Paying Respects to James Weinstein, In These Times Founder
June 20, 2005
I was at the Media Reform Conference in St. Louis barely more than a month ago, and I ran into Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor of In These Times magazine.
"How's Jimmy doing?" I asked.
"Not well," Salim said, shaking his head. "He's got brain cancer. He's dying."
That was a shocker, and the news hit me hard, as the final announcement did.
James Weinstein, historian, editor, activist, man of the left, died on June 16.
But he was always Jimmy to me, an old, funny, cantankerous uncle I'd see once a year at the annual In These Times-Progressive baseball games that we kept going for more than a decade.
Jimmy was on the mound, intent on getting us all out. And he'd even go to the batting cage a week or two beforehand to get his swing down.
He liked the action.
He liked the bragging rights.
And he liked the bratwurst and the blueberry pie.
After the games, weíd talk a little shop: not so much about the finer points of leftwing politics but the nuts-and-bolts of magazine publishing: how circulation was, how the direct mail was going, which lists were working.
Publishing a leftwing magazine is no easy task. But Jimmy threw himself into it thirty years ago.
He knew the odds (he was, by all accounts, a good poker player). But he also recognized the importance, only now dawning on much of the left, to engage in media activism, to communicate our leftwing ideas and ideals in everyday speech for everyday people.
And so he insisted that the magazine not be located in New York or Boston or D.C. or San Francisco but in Chicago, that big Midwestern city with no bullshit.
At first, In These Times called itself "An Independent Socialist Newspaper," but it dropped the "socialist" after a while.
But Jimmy never dropped the dream of a democratic socialism, of a society where wealth did not govern but where people ruled, where corporations weren't allowed to exploit workers but where everyone had a floor of decency to walk upon, where war was not the chief object of the state but something to be eradicated.
In his last book, "The Long Detour" (which I reviewed captiously, I now admit with some remorse), he upheld "socialist principles in the Post-Industrial Era," and he called for a "worldwide program of demilitarization, led by the United States." Needless to say, we are a ways from there today.
But distance from victory never deterred Jimmy.
He was a gifted historian. His book "The Corporate Ideal and the Liberal State: 1900-1918" became a New Left landmark. And "The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925" is crucial in understanding the riddle of our underdeveloped left.
But his lasting achievement is In These Times.
I've been reading it ever since Joe Schwartz, a graduate student at college, showed me a copy twenty-eight years ago.
I liked it immediately. It was accessible. It did not have the screaming headlines of the sectarian leftwing publications, and it had more reporting than The Nation.
This devotion to reporting, which Joel Bleifuss the current editor, has done so much to accentuate, made the magazine a gateway for newcomers. Week in and week out, it revealed, even then, how paltry the mainstream media's coverage of the world was.
Under Jimmy's leadership, In These Times also made three commitments that distinguished it from other magazines: It covered the labor movement. It covered race. And it covered pop culture. These commitments, embodied by senior editors David Moberg, Salim Muwakkil, and Pat Aufderheide, lent the magazine a consistency and a depth all its own. And more than most leftwing magazines, In These Times took environmentalism seriously and saw in that movement a way to sing beyond our choir.
Jimmy also paid attention to electoral politics at a time when some publications, including The Progressive, were scorning it. He upheld what Paul Wellstone and later Howard Dean would call "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." His magazine profiled members of the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. And true to form, its current issue has a cover story on Bernie Sanders, the Independent (and socialist) Representative from Vermont, who may become the first socialist Senator in U.S. history next year.
Jimmy and I differed on the efficacy of third party politics. I remember him telling me, fifteen years ago, the story of a friend who was an organizer for Henry Wallace in 1948 but due to the futility of our winner-take-all system actually went into the voting booth and cast his ballot for Truman. In "The Long Detour," Jimmy elaborated on his critique, excoriating Ralph Nader for his 2000 run, calling it "divisive", "a terrible disservice," and "a blind alley." (While the disastrous reign of Bush has lent some force to Jimmy's argument, Bernie Sanders presents a counter, of sorts. Jimmy once said that Sanders could get further running as a Democrat than as a socialist. In November 2006, Sanders may prove him wrong.)
But such debates are as to nothing in the measure of a human being.
This particular human being could be bristly, but he was quick and clever and shrewd and wise and lovable.
He devoted his heart and soul, for sixty years, into making this country and this world a better place to live in.
He leaves behind now a generation or two of leftwing journalists and a vital independent voice still out of Chicago called In These Times.
I will miss the man.
I can still see his skinny legs on the mound, and his slow, tricky, looping pitch.
I told Salim I was going to call Jimmy.
I never did.
I call him now.