Signs of the Times - Floating Limousine
Dec 1998
The Nation's Cruise: Floating Limousine
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"WHEN Victor Navasky and a group of partners first took over The Nation and its accompanying debts twenty years ago, the bearded scholar of McCarthyism says, two prospects would have been 'utterly unthinkable': 'The first was that the Soviet Union would become the former Soviet Union' in my lifetime, and the second was that The Nation would ever sponsor a Caribbean cruise.' That was then. Nowadays, of course, a magazine without a cruise is like a Muscovite without a stockbroker. 'Welcome to the first-ever luxury cruise of the vanguard of the proletariat,' Molly Ivins, the Texas columnist, announced to the three hundred and seventy-five passengers aboard Holland America's M. S. Veendam as The Nation's maiden Caribbean cruise steered toward St. Thomas last month. The trip had sold out almost immediately, at prices ranging from $1,824 to $2,936 per person. The most successful commercial venture in the magazine's hundred and thirty-three years of existence, the cruise also provided a lesson in the pleasures of cognitive dissonance. Uniquely, perhaps, in the history of Holland America Lines, passengers started the trip by complaining about the champagne, fresh flowers, and fruit baskets provided in every stateroom. 'Is that really necessary?' an elderly California woman asked. One Charlottesville man buttonholed Navasky to carp that no time was being set aside to raise money for the magazine itself, which runs at a deficit. 'There are a lot of pockets to pick here,' he advised.

The sun shone brilliantly, and the azure waves shimmered on cue, but many of The Nation's passengers hardly seemed to notice that they were on a boat, much less in a region renowned for its relaxation-inducing powers. When one scheduled speaker missed her plane and was unable to rendezvous with the ship at St. Thomas for a planned seminar on labor and the environment, fifty-six passengers decided to address the problem. Instead of going to the beach, they stayed on board and organized themselves into five working groups, appointing one passenger, a public-health physician from California, to bring the issue of the cancelled seminar to the Nation authorities. The result was an emergency session on labor and the environment, nicknamed the 'mutiny seminar.' Following this assembly, passengers put together other ad-hoc seminars, including one that convened at seven on Saturday morning to discuss how to create a 'culture of peace' for the next century.

The prearranged panel discussions were surprisingly tame, given that the panels were largely made up of Nation writers, many of whom were suffering from what the guest moderator Calvin Trillin termed the 'pinko flu.' The audience, however, showed a bit more feistiness. Against the background of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings, which were piped in on CNN, one speaker found himself being chastised by a female audience member for using the word 'emasculated' to refer to President Clinton's 1998 political agenda. 'I am concerned not only about the gender makeup of the panels but also by the use of language by this panel which reflects its gender bias,' she explained. Another audience member prefaced his comments by announcing that his first vote had been cast for Earl Browder, the Communist candidate who opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. Yet another audience member complained that too many of the speakers were demonstrating a dangerous 'softness toward Al Gore.'

A cruise consultant who had helped set up the trip was taken aback by the ambience. 'I've never seen a cruise audience be so ornery to its guest speakers,' he confided to me by the Stairmasters, adding, 'and it's not only the New Yorkers, either.' He was grateful, though, that no one tried to unionize the crew's largely Indonesian wait staff. In any case, this voyage had proved to be such a success that he was already assisting Navasky in planning the magazine's next cruise: an Alaskan trip featuring a bonus excursion to the site of the Exxon Valdez spill'" (Eric Alterman, The New Yorker, December, 1998).


Comments? Questions? Write me at george@loper.org.