Big Brother’s ‘Reason’ to Fear


In times of crisis, the government traditionally gives itself more power, and these days no one is monitoring the surge of federal power more closely than Reason, the monthly magazine for libertarians. The week after September 11, editor in chief Nick Gillespie scrambled to pull together an issue that would take advantage of the historical moment to showcase the magazine’s evolution. To achieve that, Gillespie quips, he needed writers “who could turn on a dime—or be beaten to within an inch of their lives.”

The result is a timely December issue that has just been released. The cover story (illustrated with a photo of Big Brother from the movie version of 1984) is a forum on the fate of civil liberties in the wake of the new anti-terrorism bill, which just passed last week. (Nat Hentoff, one of the contributors, accurately predicted the return of the “black bag” operation, a police search conducted before notifying the subject.) The issue also features “2001 Nights,” a Charles Paul Freund essay in which he argues that the West’s systematic degrading of the Islamic world has now been displaced by radical Islam’s decision to return the favor.

To counter the magazine’s long lead time, Reason also maintains a Web site on which fresh stories appear every week. For example, on October 26, the day Bush signed the anti-terrorism bill, Sam MacDonald posted an analysis, noting that one possible ramification is that “the FBI could [now] study all the traffic on news sites that offer a pro-Middle Eastern spin.”

While libertarians have no sympathy for the Taliban (Gillespie calls their society “an extreme version of everybody’s nightmare of an authoritarian government”), they do not hesitate to bash the U.S. government when it mistreats its own citizens. And that is what makes the magazine relevant today.

Over the last 10 years, Reason‘s readership has jumped from 44,000 to 60,000, while that of many other political magazines has leveled off, according to publisher Mike Alissi. Asked to explain the phenomenon, Alissi says, “People have become disenchanted with politicians on both the left and the right, and they like to read articles that challenge that traditional mind-set.”

Gillespie thinks Bin Laden has had a beneficial effect on political discourse since September 11. “The left have irradiated themselves by saying that the real tragedy is that twice as many Americans weren’t killed, while the right have had to . . . embrace women’s rights and secular society as defining American attributes.”

Since he took over in January 2000, Gillespie has added more cultural stories to the policy analyses that have been Reason‘s stock-in-trade. His desire to make the mag more “writerly” can be seen in the longer book reviews; and in an attempt to ramp up the humor, he has recently added a cartoon by Peter Bagge and a monthly “Rant” column. Under the advice of Wired founder Louis Rossetto, the magazine has just undergone a much needed redesign. [Read an interview with Rossetto about Reason‘s new look.]

Alissi says that Gillespie has brought a “swagger” to the magazine, a new tone. “We don’t question authority,” reads a recent print ad for Reason. “We interrogate it, impugn it, tear it down, dismember it, bury it, and, when the mood strikes us, dance on its grave.”

Asked where that tone comes from, Gillespie points to a stint in the 1980s, when he wrote for a group of teen and music magazines owned by British publisher Felix Dennis (a/k/a the founder of Maxim). One of his favorite pieces, he says, was “an unauthorized history of Mötley Crüe.”

But Gillespie’s seminal interests weren’t limited to music. “I was always skeptical of power,” he says, and when he was in high school, “Reason gave me a language to talk about that.” These days, Gillespie is dictating the libertarian spin, emphasizing choice as the key difference between libertarians and control freaks. A world filled with choice is “a good thing,” he says. “It’s the difference between Greenwich Village and Lincoln Center. It’s a marketplace broadly construed, people constantly negotiating and haggling, as opposed to an ossified culture in which a few people are deciding what is good and proper and then enforcing those rules.”

Gillespie seems to enjoy making editorial choices. He praises the January issue, which features a cover story on Ecstasy and two other drug pieces. (Libertarians have long been advocates of legalization.) But the perfect issue, he says, would combine “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—possibly with an analysis of Social Security.”

Murdoch’s Vassal

Now that Pieter Brueghel the Elder is being called “the second Hieronymous Bosch,” the New York Post might want to call its editorial cartoonist, Sean Delonas, the third Bosch. Delonas has been churning out malevolent fantasies for Page Six since 1990. Just in the last month, he’s given us Rudy Giuliani as King Kong, Freddy Ferrer kissing Al Sharpton’s ass, and Mark Green as a hooker.

But Delonas’s cause célèbre is an October 20 split frame that is said to have been dictated by management. In an encrypted promotional message, the cartoon depicted (1) two Post execs, said to be publisher Ken Chandler and editor Col Allan, wondering who sent the anthrax, and (2) Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman gleefully licking the envelope. In each frame was a chart; the charts showed the Post’s circulation taking off while News sales remained flat. (Internally, Post management has been crowing about a 22 percent boost in weekday sales, from about 437,000 last year to about 534,000 during the six-month period ending September 30. Meanwhile, the News had a more modest boost of 5 percent in the same period, bringing weekday circulation to about 734,000.) The implication: Zuckerman is a sore loser who would kill a competitor out of spite.

Of course, satire is protected by the First Amendment. But Zuckerman must have been steamed. According to The New York Times, News execs contacted Post advertisers, suggesting they drop their accounts. At least one did, admonishing the Post to be more sensitive. Allan copped to “approving” the cartoon, and told everyone to lighten up.

Controversy is nothing new for Delonas, who has caught flak in the past for his ethnic caricatures. More curious is his willingness to toady up to his patrons. In the mid 1990s, when Delonas painted the altarpiece at the Church of Saint Agnes, he gave one of the saints the face of Ken Chandler. In the October 20 cartoon, the Chandler figure has a barely visible sheep on his arm, which insiders say is iconography for Post owner Rupert Murdoch, a native of Australia.

Given his cartoon cameo, it’s safe to assume that Murdoch approved the Zuckerman smear, and some people think the News should retaliate. But an insider says the News has nothing to gain. “It would be like fighting with a pig,” said this source. “You both get dirty and the pig loves it.”

Delonas, Chandler, and Allan did not return calls for comment.