He’s out at The New Republic. Leon Wieseltier has been described as a beloved “institution.” I’m not sure about the beloved part. Though I’ve never met him, from what he writes he seems an imperious, arrogant, and dismissive man. But there can be no question that he ran one of the most important enterprises in American letters. His departure from The New Republic marks the end of an era.
It was his section, “Books & the Arts,” that first attracted me to the magazine when I was a graduate student. I subscribed for years. In the 1980s the magazine was at the forefront of liberalism’s efforts to grapple with the success of conservatism under Ronald Reagan. In the early Clinton years it was spicy and combative. But what held me and made me loyal were the long, sometimes very long, book reviews that were in fact essays.
Wieseltier found expert scholars capable of writing as public intellectualsor at least capable of being goaded, brow-beaten, and edited into writing in an intellectually serious way for a general audience. This is an extraordinarily important vocation if we hope to have a public life in which ideas matter. He was one of the best, perhaps the best.
But for Wieseltier, that is now over. Which I take to be a sign of the times.
To a great extent he had become a dinosaur, as he himself recognized and often bemoaned. In all likelihood Chris Hughes, the young owner of The New Republic recognized this. I doubt he and his new team are upset that Wieseltier is gone. I also doubt Wieseltier will find another publication that will give him the freedom and extraordinary expanse of pages he has enjoyed for the last three decades.
One reason he’s dispensable is that American liberalism is shifting in the direction of a long tradition in American conservatism, one that is supremely confident in the wisdom of markets. For liberal idealists, the new technological utopianism married to the dynamism of capitalism has replaced the old utopian socialism of the bygone era. It’s commonly said in Silicon Valley that if you want to change the world you need to start a company. Gone is the high theory of Marxism, whichhowever wrongheaded it wasstill trained the left to think. In its place we now have painfully simplistic (and self-serving) slogans. The Facebook era! The Twitter revolution!
The death of The New Republic also reflects changes in the university. A liberal arts education educates young people into a particular way of life, a particular culture. Some of them become virtuosos in this way of life, which means they absorb its animating ideas and sentiments, but can improvise. All cultures need these virtuosos, because all cultures face external and internal challenges that require adaptation, revision, and renewal. The prophets of Israel were virtuosos. Socrates, Luther, Burke, and Emerson were virtuosos.
Although I disagree with where he wanted to take us, I count Richard Rorty an American virtuoso. He had the crucial quality, which is a mind at once loyal enough to an inherited way of life to care for its future, and yet informed and plastic enough to lead the way in renewal. As an editor, Wieseltier sought liberal virtuosos. (Conservatives were not part of his mix. He was interested only in a conversation about a progressive future.) And when he found them he gave them an extraordinary amount of space to speak to us about things that matter.
But today’s universities don’t train virtuosos. A shallow scientism and materialism has found its way to the classroom. Political correctness shuts down conversation, insisting on sterile platitudes. Conservative ideas are largely excluded, and many of the most important questions facing us today simply aren’t posed in ways relevant to our public life (which unlike the university culture isn’t monochromatic). And anyway, if starting a company and cashing out as a billionaire is the way to change the world, who needs Shakespeare?
Wieseltier has sharply criticized these trends. But they and other enemies of humane reflection continue unchecked. As a result, the university has become less and less relevant to our public conversation about how to liveand Wieseltier’s extraordinary gifts as an editor capable of serving as a go-between also has become less important. Which is why, again, I don’t think we’ll see him reappear elsewhere, nor will we see a younger version emerge. On the whole, a person of Chris Hughes’ generation does not think of college professors as important for more than credentialing them on the ascent to great things.
Does this signal the end of intelligent reflection in public life? No, but it does suggest a serious problem facing twenty-first century American liberalism. More a collection of establishment sentiments than a coherent philosophy, liberalism over the last few decades has not been strong on self-reflection. The section of The New Republic overseen by Wieseltier was an exception, as the New York Review of Books has been, though with less consistency.
The future? Were I a liberal intellectual I’d see very little that encourages optimism. But I’m not. And so I see in all this an opportunity. People want to think. If liberalism is shrinking the supply of opportunities for reflective engagement with ideas, we’re happy to meet the demand.