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Roger D. Hodge: On Obama’s Shamelessness and How to Save Harper’s

February 8, 2011

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HodgeHead.jpgIn a recent email to Roger Hodge, former editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, I wrote that Guernica was interested in his thoughts on the State of the Union address and what to expect from the president over the next two years. However, with the latest public battle raging between Harper’s publisher John “Rick” MacArthur and its unionized staff provoking legitimate fears for the venerable magazine’s future, I also hoped Hodge would take a few questions on that topic as well. His thoughts below amount to his most substantive public statements about his former employer since he was fired just over a year ago. Hodge comments on matters ranging from his suspicions that MacArthur “enjoys the relationship of dependency that his status as exclusive benefactor creates” to his thoughts on what must be done to save “the most beautiful magazine” he knows.

As for the next two years of Obama’s presidency, Hodge responds, in part, “I’d say we all better get used to eating beans and rice, taking a beating on pitted roadways, and getting felt up by security personnel at the airports as Obama uses terrorism scares to keep us all in line.”

—Michael Archer for Guernica

Guernica: What are your thoughts on the current state of Harper’s and its prospects for the future?

Roger D. Hodge: Frankly, I despair for the future of Harper’s Magazine. Although I am grateful for all the money Rick MacArthur has contributed over the years, it’s just not possible to publish a great national magazine in 2011 using a business plan that was devised in 1984. The world has changed; the audience has changed. Harper’s used to be at the heart of the national debate. It was also the most vibrant and exciting literary magazine in the world; nowadays many people don’t even realize that it still exists.

It’s a damn shame. And the story didn’t have to end this way. Harper’s remains a very good magazine—it still publishes excellent journalism and fiction, outstanding literary criticism. And, with the exception of the cover, which has been outsourced, it’s the most beautiful magazine I know. But all those riches are hidden from view. The newsstand industry is dying; direct mail is a failure; the Internet in all its gaudy diversity is the only hope. Contrary to the assertions of Harper’s management, magazines truly are using the web to build circulation. The Nation has a very successful model; the Atlantic, after a long struggle, is turning a profit; Mother Jones is thriving and has raised millions of dollars. There are people out there who know how to use the web to connect with readers. Some of them used to work for Harper’s.

Guernica: What was your take on the union doing its own fundraising to help save staff jobs? On John “Rick” MacArthur’s refusal to take the money?

Roger D. Hodge: Harper’s is owned by a non-profit foundation, the Harper’s Magazine Foundation. As such, it is not only capable of taking charitable donations, it is a corporate form that is designed to take donations. For the last thirty-odd years, the foundation has been a vehicle for MacArthur’s substantial largess, and that is really the crux of the problem. A national treasure such as Harper’s Magazine cannot afford to be dependent on the disposition of one individual, no matter how wealthy he might be. It’s not healthy, and it is not sustainable.

[T]he way to save Harper’s is to exploit the full resources of its non-profit status.

MacArthur has always refused to permit his board, which includes luminaries such as Eric Foner and George McGovern, to raise money for the foundation, though board members have repeatedly offered to do so. One suspects that MacArthur enjoys the relationship of dependency that his status as exclusive benefactor creates.

Guernica: How can Harper’s be saved?

Roger D. Hodge: The editorial staff unionized precisely because they are trying to save the magazine from a failing business model. Most of the senior editors left last year because they couldn’t see a way forward. The editors who remain want a seat at the table; they want to protect the editorial staff, which is the life of the magazine, from damaging cuts.

Now, in a preemptive strike against the labor union, Harper’s has unlawfully fired Ben Metcalf, who has given 17 years of his life to the magazine, and Ted Ross, who has been there for five years. Why them? Ted has young children, and Harper’s offers full insurance coverage for families, so he was a relatively expensive employee. Metcalf, the most senior non-management employee and the most brilliant editor I have ever met, happens to have led the unionization drive.

This conflict illustrates the necessity of labor unions rather neatly. Indeed, this is precisely what labor unions are for: to protect employees from capricious and arbitrary management.

No one owns Harper’s Magazine. It is a trust, a multi-generational American project. Those who have devoted years of their working lives to this project, who have made substantial material sacrifices in order to work there, have as much right to direct the course of its future as does the person who currently signs the checks. A moneyman can be replaced, but if you eliminate the editorial vision you kill the magazine.

More specifically, the way to save Harper’s is to exploit the full resources of its non-profit status; the magazine must raise funds on the web, it must hold galas and auctions and conferences. It must make use of the enormous reservoir of good will that liberal-minded Americans, people who care about independent thinking and writing, who care about literature and the arts, not to mention American history, feel for this institution.

