Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2011
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I have a love-hate relationship with The Atlantic, as my feelings toward it are generally not as strong as that. Like-dislike would be closer, though sometimes it tips over into like-hate. Hardly an issue arrives that does not contain at least one thing that causes me to ask myself why I subscribe to it at all, but usually there is also at least one thing that I’m glad I didn’t miss. More broadly, the reason I continue to read it is that it is one of my few substantial encounters with the educated secular progressive world.
I have plenty of insubstantial encounters, of course. The secular progressive worldview dominates journalism and popular culture and the academy, and I have acquaintances whose conversation and Facebook traffic are full of affirmations of that faith (or, more often, denunciations of unbelievers). But most of what one gets from those sources is pretty conventional and unchallenging stuff, easily and best ignored. The vast majority of my reading comes, naturally, from sources which are closer to my own interests and ideas, and these are mostly Christian and mostly conservative. But I feel a sort of duty to be at least somewhat aware of what’s going on in foreign parts.
It is not only religiously and philosophically that I feel myself to be an intruder in a different world when I read The Atlantic; it’s socially and financially as well. The magazine’s advertisements have little or nothing to offer someone like me. Let’s look at the July/August issue, as a handy instance—for brevity, I’ll note only the full-page ads.
The company formerly known as Shell Oil, now apparently just Shell, occupies the back of the magazine, the inside front cover plus the next page, and the inside back cover. That probably represents a pretty good sum of money. And what is Shell advertising? Well, apparently their biggest concern is increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles and reducing pollution, as three of the four pages deal with those matters. And why did they spend that much money on a magazine with a fairly small readership? My only direct contact with Shell is at the gasoline pump, but I doubt the patronage of Shell stations by Atlantic readers would justify the cost of these ads. Perhaps they’re aimed at investors—as we’ll see in a minute, there’s some justification for that conjecture.
Next comes IBM, which, as you know if you’ve seen their TV commercials, is interested in building a Smarter Planet™. A page further on, after the table of contents, we find a two-page spread for Fidelity Investments (“My client knows his complex investments could be doing more,” says the attractive, but not too attractive, female investment counselor of the handsome going-gray man who is not wearing a tie.)
Allstate Insurance, it seems, is devoted to making the world a safer place to drive; admirable. The Samsung Galaxy tablet computer will allow you to “see more and do more.” Singapore Airlines can provide you not just with a comfortable seat and a lot of attention on your Los Angeles to Tokyo flight, but with a private suite. The passengers pictured in this ad are sixtyish, white-haired, with that sleek and assured look that often goes with wealth; the pearls around the woman’s neck and dangling from her ears are probably real.
Membership in the Hilton Honors club seems to imply the company of a beautiful young woman who appears to be wearing only a sheet pulled from the bed of the luxurious hotel room where she stands at the window, her bare back toward us, looking enticingly over her shoulder. “It’s good to be you,” begins the text, ending with “everyone will wish they were you.”
Buying a Porsche will “turn small errands into short adventures.” No doubt. Novartis (a pharmaceuticals company) is mostly interested in eradicating dengue fever in the developing world. Hitachi is wants to “reduc[e] CO2 emissions and the impact on our environment.”
There is a full-page ad for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese “enjoyed by people with a passion for the very best man and nature can bring to the table.” Delicious, surely, and expensive, more surely. You might buy a Lincoln because “Knowledge is power.... It’s not just luxury. It’s smarter than that.”
Cathay Pacific Airlines repeats the luxury travel motif, though less impressively, with a sort of cubicle rather than a suite. First Republic Bank offers private banking and wealth management, and “always gets the job done,” according to the testimonial from the co-founder and management director of Vantage Point Venture Partners (who is not wearing a tie). The mission of Siemens is “building cities worth building a future in.” The Dyson vacuum cleaner claims to be better than all others, and is no doubt priced accordingly.
