No Sweated Sectarian Madness Here

Chris Lehmann

When I came to In These Times in 1995 as a newly hired culture editor, friends and family took it as a decision distinctly on the daft end of the rational career-calculation spectrum, though many had the delicacy to refrain from saying so outright. I had already gone through a couple eventful tours at nonprofit left publications that melted into stupidly fractious labor and political conflicts – culminating in both cases with my quitting without notice. I had also recently been passed over for the editorship of a radical Bay Area journal for the trespass of making insufficient eye contact with the women on the editorial collective” who interviewed me for the post. Would I never learn the most basic lesson about lefty publishing: that it was all ill-paying, sweated sectarian and identitarian madness?

The premier testament to Jimmy’s singular gifts is, of course, the magazine you hold in your hands. In These Times was founded as a perfect reflection of Jimmy’s temperament: Jimmy deliberately set out to publish it in Chicago, so as to insulate it from the trendy fevers that seized other publications in higher-profile, coastal cities. He also made it the only national left-wing magazine that reported regularly – and critically – on that crucial, if so often heartbreaking, bastion of a renewed left politics, the American labor movement. ITT, like Jimmy, never succumbed to sectarian monomanias, or the purist patrolling of identity borders. And like Jimmy, it also kept a healthy sense of humor about itself, taking a lively interest in topics like pop culture and sexuality, and tweaking many brands of lefty self-infatuation just when they needed it most. Jimmy wanted an American left that would be both restlessly critical and, in the best sense, universal, taking all comers while being ever-mindful of maddening, ineradicable human foibles. For him the accent in democratic socialist always fell heavily on the democratic” – and like the best American socialists he wrote about, he foreswore the great left intoxicant of utopianism not merely as a misguided political ideal, but also as a humorless, inhumane one. 

When I arrived at ITT, I soon discovered I shared two of Jimmy’s other great passions: the Cubs and lunch. No matter how deeply buried I might be under a mountain of thankless editing chores, Jimmy would regularly come to my desk with a half-mischievous gleam in his eye and announce his need to eat. Resistance would always be futile, and soon he’d be driving (or rather, hurtling, to use a word more suitable to Jimmy’s driving style) into outer Diversey or Rogers Park, on the trail of a Mexican or Thai hole-in-the-wall, regaling me and the other shifting cast of ITT lunch regulars, with stories of his travels, his past political feuds, the magazine’s earlier editors and writers – all with the same great relish with which he’d tuck into his repast. 

And as for the Cubs, remember this was the mid-’90s: We were no Prior-Wood-Baker come-latelies to the Cub fold. When he moved to Chicago in the 70s, Jimmy had seamlessly transferred his youthful allegiance to the perennially hard-luck Brooklyn Dodgers to the hapless N.L. Northsiders. And as a native Iowan, I’d been cursed with a lifelong Cub fanship: It was my first love, and its many disappointments set the pattern for many other, later ones. But we both stuck with the Cubs much as we did with the left: Indeed, when at Wrigley for an afternoon game, we’d compare the bleak fortunes of the left with the many indignities visited on the Cubs, and agree that the cruelest fate of Cubs fans was to be saddled with George Will as their self-appointed spokesman. 

The last time I spoke with Jimmy was not long before he got news of his illness. He was, of course, getting set to build yet another institution, a new think tank, and would soon be sending off a proposal for me to mark up. And then we talked about an improbable Cub victory earlier in the week; as we marveled at the team’s late-inning heroics, I could picture, over the phone, that half-mischievous gleam in Jimmy’s eye.

Chris Lehmann, is editor-in-chief at The Baffler and a former managing editor of In These Times. He is the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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