The following is a series of posts from the PollittViews Forum of ZNet. These forums are public and participatory. This exchange is between Katha Pollitt of the Nation, who “hosts” this forum, and Michael Albert of Z Magazine, who “hosts” ZNet itself. Accessing the forums, to participate in the exchanges, can be done via the Messages section of ZNet.
This particular exchange began just after the late October Media and Democracy Congress, with a question from Albert, and progressed from there.
The indented italicized material in any post, with the >> at its outset, is quoted from the prior post. This is typical forum practice, to facilitate folks following the discussion.
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Katha, I didn’t get a chance to speak with you at the congress, regrettably… But I wonder how you felt about it. Both generally, and specifically the Nation panel you participated on?
As I say in my upcoming column, I don’t think criticism of the mainstream media — for being corporate etc — gets us very far. I would have liked to see more of a discussion of our own alternative media — something we can actually do something about. Basically, I think the Congress is wishy washy and pointless, except as a way for a few people to extract money from foundations. As for that panel, I thought it was pretty silly. I felt sorry for Walter isaacson, the editor from Time, who I thought was set up to be Mark Crispin Miller’s whipping boy. That dumb business with the posters, for example (a poster for the movie twister, and one of Time’s cover on tornadoes) — who cares if Time promotes the occasional Warner Brothers film? The best thing I saw at the Congress was Arthur Dong’s documentary Licensed to Kill, about men in prison for murdering gay men. It was great journalism — hope you all get a chance to see it someday.
>> As I say in my upcoming column, I don’t think criticism of the >mainstream media — for being corporate etc — gets us very far.
Particularly when we take no lessons re our own choices from their failings.
On opening day I was at a session that Ham Fish was doing for folks about money and institution building. Bad enough that someone from an operation with a budget 100 times as large as most of those in the audience was telling them how to get money; bad enough that some of the advice was plausibly wrong even for a large organization much less for those listening; worse that Fish offered not a single comment about the ills of the role of money in institution building, such as the way it elevates some to virtually dictatorial power due to their contacts, etc (no surprise this was left out), but — here is what blew me away — at one point he acknowledged that the Nation happens to be a for profit institution and has a bunch of investors. But, he notes, it doesn’t really make a profit and there is no implication for its policies or editorial content arising from the existence of these investors. Then, not two minutes later, he notes that the lead investor right now happens to be Victor Navasky (also publisher and editor), and no one even stops to think that, well, maybe the financial dependence of the Nation does, in fact, have some impact on what it looks like and how it works, etc. Amazing.
>>I would have liked to see more of a discussion of our own alternative media — something we can actually do something about.
Yes, Z’s panel, for what it was worth, was called what makes alternative media alternative — with an eye toward trying to determine some norms or values that we are striving for, that we could work to meet better, that we can use for self-criticism and improvement, and so on. (I wonder if you have had a chance to see the article by the same name that I did in the October issue, and if you have any reactions to it.)
There were other sessions as well, with constructive content, I think. But without doubt the larger organizations and institutions have (a) the resources and clout to set the overall agenda and tone, so to speak, and (b) a different agenda.
>>Basically, I think the Congress is wishy washy and pointless, except as a way for a few people to extract money from foundations.
Actually, I think very little fund raising happens. other than IAJ which funds itself based on the event…essentially, I believe–I guess that is what you are referring to.
>>As for that panel, I thought it was pretty silly. I felt sorry for Walter isaacson, the editor from Time, who I thought was set up to be Mark Crispin Miller’s whipping boy. That dumb business with the posters, for example (a poster for the movie twister, and one of Time’s cover on tornadoes) — who cares if Time promotes the occasional Warner Brothers film?
Here I think we disagree.
I can’t even conceive of feeling sorry for Isaacson in such a context — and I am not sure quite what you mean by that. On the other hand, I thought that our side of the debate was horrible.
Miller’s supposed coup with the covers was utter silliness, I agree. But had he presented covers leading up to the Gulf War describing Hussein as having a military that would crunch us, to rev up the public despite it being complete nonsense, and then the reality, and so on and so forth, it might well have been more effective. Or had he said in the past ten yours your 500 covers have included n about movies, and q about personalities, and so on and so forth, and none about corporate structure, or whatever, it would have been effective. Or had he done that with column inches devoted to all manner of different content, and so on.
Or if he had asked whether the phrase “the U.S. invasion of Vietnam” has appeared in Time from 1960 to now, and if not (as it hasn’t I believe) why not, it might have been instructive.
But I hope you won’t take offense at this: what about you and Hitchens? Hitchens gave every appearance of being merely on display, sort of like a preening prima donna, I guess I would have to say. And while you appeared serious and interested in being both sensible and responsible…just like Hitchens and Miller, in all honesty I didn’t get the feeling that you had prepared very much.
Maybe I am missing something in all this — though I have to say that virtually everyone I spoke with (which is mostly my circles, I admit) had similar reactions.
