'When intellectuals can do nothing else they start a magazine." So spoke Irving Howe about his decision to launch Dissent in 1954. The dean of New York social democracy was drawing on reserves of nostalgia for Partisan Review, the literary journal founded 20 years earlier that had changed the way politically engaged intellectuals wrote for a general audience.
All smart sheets trace a lineage back to PR or one of its many offspring publications, and Daniel Johnson, the editor-in-chief of Standpoint, the new center-right British monthly devoted to culture and politics, is openly indebted to the American tradition of highbrow magazine publishing. In a phone interview, he ticks off a list of mentors and encouragers long enough to sound like he's giving an Oscar acceptance speech; among them, Neal Kozodoy of Commentary, Roger Kimball of the New Criterion, and Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun. "I wanted to emulate this very rich, very vibrant spectrum of magazines in America," he said. "I wanted to combine the best of these magazines, which represent a particular camp or orientation, and to have their arguments take place in our pages."
Standpoint's starkest model is Encounter, the brilliant Cold war journal edited by Irving Kristol and Stephen Spender that dealt in Anglo-American themes and survived the not-so-minor scandal of being secretly funded by the CIA for part of its tenure. "We're open to their calls," Mr. Johnson laughs, before answering my next question: Standpoint is put out by the Social Affairs Unit, a registered charity, and its main financier is Britain's largest shipping magnate Alan Bekhor.
This splendid and handsomely designed addition to the glossy firmament is committed to the upkeep of the special relationship, and it isn't tentative about using words like "civilization" as a rapier against the new ideological menace posed by radical Islam and its fellow travelers and apologists. "Since 9/11 and the Iraq war," Mr. Johnson tells me, "the transatlantic bridge had to some extent frayed. There were terrible tensions and misunderstandings and actual lies. One of the many functions of Standpoint is to rebuild that bridge, without which the West really is in big trouble." Enlisting the poetry of Robert Conquest is surely one way to fashion a rampart. So too is having an advisory board that attests to such heady cosmopolitan ambition: V.S. Naipaul, David Hockney, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Tom Stoppard are all godparents of Standpoint, which can claim, too, a proud genealogical heritage: Mr. Johnson is the son of acclaimed historian Paul Johnson, and the names Louis Amis, Alexander Hitchens, and Daisy Waugh dot the masthead, belonging to the families you think they do.
Standpoint may pay homage to the past, but its mission is rooted squarely in the present ó which means having a strong online incarnation, which is headed up by the deputy editor, Jonathan Foreman. How have articles posted on the Web been received by readers and commentors, whose penchant for anonymously delivered (and semiliterate) bile can lower an otherwise worthwhile conversation? "We've been very lucky so far," Mr. Foreman tells me in a separate phone interview. "We have an approval system, and there are esoteric and weird conversations that go away from the main point of the articles. But that's okay. None of it reads like the horrible stuff one finds on the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post."
Shrill content is to be avoided, tout court. One of Standpoint's goals, according to Mr. Johnson, is to never be fitted in a constrictive ideological straitjacket, the reason being that Britain lacks the same diversity of cerebral magazines that we have over here, and so it might as well have a conservative monthly with enough partisan promiscuity to keep things interesting. Standpoint is "not completely taking sides" in the presidential election, Mr. Johnson says, but its preference is not all that hard to discern. For the July issue, which appeared late last week, Gerard Baker penned a cool and evenhanded analysis of the Obama-McCain contest, but evinced slightly more sympathy for the Republican nominee. And Mr. Johnson himself rails against "Obamamania" in the same pages.
The only comparable publication in Britain with an avowed politics but the wherewithal to avoid facile pigeonholing is Prospect, founded in 1993 by David Goodheart. In the '80s both Mssrs. Goodheart and Johnson, then a happy contributor to Encounter, were stationed in Bonn as Cold War correspondents, whereupon they began floating the idea of starting a new magazine for the post-Cold War age. Mr. Goodheart beat Mr. Johnson to it, although the latter is quick to point out that Standpoint and Prospect, which is left of center, are quite different from each other and can easily occupy the same shelf. "Prospect is much more of a political magazine, whereas I wanted something to do justice to the arts and books," Mr. Johnson says. One inspired way to traverse the bloody crossroads of literature and politics is to address the brute history of communism in a group dialogue of accomplished Mao and Stalin biographers. Put Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, and Simon Sebag Montefiore in a room together, ask them penetrating questions, and the result is "Long Night of the Red Star," one of the longer features that ran in the last issue.
So far the experiment has exceeded expectation, at least in terms of publicity. The Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's piece on the question of whether Britain can still be classified as a "Christian" country "made the splash" in the Daily Telegraph and a host of other London papers; it was also covered heavily on the BBC, no doubt sensitive to the question, just months after the archbishop of Canterbury declared that Britain would have to adopt elements of sharia law to survive in the multicultural era. Historian Michael Burleigh's cover story, "How to Defeat the Global Jihadists," looked admiringly across the pond at the Pentagon and contrasted its hardheaded policies to Whitehall's dangerously lax ones.
Unsurprisingly, Standpoint has already earned all the right sneers on the British left, which pleases Mr. Johnson. "At least they're not ignoring it," he says. They hardly could, given its propensity for tweaking the bien-pensant. "Certain names [we publish] immediately seem to provoke an allergic reaction in some quarters over here," he informs me before stating that the July issue features a review of Robert Kagan's new book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," written by one Paul Wolfowitz. "I'm very happy to publish him. The piece next to his is by biographer Victoria Glendinning, who is very left and feminist. Whether she's happy and comfortable appearing next to Wolfowitz, I don't know. But I very much hope so. They're both exemplifying these values we're out to defend and celebrate."