Sat. Jan 18th, 2020

Sustenance for the Movement: A Conversation with Nathan J. Robinson

THE FIRST TIME I heard of the magazine Current Affairs, I thought I’d been seeing it all my life. That turns out to be by design: vague and stately, the magazine’s sobriquet was chosen to lure potential readers with a sense of familiarity. The trick fits with the magazine’s whimsical and cheeky tone, one that belies its unsparing content. Originally a passion project of publisher and editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson in 2015, the magazine has grown to reach a few thousand subscribers bimonthly, finding elbow room amid the surge in left publishing since the 2016 election. Robinson’s dandyish sensibilities permeate the publication: he speaks in an English accent despite living most of his life in the United States, wears bowties, writes children’s books on political philosophy, and argues for a socialist utopia that is as luxurious as it is ornate.
This week sees the publication of Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist, deepening a series of arguments from the magazine to manifesto-length. I visited the magazine’s headquarters in New Orleans to speak with Robinson; in true communitarian spirit, he brought along business manager Eli Massey and “administrative maven” Cate Root. Each of them also contributes to what Robinson calls “the foremost left political magazine in New Orleans.” The following conversation, on where the book came from, New Orleans, and movement journalism, has been edited for length and clarity.
SAMMY FLEDBLUM: What was the genesis of Current Affairs?
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: I was a very unhappy graduate student who felt aimless and depressed. I was really frustrated doing freelance writing for a number of publications, because they chop your words to hell. This was at the time when the Facebook guy had just taken over The New Republic. The new editor had instructed them to not publish things over 500 words because he got bored. I tend to write more like 10,000 words. I was doing that in grad school because I was enjoying writing. I was also making these bizarre children’s books. I didn’t like school, so this was to distract myself.
Jacobin was a strong inspiration — they had started from scratch and built a print magazine in the supposedly post-print era. They’d gotten to 40,000 subscribers. They were completely sustainable almost entirely on subscription revenue. One day, I bought this giant stack of magazines, like, “How do people make magazines? What is a magazine?” I brought them back to my house, flipped through, and realized, “These are all terrible! And they succeed!” I was looking at Time magazine: it was awful. The articles were like 200 words long, had no research, and the design was lazy. So I made a prototype on my computer, had it printed, and me and [co-founder] Oren Nimni were looking at this sample issue and were like, “I think we could make a magazine work.” We did a Kickstarter campaign, and printed the first issue. In 2016, we said that Trump was going to win the general election. That panicked a lot of people, because the consensus was that he was destined to lose. So that brought us in a ton of subscribers.
I have always wanted to move to New Orleans. I lived here for a couple of summers: I’d worked at the public defenders’ office. That was my first exposure to the city. After I graduated law school, I studied for the Louisiana Bar. I never intended to practice law in Louisiana. But I heard that it was really difficult and weird. I had this manic determination to pass the Louisiana Bar. So in May 2017, after our first year of issues, I moved to New Orleans. Rented this one room at first. Painted the walls red, put up the letters.
I’d never seen the inside of a magazine office. Oh, except Vanity Fair. In the early days of Current Affairs, when we’d just made our first issue, I sent Graydon Carter a very snotty email: “Our magazine is going to destroy your magazine.” And he replied, “Why don’t you come to New York, and why don’t you say that to my face?” So I went to the Vanity Fair offices, and had my chat with him. He said, “These magazines are very beautiful, you should keep doing this, but you’re going to fail. Print is dead.”
I was thinking, “Well, maybe you just have a bad magazine, sir.”
Now you’ve outlasted him.
He’s gone, he’s out. My theory of print is that it just has transformed, it has to be different now. It can’t be like sending you a brick of ads. Which is what Vanity Fair is.
You founded the magazine amid a resurgence for lefty publications. How do you imagine that you fit into that wider network?
We’re thrilled to be part of a left media landscape. We think about Jacobin a little bit because of our relationship to them. They’re 10 times as large as we are. I like to think of us as the Bakunin to their Marx. We’re a little bit more anarchist. Our magazine is more colorful, very fun, and very scathing. In our original Patreon pitch, we put that we were more New Orleans than Brooklyn. We weren’t actually based in New Orleans at that point.
I do think quite specifically of us as having a job within the left political movement. We want to put out reporting that is reliable, and scrutinize ourselves, and not be dogmatic. But we want to offer inspiration to, comfort for, and information for the people who are out there trying to build a powerful left social and political movement.
We still maintain a very critical stance — I don’t want to imply at all that we’re a megaphone for politicians. But we do think a lot about what we do, what it is useful for. How do we convert people to the left who are not necessarily sympathetic to left ideas but are open to them? I wrote about the DSA convention recently. There was all sorts of horrible coverage of it that was distorting what happened. So it was important to me not just to write about the DSA convention because it’s interesting, but also because it’s important for people to understand the way in which media portrayals were lying to them about what happened at the convention.
These lengthy takedowns of people that you find distasteful, I read them as for someone who dislikes, say, Jordan Peterson, but isn’t lucid about exactly why — sort of a reference piece for why you ought to dislike this person.
A lot of people, they’re completely right on their instincts, but they can’t articulate why they feel a certain thing. I want to go, “This is why you’re feeling that way.”
Why You Should Be a Socialist serves two purposes. The first purpose is to take people who are skeptical and try and persuade them. The second function, which I think is going to end up being the more important function, is to take people who do already identify as socialists, and go, “Here are the arguments against you that you will hear, and here is a more refined understanding of what it is.” If you ask a lot of young people who identify as socialists what socialism means, often they won’t have a very coherent answer. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because I think their instincts are good. I want to help them articulate and refine those instincts.
What do you think that it does mean for you to be based in New Orleans?
