(Swans – November 17, 2008) For people trying to understand the bankruptcy of American liberalism, there is probably no better place to start than The Nation magazine. I first began subscribing to The Nation in the 1980s when Reagan was in the White House. As a general rule of thumb, the magazine is more readable when a Reagan or a Bush is president. During the Clinton presidency, The Nation directed most of its fire at “threats” to his presidency from the likes of Newt Gingrich rather than seeing the war on the poor as a joint Democrat-Republican project.
In 2003, after seeing one too many attack on the radical wing of the antiwar movement in the pages of The Nation, I decided to write a rebuttal to what I described as its “tainted liberalism.” My research revealed that from the very beginning, the magazine was hostile to the kinds of grassroots radical movements celebrated in Howard Zinn’s history — especially under the stewardship of the founding publisher and editor E.L. Godkin. In 1978, an unstinting biography of Godkin written by William M. Armstrong appeared but The Nation understandably decided not to review it. After having read Armstrong’s book, I have a much better handle on where the magazine came from.
Like the demented uncle or aunt kept secluded in a Victorian attic, The Nation has kept mum about E.L. Godkin. The last time an article about the founder appeared in its pages was back on July 22, 1950. Written by Columbia University historian Allan Nevins, “E.L. Godkin: Victorian Liberal” is a mixture of fact and fancy. It is notable for its patronizing attitude toward black Americans, a trait strongly identified with The Nation’s tepid brand of abolitionism in the 1860s.
For Nevins, among the tasks confronting Godkin in 1865 was how to deal with “four million ignorant, destitute Negroes.” Along with fellow founding board members including Frederick Law Olmstead (the architect of Central Park), they gathered money to launch a new magazine with the “bewildered black man at heart.” While Nevins was critical of Godkin’s “denunciation” of trade unions seeking an eight-hour day, he was still considered more “truly liberal” than other followers of John Stuart Mill and the Manchester school. Specifically he “desired Washington to do more for the education, economic betterment, and political training of the Negro.” Reading Nevins, one cannot suppress the feeling that he is talking about convicts in need of training programs to help prepare them for life outside of prison.