Editorial Note

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]

It's hard to put a positive spin on this report" was what Lehman Brothers' chief economist Ethan S. Harris told the New York Times in response to the Labor Department's mid-year economic report. As of July 1, the country's official unemployment rate had climbed to 6.4 percent, the highest in almost a decade, and the economy continued to shed jobs. Thirty thousand jobs went missing in a single month, May, while one quarter of a million vanished in the first six months of the year. Over 2.5 million jobs have disappeared in the past 2 1/2 years. A sizable number of the newly unemployed are African-Americans, many of them laid off by manufacturing companies that paid higher-than-average wages, and the black unemployment rate is currently rising twice as fast as that of whites.* "One thing I wonder about," said Mr. Harris, "is whether all the happy talk about the economy encouraged people to start job hunting again, only to find that the labor market wasn't nearly as strong as what they were hoping for."

Positive spin and happy talk: it is hard to think of a single Bush administration initiative that hasn't been accompanied by great gusts of pre-tested twaddle. Clean air and clean water through deregulation, wilderness protection via tree-clearing and road-building, job creation from tax cuts for the top 1 percent and a stronger Social Security program by giving Wall Street a fat slice of the action. This spring President Bush told one audience that al-Qaeda is "on the run" and another that weapons of mass destruction have "already been found" in postwar Iraq. The pressures of the 2004 election will no doubt generate a tsunami of sophistry; the Republicans decision to hold their convention in New York City, under the figurative shadow of the Twin Towers, practically guarantees it.

In the case of U.S. policy toward Iraq, the gap between rhetoric and reality is vertigo-inducing. In mid-May Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conceded that "a few areas have challenges, to be sure," but insisted that "most areas are progressing, and a growing number actually have conditions that are today estimated to be better than prior to the recent war." He famously dismissed concerns about looting, organized crime and revenge killings as "growing pains." His optimism was echoed by L. Paul Bremer III, head of the interim authority, who confidently asserted that "Across most of Iraq, life is already getting better." (This will come as good news to the families of the children whom Unicef reports have been killed or injured by bombs, ammunition and abandoned weapons in recent weeks.) As the numbers of U.S. soldiers killed in "postwar" Iraq continued to mount, the Pentagon announced that the military is spending just under four billion dollars a month in Iraq, doubling its earlier estimates. Not surprisingly, Pentagon officials are unwilling to speculate about spending levels in the coming months. How could they, when faced with the distance between policy, and the facts on the ground?

Or take President Bush's recent "Africa tour" -- six hours in Senegal, six hours in Botswana, three hours in Uganda, and most of the rest of the time relaxing at a luxury hotel in Pretoria, South Africa. "We're not here for style, we're here for substance," explained Secretary of State Colin Powell. The assembled press corps duly recorded his words, and quoted them in their front page stories, and the major networks ran footage of a somber-looking president touring the slave house on Gorée Island, Senegal, where he lingered for almost fifteen minutes. Rather less attention was paid to the actual agenda for Africa's nation-states that Colin Powell was referring to, which includes such gems as privatization, arms sales, oil deals and biotech. The fact that most leading Democrats -- the party's major funders, staffers and elected officials -- embrace this multifaceted pro-corporate agenda may be one reason why the "substance" of the president's excursion generated what can only be described as token interest on the part of the mainstream media.

U.S. politics has long generated massive quantities of spin. Sinclair Lewis's Babbit (1922) memorably satirized the "babbitry" of Main Street USA -- the ways sales pitches and showmanship had seeped into the texture of civic life. Nearly a century later the numbers of people affixed to the political system who hype, lobby, advertise, promote and publicize is staggering. Even now there are consultants, pollsters, policy analysts and professional pols laboring overtime to coin some piece of rhetoric to help explain away the economy, Afghanistan or the Middle East, or to show how this or that Democrat will transmute lead into gold. The fact that millions of Americans more or less see through the hype -- and, for this reason, rely on the BBC, Jon Stewart or the Internet for their news -- does not really matter so long as their disaffection can be spun away, as so much anti-Americanism, especially as long as that growing disenchantment goes unrepresented by a credible and organized political force.


