"There are no lost causes; there are causes waiting to be won": Katrina vanden Heuvel on 150 years of The Nation

Progress demands tenacity and a willingness to be unpopular, liberal institution's publisher and editor tells Salon

By Elias Isquith
Published April 11, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)
Katrina vanden Heuvel    (ABC News/Salon)
Katrina vanden Heuvel (ABC News/Salon)

Earlier this week, the United States of America commemorated the 150th anniversary of one of the seminal moments in its history: Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and the end of the Civil War. After five years of what were at the time unprecedented levels of destruction, instability, transformation and suffering, the governmental system inaugurated in 1789 had ended and a new system had begun. In the grand scheme, 150 years is not so much; but it's hard to comprehend just how much has changed between the moment Lee set pen to paper and our own.

There's at least one thing, however, that's been constant throughout that century-plus: The Nation, which has long been — and remains — one of the premiere liberal publications in the U.S. and indeed the Western world. Just as a new kind of America started in 1865, so too did a new kind of magazine; and to celebrate the historic milestone, The Nation recently released a 150th Anniversary Special Issue, which is also available online. As you'd expect, the issue is something of a retrospective, which examines 150 years of liberal thought. But it's forward-looking as well, and features new material from David Corn, Calvin Trillin, Rebecca Solnit, Noam Chomsky and others, which is all available online, too.

Recently, Salon met with Katrina vanden Heuvel — who co-edited the special edition and is The Nation's publisher and editor-in-chief — in her New York City office to discuss the anniversary issue as well as the past and future of American liberalism. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Did you always know that you wanted to go big for the 150th?

The Nation has had a tradition of marking many anniversaries. When I walk you out, you’ll see that there’s the 120th, there’s 125th, there was a 75th. We felt the 100th was our model [for this], and you can see that’s our perfect spine too, so we knew we wanted to go big. We’re talking here three centuries; this is a big deal in a culture which is in such transition and fast-moving. So yeah, we knew we wanted to go big — we actually went slightly bigger because there was more content. We over-assigned. So it is a slightly bigger book but we always knew we wanted to go big in the conceptual sense of it.

The country’s not very old, either.

And also, to be founded at such a traumatic, pivotal moment in the country’s history. Yes, we weren't there for the Revolutionary War, but if you had to think of the next defining moment, it's the Civil War. To be founded at the end of the Civil War, in this great city, by abolitionists committed to ending slavery, committed in many ways to issues that remain with us. As our good editorial board member, good historian and contributor to the special issue Eric Foner writes in the issue, also wrote in the New York Times this weekend, Reconstruction issues — contested citizenship, the never-ending fights over what freedom means — these echo through time and remain as relevant today. Anyone who thinks we’re all free has a lot to learn, I think, from the zigs and zags and the ongoing fights for issues upon which this magazine was founded.

In terms of the continuity, was that dispiriting or inspiring? Sometimes you look at the past and it can be just as easy to be dispirited by the longevity of certain problems as inspired by the progress.

There are moments in any given day — and certainly we had them while working on this issue — where you wonder how is it that we haven’t made more progress on issues of civil rights. You go to the founding, ending slavery, to Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote an annual essay for us for six years; from what he was writing about to today there has been progress. But what you learn is there’s so much more that still needs to be done. Not to be glib about it, but you come away with the feeling that The Nation has the real chance of surviving for a very long time because there are no lost causes; there are causes waiting to be won, and there are a lot of causes, and there are a lot of issues that are unresolved.

In the less hopeful, you do realize that we’ve made very little progress on issues of war and peace. You that realize on issues of inequality, you can go back to 2008 when we published our issue called "The New Inequality," which we could publish tomorrow with two comma changes. The hopeful part is that in many ways the discussions about inequality today are part of our culture, and part of our politics now, but we are a more deeply unequal society. In there, you find the work that needs to be done. We’re still in the fight of our lives, or perhaps now in the fight of our lives for control of our country, control of corporations which believe they own this country, on issues of feminism, women’s rights, cultural progress on gay rights.

Do you think The Nation has played a role in pushing that fight one way or another?

There’s a radicalism that has been a part of this magazine. I think we’re finding new outgrowths of it, and that gives hope. This is a new generation. You can see the ebbs and flows, but, you know, change is hard. If this is a kind of alternative history of this country from 1865, you can mark the changes, you can mark what has not been changed, and you can mark what needs to be. I value this place. Ideas that are heretical at one time, a generation later they seem common sense. For example, I cited the idea that maybe a negotiated solution to Vietnam would be a better idea than the loss of thousands of lives, and that was 1954. Maybe it's because I was editor in those years, but I really think The Nation played an important role as one of the few media outlets to oppose the war in Iraq. It is not popular to go against the conventional powerful orthodoxy in a time of war, and we were called names, vilified, though we're used to that. But a decade later — not even a generation — the head of the Council on Foreign Relations called it a disaster. There’s not a lot of love or popularity in calling it right, and I do speak with humility because we’ve called it wrong.

