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Although I never met her, Midge Decter has been on my mind lately. As I read the affectionate elegies for First Things’s onetime senior editor, and pondered what to write about for our 2022 spring campaign, it struck me that Decter epitomized one of this magazine’s essential aspirations. The only word for it is “style.”
I don’t just mean the image of Decter those tributes relayed: self-possessed, chain-smoking, drily humorous, unflinching in pursuit of a cause. Or her writing, with its mastery of rhythm and pace. I mean her resolute belief that even when dealing with questions of the greatest urgency, there are aesthetic standards to be upheld. Editors, especially perhaps at religious publications, can be tempted to give authors an easy time. But Decter, it is clear from her colleagues’ reminiscences, realized you have to be cruel to writers—or at least to their prose—if you want to be kind to readers. “Not very interesting.” “If I read another manuscript about somebody talking about somebody talking about Kant, I’ll kill myself.” “Oy.”
It’s a mistake to think of style as an optional extra, a sweetener to help the medicine go down. Style is the intellect in flight: A thought can only really travel when it has the equilibrium, speed, and structure to get off the ground. Conversely, an absence of style is often a sign of dishonesty or muddled thinking. Oscar Wilde wasn’t just playing at paradox when he had one of his characters remark: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
Speaking of Wilde, much of Decter’s objection to the gay rights movement was that, whatever else could be said of it, you might hope it would exhibit some wit and originality. Instead, she was dismayed to find, the movement exuded the same “humorless unimaginativeness” as every other cause that had captivated her generation. An unstylish politics, she knew, was automatically suspect.
Yet listen to the clamor of today’s public square, and what do you hear? Ad agencies with their ingratiating flattery on behalf of exploitative corporations; politicians making desperate appeals to our lowest instincts; activists hammering empty slogans (“Abortion is healthcare. Abortion is healthcare”) into the collective consciousness; discontented men and women ratcheting up their grievances in the hope that some authority will take notice. Not, in other words, a promising environment for style. What a relief it can be when a magazine arrives in the letterbox offering elegance as well as seriousness, contradicting not just the values of the age but also its ugliness.
Style can take a thousand forms. Theodore Dalrymple’s resonant aphorisms read very differently from Justin Lee’s vivid storytelling. To follow the graceful, precise reasoning of an Audrey Pollnow book review is not the same experience as attending the outrageous carnival hosted by Sam Kriss. But all of them, I think, have something in common. So: Judge us by Midge Decter’s standards. And if we pass muster, please consider lending us a hand.
Dan Hitchens is senior editor at First Things.
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