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The Marty Peretz Situation: Ta-Nehisi Coates Reprints Stephen Glass's "Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work"

Here Is Why We Don't Have a Better Press Corps: Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Fallows on the Marty Peretz Situation

The excellent TNC:

On The Cheapness Of Life: Andrew and Jack Shafer's reminiscence over the legacy of Martin Peretz, and quasi-defense of his bigotry, motivated me to do some of my own reflecting. To the present business, there is no actual defense of the statement "Muslim life is cheap, particularly to Muslims." African-Americans are overrepresented among both the perpetrators and victims of homicide. And yet had a writer for The New Republic, in the midst of asserting that blacks should not enjoy constitutional protection, argued that "Black life is cheap, particularly to blacks," and then doubled down on the assertion, I don't think we'd be having this debate. Emphasis on "think."

On close reading, neither Andrew nor Jack are offering a defense so much as they are changing the subject. The question at hand is something along the lines of, "Does Martin Peretz exhibit a pattern of bigotry?" Andrew and Jack, instead, are addressing a question along the lines of "Is Martin Peretz a great journalist?" With respect for both Andrew and Jack, this is obfuscation. Ty Cobb was both a great baseball player and a bigot. The notion that we must chose between the two, that one mitigates the other, that good people don't do deplorable things, that deplorable people don't great things, emanates from our own inability to understand that bigotry it is not strictly the preserve of orcs.

That said, I would not have Peretz's legacy forgotten. But I would have it considered fully. Andrew asserts the following:

...Marty owned a magazine that pioneered the military and marriage debate that transformed a civil rights movement; or race, where his insistence on airing the really tough issues helped shift the debate, in my view, for the better. TNR's brave pioneering of welfare reform made a huge difference.

Peretz' alleged courage on race is a peculiar sort. Andrew may well be thinking of Peretz' assent to his stewardship of the infamous "Bell Curve" cover questioning the innate intellectual aptitude of African-Americans. He could also be thinking of Ruth Shalit's 1995 story which asserted that Affirmative Action was degrading the quality of The Washington Post. The story was filled with errors which Shalit dismissed as "a handful of unfortunate but minor inaccuracies" and "one major error." Repeated charges of plagiarism ultimately doomed Shalit at the The New Republic.

Or Andrew could be thinking of  the magazine's 1996 cover story "Taxis, and the Meaning Of Work." Here is the central thesis of the piece: 

In 1978, at the American Enterprise Institute, Jesse Jackson explained that dirty work was better than no work, since it paid in long-term benefits. But his advice has not been universally accepted, not least in his own community. 

Proceeding from there, the article goes on to contrast the flagging work ethic of African-Americans, with hard-working immigrant taxi-drivers--many of them Muslim. The article ends with a flurry of spectacular reportage, in which the journalist witnesses the robbery of one of his cab-driving subjects by a black man, and then tracks down a folk-hero of the local cab-driving community--Kae Bang "a Korean cabdriver-turned-vigilante who is to the D.C. cab community what Stagger Lee was to the Mississippi Delta." Bang, an expert martial artist, attracted his flock after he beat down "three brick wielding black teenagers" who'd assaulted him.[1]

The story was a whirlwind of spectacular "gets" which could only have been executed by a crack reporter on his best day, or an outright liar willing to invoke every stereotype from Steppin Fetchit to Bruce Lee to Willie Horton. Martin Peretz put "Taxis and the Meaning Of Work" on the cover of The New Republic, a first for the article's author, Stephen Glass. Glass's name comes up whenever the latest instance of gumshoe malfeasance arises. What should not be forgotten is that one of the greatest fraud sprees in modern journalistic history, was aided and abetted by The New Republic's belief in shiftless, dangerous blacks and the immigrant avenger Kae Bang.

Washington Post editor Len Downie, stung by Shalit's piece, once suggest "Looking for a qualified black since 1914" as a motto for The New Republic. I don't know the magazine's employment record in regards to people who are not white, but I do know that the magazine field--political and otherwise--is probably the whitest field in all of journalism. And not simply American white--but privileged, coastal, Ivy League white. (I include my present employer in that assessment.)