I think it’s a really interesting time for this place because I think it’s a movement moment. I think the movement’s faced enormous challenges. But there’s a sense of people in motion, people in the streets, even people even in the suites being pushed by people in the streets. In that sense, it's an exciting time and I think The Nation covers movements in a way that few others do. We don’t just come in at a time of crisis, we don’t parachute in, but we try to talk to the organizers, to be there.

One of the parts of the issue I thought was most interesting was seeing how, from era to era, progressives shifted their focuses at different times between the inside game (politicians) and the outside game (activists). 

There is this kind of view in the basic literature that the 1950s were kind of a quiet period. The ’50s for The Nation was a time of turmoil. The special issue we published in 1952 — “How Free Is Free?" — was about the paranoia of the McCarthy period, a period that may seem like feudal history to younger people. The ’50s were a time of great turmoil, a time when our civil liberties were taxed. Over the decades, the idea that the country must stay true to those liberties, even in times of stress, has been part of The Nation’s DNA. But unlike many liberal publications, we did not capitulate to the fear, and we stayed true to upholding the rights and freedoms and upholding the principles, and this wasn’t out of support for the Soviet Union, this was a belief in what kind of country we should be and why was the Civil Rights movement being painted, stigmatized, with the term communist, when it was an all-American expression for a fight for values. The ’50s and McCarthyism were not just of the ’50s. The fear — look at the War on Terror, look at the Islamophobia. That fear continues in different guises, in different forms, and so I think we have that animating, enduring understanding.

That brings to mind the military-industrial complex, which The Nation has written much about over the decades. I have to say, I was struck by how much more consistent attention was paid to reining that in during the recent past than there is today.

It is an obsession of mine, the tragedy of the metastasizing military-industrial complex, and now the new complex, the secret wars, the counter-terrorism, the perpetual war. There is a warning in this issue about the danger of endless war, but it’s not as baked in as it is maybe on a week-to-week basis in The Nation. Stephen Cohen wrote a piece last year on the dangers of a new Cold War, the dangers it poses to women, children, air, and of course empowering the war parties, empowering the military budgets, so there’s that. So it is the case, I worry, that even in the liberal, progressive media, there’s less concern about war, about nuclear dangers. Jonathan Schell, who was our war and peace correspondent for many years, did a special issue more than a decade ago on nuclear abolition, and of course, he wrote the famous piece for the New Yorker, “On the Fate of the Earth.” But we’ve lost sight of this peril. And it is at our peril, and so we do publish warnings and ways out.

I do worry, there is a generational piece here; remember there were a million people in Central Park in 1982 opposing nuclear weapons. I think you have now a generation which is post-9/11 or influenced by humanitarian intervention, and there’s a risk in there of losing sight of the dangers of the American footprint of being the indispensable nation. I love my country, but I don’t love my country because it's the indispensable nation; I love it when it tries to live up to its values.

I’m part of that generation.

Don’t you think there’s something that’s been lost?

Well, it does seem that, in previous eras, the left was optimistic about creating a world without warfare in a way most people right now are not.

It’s so interesting, because this country, in my generation, has always been at war. There was a belief then after that first World War, that that would be the end. It was called Great War; it wasn’t called the First World War. But I do think we are in a very bad way in terms of endless intervention, and a belief that intervention is the recourse. I’m not a pacifist, but I do believe that every option should be exhausted before we go to war, so to see in the last couple of weeks these op-ed pieces that we must go to war with Iran ... I mean, admittedly, they’re the neocons who should be in the dock instead of the op-ed pages.

I don’t get to do much journalism, but I do write a weekly column for the Washington Post and my husband Stephen Cohen and I were able to do an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow at the end of last year, which was quite extraordinary. Our interview was an attempt to move beyond the technology, to speak to him about his thinking about this country, about its values, about the Constitution, about where we’re headed, and even Occupy. In doing that, you realize how important dissidence is and what it takes to expose government culpability. Snowden is a game-changer. Look how our system, the virtual inability to really be changed, and the obscenity that you have people who have lied to this nation still doing their thing — and Edward Snowden is considered a traitor and is exiled to Moscow. Change is very hard — that is one of the lessons of this country — but change comes, and it comes in surprising ways.

From your stewardship of the magazine, what do you think are the most important tools, ideas, lessons to maintain a space where those kinds of ideas can be expressed?

I think one of the reasons for why have we survived this long is independence — independence of ownership, independence of conglomeration or Murdoch-ization. In 1996, The Nation did a special called the “National Entertainment State,” about the danger conglomeration of the media posed to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, to dissident voices. That continued in the work we did to fight for Internet democracy and net neutrality.

I do think being based in New York has been important. We have great people in Washington, D.C., but we’re not housed there. We’re not doing the access game. We had a White House correspondent years ago who refused a White House pass. One of the great Washington correspondents who was ours for a few years, I.F. Stone, what he did was work the documents. David Corn, our former D.C. correspondent, has a wonderful piece in the issue where he talks about staying after, about willingness to go against the pack and not get to those dinner parties. I think it’s a willingness to be unpopular. There is a space that we give our writers — we are a writers' magazine, and columnists' magazine -- that allows for voices that might otherwise be restrained.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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