The Intellectual Situation
Let Them Eat Print!
Women are the internet, and the internet is women. How else to explain male writers’ terror about taking it with them to the office? Women writers may admit they have a hard time working while online, but for men this appears to be a much more profound issue, and in some cases a hardware problem. (Zadie Smith thanks the internet-blocking application Freedom on the acknowledgments page of her latest book, but she didn’t name an entire novel after it.) Men tear the ethernet cord out of the socket, they hot-glue the socket, they use computers so old they say they were made without a socket. They claim they must avoid the internet so as not to masturbate all over their computers (see “The Porn Machine,” Issue Five). But their stories of covering up and gluing shut suggest that for men the internet is in fact the site of a perverse fear of penetration. They have withdrawn into a cult of the unplugged.
The magazine for these men is not the Atlantic, which treats the internet like a woman and placates it, but Harper’s, which treats the internet like a woman and ignores it. The defining difference is that Harper’s, in the person of publisher Rick MacArthur, doesn’t have to worry about making a living. While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacations.
MacArthur’s grandfather was the billionaire John D. MacArthur; his father became a millionaire in his own right when he started the Bradford Exchange, which makes almost all the world’s collectible ceramic plates, and later purchased the gadget manufacturer Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees reportedly receive discounts at Hammacher Schlemmer; no word if they’re getting deals on ceramic plates.) In 1980, when Harper’s was on the verge of closing, Rick MacArthur used his family’s resources to save the magazine. Today his Harper’s Foundation is its only source of financial support; in 2009, he contributed more than four million dollars to cover the magazine’s losses that year. Even as newsstand sales and ad revenues declined, MacArthur refused to consider any online strategies or allow his foundation to accept money from other donors, who might try to impinge on his reign. He would remain the magazine’s sole benefactor, no matter what the cost.
We heard MacArthur speak at the Columbia Journalism School in February, when he took a trip down memory lane to explain his refusal to put Harper’s online. When MacArthur was a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, thirty years ago, “the copy-desk chief was a brilliant and acerbic man named Tom Moffett. Moffett thought that reporters were lazy wimps . . . and he dared me one day at the Billy Goat Tavern . . . to work for him. Was I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I insisted that I was.”