So Long, Farewell: The Weekly Standard

Adieu, then, to the Weekly Standard, which is to close.

There is no point in blaming the new political climate for the magazine’s collapse. That was the decision of its owners – a decision clearly taken deliberately and even keenly. John Podhoretz calls it a ‘murder’, not a closure – but then, he would. (The former Weekly Standard film critic then invites its late subscribers to jump ship to Commentary, which he edits; but it’s not wise to read too much into his words. After all, he would do that, too.)

It seems pertinent, at this moment, to look back not at the magazine’s long history and its place in the imagined firmament of American letters (openly, proudly, unashamedly ‘conservative’ or not), but rather its recent output, and whether it could have – and ought to have – survived on its own merits.

The case seems important to make.

It has been widely commented that the Standard employed a range of writers of real quality and originality, people whose thoughts and columns were ‘worth the price of subscription alone’. Such things are often said about shuttering publications; and fellow writers – especially those who work in journalism, acutely cognisant of the transience, unseriousness and pettiness of their own genre – can be tediously sentimental. Hence the need to elevate other writers in the same vein to the status of immortals, to populate the pantheon while such people are very much earthbound.

The Standard’s greatest talents will not lack for work. Andrew Ferguson, who wrote one of the better recollections of George H. W. Bush after the former president’s recent death, won’t suffer.

Anyone who can so gleefully put in the hours as Ferguson, surveying Trump-Russia titles in a panorama of the pulpy political books populating the best-seller lists titled “The Groaning Shelves” (his ‘TV books, dog-eared and spine-cracked, … back in the book bag, destined for Goodwill, assuming Goodwill will have them’) will do just fine.

In a recent essay on the enduring 1960s, Ferguson noted ‘one of history’s little jokes: Though famous for sexual liberation, the baby boomers were the last generation in which nearly every girl was expected to learn how to sew’. A little joke perhaps on the same scale is that Ferguson is of a generation of hacks which is – because of its hard-acquired skills and sporadic name-recognition (anyone unknown after so many years would have given up by now) – better able to weather the near-death events digital media brings upon us with regularity than any open-plan office full of Brooklyn freelancers.

Another irony: Matt Labash, an old-style magazine writer with that occupation’s best traits, a man who is notably ‘not on Twitter’ (as we must still say) has produced some of the most of-the-moment journalism of our age of Donald Trump; his essay “A Beating in Berkeley” provides one of the only denunciations of the violence of anti-fascist activists which doesn’t feel phoned-in and rote-learnt in an age where the Republican and broader Right dictionary appears to begin, not with aardvark, but with ‘Antifa’.

The piece contains what might be considered standard Labash observational humour.

‘I meet up with Joey and his ever-present sidekick, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, in front of their budget hotel on San Francisco’s Lombard Street’, Labash writes.

‘Joey doesn’t look so much half-Japanese as like a Latino gang-banger, in head-to-toe black (including his Patriot Prayer T-shirt), with generous arm ink. Tiny, you might have guessed, is named ironically.’ Tiny, Labash notes, is ‘a 6′6″, 345-lb. Samoan. His favorite food, he says, “is food.” Grabbing a bear-paw’s worth of his own flesh, he says, “I ain’t fat, I’m stab-resistant.”’

All this makes the essay’s conclusion land with more of a crunch. Labash describes not only the violence, but also its radicalising effects. He notes the effect it has had on him, in any case. ‘I will go home that night and watch several more cold-blooded beatdowns on YouTube that I didn’t personally witness.’

What Labash did witness includes seeing ‘Joey [Tiny’s ward] … discharged, wearing doctor scrubs and socks, holding his clothes and shoes in a plastic bag, completely saturated with bear and pepper spray. They had to scrub him down in the shower for an hour to get it off, his skin burning all the while.’ By this point, Labash is in deep. ‘I’ve taken the wheel of the Toyota, with Tiny sleeping in the cramped back seat after injuring his ribs. He insists they’re not broken, but his forehead is clammy, and he’s cold sweating.

‘I tell my battle-weary subjects I’ll treat them to dinner and drinks after their ordeal, but we’re getting the hell out of Berkeley’, Labash writes — ‘as I honestly don’t trust that they won’t be attacked again, here in the cradle of the Free Speech Movement, if somebody spots them.’

Coming across the sort of protestors who don’t cover their faces and don’t hit people, Labash doesn’t merely disagree with the side it could be argued they were taking; he says openly ‘I want to vomit on the Berkeley Peace Wall’.

It’s not great objective reportage. But it stands up better than other examples of its type – demonstrating that what we call ‘polarisation’ is a physical, visceral phenomenon for some, while others can be talked into it, or, as Ferguson showed earlier, read enough ‘TV books’ written without a sense of irony to induce a separate but connected mania.

The Standard will be missed keenly for a time, but it will not endure in memory with the fondness felt for long-lost journals of a similar orientation. Partisan Review had George Orwell’s letters from London; Encounter had everyone. The Standard enjoyed Podhoretz – John, not Norman – going off-script and coming off all self-aware about Tom Cruise.

Its writers will survive, one hopes – both literally and literarily. And one can only wish them all the success they deserve. So long, farewell, goodbye.

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