Harper’s, if it is to endure, must harness that affection and diversify its sources of funding. One measure of the fund-raising potential is that prior to a recent bargaining session the Harper’s union raised pledges of more than $50,000 in just four days. MacArthur responded by refusing to accept the donations and then insisted on firing the magazine’s best editor.

MacArthur, by his own admission, hates and fears the Internet; he truly believes that it’s a fad that will eventually pass away. But if Harper’s is to survive, it has to embrace and exploit the full potential of the web as a publishing medium. That doesn’t mean giving it all away, but it does mean being as innovative and creative in developing electronic features and applications as it once was in print. Paul Ford, the creator of Harpers.org, almost single-handedly built an extraordinarily flexible publishing platform for a small fraction of what other magazines have spent on similar technology. Sadly, its potential was never unleashed.

Guernica: Your thoughts on Obama’s State of the Union?

Roger D. Hodge: I thought it was appalling. ”Win the future?” WTF? It was one of the worst speeches I’ve ever seen. And that joke about the pat downs, which he could end with the stroke of a pen, was obscene. Programmatically, it made no sense. As many have pointed out, Obama gestured at a national industrial policy that should have been implemented two years ago while simultaneously pandering to the right with talk of federal spending cuts.

I’d say we all better get used to eating beans and rice, taking a beating on pitted roadways, and getting felt up by security personnel at the airports.

Does Obama really have so little respect for our intelligence? And is he really so ignorant of history? Franklin Roosevelt pursued spending cuts in 1937 and triggered a recession in the midst of a depression. Obama thinks that because corporate profits are breaking records and the stock market has come ”roaring back” he can ignore a foreclosure crisis that has not yet peaked and the millions of unemployed Americans whose stubborn misery gives the lie to obsequious media rhetoric about the comeback kid.

Guernica: You’ve been very critical of Obama in terms of words versus actions. Now that his rhetoric isn’t so lofty, do you see the two more closely mirroring one another? What should we expect to see from the president these next two years?

Roger D. Hodge: Obama always signaled his conventionally corporate views to those who where paying attention. If you re-read the The Audacity of Hope (or read my chapter on it in the Mendacity of Hope) it’s impossible to miss the Rubinite economic agenda or the simple-minded reverence for Ronald Reagan. But, yes, I must say that I prefer the new relatively honest pro-big business Obama to the old stealth Obama who pretended to be a bold progressive even as he bedded down with Jeffrey Immelt and Jamie Dimon.

As for the next two years, I suspect that the Obama people will try to stimulate the economy as much as they possibly can, because they no doubt realize that they’re in trouble over unemployment. This is true significance of Obama’s shamelessness when it comes to corporate America: they’re his only hope. If he can’t convince the big corporations to spend some of that giant pile of cash they’re hoarding, and to give some of it to his campaign, then he’s finished.

Unfortunately for him, and for us, he seems determined to cut federal spending (if not, for the moment, Social Security), and that’s likely to offset whatever crumbs the corporations deign to sprinkle on the frozen ground. With state governments cutting jobs and programs, and the federal government doing the same, I’d say we all better get used to eating beans and rice, taking a beating on pitted roadways, and getting felt up by security personnel at the airports as Obama uses terrorism scares to keep us all in line.

Speaking of security, let us not forget our imperial subjects in the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps we should all devote a moment of silence for the victims of next year’s Predator strikes in Yemen and Waziristan.

Copyright 2011 Guernica Magazine

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Michael Archer is a co-founder and editor of Guernica.

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2 comments for Roger D. Hodge: On Obama’s Shamelessness and How to Save Harper’s

  1. Comment by MerriAnnie on March 7, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    This was written in 2011.

    Now it’s 2014. What is your opinion of Obama, now? Not a trick question. I’m a Democrat. I voted for him twice. I’d do it again.

    Although I agree with some of the things you’ve said, I disagree that Obama was a bad decision when we found ourselves in the voting booth with the choices we had, if that is what you’re saying.

    As for the pitted roads, that’s not at all something within Obama’s ability to do. He has to have the cooperation of Congress. He’s never had it. Some people love to say that he had control over Congress for two years. That’s not true. He had a Senate that did not have to worry about filibusters for exactly 4 months. I can supply a link to a good blog on that point if you want.

    Frankly, I think it’s fine for you to have your own opinion and to express it, but I think it would be better for our country if you expressed your feelings about Obama to his staff. This man has been attacked mercilessly for five years in the most awful way. He’s not perfect. I agree. No president can be perfect, not even for the people who voted for him. Excoriating him from the inside while he’s being cut to pieces from the outside seems wrong to me.

  2. Comment by MerriAnnie on March 7, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    I wanted to also say, all my best wishes for you at the Oxford American. It’s by far my choice in magazines. I’ve been a subscriber since the first issue.

    And that’s how I found this – by researching you online to see what you’re all about.

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