Doom-Cryers of The World, Have I Got A Publication For You!
They’ve Been Telling People The World Was Ending Before It Was Hip
When I was a teenager I had a subscription to a magazine called Story, one of those few publications devoted to the publications of original short works of fiction. Already an endangered species in the 1990s, it went into extinction around the turn of the century. As a consolation when it folded, I was offered a subscription to one of my choice of magazines. On a whim, I chose Harper’s, a decision that, in hindsight, I’d wished I never made.
For those of you who don’t pay attention, Harper’s was founded in 1850, and has existed in several forms since then. There was a weekly from 1857 to 1916 and there have been collections of its articles have been made for decades. It has had some of the greatest writers, thinkers and politicians of all time write for it, and very well still may. By the time I started reading it in 2000, it had fallen under the leadership of Lewis Lapham. The most famous column by Lapham for Harper’s was an article on the 2004 Republican National Convention which appeared in the September 2004 issue. Given the deadlines of publication, it was impossible for the article to have been written after the convention had happened. When called on this fact, Lapham admitted the fundamental fraud and showed no remorse for it, saying that conventions were entirely predictable anyway. He continued to edit the publication for another two years before finally leaving in 2006, though for years to come he would open the magazine with his editorials. The fact of that publication fundamentally tells not only what you need to know about Lapham but about the magazine.
For decades Lapham and his writers essentially excoriated every single element of the Republican party, well before 9/11 and even Clinton’s impeachment. All Republicans were monsters: when Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to begin his Presidential Campaign, Lapham spent two articles in which he made it clear what a monster he thought Dole was. He spent the entire George W. Bush administration — as I said, well before 9/11 — calling everybody who was remotely connected with a monster. And I should make it clear he had no real use for Democrats either: he could muster no praise for Gore at the time, spent much of the lead up to the 2000 election preaching for Nader, and wasn’t able to work up praise for John Kerry. He also shrugged off many historical events: when Mark Felt finally revealed that he had been Deep Throat, he didn’t seem to think it mattered any more or even it should now. As for when Democrats were president, he had little use for them either: he couldn’t bother to work up praise for either of the Clintons and even when Obama became President, he didn’t think it mattered at all.
This mood carried forth through the majority of the writers and editors who worked for Harper’s throughout the decade I subscribed to the magazine. The only reason any subject was raised for publication was, to put it bluntly, to shit on it. It didn’t matter if it had to do with world politics, arts, and culture or a historical or significant figure that surfaced in their book reviews. They saw none of their charms and only their flaws. Many reviews of biographies in publications like the Times or The New Yorker fundamentally end up reviewing the life of the subject. All of the reviews of nonfiction were essentially an excuse to revile or dump on the purpose or the history involved.
I think for mean the point that served as the beginning of the end came when I was reading some of the shorter fragments that come between introduction and the major stories. I don’t remember the exact issue, but they were publishing the last journal entries of Spalding Gray, a literary and theatrical performer who I had admiration and respect for and whose suicide in 2003 had personally devastated me. I read his journal not sure what I was going to find. I was appalled when I finished, not so much because of the horror that I had seen but because any publication thought that it deserved to be seen by its audience. We may want to know a person’s last words, but who among us would want amounts to a suicide note published from coast-to-coast? And yet, that’s what Harper’s felt its readers should have.
By the final years of my subscription (I don’t know when I finally ended it, I think it was before Obama’s first term ended) the only part I was looking at was the crossword section. And even that was an exercise in masochism.
For those of you who have never had the pleasure, the crosswords in Harper’s are ostensibly cryptics: the kind of crosswords that deal with wordplay, puns, anagrams and involving you figuring out answers within the clue. This is generally a much tougher challenge for crossword puzzlers than even the Sunday Times, but the puzzlers don’t consider that enough of a challenge. All of their cryptics have ‘themes’, by which I mean they will go out of their way not to make them harder but leave parts out. These variation include, leaving out letters of the answers, not telling you where the answers go, leaving out the order of the answers, and in some cases creating entire puzzles where they tell you not even implying what clues refer to what subjects, leaving the ‘happy’ puzzler to figure it out. And as if none of that were enough, all of these cryptics were ‘contests’ where those who managed to work through all of that in the weeks between publications could submit them to Harper’s. What prize did the lucky winner get? A year’s free subscription to the magazine.
Perhaps its only in hindsight, but I think the crossword serves as a perfect metaphor for how Harper’s approaches everything: they make something that you might like much harder and more painful to deal with, utterly contorts the brain, and your only reward for getting through it is to get even more of the same.
I haven’t read a single issue of the magazine in more than a decade, and frankly the covers that I see in every newsstand I go to fundamental tells me that the intervening decade hasn’t changed anything about how they approach live. And indeed, it is the December issue that has fundamentally inspired this piece.
Their cover story: “SHOULD WE BE ROOTING FOR THE APOCALYPSE?” It is to laugh, not only because it’s a fundamentally ludicrous question but because that could essentially serve as Harper’s mission statement. Everything I ever read about in the nearly ten years I subscribed to it showed a publication that more or less was rooting for exactly that. Every single element in every article said that civilization was on the downward spiral, that there was no part of it that wasn’t flawed and it was only going to get worse. I imagine given their politics; the last decade has not changed their thinking one iota. Hell, maybe they were hoping it did get worse. Covid should wipe out the planet. Trump should win reelection! I don’t even want to think what they thought at the end of January 6th. Were they happy or disappointed? Neither reaction seems right, but both are possible.
Now why did I write this article, and direct it to so many of you doomcryers on this site? No, it’s actually not to get you to subscribe to Harper’s; I imagine you don’t want to waste paper on a magazine that just confirms what you believe already. No, this is essentially to rub your noses in their business model.
I also know that most of you don’t care about nuance. So let me make this perfectly clear to every single one of you who writes these articles and those of you who cheerfully post approval to everyone.
You are not special.
You are not smart.
You did not discover the wheel.
When it comes to the art of doom-crying, you are all rank amateurs, people who were born on third and think they hit a triple.
For decades, the writers, editors and publishers for Harper’s have been doing everything you have been doing better, with more numbers and better vocabulary. Many have been doing it before you were born. Most have been doing it before you came to your point of view. All of them are making far more money than any of you ever will for your articles. And all of them reach a far more widespread audience than even the most successful of you ever will. Like I said in an earlier post, there’s money in doom-crying to be sure, but rest assured they are going to be the ones who make the post.
But don’t worry. None of them think any more of you than you do of them. I have little doubt that they show the absolute contempt for your generation that you do for them and are just as certain that you are the bigger cause of the problem that you think they are. They no doubt thought social media was destroying the world long before you came along. And if any of them were to hear of your meager enterprises, I imagine their reaction would be a mix of contempt and bitter amusement. Something along the lines of William Shatner telling a Star Trek convention on SNL to ‘Get a life!” or “Just like this generation. Giving away for free what they could be making an honest living off of.”
And honestly, that’s why I have so little respect for you and your ilk. Harper’s was telling everybody the sky was falling before most of you bothered to look up. The fact that they’ve been doing so for decades longer than you have has not changed their business model one bit. They’re looking forward to the apocalypse as much as you are. The difference is, it’s their day job.
Have a nice day.