What follows is a sample chapter from Mr. Fish’s newest book, “Nobody Left: Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural Icons About the End of Dissent, Revolution and Liberalism in America,” available from Fantagraphics in both print and digital editions.
The fearsome political cartoonist investigates the meaning of progressive politics in the 21st century by comparing the New Left with the Newer Left and interrogating public intellectuals, comedians, writers, and politicians who have been part of the liberal cause from the 1950s to the present day.
“Nobody Left” includes interviews with and essays about Norman Mailer, Christopher Hitchens, Howard Zinn, Lily Tomlin, Graham Nash, Joan Baez, Dennis Kucinich, Tariq Ali, Calvin Trillin, Mort Sahl, Robert Scheer, Paul Krassner, Jon Stewart, and others.
In this chapter, the conversation is with veteran editor Victor Navasky.
“In those days, when we were all young and optimistic, I used to assure Navasky that the lack of a sense of humor was probably not an insurmountable handicap for the editor of a humor magazine.”Calvin Trillin, on Victor Navasky launching Monocle magazine
By Mr Fish
In 1984, illustrator David Levine created a now infamous cartoon for The New York Review of Books depicting Henry Kissinger fucking the world. In the drawing, the former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to President Nixon strains beady-eyed like a gargantuan rodent atop the naked and slight body of his conquest, the back of her enormous globe-head pressed forcefully into a pillow, her knees slightly bent, the Biblically-sanctioned missionary position perverted into a foul and nauseating display of crushing subjugation while the American flag covers them both like a distressed bedsheet.
First commissioned and then rejected by The New York Review, where Levine’s work regularly appeared, the cartoon was eventually published by The Nation following a week of internal protests waged by many on the staff to kill the artwork. According to Victor S. Navasky, who was the editor-in-chief of The Nation at the time, it was the only time during his 30-plus years heading the publication that the magazine personnel marched on his office and served him with a petition demanding that he refrain from running the drawing. Chief among the complaints was the criticism that “a progressive magazine has no business using rape jokes and sexist imagery to make the point that Kissinger revels in international dominance,” as if commentary devised to condemn international dominance would or even could make sanguine use of pro-feminism imagery when excoriating the unfair domination of one entity over another.
Christopher Hitchens, who was a columnist for the magazine at the time, summed up the unfortunate episode this way: “How depressing that so many Nation colleagues should confuse the use of a stereotype, even as an artistic satire, with the reinforcement of a stereotype.”
I have interviewed Victor S. Navasky a number of times over the years and have never been able to use anything I transcribed from our long conversations. Nothing. As the founding editor of Monocle, considered by many to be the best magazine of New Left satire produced in post-postmodern America and the editor and publisher of The Nation, the oldest weekly of progressive journalism and cultural analysis in the country, not to mention a friend, mentor and enabler of practically every free press advocate, lefty writer, reporter and columnist alive, you’d think the man would have all the generous magnetism and gregarious charisma of whatever the I.F. Stone equivalent of a snow day might be. He doesn’t. In fact, he is the most unassuming radical I’ve ever met, which, as it turns out, is his most inspiring strength and impressive asset. In other words, gravity too is unassuming, yet without it Molotov cocktails would never know to land on the polycarbonate shields of fascistic thugs nor would caricatured balloons designed to ridicule incompetent and reprobate world leaders be able to inspire us all by seeming to defy the very laws of physics in order to prove how impossible things like large-scale levitation and a people’s revolution are possible.
After considering everything Navasky had to say to me and my tape recorder and after finding only one quotation attributed to him in all the quote banks I could find on the internet (“What’s bad for the country is always good for The Nation”) and after pouring over his many accomplishments in publishing and journalism and cultural analysis, I came to the conclusion that to look for egomania as proof of a person’s legitimacy was ridiculous, not unlike attempting to measure the credibility of Rosa Park’s legacy against her ability to do a handstand with a puppy on each foot or to snap a lit cigarette from the mouth of a blindfolded audience member with a bullwhip while singing Mule Train. In fact, to equate one with the other would be to ignore every example from the past where ostentatious egomania was confused for legitimacy and suddenly there were warehouses full of shoes, hair and wedding rings and, silhouetted against a pewter skyline, greasy smokestacks full of swooping seagulls.
Here’s an example of Navasky being pragmatic and unsentimental and me being, well, me.
FISH: What made you want to launch a magazine of satire in the late 50s to begin with? Did you foresee the enormous cultural shift that was about to happen [with regards] to civil rights, the youth movement, the feminization of society and free speech? Was it an instinct or an impulse to go into publishing instead of law after law school?