Here is the editor of Time on stage for a debate about media that will be recorded, filmed, quoted, etc. So the exchange will impact 1,000 or so people in the audience, and then affect others far more widely, as well.
I asked a number of folks I know and respect, how would they have prepared if participating in such an event — myself included — and the answer was always pretty much the same. More or less: I would have scoured Time for the year, and even for the past ten years, accumulating evidence to make a compelling case re the nature of its information agenda and its content and the relations of these to its corporate structure and purpose.
And isn’t that the obvious task on such a panel: to convey a clear conceptualization of how mainstream media works, and of its general results, exemplified by Time’s practice, and to put it to Isaacson and have his inability to refute a word of it as strong evidence ever after for the case?
What I could not understand, therefore, and again with all respect because maybe I am just missing something — was how a set of three leftists could sit up there and say so little of substance about media and almost nothing consequential about Time itself…how, in short, they could bring so little preparation to the event and therefore let Isaacson off so easily.
I don’t know Miller. Hitchens was no surprise — for him I guess it was a super cocktail party or something. But I was surprised you weren’t able to accomplish more. Perhaps it was simply that the context was stultifying.
I don’t mean to sound critical of you– that isn’t the issue. I think it is somehow the whole ethos or mood or something at fault. Leading to results like this. I found it very sad, I think, is the right word.
Finally, did you attend the Pacifica session? If so, did you have any reactions to that?
Actually, this is a reply to Michael Albert, but it was too hard to to erase and save the relevant bits of his long posting about the Congress.
1. Re your comments about the Nation’s financial structure. I don’t know too much about this, and I can well believe that Ham Fish was annoying. However: in my opinion, every form of ownership has its effect, great or small, on the literary product. this is true of Time; it is true of The Nation; and it is true of Z. the Nation has never made a profit (last year the deficit was 900,000) and it never will. But it is Victor’s baby, and to a lesser extent Katrina’s, and it reflects their priorities.
You’ve never told us how Z is financed (I always thought it was started with Lydia’s inherited wealth, but maybe that’s just gossip) but Z is your and Lydia’s magazine, and reflects the priorities of you and her. You publish yourselves constantly, for example (something VN and KVH do not). As publishers-editors-writers, you are insulated from rejection, competition , criticism, and from having to answer to investors or donors or higher-ups. Don’t tell me none of that affects the contents of Z! That’s okay by me — it’s your magazine, as I say — but I really wish you would stop being so pious about Z, as if everyone but you had low motives and bad politics.
2. As for your comments on the panel. In my view, the point of the panel was not to “get” Time magazine, which everyone in that room surely knows is a conservative rag full of lies and distortions — although naturally I wished Mark Miller had focused on the magazine’s politics instead of its movie promotions. I thought the point of the panel was to discuss the media more generally, and maybe even to make some points that the audience had not already thought of.And not to speak of my own performance, I thought Christopher was very good. I disliked the panel because I thought it was set up to be too middle of the road — with Bill Moyers and all. I didn’t want to be on it in the first place, and it was only because I made a huge scene that Christopher was added at the last minute. I prepared quite a bit, by the way — just not the way you would have. Well, maybe next time they’ll ask you.
I am sorry to go on at length in this reply. I know your time is pressed, like everyone’s, and will understand if you can’t continue at such length. But these issues are quite important, I think, and you asked some questions as well, so…it took some space to respond.
>>1. Re your comments about the Nation’s financial structure. I don’t know too much about this, and I can well believe that Ham Fish was annoying. However: in my opinion, every form of ownership has its effect, great or small, on the literary product.
True enough. And doesn’t it follow that it is up to us to try to discern what kinds of ownership relations, and divisions of labor, etc., will make our organizations more successful and effective, and what kind will hamper them from accomplishing what we desire?
>>This is true of Time; it is true of The Nation; and it is true of Z. the Nation has never made a profit (last year the deficit was 900,000) and it never will. But it is Victor’s baby, and to a lesser extent Katrina’s, and it reflects their priorities.
I think the impact of the financial relations, or of something anyhow, goes well beyond the magazine’s reflecting priorities…
Rather, the Nation has an internal organizational structure that resembles, almost to a T, that of typical corporate media institutions, with divisions of labor and circumstance at work (even office space), income differentials, power differentials, and even both upward and downward facing hostilities, following typical class norms…
Does the impact of this on daily life at the Nation as well as on Nation business and editorial policies impact the extent to which the Nation is able to comprehend and address economic and class issues generally? If ownership and corporate organizational structure has effects on Time and the New York Times, surely they will for the Nation and Z too, I think we agree. So it seems to me that thinking about this, particularly for our projects where we can relatively quickly alter structures, if we choose to, makes good sense.
Let me ask it this way….
