In the 1980s, there was a famous magazine called the New Republic. It was often brilliant, occasionally very influential, almost uniformly enjoyable to read, and one of its greatest strengths, and weaknesses, was its penchant for counterintuitiveness. The liberal Washington establishment would say X, and the New Republic would declare, with an élan that passed for liberal tough-mindedness, “Not X—but, not for the reason those stupid conservatives think!” The Beltway establishment loved it. Like the smartest kids at the Harvard Crimson, TNR treated Washington players like they were campus celebrities. And, in turn, TNR became—or further became—the club team of the Mainstream Media. With a few years of seasoning at TNR, you were ready to become a reporter for the Post Style section or a correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, hopefully keeping just enough of that brashly insouciant counterintuitiveness to add some edginess to their staid pages. (Poo-pooers of liberal media bias might ask why proudly liberal magazines are such useful stepping stones to jobs in “objective” journalism, while conservative ones are not.)
In the early 1990s, TNR honed its studied iconoclasm to an art form and, then, a reflex. In 2001, amid all the chatter about how the conventional wisdom was always wrong, Frank Foer—a Slate alum and the current editor of TNR—went so far as to write a piece called “In Defense of Conventional Wisdom.” It was like an Escher caricature of TNR: The conventional wisdom is always wrong! … Except when the conventional wisdom thinks it’s wrong!
Now, I know I’m supposed to be criticizing Slate, so here’s the point: The guiding spirit of the New Republic’s studied iconoclasm was Michael Kinsley, who has been dubbed “the Dean of Smart Liberalism,” in part for his preternatural gift for conceding conservative arguments in principle while simultaneously shredding conservatives for how they apply them in practice. Ten years ago Kinsley was asked by the James Bond villains of Microsoft to create a new magazine. It was to be called Slate,in part,we were told, to convey that it was a blank, uh, slate—a presumably exciting metaphor at the dawn of the Internet age. Kinsley was asked to inscribe upon this electronic tablet the same insider-outsider ethos that made the old New Republic so great. And, that’s what he did. Many of Kinsley’s innovations were inspired, the newspaper and magazine summaries, the sustained debates, the Explainer. Good stuff, good times.
Kinsley’s gone now and New Republic alum Jacob Weisberg runs the show (while a Slate alum runs TNR). But the Kinsley ghost remains in both machines. What was once Kinsley’s contrarian instinct has been dogmatized into official corporate policy. Weisberg has admitted as much in interviews. Freelancers especially seem to have figured out how to get through Slate’s editorial defenses: Pitch a story, any story, that’s counterintuitive, and someone on the receiving end will say “brilliant!”
Let it be said, lest Slate readers are confused on this point: Contrarianness is a great and good thing—when driven by reason and facts. But contrarianness for its own sake is often the very definition of asininity. Mavericks who break from the herd to point out hard truths can be heroes. Mavericks who break out from the herd just to get noticed are pretty annoying. If the emperor has no clothes, by all means say so. If he doesn’t, saying otherwise for the sake of saying so is not only a tiresome shtick, it also reduces your credibility.
Slate’s editorial voice is not Olympian by any means. It’s more like that of an Ivy League kid who can skip class and still get an A on the test. Slate often produces great stuff, but if you stand back and look at the big picture, the same Harvard smart-aleck haughtiness emerges. The old TNR was an unofficial club team of the Washington Post. The current Slate is an official, wholly owned, club team of the Washington Post. It is the house organ of the guys who get invited to the professor’s house for dinner and come back to the dorm to explain how they corrected their betters about this or that. In fact, Slate’s editors are so confident in their own superiority that they have rejected the practice of fact-checking because Slatesters are so good they don’t need a net. (BTW, I would argue that, contra Weisberg, fact-checking discourages laziness because dealing with fact-checkers is a real pain in the ass.)
There’s one last point I’d like to make. Slate takes a pose that it isn’t liberal. Indeed, Weisberg insists in interviews that the magazine shouldn’t be seen as liberal but rather as—you guessed it—”contrarian.” He told the Independent that proof of this can be found in the fact that Slate carries Christopher Hitchens. Please. Hitch is great and Slate is better for having him. But come on. Of course, it’s liberal. It offers “contrary” arguments for liberal ends but almost never offers anything contrary to liberalism itself. Indeed, judging from my own informal polling, I would wager that the only people who believe that Slate isn’t liberal are liberals—and a minority of them at that. Its editors are liberal. Its writers are liberal. Its story ideas are liberal. Weisberg is a quintessentially liberal pundit and often plays one on TV. Slate’s critic at large began an article recently, “David Brooks is America’s one genuinely likable conservative.” Really? The only one? Only at a liberal publication could such smug silliness be written so un-self-consciously. And only a liberal would hold up an iconoclastic Trotskyist like Christopher Hitchens as a Medusa’s head to prove to critics that his magazine isn’t liberal.
Slate’s got many fine qualities, but it’s just not nearly as contrarian as it thinks.