When Intellectuals Had a Real Magazine: Viva Lingua Franca!

Time to rewrite the history of contemporary journalism? Most recent discussion of that history has been about the New Journalism,

Time to rewrite the history of contemporary journalism? Most recent discussion of that history has been about the New Journalism, the New New Journalism, memoir fictionalizing and “truthiness” in general.

Important, but something’s been happening that somehow hasn’t been given due recognition: the rise of a revivified “journalism of ideas,” writing about thinking.

Not thinking as in punditry, but thinking about fundamental things, those things that run deeper than political allegiances and positions: thinking about the nature of human nature and human society, the nature of the cosmos, the nature of the mind itself (thinking about factors that underlie all politics). The kind of writing about ideas that once found a home at a now-dead magazine called Lingua Franca and has since—with the assistance of many talented Lingua Franca alumni, both writers and editors—succeeded in changing the face of serious journalism for the better.

I had always been a fan of the magazine, have written about its life and death in these pages, but I think it’s now possible to say, more than four years after its death, that its influence has outlasted its life. But perhaps not forever. Which is why I have a modest proposal that I hope will, at the very least, change the face of journalism-school education.

You recall Lingua Franca, don’t you? Fewer and fewer do, although if you ask some of the best and brightest editors and writers at the dwindling number of serious magazines and periodicals around these days, you’ll probably find Lingua Franca in his or her past. (To avoid the charge of being self-serving here, I should mention that I have never had anything published in Lingua Franca, although the magazine died with me owing them a story I hadn’t completed.)

It was a monthly magazine (founded in 1990 by Jeffrey Kittay) about the clash of ideas in literature, politics, history and philosophy, controversies that would otherwise be obscured within ivory towers, written for the educated, but not necessarily academic, reader. It soon became a much-talked-about phenomenon inside and outside academia, first under the editorship of Judith Shulevitz and Margaret Talbot, and then later Alexander Star and Emily Eakin.

It spanned a decade when journalism had lost its sense of purpose in the swamp of celeb and gossip obsession, certainly lost a sense that it was possible to write about ideas in a way that was both extremely smart and even fun to read: in a way that was lucid, lively and escaped the straitjacket of opaque academic jargonizing to get to the heart of the matter.

How best to describe Lingua Franca in the evolution of contemporary journalism? I used to say, when I taught a few courses at the Columbia and N.Y.U. J-schools, that the mantra of 70’s journalism was “Follow the money”—and while that’s still an important task, even more important for journalists these days is to follow the ideas: challenge the certainties of conventional wisdom; report on the conflicts over ideas, the hidden agendas, the reasons people are drawn to looking at the world in a certain way, and what other purposes those theories serve; give voice to dissenting, unorthodox views; trace the influences, say, of arcane philosophies on the debates over war and peace.

Until then, much writing about ideas had been one-sided and polemical, pushing positions. LF gave you the conflicts, the pushback.

Lingua Franca writers and editors managed to do it through the people behind the ideas without dumbing them down, without reducing ideas to merely the personal agendas behind them, and without, on the other hand, ignoring the fact that there could be interesting personal or subtextual reasons why partisans in a controversy choose their positions. It conveyed the excitement of the intersection of the personal and the ideological and philosophical with insight and skepticism.

And so a lot of Lingua Franca thinking about the way to write about ideas has found a place in the best periodicals today (including this one, needless to say), and in more specialized places like The Chronicle of Higher Education, and in the kind of essays linked to on the Web site Arts & Letters Daily (aldaily.com).

BUT IS THE LEGACY OF LINGUA FRANCA and the journalism of ideas secure? Let me tell you about two recent incidents that raised the question.

The first took place when I was the guest speaker at a history-of-literary-journalism class at Hunter College, taught by one of my former Columbia J-school students, Harry Bruinius, who has published a remarkable first book, just out from Knopf, called Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity. A book that is a model of the best sort of journalism of ideas, being an impressively researched and well-thought-out cultural history of the horrible crimes committed in the name of an idea—eugenics—that fraudulently posed as a science.

Mr. Bruinius has kind words to say in the acknowledgments. He’d told me how he left the Divinity School at Yale to become a journalist after reading something I’d written for The New Yorker. (Another soul for my Dark Lord Satan! Divinity School for journalism!) I’m sure his success was achieved despite me and my class (he was a Lingua Franca reader, after all), but nonetheless, I felt some pride in having had such a student.