I think that there hasn’t ever been much coverage and discussion (perhaps even so much as a single article), in the Nation (and not only the Nation, to be sure) re the different work situations of “intellectual” or “managerial” workers on the one side, and working class workers on the other side, and the implications this has for decision making in institutions generally and especially institutions on the left. Is this absence because this topic is intrinsically uninteresting? Or could it be because the Nation’s structure and culture pretty much preclude noticing or giving credibility and attention to such matters?
Another route to the same issue: There is a new publishing house, Arbeiter Ring, connected to some other associated projects — including a bookstore cafe, meeting center, etc. — in Winnipeg Canada. This new undertaking emphasizes organizing the work people do without creating hierarchies of reward, circumstance, and empowerment effects, and in ways that facilitate making decisions democratically so that each actor impacts decisions that affect them roughly in proportion to the degree they are affected. I wonder whether, over the next year, the Nation (or the Progressive, or MJ, or whoever) is likely to run an article about this innovative set of projects, contrasting it, say, with other projects that take a more typical approach to organization, and discussing the merit of the different approaches re fiscal efficiency, workplace culture and participation, quality of product, and so on.
One can and should of course ask similar questions about gender hierarchies in our institutions and their impact on content, or race hierarchies in our institutions and their impact on content. And, yes, I agree with you that one can ask these types of questions in a counter productive finger-pointing manner, or that one can ask them, instead, to find possibilities for improvement. If I have done the former, I apologize. But even if I have, it would have little bearing on the substantive structural issues…
>>You’ve never told us how Z is financed (I always thought it was started with Lydia’s inherited wealth, but maybe that’s just gossip) but Z is your and Lydia’s magazine, and reflects the priorities of you and her.
Actually this has been publicly described, by me and Lydia, often, including our budgets, priorities, aims, failures, etc.
From memory, some details may be marginally off…but…
About twenty years ago Lydia received, unexpectedly, about $60G from her father. Before that she had been disowned. So the gift, out of the blue, was a kind of, “okay, we will now talk to you again and assuage our guilt for exiling you” payment….
Most of the money went into SEP, directly and by becoming collateral for loans, to start it. Despite the “investment,” Lydia never had any better office, different work situation, more power, or different remuneration at SEP than anyone else. She didn’t own SEP, didn’t have different or more say in votes, did every kind of work everyone else did, (at the highest end of self exploitation, in fact) and so on. SEP reflected her values and aims and desires due to the work she did and votes she had, only. She lost as often as anyone else, in internal votes about books, etc. (If SEP had been dependent on a continuing stream of money from her — which didn’t exist, so it couldn’t be — she would not have operated in SEP since then it would be hard, whatever the structure, to preclude people bending their wills to ensure her continued favor for the project. This, of course, is the dynamic that so often raises those who continually supply or raise funds to dominating positions in left projects.) I might add, the whole logic I have been proposing makes clear that there is nothing really to brag about in the above. It is, as conditions permitted, consistent with our anti-corporate, anti-classist values — often regrettably hard to implement — no more no less. (Bragging rights would go to everyone who worked at SEP so hard and so long, arguably, just like for any other movement project.)
Anyhow, ten years after SEP was born Lydia and I broke off to begin Z (Alright, I admit, when I look back over the years I do think that the choice to do that, risks and all, particularly making no attempt to cling to power over SEP based on our prior involvement there, was somewhat unusual and remains something I take considerable pride in, though many others thought it was just plain stupid.) Anyhow, the funds that were collateralizing loans, plus some “repayment” from SEP, was together used, now for a second time, to fund a new institution. It was about $40G, I think, that got Z going. (These are actually piddling funds for making new institutions, of course. By contrast, for example, not too long after we began Z, some folks who actually have financial connections and means thought it might be a good idea to do a kind of left review of books and culture–I think it was. They spent about $300G, I think was the figure, doing a mock up, some research and market testing, etc., and then simply gave up.)
Z’s staff is only Lydia, me, and Eric, Lydia’s son. We started Z by using the available monies noted above to finance mailings, then the revenues from the first mailings to finance new mailings, and so on, in a kind of bootstrap process. It worked, at least to the degree that Z exists, etc. But in Z, clearly, the issues of internal hierarchy don’t come into play in any meaningful sense since there are only the three of us on staff.
>>You publish yourselves constantly, for example (something VN and KVH do not). As publishers-editors-writers, you are insulated from rejection, competition, criticism, and from having to answer to investors or donors or higher-ups. Don’t tell me none of that affects the contents of Z! That’s okay by me — it’s your magazine, as I say — but I really wish you would stop being so pious about Z, as if everyone but you had low motives and bad politics.
Katha, you are correct that we are the decision makers at Z. Has anyone ever said otherwise? You are also correct that we do not have to answer to donors, investors, or other higher ups–though obviously we are subject to rejection, criticism, and competition from other directions–such as reviews, readers, contributors, and so on. Is this supposed to be some debit of our approach? What it says, I think, is that, yes, the ones doing the work are making the decisions.
