If you’ve been a regular reader of The Atlantic during the past few years, you may have picked up on something: the 160-year- old magazine has determined that just about everyone in the country has lost their mind. Jon Lovett, the Democratic aide turned failed Hollywood screenwriter turned podcaster was the first Atlantic contributor to employ the conceit by publishing “How the GOP slowly lost its mind,” in 2013.
Lovett’s article, which pined for a moderate right-wing to stand as a “bulwark against liberal delusion and hubris,” was followed by a 2016 cover story on “How American politics went insane” and a 2017 piece on how the “Left” had also lost its collective marbles. In what can only be seen as a logical conclusion to the magazine’s previous output, this September The Atlantic finally took the step of declaring that America as a whole had gone bonkers, commissioning former Spy magazine editor Kurt Andersen to explain to its readers why foaming-at-the- mouth hinterlands voters supported candidates other than Hillary Clinton.
It’s not surprising to see an elite, taste making publication like The Atlantic declare itself the referee of national sanity –these days just about every media organization is trying to seize the role of hard-nosed arbiter of uncomfortable truths. But this ploy is especially ironic in the case of The Atlantic, given the magazine’s history of stoking exactly the same sort of delusions that it now declares unthinkable.
So for the moment, let’s set aside the war propagandists, red baiters, and architects of American imperialism currently sitting on The Atlantic’s masthead. Instead, let’s travel back in time to the heady days of September 1971, when The Atlantic Monthly published an essay simply titled “IQ,” which was authored by Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein and preceded by a lengthy note from the editors on the importance of studying the potential connection between race and intelligence.
With conservative superstar Charles Murray, Hernnstein later co-authored 1994’s “The Bell Curve,” which spends roughly 900 pages explaining how, according to science, black people and poor people are just naturally dumber than rich whites, Jews and Asians.
While fellow phrenologist Andrew Sullivan rightly continues to take shit for publishing an excerpt of “The Bell Curve” in The New Republic some 20 years ago, The Atlantic has somehow escaped criticism for its role in helping Herrnstein find a mainstream audience for his views on inherited intelligence.
Nor was 1971 the last time The Atlantic published a Herrnstein IQ screed. Eleven years later, the magazine ran a piece in which Herrnstein critiqued the media for its treatment of IQ testing and genetics. Unfortunately, the contents of this essay are difficult to find online, but there are a few clues as to what exactly Herrnstein was arguing.
In the magazine’s “letters” section a few months later, The Atlantic published a note on the essay from a little known University of Georgia psychology professor named R. Travis Osborne, who echoed Herrnstein’s previous views that people are unwilling to accept that certain racial minorities have inherently lower IQ scores. Osborne was the recipient of numerous grants from the white nationalist and pro-eugenics group The Pioneer Fund (whose board of directors he would later join) and, years earlier, had testified as an expert witness in opposition to school integration.
In addition to sending his praises to the editors of The Atlantic, archived papers show that Osborne forwarded copies of the article to his colleagues across the country and his friends at The Pioneer Fund, which likewise adored Hernnstein’s work.
Around this same time The Atlantic began a fruitful relationship with Herrnstein’s colleague and co-author, James Q. Wilson, a Manhattan Institute scholar whose research laid the foundation for modern policing. Much like Herrnstein and Murray, Wilson is a firm believer in blaming just about anything other than racism and poverty for unacceptable behavior ranging from crime to performing poorly on standardized tests.
His March 1982 Atlantic article “Broken Windows” (co-authored with George L. Kelling), became part of the intellectual basis for stop-and-frisk and numerous other debunked policing practices later made popular by the esteemed officers of the NYPD. Like many other Atlantic stories of its time, Wilson’s piece was also the basis for some extremely creepy cover art.
A decade later The New Republic was just beginning to embrace the bogus “science” of people like Murray and Herrnstein. Meanwhile, The Atlantic was promoting new racialist bullshit in the form of the anti-immigration novel “The Camp of the Saints,” a favorite of such esteemed thinkers as Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon and Front National leader Marine Le Pen.
In their lengthy 1994 essay “Must it be the Rest against the West?” Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy provide a disturbingly warm review of the French novel, which any thinking person would see as a strong contender for “most racist book ever published.” Rather than accept the book for what it is — the insane ravings of a demented, xenophobic Frenchman envisioning a race war between Europeans and South Asians — Connelly and Kennedy use the novel to try to spark a “serious” conversation about immigration that one would expect to hear on the Charlie Rose Show (or whatever boring PBS interview show that will soon be replacing it). It is an utterly baffling piece to say the least, but one that fits comfortably into the magazine’s history.
