Tuesday, December 20

The Dismal Magazine

I have been meaning to say something about this for some time, but I dare not bore my colleagues with my idiosyncrasies, so I will post here briefly and be done with it.

I am continually disappointed by the fact that the Economist magazine is so wildly popular and influential. Disappointed, but not surprised. It is, superficially, a very appealing publication and usefully summarizes a week's worth of news for someone who doesn't have the time or inclination to read daily papers. Despite these undoubted virtues, there is no magazine I won't reach for on a long-haul flight before the Economist: Field & Stream, People, even Parenting. I know that there must be others who can't bring themselves to wade through its smug editorials (yes, the pot recognizes the kettle), its bien pensant capitalism, the anonymous, Magdalen-cabal uniformity of its worldview, and its recycled business news.

To date, however, I've only ever come across two negative critiques of the magazine. The first was Andrew Sullivan's scathing review in The New Republic in 1999, of which I only recently became aware. This article touches on most of the problems I have noticed, but doesn't quite capture the patronizing smarm that infects both the news and editorials (hardly a clean line to begin with); Sullivan calls it "glib," but that is too tame. The second great naysayer is David Frum, who has written at least twice about the Economist's inept surveys of his home country, Canada. I have not been able to locate his 2000 column, which he alludes to in this 2003 column, but assume it is similar. I can't vouch for the Economist's coverage of other countries (though Sullivan's information on their sparse reportorial coverage doesn't augur much good), but when a magazine so thoroughly botches a report on a subject I know well, it makes me question everything else it publishes.

Or maybe it is just the fact that the magazine is invariably described as "conservative." Capitalist, perhaps, but conservative? For goodness sake, the Economist endorsed John Kerry in 2004, and is unwavering in its opposition to capital punishment and its support of same-sex marriage and open borders. As long as I have known it, the magazine has been socially libertarian and economically pseudo-libertarian. It may have been a useful defender of free-markets during the Cold War, but, by the time I encountered it, it had already drifted from its traditional liberal English position to its current squishy Europeanism. On most cultural issues, and almost anything to do with the United States, the magazine is so wet its pages practically drip condescension. It is largely the prospect of having to read their smug pronouncements on the "torture" tizzy, the Tookie Williams execution, or the canonization of David Cameron that keeps me a safe distance from the Economist.

Frum refers to the Economist as "a magazine that for reasons that elude me may well be the most influential in the English-speaking world. In my opinion, however, the only good thing that can be said about the Economist is that after reading it, I find I don't mind the New York Times nearly so much as I usually do." Sullivan's response, which I parroted to begin this post, provides the elusive answer to Frum's bewilderment: "as a weekly compost of world news and economics, it's hard to beat - a kind of Reader's Digest for the upper classes." The bite in this phrase in unmistakable, but it also betrays a grudging admiration and accurately identifies the magazine's great achievement. It is for this reason that I have no problem with other people reading the Economist--it is usually a good indicator of a curious character and a serious outlook and I would probably be much more knowledgeable about world affairs if I read it. I just can't stomach it. My loss, I suppose.

When I raised this topic with David Frum in an old email, he described his position on the Economist as "fulminating in silence." Such has been my position (give or take the odd half-hearted public objection) until now.

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