The Atlantic

Want to strut your intellectual mettle? Check out The Atlantic. Get ready to get down with Michelle Rhee, D.C. school chancellor, Bill Maher's atheism and China's image problems. The 151-year-old magazine addresses critical issues and champions, according to editor James Benet, "independent thinking." Which means it's guaranteed to send "Fox & Friends" into apoplexy.

  I salute the spirit of independence, a quality often ignored on the hyperactive screamfest of cable TV; thoughtful analysis cannot be broken by a 30-second spot for Dimetapp or a close-up of Anderson Cooper's razor-thin 'do. On election night, CNN had at least eight commentators on board to reinterpret reality. It was like the tea party in "Alice in Wonderland" -- with partisans doubling as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.

Thus, this seems like the ideal time for insightful news pubs to reassert their relevance. The original thrust of The Atlantic, whose founders included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was to advance the abolitionist cause. Today, the focus is to drill deep into our global psyche, critiquing politics, business, media, economics and society. To make that agenda visually and editorially palpable, the November issue has had a face-lift, thanks to Pentagram, augmented by a branding campaign by Euro RSCG.

The first order of business: adapting a nameplate that appeared on the cover 35 years ago. The new Atlantic font is clean, yet classic. The second, restoring the "Dispatches" section and adding new columns, like "Moving Pictures," about pop culture, and "What's Your Problem?" a back-of-the-book advice entry. Just to keep things interesting, the magazine has added standalone illustrations, too.

This month, The Atlantic features a text-heavy cover with 23 questions -- and the appeal eludes me. It's too busy, and some type can only be glimpsed by microscope. Also, it's disconcerting to be asked: "Should children have sex changes?" next to: "Can you avoid hating yourself in the morning?" Yes, if you make the right call on the sex issue. And parents thought getting kids into preppy Upper East Side preschools was hard.

The Atlantic, never afraid to provoke readers, is committed to "no party or clique"; it wants to argue about controversial ideas, like Jews at a Seder. For instance, Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote a thoughtful essay on the FCC's crusade against swearing, litigated in several high-profile cases. While it's apparently bad form to utter profanity on TV, sycophantic celebrity interviewer James Lipton delights in asking stars their favorite four-letter words. Me, I'd go with "sale." It's loaded with collective power.

So is "atheist," though for much different reasons. Faith is explored in the new film "Religulous," Bill Maher's comedic takedown of religion, in which Christianity gets the biggest send-up. What's it all about, Alfie? On his quest to determine what makes believers tick, Maher finds a whole lotta crazy going on.

The feature on Rhee is more sobering. She's an education revolutionary determined to improve an abysmal school system, since success could have a stunning impact on public education. To get the job done, she isn't afraid to kick ass -- unions, politicians or parents. Given the frustration level and the endless impediments, I'd call her battle a profile in courage.

On balance, I'd say reading The Atlantic is akin to mental gymnastics. The range of topics -- from foreign policy to V.S. Naipal's biography -- touched the key muscle groups: head and heart. It's not every magazine that carries a 4,000-word story on transgender children and the potential medical decisions families with such kids face. It certainly opened my eyes.

And this Thanksgiving, when there is a lull in the conversation, that moment after the food is served but before the familial in-fighting begins, I'll know exactly how to kick-start it.


Published by: Atlantic Media Company

Frequency: Monthly

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