The New New Republic Shapes Up

Most people interested in the world of political media that haven’t been living under a rock for the past month have likely heard – and have likely had something to say – about the crisis at The New Republic. (If you have been living under a rock, Ryan Lizza’s story on the whole mess is probably the only thing that you need to read, although The Awl‘s Choire Sicha impishly put together a fairly comprehensive list of “hot takes” about it all a while back. Of them, Coates’ is, unsurprisingly, the most worthwhile.)

Today, incoming editor Gabriel Snyder, formerly of The Atlantic Wire and Gawker, put out a letter broadly addressing the situation and the magazine’s complicated legacy.

The New Republic has always been both in love and at war with its prior self. The magazine’s early decades were marked by abrupt ownership changes, unceremonious dismissals of editors, shifting policy positions, and uprooted headquarters, all accompanied by masthead upheavals.

In 1974, Martin Peretz, a 35-year-old social studies lecturer at Harvard College, bought The New Republic. He pledged to leave things as they were and to keep then-editor Gilbert Harrison “for a minimum of three years,” as Harrison told the Times. Sooner than that, however, Peretz installed himself as editor, resignations followed, and much of the staff was replaced by his former students. They would go on to dominate the masthead for the rest of the century.

A decade into Peretz’s tenure, Michael Straight, the owner-editor after World War II and son of the magazine’s first financial backer, wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books announcing “the spirit which Croly created and which Gilbert Harrison maintained in recent years was shattered.” Peretz, who stood accused of endorsing Israel’s 1985 bombing of Beirut, rightly ridiculed this appeal to constancy. “What spirit of The New Republic exactly would they be violating?” he replied to the letters page. “The magazine has had a long and complicated history.” Last year Peretz was the one complaining, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the current owner, Chris Hughes, is “not from the world of Herbert Croly.” A survey of the many deaths and rebirths of The New Republic shows, if anything, that its most important survival skill has been to attract new champions from beyond its inner sanctum.

The most relevant paragraph for those of us with a more than passing interest in the magazine’s racial history – and those of us who want to make a living in this business – was this one:

As we revive one proud legacy of The New Republicthe launching of new voices and expertsthose new voices and experts will be diverse in race, gender, and background. As we build our editorial staff, we will reach out to talented journalists who might have previously felt unwelcome at The New Republic. If this publication is to be influential, and not merely survive, it can no longer afford to represent the views of one privileged class, nor appeal solely to a small demographic of political elites.

Interestingly, it was announced today that one of the “new voices” that’s set to grace the magazine’s pages in the near future will be Jeet Heer, a Canadian journalist who was one of many to examine exactly why non-white and non-male journalists were “unwelcome” for so long in the immediate aftermath of the staff departures:

Heet has some additional thoughts on The New Republic and gender on his blog Sans Everything.

Other “new voices” announced today: New York Magazine‘s Ann Friedman, freelance writer Batya Ungar-Sargon, poet and writer Cathy Park Hong, Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Inga Saffron, The Hairpin contributing editor Jazmine Hughes, Jeffery Ball, scholar-in-residence at Stanford University’s Center for Energy Policy and Finance, freelance writer Thomas Rogers, Mental Floss contributing editor Jen Doll, and novelist William Giraldi. It’s not entirely clear what exactly “new” means in this context given that pieces from most of these writers has been published by TNR over the past few months. Still, it’s definitely a diverse and promising slate.



I’m proud to have played an intern-sized part in Slate‘s marvelous feature on the internet’s outrage economy and the controversies that had us fuming – and clicking away – in 2014. Slate editor Julia Turner:

Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home. And the same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable. The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect.

And The Awl editor Choire Sicha:

We used to yell at the TV but it couldn’t hear us. Finally someone can. So you turn to all the people next to you, all the friends and followers, and you are typing and then you are hitting send, post, tweet, submit.
…You are speaking, first, into the echo chamber of your friends. But not everyone is in your silo. And so then some stranger is mad at you; then some friend is noticeably silent. You are blocked or you are yelled at. Spiraling conversations come from realms unexpected and unwanted. You are embarrassed, or you are angrier, defensive or passive-aggressive, or laughing at them all. It is a rush of emotion that stretches long but is only an instant. Then, with a slithery zip, the moment is sealed shut.

