The New Plutocracy

Many of us are deeply grieved by the recent events surrounding The New Republic, where Chris Hughes, its current publisher, having rejected the magazine's time-honored intellectual purpose in favor of a profitable new web initiative, effectively caused the demise of a respected hundred-year-old institution. The new ownership, responding to the relatively low circulation of the magazine, and the five million dollar annual subsidy that it provoked, has radically changed its purpose, causing the entire staff to resign, following Editor-in-Chief, Franklin Foer, and Literary Editor, Leon Wieseltier.

No doubt sensing that something historic and unprecedented was happening, these sad events have been widely covered by the media, through editorials, interviews, letters, and web sites, with almost universal agreement that Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook with his Harvard roommate Mark Zuckerman, has made a serious misstep.

I was TNR's drama critic over a period of forty-seven years on and off, from 1959 until 2006, until the editors, sensing the readership's lack of interest in theatre, dropped the position altogether. Given the distinguished history of drama criticism at the magazine -- Stark Young, Eric Bentley, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann, among others -- this was a radical move that somehow prefigured the current situation, where circulation numbers were being allowed to determine editorial decisions.

But more than this, the change in the function of the magazine is yet another example of a fate that has been infecting most humanistic institutions in this country: quantity is being substituted for quality and fateful decisions are being made on the basis of uninformed majority opinion. This has become painfully clear in the modern American university -- described on the administrative level as a campus attached to a hedge fund, and on the academic level, as an ideology attached to a classroom. It is now being attended mostly by young people interested in profitable careers in consulting or investing, or in fashionable gestures towards sexual and racial politics, where you can get a BA in English without having read a single play by Shakespeare, and where the major questions being asked in class are about a student's grade point average. The same development can be seen in publishing where such former giants as Barnes and Noble, for example, are now on life support systems. It is evident in most of the nation's non-profit resident theatres , a number of them devoted not to exploring the imagination but to pre-Broadway tryouts of new musicals, supported by "enhancement money" from commercial producers. It is true of symphony orchestras, opera companies and ballet groups, most of them in serious deficit condition, arranging their repertories and their schedules to compensate for the loss.

In short, what was once The New Republic has become The New Plutocracy, and I am not just referring to the late-lamented magazine. What elsewhere I called "Dumbocracy in America" has triumphed. Art and intellect has lost most of their respect, pushed aside in favor of the most opportunistic forms of survival. We are laboring under the tyrannous regime of the majority.