This is the post I’ve been avoiding. Writing about Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief and part-owner of The New Republic, and his recent comment, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” seemed useless and dispiriting for any number of reasons. For one thing, plenty of others had their say (see here, here, and most prominently here). Additionally, some have defended Peretz (see here and here) on the grounds that, for all his faults, he has been an extremely valuable political and journalistic participant for four decades due to his patronage of the fantastic New Republic. Most importantly, there is not much to say: Unlike when most writers write something objectionable, and you can ask, “Why the hell is that Website publishing that writer?,” well, in this case we already knew the answer: Peretz is the boss, and as anyone with a boss knows—and nearly everybody has a boss—you do what your boss wants.
News, however, that Harvard’s Social Studies Department dropped him as a speaker at its upcoming 50th anniversary celebration forces the issue.
And the issue is this: Despite Peretz’s legalistic retraction (albeit of a different sentence, regarding not extending First Amendment protections to Muslims) and sincere atonement—his Kol Nidre and his Yom Kippur, if you will—this is not the first time he has written something racist, and it isn’t the fifteenth time, either. While I am not sure if this was the best choice of medium, someone has made a Twitter feed documenting the dozens of questionable—no, make that unquestionably out-of-bounds—things Peretz has said over the years. We all publish things we would take back. But the tonnage of these quotations and the consistency of their content demonstrate that Peretz’s insensitivity and bigotry toward Muslims and Arabs (er, and black people) yank him out of the realm of people you should be reading on the subject.
So whom should you be reading? Today Todd Gitlin eloquently argued that Peretz’s latest comment came at exactly the wrong time. “When the margins crawl with insanity,” he wrote, “it is all the more important for the vital center of calm, reasonable, evidence-based thought to hold.” Where is that vital center? You could start with where Gitlin’s essay was published: The New Republic. You could continue with the best thing you will read concerning the Islamic center, which was published in … The New Republic. See my point? It will be a tremendous shame if a reader were to stop taking Peretz’s magazine seriously just because he has (correctly) stopped taking Peretz’s own writing seriously. But even though such a reader would be the one to blame for that decision, I hope Peretz would find it regrettable, and I hope he will do his part to prevent it from happening. In a word: Stop.