The Intellectual Situation
Let Them Eat Print!
Women are the internet, and the internet is women. How else to explain male writers’ terror about taking it with them to the office? Women writers may admit they have a hard time working while online, but for men this appears to be a much more profound issue, and in some cases a hardware problem. (Zadie Smith thanks the internet-blocking application Freedom on the acknowledgments page of her latest book, but she didn’t name an entire novel after it.) Men tear the ethernet cord out of the socket, they hot-glue the socket, they use computers so old they say they were made without a socket. They claim they must avoid the internet so as not to masturbate all over their computers (see “The Porn Machine,” Issue Five). But their stories of covering up and gluing shut suggest that for men the internet is in fact the site of a perverse fear of penetration. They have withdrawn into a cult of the unplugged.
The magazine for these men is not the Atlantic, which treats the internet like a woman and placates it, but Harper’s, which treats the internet like a woman and ignores it. The defining difference is that Harper’s, in the person of publisher Rick MacArthur, doesn’t have to worry about making a living. While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacations.
MacArthur’s grandfather was the billionaire John D. MacArthur; his father became a millionaire in his own right when he started the Bradford Exchange, which makes almost all the world’s collectible ceramic plates, and later purchased the gadget manufacturer Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees reportedly receive discounts at Hammacher Schlemmer; no word if they’re getting deals on ceramic plates.) In 1980, when Harper’s was on the verge of closing, Rick MacArthur used his family’s resources to save the magazine. Today his Harper’s Foundation is its only source of financial support; in 2009, he contributed more than four million dollars to cover the magazine’s losses that year. Even as newsstand sales and ad revenues declined, MacArthur refused to consider any online strategies or allow his foundation to accept money from other donors, who might try to impinge on his reign. He would remain the magazine’s sole benefactor, no matter what the cost.
We heard MacArthur speak at the Columbia Journalism School in February, when he took a trip down memory lane to explain his refusal to put Harper’s online. When MacArthur was a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, thirty years ago, “the copy-desk chief was a brilliant and acerbic man named Tom Moffett. Moffett thought that reporters were lazy wimps . . . and he dared me one day at the Billy Goat Tavern . . . to work for him. Was I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I insisted that I was.”
Permitted to spend six weeks on the copy desk, MacArthur found that Moffett’s “sink-or-swim boot camp for copy-editing and headline writing was brutal.” But he was determined to prove himself an able recruit, and eventually received affirmation from Moffett: he was man enough for the job. But MacArthur didn’t want to be a copy-editor—he just wanted to prove that he could be, that he was not a boy among men—and Moffett, seeming to expect his response, smiled and said, “Someone’s got to keep the ads from bumping into each other.”
From this anecdote, MacArthur drew the following conclusion:
To the extent that commercial newspapers and magazines are advertising catalogs—with writing wrapped around them—they are vastly more effective in purveying commercial messages because with paper, you can’t help bumping into the ads on the way to reading the articles in between. . . . At some point you’ve got to turn off your computer or your iPad, but the mail and the brochures and printed matter just keep coming.
This complete mischaracterization of the nature of daily existence is the basis for MacArthur’s belief that eventually print will triumph over the internet. “In the long run, I think I’ll be vindicated, since clearly the [online] advertising ‘model’ has failed and readers are going to have to pay . . . if they want to see anything more complex than a blog, a classified ad, or a sex act.” (“Sex act!” We can’t help it, the phrase makes us fantasize: MacArthur is prone on a chaise lounge, and he’s not alone. There’s another person in the room, and it’s his analyst, who’s having a field day with that phrase, “sex act.”)
So that’s where the women are: having sex on the internet. We were looking for them, but we couldn’t find them in Harper’s. We saw one there from time to time—Marilynne Robinson or Francine Prose or Barbara Ehrenreich—but almost never together. Harper’s seems to publish twice as many dead men as living women. Since he died, Roberto Bolaño has had nearly as many pieces in the magazine as Smith, who is not only alive but at one point was Harper’s books columnist. (In 2006, then-editor Lewis Lapham realized he would never be able to get enough dead people into Harper’s, so he founded his own magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly: “by and for the dead.”) The July Harper’s featured an article by Albert Camus and a letter by Ernest Hemingway on what it’s like to kill a cat. For those more interested in contemporary affairs, there was an interview with a man who enjoys eating fermented meat.
What else? There are transcripts of trials, pieces of evidence. Short stories about people getting into fights. There are accounts of the moon landing and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. There is masculine preciousness, belles lettres about rough living—an essay about trees and a memoir by an older man from another country. Someone writes an article about “listening for silence.” If you would stop talking I could listen for some silence!
With enough money, you can force the past into the present, or at least hold the future at bay. Harper’s, it turns out, is the Petit Trianon of publishing. Marie Antoinette had her artificially aged cottages and working dairy farm, and MacArthur has his fully operational magazine, which both embodies and celebrates the values of his old Chicago newsroom. At Harper’s, the administrative staff is largely female, the board is entirely male, the writers are almost all male, and the internet barely exists.
It would be one thing if Harper’s nostalgia were only a question of office culture or distribution. But it permeates the pages of the magazine, determining not only the approach to subject matter but what subjects are worthy of being included at all. Although Harper’s circulation is small, its reputation is such that it continues to have a say in what counts, and what subjects are worthy of serious thought by serious people: in other words, what constitutes the nation’s public life—and, by extension, which lives constitute “the public.”
We imagine asking Harper’s, What about women? Their response would probably be, Well, what about women? The voice of Harper’s is pitched so such that the question can only be asked rhetorically. Matters of gender and sexuality do not actually matter. In one of the few instances where they were even raised, when Thomas Frank wrote about abortion in October 2011, the case was actually made that the pro-life movement is ineffective, and that abortion rights are a non-issue. Frank suggests that what happens on the state level just doesn’t matter, because it’s not on the national stage—an argument that willfully overlooks decades of pro-life activism that has strategically and deliberately built the movement state by state, and that this tactic has accounted for much of its growth and many of its victories.
Does Frank not know about states? Of course he knows about states, he wrote a whole book about Kansas! The guy loves states. But this is the Harper’s way, to will things out of existence, to hope if you say it doesn’t matter—whether “it” is women’s status as equal citizens under the law, as autonomous individuals, or if “it” is the entire internet—that it won’t actually matter. And that would be great, because if it doesn’t matter—if the culture wars are just imaginary, ignorable skirmishes, and the internet is only a passing fad—then nobody, and nothing, will ever have to change.