We three are Z’s entire staff. We do all the work, from opening envelopes to paying bills, to preparing articles, to cleaning up. We also keep the mailing list data base, etc. in house. We think our setup is sensible, efficient, frugal, etc. Others think it is a sign of dementia. But the more important point is, if we had the means to hire more people there would still be no workplace class hierarchy, as there wasn’t at SEP. We think this is the right way to build left institutions, media or otherwise. There are others, however, who think that removing class hierarchies of reward and power is hippie nonsense, etc. So it isn’t a question of the morals of some individuals, but the principles that ought to guide our work. SEP’s staff does everything, of course, just as the Nation’s staff or any staff does — but at SEP the tasks are accomplished without differentiation into secretaries and editors, publishers and receptionists. SEP has, instead, a group of equal employees, each with a fair balance of diverse responsibilities and tasks, all paid the same — other than family allowances for need — so there is no hierarchy of quality of work, or of empowerment effects of work, or of power at work. (To say that the same thing is true at Z wouldn’t mean much, I agree, given a staff size of three.)
So the question becomes, is SEP’s approach effective, does it have good implications for content, product generally, workers, etc.? Does it have drawbacks? And ditto for the Nation. If SEP is more frugal, more productive, more democratic, more independent, more in tune with and supportive of the values we all say we support, than the Nation, because of its structure (not because of different people) then the question is, could the Nation slowly but steadily make improvements in similar directions. On the other hand, if SEP isn’t an improvement on all these counts, then the question becomes, should SEP begin to emulate more typical structures like those at the Nation more?
(As to publishing ourselves, another issue you raised — yes, we do. But, since you raised these very specific issues, my last two book proposals to SEP were rejected–as have others in the past, as well. And Lydia’s most recent and only book proposal to SEP since being in the collective, was also rejected. Victor and Katrina may not submit much to the Nation, but I bet they don’t now and won’t in the future get rejected when they do submit something — though this is a relatively inconsequential point, whatever the facts may be….)
As to my being “pious about Z,” I do wish you had quoted from the earlier post, because I doubt that there was anything pious about Z in it — probably, in fact, there was nothing about Z at all. (If you had some other writing in mind, however, I would like to know.) In fact, I rarely use Z as a positive example regarding internal structure because it is only the three of us on staff. I use SEP, and recently a publishing house in Canada, Arbeiter Ring, and also Dollars and Sense, and, again recently, Monthly Review…. Z is not on the list because Z‘s structure says little, given its family nature. Z does have some good policies, I think, but that is a different matter.
In any event, it isn’t a question of low or high motives, and of good or bad politics of individuals or even individual institutions. It is a question of what structures we choose for our institutions more broadly, what values and aims are guiding our choices…
I would like to think that you will find that I have never commented on the Nation, or any other alternative media institution, for that matter, from the point of view of individuals’ behaviors or morals or values, even, save if it is specifically about what someone wrote or said or about a class perspective. Instead, I think and hope that all my commentary re media institutions, alternative or not, has emphasized social relations and role structures. If I have lapsed on that score at times, again, I apologize. It would not be constructive.
>>2. As for your comments on the panel. In my view, the point of the panel was not to “get” Time magazine, which everyone in that room surely knows is a conservative rag full of lies and distortions — although naturally I wished Mark Miller had focused on the magazine’s politics instead of its movie promotions. I thought the point of the panel was to discuss the media more generally, and maybe even to make some points that the audience had not already thought of.And not to speak of my own performance, I thought Christopher was very good.
Again I wish you had quoted my comments, at least a little. Discussing the media broadly, that is, how it is structured, what role it plays, what it does, etc. was exactly what I was looking for and found missing in the panel. Time was, however, relevant, not in a petty get Time kind of way, but in that its editor was there. It is not to get Time that one uses Time for evidence in an exchange with the editor of Time, but because one is debating him and his inability to claim ignorance of Time, etc., means the debate is much enhanced by using it as a case study. If one is on a panel with the CEO of General Motors to discuss the U.S. economy, say, yes one is trying to make broad and general claims about the economy, but one uses the experience of GM to do it, I would think. I don’t see how it is any different.
And the issue isn’t that Time is a conservative rag or anything at all about Isaacson the person, for that matter, but that Time is a corporation and how its corporate structure and roles and place in society determine its contents and policies. And, regrettably, I don’t think everyone in the room knows that, fully, but, beyond that, it was filmed, recorded, etc., for people not in the room.
Re those in the room, however, if everyone there knew the structural and societal dynamics and role of mainstream media, do you think the conference would have looked as it did–that the petition to mainstream media handed out to all participants would have read as it did, and so on?
>> I disliked the panel because I thought it was set up to be too middle of the road — with Bill Moyers and all. I didn’t want to be on it in the first place, and it was only because I made a huge scene that Christopher was added at the last minute. I prepared quite a bit, by the way — just not the way you would have. Well, maybe next time they’ll ask you.
