[Reader-list] Return of the NYRB

shivam zest_india at yahoo.co.in
Thu Jun 17 20:55:53 IST 2004

  The Rebirth of the NYRB

  By Scott Sherman
  The Nation / 7 June 2004

QUOT-Dear Mr. Secretary: I am writing you to submit my
resignation from the Foreign Service of the United
States and from my position as political counselor in
US Embassy Athens, effective March 7. I do so with a
heavy heart." So wrote Brady Kiesling, a career US
diplomat, in a letter to Secretary of State Colin
Powell last year. The letter was candid and direct:
"Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to
squander the international legitimacy that has been
America's most potent weapon of both offense and
defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson.... Our
current course will bring instability and danger, not

Greek newspapers were quick to publish Kiesling's
pithy and prescient statement, but it was virtually
ignored in the US press until The New York Review of
Books reprinted it at the onset of the Iraq war.
Kiesling invoked a number of themes that had been
percolating in the Review's pages since late 2001: the
recklessness of George Bush and his Administration;
the erosion of civil liberties and constitutional
protections at home; the growing estrangement of the
United States from the rest of the world; and--a
decisive matter for the Review--the rupture with
longtime allies France and Germany. 

The manner in which Kiesling's letter arrived on these
shores points to a significant new development in the
higher echelons of American culture: the re-emergence
of The New York Review of Books as a powerful and
combative actor on the political scene. Born as a
highbrow literary magazine in 1963, the Review took a
vocal role in contesting the Vietnam War, and its
pages were filled with essays by Noam Chomsky, Eric
Hobsbawm, I.F. Stone, Andrew Kopkind, Ellen Willis,
Tom Hayden and other leading writers from the left.
Around 1970, a sturdy liberalism began to supplant
left-wing radicalism at the paper. As Philip Nobile
observed in his 1974 book Intellectual Skywriting, the
Review returned to its roots and became "a literary
magazine on the British nineteenth-century model,
which would mix politics and literature in a tough but
gentlemanly fashion." 

In the wake of the Vietnam War, the Review became a
formidable--and, in some sense, unique--journalistic
institution. Many of its readers reside in academia,
but the paper has a devoted following in the upper
reaches of media, politics and philanthropy, which
gives it an influence vastly out of proportion to its
circulation of 130,000. (One recent essay, Peter
Galbraith's "How to Get Out of Iraq," even caused a
stir among some military intellectuals.) That
influence translates into dollars: In contrast to
virtually all serious literary and political journals,
which drain money from their owners, the Review has
been profitable for decades. But the formula is not
without its imperfections, which have grown more
pronounced in recent years. The publication has always
been erudite and authoritative--and because of its
analytical rigor and seriousness, frequently
essential--but it hasn't always been lively, pungent
and readable. A musty odor, accompanied by a certain
aversion to risk-taking, has pervaded its pages for a
long time. "In recent years," says the historian
Ronald Steel, who has contributed since 1965, "the
paper has sometimes verged on being bland or
predictable, always using the same people." 

But the election of George W. Bush, combined with the
furies of 9/11, jolted the editors. Since 2001, the
Review's temperature has risen and its political
outlook has sharpened. Old warhorses bolted from their
armchairs. Prominent members of the Review "family"--a
stable that includes veteran journalists (Thomas
Powers, Frances FitzGerald, Ian Buruma), literary
stars (Joan Didion, Norman Mailer) and academic
heavyweights (Stanley Hoffmann, Ronald Dworkin, Arthur
Schlesinger Jr.)--charged into battle not only against
the White House but against the lethargic press corps
and the "liberal hawk" intellectuals, some of whom are
themselves prominent members of the Review's extended
family. In stark contrast to The New Yorker, whose
editor, David Remnick, endorsed the Iraq war in a
signed essay in February 2003, asserting that "a
return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the
most dangerous option of all"; or The New York Times
Magazine, which gave ample space to Michael Ignatieff,
Bill Keller, Paul Berman, George Packer and other
prowar liberal hawks, the Review opposed the Iraq war
in a voice that was remarkably consistent and unified.