Only a few years later, in 1999, the magazine was purchased by consulting titan David Bradley, whose admitted hawkish and neocon views would guide The Atlantic through the run-up to the Iraq war. Under the direction of Bradley’s handpicked editor, former New Republic chief Michael Kelly, the magazine featured several leading cheerleaders for Middle East intervention. (Countered pretty much only by a prophetic article by James Fallows on the risks of war.)
Before dying in Iraq himself, Kelly wrote column after column promoting the war, singing the praises of George W. Bush and viciously attacking anyone who opposed intervention as being “as wrong as it is possible to be” and “in profound opposition to morality.”
If you needed a more nuanced, intellectually veiled version of Kelly’s arguments, however, The Atlantic was happy to supply that in the form of Yale professor and Orientalist-in-chief Bernard Lewis, whose long essays on Islam the magazine had been publishing for years. Lewis was arguably the country’s most well regarded intellectual to support going to war in Iraq, and his writings for The Atlantic helped to frame “Muslim civilization” and its failure to “modernize” as the main cause of terrorism and anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East.
Writing in 1990 about “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Lewis briefly acknowledged decades of US support for oppressive regimes in the Middle East, but then just as quickly hand-waved these potential causes for anti-Western sentiment away by saying it simply “does not suffice.” Naturally, Lewis was the man to whom The Atlantic turned after 9/11 to tell its readers Why They Hate Us, and he did not fail to deliver.
In typical fashion for The Atlantic, he blamed disenfranchised Arabs almost entirely for their own lot in life, accusing them of developing a culture of “grievance and victimhood.” If that doesn’t set off any red flags for you, maybe just take a look at The Atlantic’s September 1990 cover, which features a cartoonish drawing of an angry, turbaned man with American flags in his eyes.
Despite all this, The Atlantic has largely gotten off scot free on promoting the type of intellectually veiled racism, xenophobia, and warmongering for which one one of its own writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, rightfully assailed The New Republic in 2014.
The current Atlantic masthead is anchored by people like editor-in-chief Jeff Goldberg — who spent 2002 writing stories linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda — and David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who coined the Orwellian term “Axis of Evil” and now writes cover stories on how fascism could take root in America.
Other notable, insufferable writers include Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who, like most of his colleagues, enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq. Unlike most shills, though, at least later owned up to his mistakes.
Beinart is now mostly known for his writing on Jewish politics in America and his frequent criticism of Israel from a liberal Zionist point of view; less remembered is Beinart’s 2004 New Republic essay, “A Fighting Faith,” where he compares left-wing anti-war activists to Communists of the 1940s and 1950s and advocates for a new Red Scare purge of unsavory leftist elements to “save liberalism.”
Keeping with his “punch left first” philosophy, Beinart recently authored a pair of vacuous stories in The Atlantic about the Antifa movement and “the rise of the violent left,” spending the majority of one of the pieces advising Donald Trump on how to properly handle the threat of left-wing violence.
The frustrating thing about The Atlantic these days is not simply that it is often terrible — most mainstream publications are — but that it so shamelessly ignores its own role, and the role of many of its current writers, in legitimizing some of the worst ideas and intellectual movements of the last several decades. Rather than hold accountable pundits like Goldberg and Frum and Beinart who crusaded for the disastrous Iraq war, the magazine rewarded them and allowed them to rehabilitate their names.
The Atlantic continues to hold considerable power in American discourse, perhaps more now than ever thanks to its successful transformation from a small, high brow magazine into a digital media behemoth. But rather than take the lead in creating a new kind of journalism and intellectual culture that afflicts the powerful and holds accountable those who lie, mislead, and spread fear, The Atlantic is giving those people jobs and bylines in its highly sought after pages.
While its editors may be rightly convinced that the world has gone insane all around them, they need look no further than their archives, and their disgraceful masthead, to figure out why.
[Editor’s note: We’re not rolling out Hack List 2017 in any special order. We’ll rank the Top Ten after posting applications from all the finalists and then I’ll milk all this for another easy post where I announce the winners of the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals for Grand Hackery. Today’s installment is guest written by Trip Brennan. You can read the last installment of Hack List 2017, “The dossier on BuzzFeed, Aka Clickhole, and @BuzzFeedBen,” by clicking here. You can read the installments on the other applicants — Mother Jones, Washington Post, New Yorker, New York Times, The Intercept and Vox — by clicking on the link to the BuzzFeed story. You’ll find the links to those other stories in the first paragraph.]