It’s all almost as exhausting to participate in as it is to think about, but if you’re in the mood, the essay series is worth perusing, as is Slate’s comprehensive, soon-to-be-365-day calendar of the things we let ourselves get upset about this year. What made us mad on my birthday, November 2nd? Lena Dunham’s memoir. Oh yeah! I remember that….

Cuba Libre?

I’ve been taking in all of the Cuba takes over the past day. Yesterday’s historic shift was unambiguously good – this is clear to sane people. Vox has a good summary of the deal. Materially, the U.S. secured the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross and 53 political prisoners as well as concessions on internet access and new permissions for the United Nations and Red Cross in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies, the ease of certain business, travel, and banking restrictions, and higher allowances for remittances from Cuban-Americans to their families back home. Oh, and travelers will be able to import up to $100 dollars’ worth of Cuban cigars into the U.S.

The fate of the embargo remains up in the air as does the possibility of a Cuban embassy – Congress will need to take action on both. It seems obvious, though, that the embargo’s days are numbered. And its end can’t come soon enough, whether or not opening our doors to Cuba actually undermines the regime significantly. As Daniel Drezner writes in The Washington Post, there’s good reason to believe it won’t:

Let’s be clear about this. Generally speaking, neither negative economic statecraft (sanctions) nor positive economic statecraft (inducements) works terribly well at changing the nature of a hostile regime. And Cuba is still a hostile regime. Raul Castro embraced the opening Wednesday while still “acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” So there are still pretty elevated expectations of future conflict between Washington and Havana.

Interestingly, Drezner also points to a 2012 paper in the American Political Science Review that suggests that remittances of the kind Obama’s action will bolster can actually strengthen totalitarian regimes by providing an influx of income that allows repressive governments to spend existing resources in ways that further empower them. If families can get money from abroad, the logic goes, regimes spend less money on providing them the services and resources that placated them and spend more money on, say, militaries.

This is actually precisely the kind of logic embargo defenders should heed. Cutting off resources to an oppressed population could make them more dependent on a regime rather than less. Who else will they turn to for aid? It is, I imagine, considerably easier to try to procure food and services from your oppressors than it is to procure the same by trying to overthrow them. As Cuba Research Center President Philip Peters wrote in The American Conservative earlier this week, to assume the opposite is to assume, in the case of Cuba, that the Cuban people remain perpetually “one spark short of a political uprising,” They are not. The Cuban people have suffered through the embargo for half a century. They suffered through the fall of the Soviet Union, their primary economic partner – a calamity so devastating to the Cuban economy that the average Cuban lost twenty pounds in the immediate aftermath. Neither produced regime change. It seems that the greatest chance for slow, long-term change will be provided by the same kinds of policy changes that will provide immediate relief to the Cuban people in the short term – the kinds of changes Obama has implemented. Although remittances seem to enable regimes to spend resources on things that keep them in power, different regimes are secured by different things. And the reforms Raul Castro has put in place over the past few years evince a belief that economic reforms – not jackboots – are the key to holding on. Peters in The American Conservative:

Ten years ago, Cuban citizens could not travel abroad without a government exit permit. Cell phones were available to officials, foreign businessmen, and tourists, but not average Cubans. Hotels and resorts were reserved for foreigners only. Computers were not for sale, only components. Cubans could only sell cars of 1959 or earlier vintage. Home sales were illegal even though 85 percent of Cuban families hold title to their homes. And an unannounced policy capped the number of licenses to engage in private business at about 150,000.

All those prohibitions are gone today.

Cubans are traveling wherever they can get a visa, and the United States granted 19,500 visitor visas in the first half of this year. Cuban dissidents now visit Washington, Miami, and European capitals regularly—then they return home and travel again. Private brokers and online listing services are sorting out supply and demand in a new residential real estate market. Internet connectivity remains limited and expensive, but it is improving and 1.9 million Cubans—more than one-fifth of the adult population—now have cell phones, some now with access to e-mail.