CATE ROOT: I think it’s important to live in a place that celebrates beauty and collectivism, which New Orleans does. Nathan and I both live in the French Quarter. You can actually just be walking down the street and hear a trumpet from Jackson Square as you have coffee in the morning.
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: There’s also bubble machines in the French Quarter, bubbles in the streets all the time.
CATE ROOT: But also, New Orleans, it’s such a small city. It’s possible to still be oblivious here, but that’s a lot of insulation. I live in the French Quarter, we can talk about music on the streets. I also see people sleeping in the streets every single day. This is a painful place.
We live in the future, basically. We live in the failed state, the capitalism-destroyed state. We have no public schools, we have no faith in state government, no faith in federal government. It’s a strange place that both very much exemplifies the rest of America, and stands apart from it.
ELI MASSEY: We had for a very long time the highest rate of incarceration.
The other piece is being outside the Beltway. It becomes very difficult to write the sorts of scathing takedowns that Nathan and Current Affairs do if you’re going to bump into the subjects at a party. Or maybe you know them and you think, “They’re a wonderful person and I disagree with them politically,” but it personalizes politics in a way where it’s a friendly rivalry, instead something with real material stakes.
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: I think distance is required for clarity sometimes. Being outside of New York, DC, Los Angeles, has been tremendously helpful in allowing us to have an independent voice. Everyone there is going to the same shows, talking about the same things in the same circles. We don’t have the same points of reference. We just inhabit a different milieu. We talk to different people. It makes our magazine feel unique, and feel like we’re having our own conversation.
I think it’s just as legitimate to put New Orleans at the center of things as to put New York and DC. I don’t think that they have a superior claim on being at the heart of this country. If anything, New Orleans, which gave birth to some of America’s greatest cultural traditions, and has shaped this country so much, deserves a more central place in its imagination.
Do you feel like your time in the public defenders’ office here has influenced the magazine work?
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: That was such an eye-opening summer. You talk about the criminal punishment system, but what is that? How do the gears turn? What is it that takes someone from one place and then puts them in a box for 30 years? I was fascinated by municipal court when I was here — they do traffic tickets over there, lesser things like misdemeanors. They haul like 30 people in, who all plead guilty to their misdemeanor, and then they’d all be assigned a certain punishment and a really high set of fines and fees. Then you’d have all the people who hadn’t paid their fines and fees hauled in. Some of them would be sent back to jail, and some of them would have to pay more fines and fees. They even kept an ATM just outside of the courtroom so that you could pay your fines and fees. People got hooked into this horrendous system that kept them in debt to the state for years, with the threat of jail constantly hanging over them. That was something I hadn’t seen before, and it was very disturbing.
I see this place as so important, and I do see it as the front lines of American injustice and inequality. But I also became intoxicated by the positive things about this city that we mentioned too: the collective joy of life in the streets here. People are just nicer here. I found it weird, because I’d be standing on the street corner, and whoever was standing on the street corner next to me would go, “Hey, how you doing?” I’d go, “Do you want something from me? What is it you would like?” Someone came up to me one time at a coffee shop, like, “I heard you talking about Winston Churchill, I’ve got some thoughts about Winston Churchill.” I thought: “Who are you? Okay, I’ll hear your thoughts about Winston Churchill.” That’s a very different kind of culture. I can be a very reclusive person. I’m not actually that social. I find it difficult to go out and make friends. But here, it’s really easy to make friends, because you just stand there and friends will show up.
How do the books fit in with the larger project?
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: I write books because I feel like certain arguments need to be elaborated to more length. The first Current Affairs book we put out was about Bill Clinton’s record on race, because I thought that was something people didn’t understand. I started writing an article about it and was like, “There’s enough here for a short book.” So I took a month and turned it into a book. The next book was the Trump book, Anatomy of a Monstrosity, because there was a left perspective on Trump that was very important to capture that was different from the mainstream critiques of him. Also trying to understand why he came about, and how to fix the underlying problems that brought him about, so even though it’s called “Trump,” a lot of it is about how we build the left.
I told you why I was writing the “why you should be a socialist” book. A lot of times it’s going deeper on arguments that we think people need to understand, so we want to do one on animal rights and one on why open borders are good. It’s also making sure that things that we have published don’t slip into the memory hole. Because if people miss an article the first time around, it’s gone. We want to keep it alive. This book compiles a lot of the arguments that I’ve made over the last three years, there’s endless footnotes to Current Affairs articles that we’ve done that explain or elaborate on the points that I make here. So I want to be able to have new people come in and get themselves up to speed.
And the children’s books?
NATHAN J. ROBINSON: Very strange place in the deep recesses of my subconscious mind. I did parodies of popular children’s books. Have you seen Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!? It’s about a pigeon who wants to drive a bus, and you’re supposed to not let the pigeon drive the bus because pigeons can’t drive buses. I thought that book teaches children an authoritarian mentality. So I wrote this book called Don’t Let Children Question the Rulers. It’s sort of a basic introduction to political philosophy.
They’re not really for children. They’re for adults. There’s also a children’s book out there called The Day the Crayons Quit, and it’s about a boy whose crayons decide to go on strike, and then I think he crushes the strike, or they decide to go back to work voluntarily. It’s a real liberal take on labor politics. So I wrote The Day The Crayons Organized an Autonomous Workers’ Collective. They find that they don’t need the boy. The boy is completely extraneous: they can do the art all by themselves.
Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and writes about the southern half of the United States.
The post Sustenance for the Movement: A Conversation with Nathan J. Robinson appeared first on Los Angeles Review of Books.

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