The firepower it directed against the liberal hawks
reveals much about the Review's political mood these
days. Like many in the liberal hawk camp, the
publication sanctioned US military intervention in the
Balkans on humanitarian grounds. But when Ignatieff &
Co. invoked the logic of humanitarian intervention as
a basis for military action against Saddam Hussein,
the Review (which has showcased Ignatieff's work for
years) insisted that Bush's crusade against Iraq was
something closer to old-fashioned imperialism. As Ian
Buruma wrote in a quietly devastating assessment of
Paul Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism: "There
is something in the tone of Berman's polemic that
reminds me of the quiet American in Graham Greene's
novel, the man of principle who causes mayhem, without
quite realizing why." 

What blew the dust off The New York Review? In no
sense, really, has the paper returned to its New Left
sensibility of the late 1960s: Chomsky, Hayden and
Willis have not been reinstated; young lions like The
Baffler's Tom Frank and The Village Voice's Rick
Perlstein have not been invited to contribute; Eric
Foner, Bruce Cumings, Richard Rorty, Chalmers Johnson,
Stephen Holmes, Anatol Lieven, Elaine Showalter and
Carol Brightman continue to publish much of their
finest work not in The New York Review of Books but in
the more radical, eccentric and sprightly pages of the
London Review of Books. In short, the Review's liberal
(and establishment) soul remains intact. What has
changed significantly, in the age of Bush, is the
Review's style of rhetoric and degree of political
focus and commitment. 

Longtime editor Robert Silvers is not eager to discuss
the Review, but he does allow, "The pieces we have
published by such writers as Brian Urquhart, Thomas
Powers, Mark Danner and Ronald Dworkin have been
reactions to a genuine crisis concerning American
destructiveness, American relations with its allies,
American protections of its traditions of liberties."
He worries that critical voices are being silenced:
"The aura of patriotic defiance cultivated by the
Administration, in a fearful atmosphere, had the
effect of muffling dissent." 

The Review's response to that atmosphere is a most
welcome return to form. By forcefully articulating
what was essentially the European position on Iraq and
the "war on terror," the Review has recovered much of
the élan and urgency it possessed in the late 1960s.
"They have been quite influential," notes Brady
Kiesling, "in consolidating the gut feeling of a whole
intellectual class that Bush is a frighteningly weak
and ignorant President." "One didn't think of it in
recent years as being particularly a political
magazine," says Norman Mailer, who has contributed to
the Review off and on since 1963, and who is a
principal actor in the paper's current revival. "I
think that The New York Review, which has been
evolving for many years, has evolved one more time." 

In 1959 Elizabeth Hardwick wrote an acerbic essay for
Harper's titled "The Decline of Book Reviewing." "The
book-review sections as a cultural enterprise are,
like a pocket of unemployment, in a state of baneful
depression insofar as liveliness and interest are
concerned," she professed. Three years later, during
the winter of 1962-63, a newspaper strike kept the New
York dailies off the streets for several months, and
Hardwick and her friends came to realize that a Sunday
afternoon without the New York Times Book Review was
bliss. In 1963 Hardwick, along with Robert Lowell and
Jason Epstein, launched the Review and in the process
assembled a stellar cast of writers. The editors who
helped to create the Review--Robert Silvers and
Barbara Epstein, both of whom are now 74--are still at
the helm today. 

In the mid-1960s political developments at home and
abroad drove the paper to the left. I.F. Stone,
Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture were among the first
to expose the folly of the Vietnam War, and they did
so at length in the pages of the Review. In its most
militant and pugnacious phase in the late 1960s, the
Review published several of Noam Chomsky's most
magisterial essays, alongside articles by writers like
Hayden and Kopkind, whose 1967 essay on Martin Luther
King Jr. was accompanied by a drawing of a Molotov
cocktail on the cover, which drew a firestorm of
outrage and became the centerpiece of the
neoconservative campaign against the Review. 