Will economic changes be undermined or pushed along by new remittances? I think a case can be made for the latter given that the new allowances are coupled with expanded access to Cuba for American entrepreneurs – Cuba will see both new money and new demands on what that money should be able to do – demands that will be made by new people in an undermining of the strength of Cuba’s public sector that Peters says is already underway:

New economic policies have led to an explosion of small enterprise, where nearly half a million Cubans—triple the number of four years ago—are working in service businesses of all kinds. Larger private businesses, legally organized as cooperatives, are emerging; some of the 600 in operation are state enterprises that have been turned over to their workers, while others are start-ups that began with citizen applications. Market-based agriculture has expanded with land grants to 170,000 private farmers and cooperatives, and the agriculture bureaucracy is being pared back gradually. The government has trimmed its payroll by 650,000 workers, and ultimately expects 45 percent of the workforce to be occupied in the private sector. A new foreign investment law was approved last March, and the courtship of potential investors is under way.

Prospects for economic progress aside, Cuba’s human rights abuses remain well worth examining and criticizing. From Matthew Yglesias’ summary at Vox:

According to Freedom House, Cuba has the most restrictive press censorship in the Western Hemisphere and is the only country rated “not free” in the Americas. All official media is owned by the state and controlled by the government. Dissident bloggers are regularly arrested. According to Amnesty International, protestors are regularly arrested and detained without trial. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba says there were over 6,000 arbitrary detentions of human rights activists in 2013.

Once in jail, detainees face harsh conditions. “Prisoners often slept on concrete bunks without a mattress,” according to the State Department’s human rights report on Cuba, “with some reports of more than one person sharing a narrow bunk. Where available, mattresses were thin and often infested with vermin and insects.”

As for Cuba’s dubious role in international terrorism, The Hill has a rundown of the State Department’s gripes:

“In the case of Cuba, State listed three primary reasons for keeping the island nation on the list. First, it noted that Cuba continued to provide a safe haven for about two dozens members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), a group charged with terrorism in Spain.

State’s report, though, seemed to give Cuba some credit for hosting peace talks between the government of Colombia and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The report notes that Cuba offered aid to FARC members “in past years,” and indicates that Havana is no longer supporting the rebel group.

A second major reason for listing Cuba was that the government “continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.” That language is unchanged from last year’s report.

And thirdly, State said Cuba has deficiencies in the area of anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism, just as it did in last year’s report. This year, however, State also noted that Cuba has become a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America, which requires Havana to adopt anti-money laundering recommendations.

…A Washington lawyer with expertise in Cuba and international law, Robert Muse, told The Hill that none of the three reasons listed by State are enough to satisfy the legal requirements that must be met to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Muse said arguments about harboring U.S. fugitives are especially weak, since U.S. law says designations must be made against countries that “repeatedly provided support for international terrorism.”

Whether Cuba can credibly be considered a sponsor of terrorism or not and despite its clear abuses, we should, I think, find ourselves at least uneasy with the idea of pursuing political objectives by inflicting suffering on innocent people who likely share those objectives. “The embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department memorandum,” Peters writes, “as a way to deny ‘money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.'” Hunger and desperation. As official U.S. policy. This is what sanctions are designed to do – in Cuba, in Iran, and elsewhere. Sometimes they work. Sometimes. But vicious and destructive circular logic gets employed when they don’t. Daniel Larison in The American Conservative yesterday:

“There is almost no other kind of policy that thrives off of failure more than sanctions and embargoes. If the regime’s behavior doesn’t change, that is taken as proof that the economic pressure is insufficient and must be increased. If the regime is open to a negotiated settlement of outstanding issues, that is also treated as an invitation to impose more sanctions to “keep up the pressure.” Economic sanctions can never be lifted for fear of “rewarding” the government that the U.S. tried to punish, and so they remain in place for as long the other government endures.”

