“Art always was, and is, a force of protest of the humane against the pressure of domineering institutions.” Theodor Adorno
Substitute “journal of opinion” for the word “art” in Adorno’s quote (selected by the author to conclude his manuscript) and one has, in a nutshell, the rationale for Victor Navasky’s life’s work. Part autobiography, part business history, with plentiful doses of politics, philosophy, humor, and practical advice thrown into the mix, he jokingly calls the memoir a “How-Not-To” book. Nevertheless, Navasky takes pride in The Nation’s relative health under his stewardship. While the book contains no subtitle, the original working title was “Reflections on the Role of the Journal of Opinion in the Age of Electronic, Conglomerated, Transnational Communications.” It could have been subtitled “The Making of a Successful Liberal Entrepreneur.”
Surprisingly, A Matter of Opinion contains little mention of modern politics, but one can always find that in The Nation itself. While liberalism has supposedly lost its luster, Navasky makes no apologies for his viewpoints. The grandson of Russian Jews, he attended progressive schools that put on assemblies featuring folksingers of the caliber of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The antifascist, Spanish Civil War songs he listened to stirred his soul. At Swarthmore, Navasky wrote an article ridiculing his college’s Victorian dormitory visitation policy. Satire became an outlet for channeling his anger or disgust at the inequalities and absurdities of modern life.
Drafted in 1954, Navasky moonlighted for the 53rd Infantry News in Alaska. The Anchorage Daily News editor got him credentials for the 1956 Democratic convention, and there he witnessed corporations co-opting the press corps with free food, drinks, and other sundries. Navasky was attending Yale Law School when liberal anticommunist Joseph L. Rauh spoke at Yale about ten things wrong with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Rauh was upset to learn that the sponsoring group, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC) allowed so-called Reds on its board and disparaged the organization from the podium. Navasky’s favorite law school professor, Thomas Emerson, rose to defend the ECLC.
Not counting law review articles, Navasky’s first publication (in Frontier magazine, which The Nation later absorbed) took a California court to task for ruling against comedian Jack Benny’s spoof of the film Gaslight (1944), titled Autolight. Navasky’s point was that parody should not be confused with plagiarism. He then helped launch Monocle, whose motto was: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” One of its parodies took the form of the board game Monopoly, the object being to advance from a log cabin to the White House. Navasky opted to channel his creative energies into keeping the satirical “rag” afloat rather than practice law, putting out occasional “Emergency Bulletins” on issues of the day. “Ink for Jack” chided President John F. Kennedy for reneging on promises to end public housing segregation “with the stroke of a pen.”
During a New York newspaper strike, Monocle produced parodies of the Post, called the Pest, and the Daily News, called the Dally Noose. The staff turned down as too trenchant a Ralph Nader piece in which a fictitious automaker rationalized the policy of planned obsolescence to stockholders. Although Kennedy’s assassination set back political humor, Monocle supported a mock-1964 Republican candidacy against Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who had opposed the Civil Rights Bill banning segregation in public places, based on the Republican Party’s platform of a hundred years before. While researching Kennedy Justice (about Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), published in 1971, Navasky free-lanced on related subjects for The New York Times Magazine and in 1970 became an in-house editor.
Clearly uncomfortable maintaining a pretense of neutrality, the self-described “left-liberal” chafed when editors forbade the characterization of Judge Julius Hoffman ordering Black Panther leader Bobby Seale manacled during the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial as “brutal,” even though they had approved the word when applied to an Afghanistan warlord. He quipped: “One’s ability to tell the truth was inversely proportional to one’s distance from West Forty-third Street [Times headquarters].” After managing to shepherd into print Merle Miller’s “On Being Different: What It Means To Be a Homosexual,” he left to...
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