live in remote mountains by the rules of their clan or of their tribe; they don’t even know what a nation is.”

“By the way,” Peretz added on January 18 of this year, “Syria is no more a nation-state than Iraq.”

And on. And on. “The Kuwaitis and the Saudis are not historical peoples the way, say, the Poles are—or, to put things in perspective, the Jews, who first gave meaning to the very notion of peoplehood nearly four millennia ago,” he wrote on October 8, 1990. That’s right. Thousands of miles of rock and sand and fig trees and palms and only one nation-state. Only one historical people.

In time, most writers publish a paragraph or two they should yank back. Peretz’s came in a particularly windy “Diarist” in the March 10, 1986, New Republic. The column started out about Palm Beach charities, segued to strategic minerals, skipped off to the subject of Cory Aquino, and then settled once again on those nationless, violent Arabs. “[N]onviolence is foreign to the political culture of Arabs generally and of the Palestinians particularly,” Peretz wrote. “It is a failure of the collective imagination for which no one is to blame.” Peretz’s chief nemesis, the Nation’s Alexander Cockburn, pounced on the column a week later, calling Peretz a racist and insisting that the Palestinians had shown remarkable restraint under occupation. Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott homed in on the same Peretzism in 1988, deriding the New Republican’s approach to Israeli-Arab relations as iron-fisted and ugly.

When not whomping Arabs, Peretz whomps his enemies in the press—make that Israel’s enemies in the press. Not that, to him, there’s much difference. “Forgive me, but in the prestige media—except for the New York Times—it is ‘blame Israel first,’ ” he wrote in 1987. For many years his bête noire was the Washington Post: “Since [Jim] Hoagland took over the foreign desk, the paper has been the single least reliable major source for news of the Middle East,” he wrote in 1984. “One rather hard-line Arab I know calls [the Post] ‘our paper.’ ” (That know-nothing Hoagland did just win a Pulitzer for commentary.) Later, the Boston Globe assumed the role of evil incarnate. These days, it’s Peter Jennings, whose primary sin is to speak of Palestine as if it exists. “Remember the recent spate of television programs and magazine articles about “the end of the dream’?” Peretz wrote two months ago. “Well, that turns out to have been one of those media cliches purporting profundity but motivated by malice, as truthful as the other libels against the Jews, only more ephemeral, like, say, a Peter Jennings broadcast.” Peretz makes many accusations against the press, but provides very little in the way of evidence. So much for claims of “scholarship.”

In “Blacklisted,” Peretz makes his final pitch for access to the public airwaves: “Public radio and television give overwhelming preference to enthusiasts for Yassir Arafat and his ilk,” he writes, banging the moral-equivalence gong. “It’s stupid to cede this monopoly to a cohort of true believers and fantasists so unwilling to acknowledge the truths of Arab politics, and who get events like the Gulf war so consistently and magnificently wrong.”

I agree with Peretz here, especially with his underlying notion that he is Yassir Arafat turned inside out. Views like Peretz’s are seriously underrepresented on PBS’s and NPR’s news and public affairs shows, and he ought to be included on them, if only to give me another reason to tune them out.

(Reprinted with permission from Washington City Paper. Copyright 1991 Washington City Paper. All rights reserved.)

I owe Peretz many thanks for making my dusty piece timely once again. Now if I can only get Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters to complain about my Nov. 27, 1992, piece “Bhagwan Charlie Peters.” In it, I compared Peters (favorably) to a brainwashing cult leader. If he gives me a news peg upon which to republish it, my 2006 dividend account will overflow.


What would convince convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon to attack me? I could publish a book-length anthology of my old City Paper pieces and retire on the residuals! Send suggestions on how to provoke True Father to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)