The biggest fans of this circular logic in the case of Cuba are the stooges of the Cuba lobby. Prominent among them are two GOP 2016 hopefuls – Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both have been vocal and absurd in their criticisms of everything that’s happened over the past day. The benefits to them of defending the stats quo politically aren’t immediately obvious. The Cuba lobby, after all, isn’t that powerful in the grand scheme of things. And a recent Atlantic Council survey indicates incredibly broad support for normalization. 56% of Americans, 63% of Floridians, 52% of Republicans, and 60% of Independents support it. The only constituency Cruz and Rubio could conceivably be appealing to is the contingent of Republican primary voters broadly contemptuous of Obama’s foreign policy. Cuba, in and of itself, doesn’t matter to them. This is the “Lead From Behind”/”Blame America First” crowd.

Finally, Noah Feldman has a decent analysis of the broader political takeaway from all this in Bloomberg View: There is power in small but dedicated political constituencies like the Cuba lobby. But Obama seems to be demonstrating an increased willingness to take them on.

What Obama must be hoping is that groups with a passing interest in the opening to Cuba will get on the bandwagon just long enough to counterbalance the power of the lobby and get the necessary legislation passed. Big ag will still have a diffuse interest, not a concentrated one — but perhaps the vision of money on the table in the near future will motivate sufficient support.

The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing. With regard to Israel, Obama has tread much more carefully, limiting himself to the unmistakable message that he thinks West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, too. Many pro-Israel lobbying groups detest him for it, but they haven’t yet had the occasion to go to war against him.

With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.

The Obama Adminstration Moves on Immigration…For a Corrupt Ecuadoran Family

Gawker ran this under the headline “The Obama Administration is Corrupt as Fuck”, which is overstating things maybe (although the ambassadorial nominations of late are particularly infuriating and not a good look). A biting story from The New York Times:

The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

…The Obama administration has allowed the family’s patriarchs, Roberto and William Isaías, to remain in the United States, refusing to extradite them to Ecuador. The two brothers were sentenced in absentia in 2012 to eight years in prison, accused of running their bank into the ground and then presenting false balance sheets to profit from bailout funds. In a highly politicized case, Ecuador says the fraud cost the country $400 million.

…while scrutiny has typically focused on whether the family’s generous campaign donations have helped its patriarchs avoid extradition, the unorthodox help given to Ms. Isaías, the daughter of Roberto, has received little attention.

…For more than a year, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and his staff engaged in a relentless effort to help Ms. Isaías, urging senior government officials, including Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to waive the ban. The senator’s assistance came even though Ms. Isaías’s family, a major donor to him and other American politicians, does not live in his state.

The Obama administration then reversed its decision and gave Ms. Isaías the waiver she needed to come to the United States — just as tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the family poured into Mr. Obama’s campaign coffers.

…In an interview this year, Roberto Isaías said the family’s donations were targeted to members of Congress who fight for human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America. He said he had met Mr. Menendez once or twice. “If you go to his website,” Mr. Isaías said, “it says, ‘If you have an immigration problem, call me.’ ”

The senator’s website does offer such casework assistance, under a category titled “Services for New Jerseyans.”

That, beautifully, is how the piece ends. The kicker on all this is that Ms. Isaías’ waiver might have been secured by a one Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s former Chief of Staff in the State Department. This is all going to be swallowed up by the news cycle, but it’s an important reminder, I suppose, of just how little the Obama administration has differed from administrations past in its willingness to engage in this kind of wheeling and dealing. And Menendez seems like an embarrassment, honestly.

First They Came for the Buddy Comedies….

Jeet Heer on the ongoing The Interview debacle, which we should all take seriously, I guess, even though it’s really, really hard to. For me anyways.

If there’s anything that can be taken away form this, it’s that derailing the entertainment industry is apparently pretty damn easy. I’m more worried about GamerGate-type trolls benefiting from that lesson than I am about our geopolitical foes.

Heet’s Twitter essay on the whole thing is worth a read, as is his group blog, Sans Everything, which I’ve only recently discovered.