Peretz is oft-saluted for bringing different perspectives under the same roof. In all my time of reading The New Republic, it's been clear that very few of those perspectives originate in communities of color. My sense of the diversity question has never been one of simple egalitarianism, but of the kind of humility that makes you question your courage on race, when your newsroom looks a graduate seminar at Harvard. Or worse. By my lights, every newsroom needs someone willing to ask, "Who the fuck is Kae Bang?"

And so it is, 15 years later, with a magazine whose effective co-editor defends the statement "Muslim life is cheap," and within weeks skips off to be honored at Harvard. This is all about firepower. The fact is that Peretz has the social and economic guns to be a bigot, to then be defended by even those who acknowledge his bigotry, and finally honored at the highest levels of American academia.

But that aside, I would be very interested in precisely how much "Muslim life" is presently ensconced in The New Republic's venerable offices. It's very easy to raise tough questions, when you don't have to endure even tougher answers.

[1] "Taxi Cabs and The Meaning of Work" no longer appears on The New Republic's website. I tracked the piece down myself, and will gladly e-mail it to anyone who doubts its existence, or the parts quoted. Just send me a note.

UPDATE: I'd also be remiss to not link to Fallows' thoroughly convincing posts on all of this. The latest of which includes this incredible piece written during the Iraq War:

I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.

I'm really amazed by the inability to call this what it is. If Peretz is not a bigot, then the word has no meaning. My sense is that the latter is actually true for people whom we believe to be respectable. James also links to a Peretz apology. I'm not convinced, but I'm not the one who needs to be. Maybe I will be after I think about it more.

And James Fallows:

More on 'Muslim Life is Cheap': I've already had my say on the merits of this one. My purpose now is to summarize several developments in the "Muslim life is cheap" controversy surrounding Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic. Subsequent installments will include samples from the large quantity of eloquent comments I have received, both pro and con the argument I was making.

Listing the "for the record" developments:

(1) On the occasion of Yom Kippur, Martin Peretz wrote an "Atonement" on the New Republic's site saying that he regretted his "wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters."

(2) Harvard groups representing Islamic, Latino, and African-American students have issued a letter protesting an upcoming honor for Peretz at Harvard, and have posted a related petition for signature. A similar letter from students, faculty, and alumni of Brandeis, Peretz's undergraduate alma mater, is here.

(3) The Harvard letter includes a link to something I had not seen before, and which seems no longer to be on the the New Republic site. (I could not find it on a site search.) According to this web.archive.org link, in 2006 Peretz wrote, concerning levels of bloodshed in Iraq and the vicinity:

I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan.

(4) The initial Harvard response to the controversy was not one of the university's more impressive efforts. In an Emily Litella-like statement to Benjy Sarlin of the Daily Beast, a university spokesman said, "It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views." Of course no sane person has questioned Peretz's right to express his views. The disagreement involves the university's planned honor for him and his work. (Also from Sarlin here.)

(5) A few days ago Matthew Yglesias forcefully argued that the impending Harvard fellowship named for Peretz was unlikely to be jeopardized, for reasons involving the fundamentals of university finance.

(5a) A logical extension of Yglesias's argument is that Harvard and its donors might most effectively be urged not to revoke this fellowship but to create another, matching one, preferentially for Muslim students from the U.S. or abroad. Growing-pie solution; win-win-win. To the best of my understanding, many fellowships that are preferentially for people from certain geographic, racial, or even religious backgrounds already exist at Harvard.

(6) My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates goes straight at the argument that, whatever Peretz's excessive views, he has been a wonderful influence in journalism. Worth reading very carefully...

Now, let's move to reader comments... a Westerner with childhood experience in an Islamic culture... writes:

My father was one of the last British officials of the Raj. After partition, he worked for ten years as a district official for the new Pakistan government and I spent my early years in a tolerant Baluchistan, safe and happy. Decades passed and I found myself a US citizen and living in Florida on 9/11. Then, despite a generally liberal constitution, I spent several years loathing the name of Islam and the fact that moderate Muslims had seemingly failed to prevent the tragedy.

Now comes a further turn in my life: the latest upsurge in Islamophobia has brought me back to my philosophical roots. While not fully able to account for the phenomenon, I am appalled by its manifestation. My inclination is to blame a combination of a bad economy and demagoguery from the likes of Glenn Beck. When we so desperately need them, where are the moderate Republicans of stature to put a stop to this foul nonsense?...

The answer to this last question, of course, is that there are damned few moderate Republicans of stature who are not also cowards.