After Vietnam, the Review jettisoned its radical
sensibility and moved closer to the center. To a
considerable extent, a tight circle of New York
intellectuals, Ivy League stars, Nobel laureates and
Oxbridge luminaries replaced Chomsky and his cohort.
The paper still printed the work of dissidents, but
they now tended to be dissidents from within the
establishment. If Chomsky did much to shape the
Review's identity in the 1960s, it was Silvers's close
friend, the Oxford political theorist Isaiah Berlin,
who helped to define the Review after Vietnam with his
emphasis on liberalism, pluralism, individual liberty
and the dangers of political extremism. (Vaclav Havel,
to some extent, played that role in the 1990s.) "There
was a very drastic shift," says Chomsky, whose work
stopped appearing in the Review in 1975, and who
insists today that writers who had "any connection
with activist sectors of the peace movement" were
"virtually eliminated, except for token
participation." (Silvers declines to discuss Chomsky
or his allegations: "I don't feel it's right for me,"
he says, "to get into a personal account of my
relationship with any writer.") 

Some left-leaning members of the Review family evince
frustration with the paper's trajectory. Says Gore
Vidal, "It's essentially bien-pensant on most
matters." He produces a familiar litany of complaints
about the Review: stodginess, Anglophilia, nonchalance
toward younger contributors. Vidal has a long history
with the Review, whose editors have routinely
published his literary criticism but have rejected
some of his most brilliant and acerbic political
essays--including "The Holy Family" and "Pink Triangle
and Yellow Star," the latter of which appeared in The
Nation. "I am forbidden politics" at the Review, he
professed in a 1991 letter to a friend, portions of
which appear in Fred Kaplan's Gore Vidal: A Biography.
The Review, Vidal wrote, "grows not only duller and
duller, the fate of most papers, but the writers do
not question the status quo and the examined life is
too dangerous for their pages." 

Perhaps. But the Review's political virtues should not
go unnoticed. The paper was always hostile to
neoconservatism: Silvers and Epstein never followed
Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer and other New York
intellectuals into the Republican camp. Indeed, one of
the most piquant surveys of the neoconservative throng
was undertaken by Alfred Kazin in 1983--and published
in The New York Review of Books. Down through the
years, the Review has maintained its commitment to New
Deal/Great Society liberalism and to civil liberties,
racial equality and human rights. 

The Review responded to the election of George W. Bush
with dismay, and was quick to assail the
Administration's rejection of the International
Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol and the ABM treaty.
But the paper's reawakening really began with the
events of September 11. A former State Department
counterterrorism expert, Philip Wilcox Jr., crafted
the Review's first response to the attacks. Responding
to Bush's declared "war on terrorism," Wilcox wrote,
"Armed force...while politically popular, is usually
an ineffective and often counterproductive weapon
against terror." The Administration, he insisted,
should embrace a foreign policy that "moves away from
unilateralism and toward closer engagement with other

Wilcox's essay did much to define the Review's
post-9/11 coverage. His principal arguments--that
military power has stark limitations, and that
multilateral diplomacy is essential--would be echoed
(and expanded) in the weeks and months after September
11 by dozens of contributors, many of whom were
skeptical of the US war in Afghanistan. "Accountants
mulling over shady bank accounts and undercover agents
bribing their way," Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit
wrote a few months later, "will be more useful in the
long-term struggle than special macho units blasting
their way into the caves of Afghanistan." "Embarking
on a full-scale war to rid oneself of terrorists is
analogous to hunting a hornet with a Sherman tank,"
wrote Norman Mailer. "When the tank knocks down the
house that shelters the hornet, the creature whips
into the attic of the next house." In the wake of
9/11, the Review also published a barrage of essays
documenting the perilous state of American civil
liberties as a result of the "war on terror,"
alongside some remarkable reportage from Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Turkey and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. 

