From Cover to Cover

There’s an interesting development on North American magazine stands right now: two venerable US publications, Harper’s and The Atlantic, are running lead articles with opposing views on the war in Ukraine. The Atlantic piece is titled “The Counteroffensive,” by staff writer Anne Applebaum and editor Jeffrey Goldberg, and has the weighty tag sentence, “The future of the democratic world will be determined by whether the Ukrainian military can break a stalemate with Russia and drive the country backwards – perhaps even out of Crimea for good.” Meanwhile, the Harper’s essay is credited to scholars Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne, who ask the question that fronts the latest issue: “Why Are We in Ukraine?”

Whichever article is more persuasive, it’s heartening to see that serious topics are still debated in prominent print journals with substantial readerships. Harper’s first appeared in 1850, The Atlantic in 1857, and both have distinguished histories of running landmark reporting, fiction, reviews, and even poetry – Seymour Hersh’s account of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam broke in a Harper’s number of 1970, and The Atlantic, founded on abolitionist principles, published Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963. I am a subscriber to The Atlantic, and I’ve been reading occasional issues of Harper’s for years.

So as someone who appreciates long-form writing in traditional forums, I’m glad to see that for once a clash of ideas is happening not through Facebook or Twitter, or in televised sound bites, but in old-fashioned headlines, bylines, and complete sentences and paragraphs. Browsing the shelves at my local grocery outlet – an essential station in my shopping routine, after the vegetables but before the dairy aisle – I flashed back to what readers might have seen in the libraries or drug stores of the mid-1960s, with numerous books, newspapers, and periodicals pitching wildly divergent takes on Bonnie and Clyde, Timothy Leary, or the Great Society. The 2023 Harper’s article even borrows its title construction from Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? Latter-day fears that we are living in a Disneyfied, homogenized media environment, or that we are all sealed off from each other in separate ideological media silos, may be put aside, at least for this month.

“The Counteroffensive” is an on-site account that casts the Ukraine conflict as a matter of national autonomy and individual freedom, with plucky Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and President Vlododymyr Zelenskyy, interviewed for the article, nobly holding off a totalitarian adversary. “Russia, as it’s currently governed, is a source of instability not just in Ukraine but around the world…A Ukrainian victory would immediately inspire people for human rights and the rule of law, wherever they are,” Applebaum and Goldberg conclude. Maybe. But there’s something a little too easy about this view, and the way it’s been espoused by comfortable Western liberals as an obviously just cause to support with blue-and-yellow flags and online avatars; the cover of the Atlantic issue is an illustration of Zelenskyy by superstar Bono, as if the fighting is a viral meme or hashtag as much it’s as a violent struggle with no end in sight. Many observers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon.

On the other hand, “Why Are We in Ukraine?” is a history lesson explaining how Russia’s interest in preventing an eastward expansion of NATO right up to its own border is reasonable, and that Western supplies of arms and political backing to Ukraine needlessly escalate the potential for Russian nuclear response to a perceived threat. “Moscow’s alarm over the hegemonic role America had assigned itself was intensified by what could fairly be characterized as the bellicose utopianism demonstrated by Washington’s series of regime-change wars,” Schwarz and Layne argue further – “What, after all, would be America’s reaction if Mexico were to invite China to station warships in Acapulco and bombers in Guadalajara?” Fair points, although the authors don’t have much to say about how the Ukrainians themselves feel about a giant neighbor annexing their territory by force, as it’s doing now and has done brutally in past centuries.

Even if neither perspective offered by The Atlantic or Harper’s is fully convincing to average readers, we can take comfort in the evidence that a controversial subject is being openly discussed in good faith by respectable people with contrasting opinions. That’s unusual these days, when a lot of difficult contemporary questions reduce citizens to either Liking and Sharing (when they’re Pro) or Denying (when they’re Con), and when any dissenting view is shut out of our social media algorithms. Whatever happens in Ukraine, magazine subscribers and grocery shoppers can be confident that, in this instance, they’ve had a chance to hear both sides. Happy reading.