Thomson Reuters is interested in “leading scientists to greater discoveries, making financial markets fair and transparent, and promoting the rule of law.” Nice. They have three full-page ads. U.S. Trust (“Bank of America Private Wealth Management”) has two pages, in one of which it discusses the benefits of buying land as an investment. “Investors don’t need to be experts on land, however: leases and property management can be administered by the experts at U.S. Trust....” The investor probably never even needs to see the boring stuff, which is probably somewhere in the middle of flyover country, although of course the ad is illustrated with pictures of a bike rider surveying the wilderness and an old man talking to a child on the shores of a pretty lake.
Mercedes has two pages: “The best or nothing.” And here’s Shell again, in the middle of the magazine: “Sustainable development today builds sustainable energy for tomorrow.” HP invites you to “see what HP can do for the environment and you.” Computers are just an adjunct to the real mission, I guess. Principal Financial Group has created The Dreamcatcher, “a new online tool to help imagine the kind of future you want.” MSNBC believes the reader will be impressed by the words of Chris Matthews. Buick Regal has two pages.
Here’s another HP ad full of environmental concerns. Here’s Boeing, with more luxury travel in the form of the 787 Dreamliner (“It’s more than a dream”), with multicultural, young and casual (the guy is not wearing a tie) but obviously affluent passengers. MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Texas...why would they advertise here? I doubt most people’s insurance policies will pay for specific clinics far from home, so the ad must be aimed at people who can afford expensive treatment in part out of their own pockets. CFA Institute, a professional organization for financial advisors, features an advisor who happens to be an extremely vigorous-looking middle-aged woman in the act of kicking the hell out of a soccer ball. Ally Bank “treats your money like it’s actually yours.”
Well, enough of that, though I’m only two-thirds of the way through the magazine. What’s striking about all the big-corporation ads is that they suggest that making money is at most only a sideline in their real work, which is To Make The World A Better Place. Toward the end, in the book section, there are several full-page ads from publishers, and a good many smaller ads (scarce in the rest of the magazine). The message is pretty clear: the Atlantic reader is expected to be affluent—and I think we can assume that a major publication like this knows who its readers are—and also socially responsible, in a particular way: many of the ads emphasize care for the environment, an uncontroversial yet progressive position.
I am therefore pretty unusual among the magazine’s readers: apart from the books, there is nothing offered for sale in any of the ads I’ve mentioned for which I am a potential customer (with the possible but fairly remote exception of the Samsung tablet). I do have some dealings with an investment management company, but that’s only because the retirement plans of the organizations I’ve worked for are based on investing; my little fund is hardly the sort of thing that financial firms hope to lure with expensive advertisements.
The content of the magazine is, in the main, decidedly left-leaning, culturally and politically, although not radically so. It has tended to become more uniformly left and less diverse intellectually since the sad death of the independent-minded editor Michael Kelly, who was killed in an accident while covering the Iraq war in 2003. “Left of center” would probably be the correct socio-political category. Taken with the magazine’s audience, this is another confirmation of a tendency that has been often noted in recent years, and was especially striking in the 2008 election: wealth, which used to be associated with the Republican party and the right, is now at least as strongly associated with Democrats and the left. The Democrats’ constituency is mostly at the lower and upper ends of the economic scale.
None of this should surprise me very much; there has always been an affluent educated liberal class, and it has always had its publications (The New Yorker, for instance). Certainly not all the audience for magazines like these has been affluent, but most of it must have been, or businesses in search of people with plenty of money would not have continued to advertise with them.
Yet there is something especially irritating to me about the comfortable presumption, so clearly in evidence in both the advertising and the content of The Atlantic, that being “socially conscious” (repellent phrase) is very much compatible with personal luxury, and is in fact a fashion accessory in itself. You, the reader of The Atlantic, are not like those stuffy old rich people of the past, who dressed and spoke with stiff formality and grumbled about Roosevelt and taxes. You don’t wear a tie, but your casual elegance does not come cheap. Your politics obtain for you a pardon for your wealth. You can be simultaneously rich, virtuous, and cool.
The Atlantic was was founded by New England intellectuals of Unitarian and Transcendentalist bent, descendants of the Puritans, and one can still detect in it a distant echo of those older New Englanders who believed that God would reward his faithful in this world as well as the next.