JULIUS JACOBSON, to whom this issue is dedicated, was many things -- editor and essayist, gourmet and machinist, husband and father -- but he was an indifferent publicist and a complete failure as a huckster. "That's a good issue" was about as far as he would go in talking up back copies at the New Politics table at a Socialist Scholars Conference. "It's a nice piece," he would remark appreciatively, referring to something on the order of Marshall Berman's masterful essay on Meyer Schapiro (NP, no. 20), or Stephen Steinberg's widely reprinted dissection of the liberal retreat from race (NP, no. 17). "Try and write something for us," he would tell a prospective author, "we'd be happy to take a look at it." Happy, good, nice: in an era of rhetorical overkill Julie kept it simple.

New Politics was first launched in 1961, at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and when the first stirrings of a younger, newer left could be discerned. While the early issues look quite different from the journal in its current incarnation -- they were smaller, for one thing, with pen-and-ink drawings on the margins -- the underlying formula has changed relatively little. Then as now the magazine offers a forum for debate, discussion and analysis. Instead of laying down a political line for others to follow, the magazine provides space for dialogue, critical reflection and reexamination. New voices, including younger writers as well as authors from other countries, have always been an important part of the mix. And rather than confining itself to a narrow range of political and economic issues, NP has from the outset tried to engage with broader cultural and intellectual trends. In these respects as well as others, the magazine is part of the tradition of New York-based "little magazines" -- personified by the early Partisan Review or Dwight Macdonald's Politics -- that encompass the world of books, ideas and culture as well as politics, policy and political economy.

While over the years New Politics has published articles on a dizzying array of topics, it has always returned to certain core themes. Any reader who has glanced at more than one issue is likely to be aware, for example, that the magazine's editors and contributors take a strong interest in the past, present and future of Soviet-type societies, as well as the workers and students who have periodically rebelled against them. Trade unions, labor relations, working-class militancy and labor history in the United States and abroad -- not to mention the variegated experience of work itself -- are also topics that the journal has taken up time and again. Virtually every issue of the magazine has featured at least one substantive essay on the politics of race and racial oppression, as well as race in relation to the labor movement and the left. In the 1980s and 1990s the magazine began to pay sustained attention to the full range of modern social movements -- from feminism to environmentalism -- as well as innovative parties such as Brazil's Workers Party and the German Greens that grew out of social movement activity. Another theme that has received an extensive airing is that of the malignancy, and contradictions, of U.S. foreign policy. These preoccupations are enough to indicate, in broad strokes, the magazine's political center of gravity -- both what it is against (totalitarianism, imperialism, racism, militarism), and what it is for (democracy, civil liberties, working class empowerment, vibrant social movements).

While we have taken steps to enhance the look of the magazine, and are searching for ways to better promote it, we see no reason to tamper with the template. We happily predict that the new-look New Politics will continue to publish articles on Cuba, China, affirmative action, labor organizing and the administration's plans for regime change in the Middle East. But New Politics will also leave plenty of room for features on the arts, literature and intellectual life. The table of contents for this issue is broadly indicative of both where NP has been, and where it is going. In their low-key, no-spin way, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson have given us an extraordinarily robust model for socialist intellectualism. We proudly affirm their vision.



* "Unemployment among blacks is rising at a faster pace than in any similar period since the mid-1970s, and the jobs lost have been mostly in manufacturing . . . At the same time, jobless black Americans have been unusually persistent about staying in the labor force. Having landed millions of jobs in the booming 1990s, they have continued to look for new ones in the soft economy, and so are counted now as unemployed; if they gave up trying to find work, they would not be counted. These two phenomena help to explain why the black unemployment rate, though still not high by historic standards, is rising twice as fast as that of whites." "Blacks Lose Better Jobs Faster as Middle-Class Work Drops," Louis Uchitelle, New York Times, July 12, 2003. return


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