The problem is that the “they” who are doing the asking have an agenda that differs greatly, I think, from that of most people who were at that conference, and certainly from what would be most constructive nowadays.
What would you think of a proposal that for the next Media and Democracy Congress a board be established, including a diverse set of respected people who do ALTERNATIVE MEDIA at all levels, which provides advice and consent re the schedule. IAJ would still do the work, raise the funds, host the event, propose and develop content, etc., but now there would be this larger overarching entity, public and known, and responsible to try to give the event some coherence and constructive effect?
I am not sure the idea has any merit, but more of the same is going to be a downhill slide, I think….
>>True enough. And doesn’t it follow that it is up to us to try to discern what kinds of ownership relations, and divisions of labor, etc., will make our organizations more successful and effective, and what kind will hamper them from accomplishing what we desire?
Well, Michael. you are really into this issue of how workplaces are organized. I have to say I’m skeptical of your claims of workplace democracy at SEP. As we discovered in the early days of the women’s movement, there are all kinds of ways to make a hierarchy, and somehow everyone has the same picture of SEP — that it was your show. You may have done your share of the scutwork and that’s good — but you also represent the Press, which published many books by you and Lydia. Your name is the only one popularly associated with it. Etc.
As for Z, it’s basically a family operation, so, as you say, not really relevant. As I said before, I think both SEP and Z show the liabilities of their method of organization and finance, but what the heck, it’s a big world.
It’s too hard to weave in and out of your post with comments, so I’ll just say two things.
1. You think running a publishing house or a magazine is about “building left institutions,” i.e. businesses that are run, theoretically, in a particular way. I think running a publishing house or magazine is also, and primarily, about getting the best possible manuscripts onto the page and out into the world. I have no idea how Common Courage Press is organized, for example, but I think they’re publishing some really good books that are useful in the fight against the religious right etc. Maybe group decision making isn’t an unmixed blessing? Maybe having everyone take a turn at publicizing books (for example) is great for the staff but not for the books? It’s interesting that you don’t argue that the nonhierarchical collective style of publishing is better at publishing!
In any case, The Nation is NOT a Leftist publication, it’s a liberal one. So I think you should stop being shocked when the magazine behaves like what it, after all, is.
2. About the panel. I don’t know, Michael. I just find it offensive that you launch into this big critique of my performance. Did I ask you what you thought? When you volunteered your criticism, did I say, oh thank you tell me more? No. I said I did my best, saw the panel differently than you, but hadn’t been happy with it either. So what in that response did you interpret as, tell me all over again, in greater detail, why I should have done what you would have done?
>>Well, Michael. you are really into this issue of how workplaces are organized.
Isn’t this a large part of the point of being a radical? Aren’t you also very much into this issue?
Is the problem with capitalism only private ownership, or is it also class structure based on other variables having to do with work organization, etc.?
>>I have to say I’m skeptical of your claims of workplace democracy at SEP.
Well, okay, that’s fine, but is it because workplace democracy is impossible in your mind, apriori, so of course SEP couldn’t be democratic — or is it because you doubt that folks brought up and operating in the U.S. could achieve it in the here and now, under market conditions — or why?
And SEP has been around 20 years. So it seems like there should be some evidence, no?
>>As we discovered in the early days of the women’s movement, there are all kinds of ways to make a hierarchy, and somehow everyone has the same picture of SEP — that it was your show.
Who is everyone? The folks who actually worked at SEP? Folks who worked at other democratic projects and institutions? Everyone who read SEP’s books. Or mostly folks working in institutions that are hierarchical, well up the hierarchies?
For anyone who felt it “was my show,” how was it my show? Did I earn more? Did I have more votes in decisions? Did I have cushy work conditions or more empowering work, compared to others? Some other way?
If relative to everyone else at the Nation, Victor suddenly had no more say than anyone else in the content and policies of the Nation, no better work conditions, comparable work responsibilities and tasks from most onerous to fulfilling, no higher income, etc., and likewise for everyone else working there, would the Nation still be Victor’s show? Everyone who felt that SEP was my show demeaned the others at SEP, a serious problem, to be sure.
What you are saying, it seems to me, is that everyone believes that this was some kind of Albert Show and that therefore my (or anyone else’s) claims otherwise, that SEP was/is democratically organized, etc. are just self delusion or hypocrisy. Later in this message you will indicate that you found my raising my qualms about an hour and a half panel at the Media and Democracy Congress offensive, all of which I saw. Well, in contrast, I find it disturbing that apparently So MANY PEOPLE can hold what are, in fact, really damning views of others, on what seems to be little to no evidence, and yet virtually no one from this group says anything about the criticism to the “targets” or checks the criticism’s validity in any way — something that happens commonly, I think you will agree.
Perhaps many people see SEP as my show because they think that is the only thing it could be, because they won’t face the possibility that the organizations they function in could be something other than so and so’s show, which would have the implication that they ought to be challenging such relations, and because so few bothered to take a look.
