- - Thursday, December 25, 2014


The crisis at The New Republic that led to the resignation of its editor, literary editor and numerous staff members is symptomatic of a broader cultural decline also manifest on the pages of The New York Times and other mainstream publications. Newspapers and magazines have been going out of business or are making desperate efforts to be more “readable” and “lively,” that is to say, more entertaining and better integrated into popular culture.

While the proximate cause of the resignations at The New Republic was the appointment of a new chief executive and his announcement of his intention to transform the magazine into “a vertically integrated digital media company,” the roots of the crisis can be traced directly to the acquisition of the magazine by Chris Hughes in 2012. It was followed by an instant and spectacular change of editorial policies reflected in the content and format of the magazine. What some may call a “dumbing down” process was set into motion, most conspicuously in the profusion of illustrations of every kind at the expense of written content. Even book reviews have come with irrelevant, unnecessary pictures. The emphasis on pictures mimics television and other electronic devices.

Losing money — the rationale put forward to explain these developments — raises the question: Should profitability be the only basis of the survival of an important cultural resource such as The New Republic? Should symphony orchestras go out of business if fewer people are interested in classical music and museums close if fewer people visit them? Who should or could subsidize such undertakings when no longer profitable? But profitability is only a part of The New Republic’s story. Just as important has been the apparent disposition of Mr. Hughes, who wants to make money and seems to resonate with popular culture and its entertainment orientation. The editorial policies he has introduced reflects the growing influence of popular culture, as well as the lingering influence of the 1960s — in particular, its anti-elitist spirit and a relativistic, postmodern sensibility. It is these larger social-cultural trends that, in the final analysis, best explain the problems and decline of The New Republic.

The apparent hunger to be entertained is at the root of the growth of popular or mass culture in America. As Richard Hoggart, the British culture critic, wrote over a half-century ago, even the weather forecast has to be entertaining. News programs on television have increasingly shriveled into reports of photogenic disasters, “human interest” stories or depictions of assorted trivia that the producers deem to be entertaining. The entertainment orientation also has invaded higher education, nurtured by the same anti-elitist, egalitarian spirit. There may be more college courses today on popular culture and celebrity entertainers than the works of all those “dead white males” who produced the bulk of elite culture and the classics.

Doubtless, boredom and its fear are major contributors to the demand for entertainment. Mass-produced, readily available entertainments alleviate, at least temporarily and superficially, boredom and various apprehensions about one’s life, its failures and its frustrations. The idea of “fun,” of being endlessly entertained, also reflects a sense of entitlement to a hazy ideal of happiness and good cheer. The hunger for entertainment is further connected to a desire to escape fundamental existential problems that modern, secular societies cannot address adequately. Notwithstanding the high rates of church attendance and avowals of belief in God, ours is a secular society in which only a deeply religious minority enjoys life made meaningful by solidly internalized religious beliefs. It is more than likely that this minority of Americans is far less dependent on popular culture and its entertainments than the rest of the population.

Insofar as traditional beliefs have become less helpful in making life meaningful, popular culture is enlisted in the task of escaping or minimizing the burdens of the human condition modern life has accentuated. Many people face difficulties trying to decide what to do with their lives both in the long term and on a daily basis. Popular culture and its entertainments respond to these needs, diverting attention from meaninglessness, social isolation, unfulfilled aspirations, emotional needs and pressing existential problems.

The cultural decline of The New Republic and its crisis are symptomatic of the trends sketched above. While the magazine, and what it used to stand for, might (in theory) be rescued by the generosity of its owner (current or future), by foundation support or by a resurgence of readership, prevailing social-cultural conditions in our society will make it an uphill struggle.

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author or editor of 15 books.

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