“He used his pen like a carving knife,” psychologist Arien Mack told co-Executive Editor Jim Miller about Irving Howe, the legendary founding editor of Dissent magazine.
With these words, we invite you to leave the world of illness, of darkened classrooms, empty streets and overwhelmed intensive care units. Come with us instead to visit the so-called “New York intellectuals,” a world where Howe, Mack, Richard Hofstadter, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and others wrote, edited, read and debated each other. This was the milieu in which the New School’s flagship journal, Social Research, was reborn under Arien Mack’s direction in 1970. In the featured interview that leads off this week’s issue, you can eavesdrop on a conversation that explores both the history of both Social Research, which Arien Mack has edited for 50 years, and also the intellectual circle whose ideas, magazines, parties, and books lit up Manhattan in the mid-twentieth century.
We think it’s more important than ever to remember that ideas matter, even as we see the deaths and hospitalizations mounting daily in New York. Ideas keep us alive and looking forward when everything is going to hell around us. “We look upon a world that is shifting more quickly than we can consider,” write philosopher Benjamin Davis and historian Jonathan Catlin, as they offer us 12 theses to help us think about our upended world.
In a second essay on the pandemic, economist Teresa Ghilarducci notes the uncommon bipartisan agreement that the federal government must pump money into the economy. “But this rare moment of bipartisanship will turn out to have been a missed opportunity,” she argues, “if it does not also reverse the long decline of worker protections and collective-bargaining power in the United States.” And in a final response to this week’s news, political scientist Peter Dreier pushes back at conservative partisans’ insistence that sacrificing lives to put the United States back to work is necessary to save the economy.
Next, we turn to politics — something that still happens even when all we are talking about is COVID-19. Senior editor Jeff Isaac and his Indiana University colleague William Winecoff express their concern that, as a global health disaster, COVID-19 — like all crises — threatens to destabilize democracy, particularly in the United States as the presidential election looms. “The current situation,” they write, “is a `perfect storm’ of crisis in which our democratic elections are in danger.”
Related to this is the limbo to which the pandemic has reduced the Democratic primary season. This lull, and Joe Biden’s presumptive defeat of Bernie Sanders, has intensified the snarling and sniping on the left. Yet this is a longterm problem for American progressives. In his essay, Todd Gitlin shows how Freud can help us answer the question of why partisans who seem so similar emphasize their differences. Finally, we look at what it means to devote a life to resolving impossible problems: editor Charlotte Slivka interviews George Packer about his new biography of master diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
Once again this week, we introduce you to excerpts from books that have grabbed our interest. In “Female Husbands,” historian and senior editor Jen Manion explores less than two decades at the end of the nineteenth century when women took female husbands. “Never before considered a serious threat in the U.S.,” Manion writes, in these years “the possibility for same-sex marriages between women seemed just on the horizon.” In a second excerpt, senior editor Otto von Busch also explores the nature of desire — for clothes and the feelings that well up when we buy what we want. To master our craving for fashion, von Busch suggests that we embrace fashion as a source of self-knowledge.
In closing, we would like to admit that, although we try to make it look easy, sometimes it’s hard to put out a publication in the middle of a crisis. Compared to the health care workers risking their lives for others, our job is small. Furthermore, each aspect of our day has become exponentially more complicated. Our students have dispersed around the globe, our editorial meetings occur on screens, and each day seems to bring more restrictions as we all do our part to flatten the curve and try to stay healthy.
Yet this is our community. Our pens, we hope, are carving knives, tools that make sense of the world as it was, as it is, and as it will be when this pandemic is through with us.
- Presuming that you own a sewing machine, this is how to make a face mask. (Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, March 31, 2020)
- Streaming plays and musicals from Broadway, via Broadway Direct (March 27, 2020)
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.