The fact that SEP claimed/claims to have largely achieved a democratic form of organization — compromised by backward personalities (which were present, of course) and by market and other impositions from without (which were present, of course) should have caused folks not to ASSUME that it was false, but to check it out, don’t you think? But no. No one in a responsible position in any other progressive publishing operation, book, or periodical that was/is hierarchically organized, ever came a calling. Publishers Weekly came, but not theNation, nor anyone else like that. I think this is revealing…. I think it is going to be repeated with Arbeiter Ring in Canada, supposing they can keep their operation afloat with the few resources they have at their disposal.
On the other hand, over the years quite a few folks without access to means to discuss their impressions publicly visited SEP, found SEP desirable, and even sought to emulate it. Now, Arbeiter Ring in Canada claims to have a democratic structure, and to be part of a group that includes a bookstore, publishing operation, food cafe, etc., all organized democratically. Again, I would think folks would HOPE that it was true, would want it to be the case, would hope it would have lessons, and would check it out, even try to help it out, not assume it was false.
>>You may have done your share of the scutwork and that’s good —
Why is it good? I mean that very seriously.
Some would say it is insane. I had more skills, more training, more contacts, etc. I was better known and could gain easier access to people outside. Why should I have answered phones, taken the mail, and so on and so forth? And if it is good, then shouldn’t other institutions investigate the possibility of having more balanced work allotments?
>>but you also represent the Press, which published many books by you and Lydia. Your name is the only one popularly associated with it. Etc.
The press sought to have ALL its members publish. Not all did. But quite a few… I was published before SEP existed, and continued to do so. My choice to publish at SEP was that it was the best place for the books I was doing. Later I published at Princeton, more technical books, and recently at Arbeiter Ring (their first title). You keep bringing this up as if it has some important implication. Are you saying the books stink and were only published because, in fact, I made it happen by some extra power I had? Or that it was because folks didn’t want to offend me and that this is a drawback of such congenial structures (at least for publishing)?
Yes, from the outside it COULD be that I was boss and imposed my will, or it COULD be, instead, that my books went through the same process of assessment as others (more aggressively by far, in fact) sometimes being rejected, more often accepted, because, in fact, folks thought they were valuable and very much in tune with SEP’s agenda. One would only know by looking/asking, I would think. But even in the worst case, the lesson wouldn’t be that democratic structure is no good, but that founders should get out quick, or that writers shouldn’t be working in publishing, or whatever….
As to representing the press, I don’t know quite what this means. It is true that I was better known, for a variety of reasons. But I did not represent the press, nor did anyone else, more than anyone else. Trips to industry conferences, appearances at let or industry events, and on and on were allocated among participants like other responsibilities, in no way to me especially. (actually the reverse was done to offset my prior visibility). I had more published works, knew more potential authors, and had also had more visibility in various movement sectors before the press existed. That is true…
But you know, for ten years I have not worked at the press or voted on any issue concerned with it. Nor has Lydia. Indeed all the founders have moved on, in many directions. Yet many leftists STILL identify the press as me, remarkably. This is a commentary on them, not on the press, don’t you think? And also a nasty affront to the people who have worked there over those ten years and are working there now.
The belief that progressive and left and indeed all institutions will be and must be and even should be personally owned, one way or another, and hierarchical from top to bottom (or childish and ineffectual) runs very very deep among sectors of progressives. This view, I think, is supportive of oppressive class structures in our own institutions and in society in pretty much the same way as attitudes about the necessity and efficiency of typical sexual divisions of labor (and ineffectuality and childishness of feminist alternatives) are supportive of oppressive kinship relations in our own institutions and in society.
Something similar happens regarding Z for some people. It must be me, it can’t be Lydia, the woman, who is centrally responsible. Actually, however, for a couple of years I have been so involved with online stuff that Lydia and Eric are carrying far more of the Z load, and before that it was quite equal.
The Etc. above, in your initial comment, is based, I think, on no first hand knowledge of SEP, or little, anyhow. Please correct me if I am wrong in that. And I have to say that I wonder what it encompasses. I think you hesitate to note all your concerns or doubts about SEP out of civility, which I appreciate, but, please, I would like to hear them. And what I would like to know, as well, Katha, is what the views are rooted in. I know I am asking a lot, and taking a lot of your time. But for us to be publicly discussing the merits and principles of our work seems like a good thing, to me.
>>As for Z, it’s basically a family operation, so, as you say, not really relevant.
Not to the structure issues, I agree. It abides the same principles as SEP, and few family operations do, but, nonetheless, one wouldn’t want to claim that doing so is special in our case.
>>As I said before, I think both SEP and Z show the liabilities of their method of organization and finance, but what the heck, it’s a big world.
If these organizations “show the liabilities of their method of organization and finance” I would truly like to know how. Don’t worry about my feelings…tell me.
