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A matter of civility

by Bob Chodos

Every year, as part of its annual convention, the Canadian magazine industry invites an “international” (usually American) speaker: a well-known writer, editor or publisher whose experience and insights are likely to have relevance for Canadians in the magazine trade. In 2006, the choice was Victor Navasky, editor and later publisher of the left-wing American weekly magazine The Nation. A witty and engaging speaker, Navasky regaled the audience with tales of temperamental writers, quixotic fundraising attempts and brushes with the legal system – stories that bring a smile of recognition to the faces of editors, especially those working for small and struggling publications. Interspersed with his anecdotes were serious reflections on the role of what he called the “journal of opinion,” and since Inroads defines itself as “The Canadian Journal of Opinion,” I listened with attention. I also bought a copy of his book A Matter of Opinion,1 which turned out to be, in essence, an extended version of his address.

The starting point for Navasky’s thoughts is philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the public sphere, a space between the governmental sphere and the private, personal sphere, and outside the commercial market. Habermas, Navasky writes, “identified the journal of opinion as a sort of house organ to the public sphere” as early as 1962. When Navasky met Habermas in his university office in Frankfurt more than 30 years later, his conviction that the journal of opinion was an important element in the public sphere had not diminished:

The key thing from the democratic standpoint is a critical audience which says yes or no. The question is how to keep the audience informed, how to keep it critical, how to keep it attending, how to keep it investing energy … At the core of their [journals of opinion] mission is to maintain the discursive character of public communication. Who else, if not this type of press, is going to set the standards?

In other words, an informed, critical electorate is essential for a healthy democracy; such an electorate is only possible if standards of discourse are maintained; and responsibility for maintaining those standards lies with the journal of opinion. A lofty mission!

The downside of the journal of opinion is, of course, its small circulation and, as a consequence, its chronically uncertain financial situation. There are compensations. John Richards recounts a couple from Inroads’ history in his accompanying piece. Navasky notes another, from The Nation’s long history:

In the 1920s [Frank P. Walsh] wrote a series of articles about railroads for the Hearst papers, which reached 10 million people, and not one reader said a word to him; but then he published the same material in an article for The Nation, whose circulation was then 27,000, and “The day The Nation went on the Washington newsstands my telephone started ringing. I heard from editors, broadcasters and Congressmen.”

Clearly, a publication’s influence is not measured in numbers alone. With the journal of opinion, two additional factors come into play: who reads it, and how they read it. A disproportionate number of readers of policy journals are in a position to influence the policymaking process. And Inroads is not the sort of publication that you glance at quickly and then throw away. A friend mentioned to me that, hungry for some understanding of the complex issues surrounding Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, she set aside time to read all four articles on the topic in the Winter/Spring 2007 issue.

Navasky is in his mid-seventies; the Inroads editorial board has some members below 50, but more who are in their sixties. So perhaps our attachment to ink-on-paper as a medium is generational. Be that as it may, Navasky’s plea for the print journal in the Internet Age resonates with me:

That an essay has survived the vetting process of a board of editors on whose political/cultural judgment the reader has come to rely (though not necessarily to concur in) tells the reader not only how to read a particular piece but that it may be worth the effort. Moreover, one’s reading of, say, an Arthur Danto essay on the end of beauty may be influenced by its being sandwiched between Gore Vidal’s requiem for an empire and Katha Pollitt on “Are Women Morally Superior?”

At Inroads, editorial judgement is directed as much toward “editorial mix” – which articles belong together in a particular issue – as toward the suitability of individual articles for publication. Taken individually, the interviews with Allan Blakeney and Patrick Monahan about the Supreme Court, the edited listserv debate on the Chaoulli decision, and the exchange on shari‘a family arbitration courts, all of which appeared in the Winter/Spring 2006 issue, are thought-provoking. Taken together, they are a sustained reflection on the role of law and its institutions in our society. Even though our online component, the listserv, contributed to this reflection, I don’t think it would have been possible in the same way without the infrastructure of a print journal.

While he writes about Britain’s New Statesman, with which The Nation has had an ongoing relationship, the context of Navasky’s case for the journal of opinion is essentially American. And while he plants himself firmly on the liberal left, his argument applies to journals on all points of the political spectrum. He acknowledges commonalities between The Nation and William Buckley’s National Review, to which he accords a large role in the rise of the American right: “By the time the Goldwater movement had transformed itself into the Reagan-for-President movement, it seemed evident that National Review more than any other institution had nourished and cultivated the writers and ideas – cuckoo though they seem to me – that gave substance to right-wing politics in America.”

Navasky appears to take it for granted that each journal of opinion will occupy a limited portion of the political spectrum, though, of course, within that limited portion, considerable disagreement is possible, indeed inevitable:

I always get a big laugh when people dismiss The Nation (or any journal of opinion) by saying that it “preaches to the choir” or is dogmatic or ideological or follows a party line. Barely a week has gone by in my years at The Nation when I have not had to answer a letter, a phone call, or, in more recent years, e-mail from an unharmonious dissident member of the so-called choir. And rather than march in lockstep, our contributors and staffers have disagreed, argued, feuded, and debated, among themselves and in our pages, on matters of principle, practicality, politics, policy, and morality.

Nevertheless, neither The Nation nor any of the other American publications that Navasky mentions as fitting his definition of the journal of opinion seeks to span right and left. This is where Inroads departs from Navasky’s model. And this is where Inroads’ tagline, “The Canadian Journal of Opinion,” becomes more than a geographical designation.

Is there something about Canada that makes a more expansive journal of opinion of this sort possible – or necessary? I believe there is. On one level, there is a question of practicality. John Richards points out ways in which Canada is a small country; in such a country there isn’t room for the right and left (let alone gradations of the right and left) each to have its own journal of opinion.

But there is something more as well. Some years ago, during a vacation in California with my wife and then-school-age children, the suggestion of spending an afternoon at a particular amusement park arose. My wife’s aunt, our host, whose politics were mainstream liberal, strongly disapproved: “You don’t want to go there. Its owners support the right.”

Her remark reflected a division into warring political tribes that has not proceeded as far in Canada. The notion of civil, constructive dialogue between left and right would have been foreign to my wife’s aunt, but in Canada it is a notion that can still be entertained. I write this (late February) as the dustup over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s charges that the Liberals are soft on terrorism, complete with innuendo regarding a Liberal MP’s father-in-law, rages in the House of Commons, so the civility of Canadian debate may be more fragile than I would like to think. Nevertheless, I have not given it up for lost; furthermore, I see Canadian civility as something valuable to be protected.

And so, in addition to the contributions made by ideologically more narrowly focused journals of opinion, Inroads makes this additional, peculiarly Canadian one. Like John Richards, I am not prepared to bet that Inroads will still be around 15 years from now, but it will leave a large gap if it’s not.

Note

1 New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

 

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About the Author

Bob Chodos
Bob Chodos is managing editor of Inroads.




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