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A Verbal Slugfest of Lefts 'n' Rights : Political Journalists Pull No Punches in USC Sparring

April 17, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

It was a great place to be if you wanted to be insulted, have your virtue questioned or ever wondered if a Marxist's dog could be hired by a university.

The place was the USC campus, where about 100 contentious editors and staffers from about 25 of this country's small, often financially troubled, highly opinionated magazines of politics and culture gathered for a conference that was supposed to be about ways of contributing to their common survival.

Instead, the editors, mostly men and mainly from the East Coast, spent two days in a windowless room locked in a verbal slugfest that re-created the political bouts of recent and not-so-recent times and perhaps illustrated how deep the divisions between left and right are in this country today.

First Punch Thrown

In fact, "A Conference on the Journal of Political Opinion," organized by The Nation in cooperation with USC's journalism school, had barely begun last weekend when the first punch was thrown.

During the first minutes of the first session, Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar, lashed out at what he said was the widely held attitude that continues to find America the root cause of most evil "in a world rife with totalitarian villainy and all kinds of extraordinary political buffoonery."

Epstein went on to say that there is "a new kind of priggery of public virtue that I think has grown up in the country. Years ago prigs would get angry if women smoked, men committed adultery. . . . Nowadays prigs look down upon people for not being in the right position on Nicaragua, being sexist. . . . In any case, all these things and others I have done my best to keep out of the pages of The American Scholar."

Epstein's comments set the tone for the rest of the conference. The formal agenda was frequently ignored as participants leaped into digressions or skidded away on tangents. In the main this meant those on the left attacked Epstein and his supporters for their neo-conservative stands while those on the right accused the liberals and leftists of being close minded and intolerant.

Indeed, Epstein aroused the ire of many when he declared that he would find it easier to get approval to teach a university course on "the writings of Mao Tse-tung than I could on those of Richard Nixon" and that one university was so intent on hiring a Marxist scholar that "if he'd had a dog, they would have offered the dog a job."

Marxism Versus Rock

Robert Chrisman of The Black Scholar replied that "Marxism is not some kind of fad like punk rock or androgyny" and that "we might ask ourselves why a significant portion of the academic community is interested in alternatives to mainstream capitalist culture."

Irving Louis Horowitz, editor of Society, told Epstein that The American Scholar magazine is often so trendily political "that only a Neanderthal could miss it."

And Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy, chided Epstein for comparing Nixon and the late Chinese communist leader. "Nixon wrote a couple of books but created no movement, while Mao was the leader of a movement that continues to affect a quarter of the world's people," he said. "You need a better example than that."

So it went for two days--with variations. Sometimes one editor accused another of being a CIA dupe or advocating a revolution that would require "the liquidation" of part of his own staff. To which was replied, "We have not liquidated the literary editor."

Pride in Insults

Some took pride in the insults leveled against them. "I'm just as repulsive now as I was then," said Hilton Kramer of The New Criterion after being lambasted for his longtime advocacy of traditional, non-Marxist cultural criticism.

Even areas that seemed to be neutral became grounds of dispute.

For instance, there were long discussions about the pursuit of money at these financially beleaguered magazines, whether liberal or conservative. But these were often punctuated by speeches about the virtue of scorning advertising in favor of total independence.

Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly commented more than once that his policy is to remain "a poor eccentric." This stance gives him complete editorial freedom although "it does involve exploitation of labor," he added wryly.

Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, said that magazine ownership is frequently an index of its editorial courage. "Despite the fact that many of the leading examples of the disadvantages of being owned by a rich eccentric (at this conference) happen to involve my particular employer, I would still vote for the rich eccentric over the foundation any day, for this reason: A rich eccentric has very strong views . . . but the trouble with a foundation (as a magazine owner) is that their highest goal is likely to be to avoid trouble."

Magazine Chided

His comments came after his magazine had been chided by Peters for rejecting an article about the tobacco industry while it continues to accept cigarette advertising.

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