It sounds like you are telling me that given our druthers, it would be better, or six of one half dozen of the other, to set up organizations that divide labor so that some have cushy and empowering work, and some do rote and onerous work, so that some have high income and some low, and so that some make decisions and some only follow decisions made by others — rather than so that all have a comparable work situation of diverse but balanced responsibilities and tasks, so that remuneration is for effort and sacrifice and therefore highly equal, and so that all input to decisions in proportion as they are affected by them? That is the values question, which is independent of SEP entirely.
The second question would be, okay, if the non-hierarchical approach is the better one to pursue — I am hoping that we agree on that, but it seems perhaps we don’t — are you saying that you somehow know that the “tactics” employed at SEP to try to attain it have failed or don’t work or aren’t emulatable?
>> It’s too hard to weave in and out of your post with comments, so I’ll just say two things.
[By way of technical help: I think you are probably still using the browser for your forum access. Is that the case? It is much much easier, and quicker, and generally more pleasant and functional, to use a News Reader. And it really isn’t too difficult to set up. Maybe fifteen minutes, tops.
If you are using a recent Netscape or MS Explorer, you have the software already, a click away. You need only type in three bits of info (the server address = news.shareworld.com, the server name = loluser, and the server pw = lollol. Then you tell the newsreader to access all the news groups (1000s) and, once you have them, you “subscribe” to those you want to follow regularly — ours all beginning sw.]
>>1 You think running a publishing house or a magazine is about “building left institutions,” i.e. businesses that are run ,theoretically, in a particular way. I think running a publishing house or magazine is also, and primarily, about getting the best possible manuscripts onto the page and out into the world.
Part of doing a production company is, of course, creating good products, in the case of a publishing company, good books — agreed. Aside from that, again it sounds like you think that moving away from hierarchy means trading off quality or work and product…do you?
There is a gender hierarchy throughout our economy. Many who defend it do so on essentially the same grounds. I presume you think they are wrong…
>>I have no idea how Common Courage Press is organized, for example, but I think they’re publishing some really good books that are useful in the fight against the religious right etc.
I haven’t talked to Greg in awhile. He founded CC with a partner…he learned publishing skills in his stint as a collective member at SEP. CC is, in essence, an SEP spin-off.
>>Maybe group decision making isn’t an unmixed blessing? Maybe having everyone take a turn at publicizing books (for example) is great for the staff but not for the books? It’s interesting that you don’t argue that the nonhierarchical collective style of publishing is better at publishing!
There is nothing about democracy that requires that everyone take a turn at publicizing books nor that all decisions be made in groups — just that everyone have balanced job complexes and impact decisions proportionately to the degree they are affected by them. People needn’t rotate, though in a small organization that is a tactic that is sometimes unavoidable and/or highly desirable.
And I do argue that non-hierarchical organization is better for product, including publishing product. And I think if you compare the history of SEP, and the relatively minuscule resources at its disposal, over its twenty years, to the history of any mainstream press and the humongous resources at their disposal over the same twenty years, the simple material efficiency is much greater, and obviously the quality of book — in the sense of truthfulness and relevance (we are talking non-fiction) is vastly superior. This isn’t for me to argue, however, because I don’t know any more than others should/can about the value of SEP’s books — just by looking at the list, reading titles, etc. — unlike SEP’s organization, where knowledge isn’t so common.
But here is a parallel case I will argue.
I think D&S, for example, which isn’t as democratic as it might be, perhaps, but is way more so than the Nation, also has a much better quality product per resources expended.
I would also argue that if you put media institutions that claim to be progressive in some kind of listing, ranking them according to the degree of dissemination or centralization of power (and/or the correlation of power to people’s access to money or funders) the list would almost duplicate one ranked for radicalism, so to speak.
In contrast, it sounds like you think that hierarchy is not only somewhat efficient and desirable vis-a-vis quality of product, but so much so that it overcomes any debits it might have vis-a-vis impact on the workforce. That paying some folks way more, giving them way more decision making power, more empowering work, better circumstances and whatnot else, makes sense from the point of view of quality of output, and even accounting for ill effects on workers. Do you think that?
The contrary position, that I hold, is that (a) hierarchies of reward, power, and circumstance don’t enhance quality compared to a just and equitable arrangement, and (b) have grotesque impact on those involved, immediately in the workplace, and throughout society.
>>In any case, The Nation is NOT a Leftist publication, it’s a liberal one. So I think you should stop being shocked when the magazine behaves like what it, after all, is.
I am not shocked Katha. Not at all. I have spent time in meetings with people working at many levels in the Nation, and heard their disparaging views of those above and below, depending on who I was talking with, so my knowledge goes a little beyond (not too much, I admit) just looking at the masthead, which is pretty indicative itself, and reading the content. (I have also had lots of folks who have been interns at the Nation complain to me about being treated as disposable task-doers — with, you will be happy to hear, the exception of you, who are very highly regarded by those who have interned with you for being both respectful of them and helpful to them, etc., and Alex, who the interns don’t all like, but agree to learning a lot from.)
