Amid the recent publicity surrounding Slate, a quieter online story is evolving: the collaboration of Reason editor in chief Nick Gillespie and former Suck editor Tim Cavanaugh on what they call “the Suck-ification of Reason.” For the uninitiated, Reason is a monthly magazine devoted to monitoring the erosion of civil liberties and the dangers of big government. Suck (1995-2001) was an online magazine that took irony to new heights. The wedding officially took place last summer, when Gillespie hired Cavanaugh to edit Reason Online (Reason.com), a spin-off from the print magazine.
Says Gillespie of his Web editor, “Tim has brought more of a graphic identity and a spirit of duende to Reason.” (Gillespie, who has a Ph.D. in literature, likes to trot out his fancy vocabulary.) “Since Tim arrived, there’s a snarkier, punkier attitude that infuses the site and makes it more interesting and fun to read.”
Time will tell if this is a functional marriage or quick hitch. Consider “Pre-Teenage Wasteland,” an essay recently posted on Reason.com by Associate Editor Brian Doherty. The piece improbably combines a cultural deconstruction of accused child porn sampler Pete Townshend (who was never as “sneeringly libidinous” as Mick Jagger) with some very unironic reminders that the Who guitarist is innocent until proven guilty. Cavanaugh explains that, for many Reason staffers, the Townshend arrest was a bonding moment when they discovered that as kids, they were all Who fans.
In short, at Reason.com, pop culture rules. And in the last three months of 2002, traffic at the libertarian Web site reached a record-breaking high. In that period, according to Reason publisher Mike Alissi, the site attracted an average of 565,000 visits and 1.6 million document views per month, up from about half that in early 2001. The monthly print version of the magazine now reports a circulation of 60,000.
Gillespie has no hard evidence to explain the increase, but he thinks it could be the Cavanaugh effect: his punning headlines (“Axles of Evil”), the colorful art he finds to illustrate the site, and the blog that he debuted in December, “Hit and Run: continuous news, views, and abuse by the Reason staff.”
Then again, readers could be reacting to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll that Gillespie has been slipping into the mag since he took over in January 2000. Last week, along with Townshend’s travails, Reason.com featured Sara Rimensnyder’s “almost-defense” of The Bachelorette, complete with cheesecake photo, and Gillespie’s guide to the “drug of choice” clichés that run through a recent Rolling Stone story on crystal meth.
Or maybe the increased traffic at Reason.com can be attributed to the many Suck contributors whom Cavanaugh has brought over, including Doherty, Suck co-founder Joey Anuff, cartoonist Peter Bagge, Chris Bray, Ana Marie Cox, Chris Lehmann, and Hans Eisenbeis, who now edits The Rake, a Minnesota-based magazine. According to Gillespie, libertarians and Sucksters share a “common sense of fun and antagonism.”
The taste for sparring is apparent in the way Gillespie, 39, and Cavanaugh, 36, talk about each other’s hate mail. Cavanaugh recalls how, after Gillespie appeared on CNN last week, a viewer compared him to a “gay Elvis impersonator.” Gillespie says, “Tim often gets attacked for being a liberal—the worst insult that certain people can hurl.”
The friendship between the two editors can be explained in one word: Jersey. Says Cavanaugh, “I’m south Jersey. He’s central Jersey. I was an ocean lifeguard. He was a bay lifeguard.” Both went to Rutgers, though at different times. Gillespie says he once passed out in a house where Cavanaugh was later to live.
According to Gillespie, “To grow up in New Jersey is to grow up an existentialist, to realize the world is indifferent, if not downright hostile. You have to be on the lookout for other people’s bullshit, because you’re constantly being told that where you’re coming from is useless. After a while, you realize that a lot of political and social distinctions are not about reality and truth, but about people trying to put you in your place so they can better regulate your behavior.”
Gillespie now lives in Ohio, and Cavanaugh is moving to Los Angeles, where Reason is based. Most Sucksters have no connection to New Jersey, but they share an outlook that Gillespie calls “a thoroughgoing antinomianism.” This is another one of Gillespie’s fancy words, but don’t bother to look it up. He translates it as “a rejection of the prevailing wisdom and authority in general.” Cavanaugh calls antinomianism “a rallying call that says, ‘This is the end of rallying calls.’ ”
Before there was antinomianism, there was Suck, which Cavanaugh calls “the ultimate victory of style over substance.” When Cavanaugh arrived, Gillespie was already writing for Suck, producing screeds under a variety of pseudonyms. His best-known handle was “Mr. Mxyzptlk,” a reference to the imp who chased Superman in the comics.
Cavanaugh first encountered Gillespie as Mxyzptlk. “I was reading old issues of Suck, and I said [to Anuff], ‘You should get this guy to write more.’ It was really funny.” He cites a piece Gillespie wrote about two dead Saturday Night Live comedians, Chris Farley and John Belushi, riffing on the fact that the former was so much fatter than the latter. “To write for the Web,” Cavanaugh explains, “you have to have a point really quickly, and be willing to say what a lot people may have noticed, but were too polite to say.”
Moreover, Cavanaugh praises Gillespie for having a healthy relationship with the practitioners of pop culture that allows him to simultaneously “disrespect them and enjoy what they produce.” In a preemptive strike at his critics, Gillespie explains that “the attitude that energized Suck becomes corrosive if it just becomes cheap cynicism.”
When Reason‘s Web site was launched in 1995, it was nothing more than a partial archive of old issues. Gillespie became editor in chief in January 2000, and around the 2000 presidential election, the Reason staff began generating more content on a daily basis. Gillespie had already begun assigning pieces to Cavanaugh when Suck went down in June 2001.
Suddenly, Cavanaugh was unemployed. Over the next year, as the freelance market dried up, he said, Reason‘s business model appealed to him because it is “nonprofit, as opposed to nonprofitable.” Cavanaugh and Reason were a good fit because he had experience running a popular dotcom with limited staff and resources. Other Netizens are calling the Suck-ification a success.
Glenn Reynolds, who runs Instapundit.com, points out that while former Reason editor Virginia Postrel brought “intellectual respectability” to the mag, Gillespie and Cavanaugh are “making it hipper.”
“Reason is largely involved with politics and the policy debate, which can be a very dull business,” says Jack Shafer, Slate editor at large and a contributor to Reason. “Any levity, wit, or original point of view that anybody can bring to that is to be lauded.”
“National Review Online may have more happening,” says Chris Mooney, the former editor of American Prospect Online and a Reason contributor, “but Reason makes me laugh.”