Tilting at Liberal Windmills
When you spend your professional life surrounded by young, worshipful, clever, ambitious, self-regarding writers, you will likely accrue to yourself all kinds of lore as the years pass—myths and tales and legends about your amusing crochets and estimable virtues. It is perversely to the credit of Charles Peters, the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and mentor to a dozen or more prominent journalists, that so many of the anecdotes told about him by his disciples are so uninteresting. He’s just not the stuff of legend.
For example: Monthlies, as the disciples are sometimes called, like to tell the story of how their mentor began writing his column in the magazine. It seems that Charlie was an intrusive editor, inserting his nonce enthusiasms into whatever article he happened to be editing at the moment, regardless of writer or subject. Exasperated, one of his junior editors suggested he save all these bon mots—I don’t know if that’s the phrase that was used—and spread them once a month across several pages in the front of the magazine. And thus, my lads, was born “Tilting at Windmills.” The name was Peters’s idea.
As journalism anecdotes go, this one—which can be found repeated in any number of articles about Peters and the Monthly—falls a bit short of Henry Luce and Briton Hadden cooking up the idea for Time in the newsroom of the old Baltimore News. In mythologizing their mentor and his magazine, Monthlies from Jonathan Alter to Gregg Easterbrook, from Mickey Kaus to Michael Kinsley, must work with what they’ve got. And as it happens, the column Charlie started did turn out to be a thing of lasting interest and influence, which is why, at the turn of the year 2014, it was a shame when he signed off on his last “Tilting” and hardly anybody noticed. The columnist, now 87, and the column, 36 at the time of its demise, deserve a send-off. Together they made American politics a little more tolerable.
Peters founded the Washington Monthly in 1969 as the lonely voice of American “neoliberalism,” though he didn’t assume the label until a decade later, after a newspaper absurdly tagged him a “neoconservative.” “Tilting at Windmills” was where neoliberalism appeared in its purest form. The column was not a small undertaking, for either reader or writer. More often than not, a column would run to many thousands of words, and the direction in which that long line of sentences was moving was never clear; a reader might be forgiven for suspecting he was being led in circles, as the same topics, and the identical analysis of the same topics, rotated past him from one month to the next, or sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, in the same column.
As an editor, Peters earned the adjective that was once coined for the New Yorker editor William Shawn: He was unboreable. None of the gears in the great grinding machinery of government was too small to catch his editorial eye, so long as it could be used in an article that would advance some tenet of his neoliberal catechism. My favorite Monthly headline distilled the Peters method to its essence. It read: “How Property Tax Assessments Let the Rich Screw the Rest of Us.” It’s all there in 12 words: One of the world’s most boring subjects—not merely tax policy, but property-tax policy—tarted up with an overdone metaphor and served with heaps of them-versus-us victimology and class resentment. I don’t remember the article the headline was attached to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ran to 20 pages.
The class resentment was in every Peters column, too, all the way to the end. As a good Democrat who came of age during the New Deal, he never abandoned the caricature of “business” as the monocled fop from the Monopoly board, indifferent and irredeemably selfish when not purely malevolent. His ignorance of how wealth is created was one of a few markers by which other liberals knew Peters was one of their own. Otherwise they might have wondered.
To understand Peters’s achievement, it’s good to recall the state of liberalism in the magazine’s early years in the 1970s. It was becoming, to borrow R. Emmett Tyrrell’s phrase, the Liberalism of the New Age: at once wildly liberationist and rigidly statist, lured by pacifism and solipsism into a reflexive contempt for the military and national self-interest. As the natural receptacle of liberalism, the Democratic Party was losing the ballast of its most sensible members, who pronounced themselves neoconservatives and promptly became Republicans. Liberalism itself was in danger of becoming lost in the riot of enthusiasms, taking the Democrats with them.
Peters’s gift was to inject the fantasies of New Age Liberalism with common sense. The inoculation didn’t kill the patient, as some of us would have hoped, but it helped save liberalism as a plausible form of American politics. In his column and magazine, Peters advanced what the Monthlies, in their mythologizing mode, called the Gospel: The military was a benign institution protecting America from dangerous enemies; big-labor unions were too often parasitical entities corrupting the spirit of enterprise and upward mobility; government bureaucracy was a threat to the goals government was enshrined to pursue; criminals deserved swift and effective punishment; welfare recipients should work for their checks; bad public-school teachers, regardless of union protection, should be fired; and lawyers, more often than not, had a pernicious effect on civic life. There was lots more, most of it sensible, some of it bizarre (Peters hated jaywalking laws), and in time some of the Gospel became acceptable to a nontrivial number of Democratic leaders, thanks to the publicizing labors of Charlie’s Monthlies.
A good example of how unmoored Peters was from conventional progressivism was his view of patronage: He was all for it. Half of government jobs, he announced, should be appointed positions. As a practical proposal, this idea was of course unworkable—not to say crackpot—but the reasoning was more important than the idea. Rightly understood, patronage is an arm of democracy. Appointed positions are filled by the people our elected representatives choose; their failure can be corrected at the next election. Without patronage, government is manned by bureaucrats whose guiding purpose is self-preservation, and the country falls into the hands of a permanent and unaccountable governing class. As it has.
It’s not clear how so astute a student of bureaucracy could at the same time advocate a single-payer health-care system, as Peters does, but nobody ever accused him of ideological consistency. Indeed the unfailing thread that ran through every “Tilting” column was the class resentment I mentioned earlier. But unlike other liberals, Peters aimed it at Democrats, too. Thirty years ago he worried that at its upper levels, his party “was becoming a movement of those who had arrived, who cared more about preserving and expanding their own gains than about helping those in need.” This characterization has only become truer and more germane in the intervening decades, to the point where nearly all the richest counties in the country are controlled by Democrats—along with Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Big Philanthropy, Hollywood, higher education…
Charlie Peters is too loyal a Democrat—or too much an anti-Republican—to complain too much about this state of affairs, which endangers the cause of intelligent liberalism no less than the New Age did. I am sorry, though, that the windmills of our new ruling class will no longer have to endure the nuisance of his dull but honorable lance.