But the Nation purports to be servicing the progressive community and the Progressive community ought to say back, well, yes, to a degree you are. And that is great and it is why we write our donation checks to you, and so on. But it would be awfully nice if things were to improve…and here are some ways how they might.
You work there, and you SEEM to think, partly from that experience, no doubt, and partly from other things, presumably, that alternative structures are not worth pursuing or evaluating or fighting for, for example, at the Nation itself… That matters, I believe.
You would be concerned to find that a powerful and important columnist on the left seemed to think a hierarchical sexual division of labor was ok, or anyway that a hierarchical sexual division of labor was not so bad that we all ought to be trying to fight against it wherever it rears its head, particularly in institutions we work in, or that attempts to reduce or eliminate a sexual division of labor were suspect/flawed, I believe, and rightly so. If I had those views, I would hope you would want to note your contrary position and challenge mine. That’s all I am doing, on another axis of concern.
I am also, for what it is worth, not shocked by what GM does, and it doesn’t pretend to be progressive or left, but I still critique its structure.
>>2. About the panel. I don’t know, Michael. I just find it offensive that you launch into this big critique of my performance.
I didn’t think it was all that big a critique. And I believe I indicated I might be wrong in my reactions and asked what your feelings were on it. I noted how much I appreciate your work generally, etc., which, in fact, I really do. As a result, which is why it is relevant, unlike the Nation’s sponsoring the panel, which was no surprise, your part in it was a surprise. I brought you the truth that I encountered in talking with many folks that evening — person after person leaving the room, and the next day too, were caustic, bitter, angry — aggressively so. I doubt that they brought any of this to you. Most folks won’t say anything critical to stars, but, instead, cozy up. I think that is far less respectful behavior — but I agree, many folks don’t see this as I do.
Be all that as it may, don’t folks not only have a right to ask about or even just register criticisms of major events like this –recorded, videoed, highlighted events like this — and the choices made about them, etc. but a responsibility to do so. The opening panel of the Media and Democracy Congress 18 months ago was 90% duplicated at this event, the event and the audience boredom. Perhaps if folks were a bit more open about their discontent last time, not obnoxiously so, but nonetheless openly — that wouldn’t have happened.
Katha, I sat near people who gnashed their teeth and moaned and complained during the Nation panel, swearing at the panelists and Hitchens, say, and then, after it ended, walking up and slapping him on the back and telling him just how wonderful he was. That, I think, is offensive, not telling him what one truthfully felt.
Same for the Pacifica panel, for example, I saw folks outraged at the Pacifica events, at the management of Pacifica, at what Scott was saying on the panel and at her policies, then walking up and smiling and joking with her, congratulating her as if all was well, etc. This may be superficially congenial, but it isn’t even remotely respectful. Yet our movement is such that when a person who came up and honestly registered their criticism, asking a question, say, to verify it, is often found pushy, arrogant, and offensive.
I know I can be very abrasive and I apologize for that, and need to work on it. But I think that in the broad scheme of things, as a movement, we often have our understanding of what shows respect and what shows disrespect backward.
>>Did I ask you what you thought? When you volunteered your criticism, did I say, oh thank you tell me more? No. I said I did my best, saw the panel differently than you, but hadn’t been happy with it either. So what in that response did you interpret as, tell me all over again, in greater detail, why I should have done what you would have done?
It wasn’t what just I would have done, though, yes, like anyone I do take into account my feelings and reactions. But then I asked, to test my perception, a rather broad array of folks what they would have done if on the panel, and I got pretty much uniform answers. My suspicion is that few of them would have actually done what they said, if wearing your shoes, and I want to figure out why that is. What are the dynamics that yield a panel like we saw, pretty much whoever is on it, instead of what one might anticipate or hope for? That is an important question, I think, if we are going to do better. It isn’t the people, it is something more subtle. I would bet, in fact, that had you been in the audience, not on stage, you too would have had similar reactions.
In any event, in my reply I answered your comments, I believe, quoting them quite carefully. I was trying to pursue the real substantive issues. There was nothing whatever about your character or knowledge or anything else like that addressed by me, I think, that I remember. I am sorry, however, if I offended…
Katha, you are a very public and important figure. I have to say, I am very very appreciative that you operate in this forum. I think doing so, not so much on ZNet per se, which I of course thank you for, but opening yourself to commentary and discussion with those who read your work, is exemplary. It is not always fun, but is important, I think. You are ahead of the curve…others will eventually do it too, I believe, but probably kicking and screaming, not welcoming it. And I love most of your articles, too, which can’t be said by me for anyone else writing at the Nation, even Alex who I think is an amazing journalist, when he wants to be.
But that said, if I go to a really major event and something truly disturbs me, and many others too — so it is hardly idiosyncratic — shouldn’t I convey it if I happen to have a means to do so? Shouldn’t I try to find out if my impression and reaction is wrong, rather than just fester with it, assuming I have it right?