The decline of First Things has been fairly well documented. Even before the passing of Richard John Neuhaus, the journal seemed to be cranking its ideological amplification up to 11. Nevertheless, I’ve kept a subscription going for the sake of the occasional witty or insightful article from D.B. Hart or Rusty Reno (when he’s not ranking schools, he’s often got interesting things to say). I’ve consistently disagreed with both the positions and the tones taken in its pages, but frequently in the past found it valuable reading nonetheless.
However, I received my last copy in the mail this week (or sometime while I’ve been away), and I’m quite glad that this will be the end. Apart from Hart’s positive review of Richard Dawkins there’s strikingly little to commend the issue, and much that condemns it. On the cover are three declarative statements announcing three articles within: “Cicero is a Superhero, Pete Seeger is a Communist, Mitch Albom is an Idiot.” I won’t take issue with the first, but both of the other two are simply embarrassing, as are the articles that they announce.
The article on Pete Seeger is a nostalgic trip back to the good old days of McCarthyism, exhorting vigilance against the deep-seated Marxist leanings of the folk-music revival. Neither timing nor relevance are among this articles redeeming qualities, and the author doesn’t provide us with any reason to believe that Pete Seeger’s communism is dangerous. “Communism” is simply raised as a tired old bludgeon to dishonor Seeger’s legacy by eliciting disgust in the reader that something as American as folk-music could be put to the advancement of something so “un-American” as (shudder) “communism.”
Worse is the review of Mitch Albom’s new book, Have a Little Faith. I won’t blame author Ari Goldman for the title on the cover (“Mitch Albom is an Idiot”), over which he may have had little control, but his review largely consists of pedantically proofreading Albom’s book for minute theological and historical errors. While the youth celebrating his bar mitsvah does indeed read off a Torah scroll, not scrolls, publicly exposing the scandal of a false plural mostly comes off as silly.
The stated goal of First Things, as I understand it, has been to encourage civic discourse—and particularly the inextricable role of religion within civic discourse—by providing space for dialogue and raising the intellectual bar on what passes for argument. For some time, it has been questionable whether First Things has actually been a venue for this kind of worthy project, and not simply an soap-box for various flavors of conservatism. But announcing that a particular novelist is an idiot on your cover is emphatically not civic discourse, nor does it demonstrate any kind of moral or intellectual integrity—no matter your actual opinion of the author.
I’m glad that this was my last issue; if it weren’t, this would have been the impetus to pull the plug.