His class was full of smart people with good questions. I had focused a brief talk on the evolution in my own work of writing about ideas. Anyway, at one point I asked the class whether any of them had heard of Lingua Franca. I didn’t see any hands raised. But who could blame them? It wasn’t available.

Indeed, a lot of innovative magazines die, leaving behind an influence but not much of a memory. Believe me, I’ve worked for several, including Jonathan Larsen’s New Times and Jane Amsterdam’s Manhattan, inc. (magazines that include this paper’s editor as an alumnus).

And did you ever hear of [MORE], the magazine of media criticism founded by J. Anthony Lukas, Richard Pollak and David Halberstam? A pioneering effort that lasted from the early to the late 70’s? I recently got an e-mail from Jack Shafer, who writes media criticism for Slate. He was reading back issues of [MORE] in the Library of Congress and noticed I’d briefly been executive editor. The Library of Congress: the elephants’ graveyard of dead mags.

The second inciting incident, as they say, was the arrival shortly thereafter of an e-mail from the writer Rick Perlstein announcing that he had a Web site (rickperlstein.org). And, in what seemed to me a generous gesture, he added that his Web site designer, Aaron Swartz, a 19-year-old whiz kid, had set up a site that “mirrored” the entire online contents of Lingua Franca’s long-dead Web site: linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org.

I asked Mr. Perlstein if the mirror site had been his idea, since he’d written for Lingua Franca. No, he said, the 19-year-old tech whiz—who must have been 15 when Lingua Franca died—had been a fan of the magazine and did it on his own. I think the kid has a future. So here’s his Web site address as a way of thanking him for putting it up and then, when I requested it, making it simpler to navigate: www.aaronsw.com.

When I first looked at the mirror site (an effort at cyber-preservation), it was hard to navigate, but by blind luck, I came to a page that featured the May/June 2001 issue.

Here are some of the stories featured on the page: “Marxist Literary Critics Are Following Me! How Philip K. Dick betrayed his academic admirers to the FBI” (by Jeet Heer). I remember it, a perfect synthesis of theory and pop culture, literature and ideology.

Jim Holt, my favorite writer on philosophical questions, contributed a brief but characteristically provocative essay on wishing you’d never been born.

Then there was a link to The Sokal Hoax, the high point of Lingua Franca’s fame. They had published the physicist Alan Sokal outing himself as the author of a parody of postmodernist “critique” of science, written with such a precise ear for the arcana of jargonic touchstones (despite being deliberately nonsensical and scientifically inaccurate) that the academic journal which published it didn’t recognize it as a parody. The Sokal Hoax triggered a much-needed debate on the question of sense and sophistry in postmodern “Theory” exposition. (The mirror-site link referred to a book of essays in response to the hoax.) It was an act of journalistic daring and a landmark in the intellectual history of, well, intellectuals in America: the question of whether the culture has a common language.

Then I clicked on a link to LF’s 10th-anniversary list of its favorite articles, including “Who Owns the Sixties?” by Rick Perlstein, and another one that led to an emblematic Pynchon Maze: Scott McLemee’s “Invisible, Inc.: For decades, Thomas Pynchon has completely hidden himself from the world. Or has he?”

Needless to say, I immediately clicked on it, only to find a Pynchonesque message: “We are unable to locate the page you requested. The page may have moved or may no longer be available.”

Not only is Pynchon’s own location a mystery, but the article that describes his unavailability seemed to be unavailable (although the newly installed search engine I requested will help you find it). Mr. McLemee now has his own blog (http://www.mclemee.com/id4.html).

The Pynchonian Cheshire Cat act on the mirror site is hard to resist as a metaphor for the disappearance of the actual Lingua Franca and the reappearance of its sensibility in other guises and other titles. A metaphor and an inspiration for my modest proposal.

Here’s where the J-schools of America should come in: Spend a little money to make all of Lingua Franca’s archives available in a user-friendly, non-mirrored form that would do justice to its writers’ rights as well. And make it the subject of a course, or courses. Really, there’s a whole J-school education in the sophisticated kind of writing about ideas in those issues.

Students would get more than their money’s worth of exorbitant J-school fees if they were just told by instructors to read Lingua Franca all year and attend periodic seminar reviews of what they’d learned from specific stories.

Mirrored or not, Lingua Franca mirrors one face of American journalism that needs more exposure than the one the public sees now. When Intellectuals Had a Real Magazine: Viva Lingua Franca!