NAVASKY: I was never in analysis, so I don’t have the wisdom to tell you why, on some deep psychological level, I decide to do anything. Certainly, I thought there was something absurd about the assumptions of our political system and contradictions in society and I liked jokes just as much as the next guy.
Speaking of jokes, what happened to satire to make it less satirical and closer to being [mere] burlesque in the modern era? My guess is that whenever you have satire periodically interrupted by a commercial break, like with Saturday Night Live, Robot Chicken, The Daily Show, and shows like that, then it cannot possibly still be called satire because it is being used for the selling of products designed specifically to perpetuate a consumer class. And who does the consumer class benefit? [Pause] It benefits the very institutions of power that satire endeavors to undermine and disassemble in favor of a more equitable form of [egalitarian] living.
Yes. You’re right.
Bill Hicks had a great bit about that. At some point during his career he was offered a sponsorship gig from a British cola company and the drink was called Orange Drink. He figured that the company had no idea who he was because he was famous in his act for telling people who worked in advertising that they should kill themselves. He imagined [doing the commercial and] saying, “You know, when I’m done ranting about elite power that rules the planet under a totalitarian government that uses the media to keep people stupid my throat gets parched. That’s why I drink ‘Orange Drink!’”
So why do you think things are different now from when you got into the satire business?
When we started Monocle we had Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, MAD magazine, Harvey Kutzman, Terry Southern and those kinds of people. This was at the end of the McCarthy Era and it was generally understood that this was how you [broke] through after a period of repression. It’s a sign that something good is happening in the culture after something bad.
How does that inform our understanding of what’s happening right now, particularly when it comes to the apparent absence of a viable progressive art and alternative press scene? Are we really waiting for a period of repression to end before we react to it — should we be? I’m guessing that the repression we’ve been experiencing has been going on since 1980 and it doesn’t show any signs that it’ll be ending soon.
So, do I think there’s a satire shortage?
Not just satire, but all forms of open communication capable of forcing the dominant culture to engage with dissenting opinions and attitudes.
I don’t think it’s as bad as you say it is, although I might be wrong about that.
It seems that every time I see a panel discussion about politics or culture it’s always the same people who say the same things. The debate is almost always [narrowly] defined as a disagreement between the Democrats and the Republicans and the only solutions [proposed by either side] are political ones. I always feel like I’m watching ESPN where everybody is talking about the strategies of how their team should be playing the game to win but there’s nobody there to question the folly of the game. Imagine if you had an artist or even a social philosopher sitting in on one of those panels! There’s never anybody with an outside perspective to challenge the myopia.
Artists are unto themselves. Some can talk, some can’t. Sure, they’re geniuses, but what do they add to a panel except to sit there and to be incoherent?
But they’re not even being allowed to communicate what their genius is using the language that they’re expert in, that’s the point, whether it’s painting, music, poetry, satire, cartooning or even gonzo journalism.
I don’t have a problem if satire doesn’t work. What if there’s a period [when] there are no good satirists? That doesn’t bother me. Maybe it isn’t a reflection of how repressive a society is. Maybe it has more to do with there being no good satirists at the moment. It can happen. That said, you’re probably right that the only people talking about politics is a rotating repertoire company that should let other people into the discussion.
There’s an argument to be made that even Jackson Pollack would have lost coherency without being forced to communicate within the parameters of his canvas corners. Similarly, neither Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer nor Kalkhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s four-hour solo piano composition, Opus clavicembalisticum, would be legible at all without remaining within the confines a structured alphabet. Much of what Victor S. Navasky seems to communicate is that there are instinctual confines that exist within all people and that our mutual humanitarianism is structured and innate and nothing that should require strict regimentation from external bureaucratic mandates. He reminds us that we don’t have to be livid to remain pissed off about injustice and that our panic over the possible eradication of independent thinking in the country isn’t about facing the imminent death of free will, itself, as much as it’s about misinterpreting sleep. After all, if anarchism is what the Oxford English Dictionary says it is, which is a “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion,” then those who seem unable to recognize its purpose as anything other than to encourage unregulated mayhem may have simply never learned how to recalibrate their comprehension of themselves and the world to account for moments instead of millennia and persons instead of people.
Specifically, without people as exacting and practical as Navasky, the leading rabble-rousers in the trenches might not have the wherewithal to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, without which there might not be any demands from the most vocal champions of our social democracy for establishment toadies to Eat shit and die! – nor, of course, would there be the potential for the rest of us to warn those with the loudest megaphones not to mistake the volume with which they shout as anything other than the wailing infancy of a frustrated future authority.
Copyright 2020 Dwayne Booth