But it was the Administration's obsession with Iraq
that drove the Review to new heights of skepticism and
indignation. In 1990 the paper supported the Gulf War
on the grounds that it was a multilateral affair; but
the editors came to realize that things would be
different this time around. In September 2002 Frances
FitzGerald published an essay titled "George Bush and
the World," in which she contrasted the multilateral
foreign policy of the first Bush Administration with
the reckless, arrogant unilateralism of the second.
Other Review writers were quick to take the full
measure of Bush's foreign policy ambitions. "I find it
increasingly hard to believe that Mr. Bush's objective
is limited to seeing that Saddam Hussein has no
weapons of mass destruction," Anthony Lewis wrote a
few weeks later. "The history and the theology of the
men whose advice now dominates Mr. Bush's thinking
point to much larger purposes. I think this president
wants to overthrow the rules that have governed
international life for the last fifty years." 

As war drew closer, and the press grew more
accommodating and deferential, the Review's disgust
increased, and the editors fired their heavy weaponry.
Two months before the Iraq war, Joan Didion published
"Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History," a
melancholy account of her own journeys through the
United States since 9/11 and a dark rumination on
intellectual and political cowardice, the degradation
of language, the machinations of faux patriots, the
docility of our politicians and the closing of the
American mind since the attacks on New York and

Shortly thereafter, Mailer surfaced with an essay
titled "Only in America." Accompanied by David
Levine's caricature of a swaggering George W. Bush
outfitted in the costume of a Roman gladiator (with
missiles protruding from his shield), Mailer's essay
was a dazzling rumination on revenge, masculinity,
sports, television, oil consumption, empire, the Bomb,
and--most of all--the fate of American democracy: 

Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of
government we have yet evolved, and we may as well
begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer,
even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to
live in the lower existence of a monumental banana
republic with a government always eager to cater to
mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate
our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical

The fall of Baghdad only deepened the fury of the
Review's contributors. Jason Epstein penned a
scorching essay in which he compared President Bush to
Captain Ahab, and wherein he invoked the specter of
World War I with a quotation from Sigmund Freud:
"Never has an event destroyed so much that was
precious in the common property of mankind, confused
so many of the most lucid minds, so thoroughly debased
the elevated." 

Last December, when many political observers were
still giving the Administration the benefit of a doubt
on Iraq's WMD potential, Thomas Powers insisted, in a
much-read essay titled "The Vanishing Case for War,"
that anthrax, sarin, mustard gas, Scud missiles,
biological warheads, etc. were nowhere to be found in
Iraq. "There was no imminent danger--indeed there was
no distant danger," Powers noted. "How is it possible
then that the United States Congress allowed itself to
be convinced to believe in this nonexistent danger,
and to authorize in advance a war for which there was
no justification?" 

One notices a clear generational aspect to the
Review's recent output: With certain exceptions, the
finest writing has flowed from the pens of
contributors over the age of 60. "It isn't a bunch of
youngbloods doing the lively political coverage at the
Review, it's the old pros who have been writing for
them for years," says James Wolcott, a columnist for
Vanity Fair. "To me it's similar to the situation that
occurred before the war with Iraq, when it was the
silver-haired brigade--Mailer, Vidal, John le Carré,
Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Breslin--who were most vehemently
opposed while so many baby boomer journalists and
intellectuals, from Michael Kelly to Paul Berman to
Andrew Sullivan, were on board with Bush. The silver
foxes had enough history under their belt to recognize
what a wrenching departure this optional pre-emptive
war was from the past." 

Some of the most astringent prose in the paper has
come from a younger member of the family, Professor
Tony Judt. A few weeks ago I called on Judt, 56, in
his cluttered office at New York University's Remarque
Institute. Bald, with glasses and a gray beard, Judt
is wearing a stylish short-sleeve gray sweater and
pressed black slacks. He is remarkably self-assured.
He offers me a glass of scotch, while he sips mineral

Born in England, Judt has taught European history at
Oxford, Cambridge and Berkeley, and his best-known
book is Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals
1944-1956, a fierce assault on leading French thinkers
for their obeisance to Stalinism. "I started writing
for The New York Review in 1993," Judt explains. "You
start writing when they ask you. You don't send stuff
in. They ask you." He has since contributed essays on
France, Austria, the Balkans, Belgium, Albert Camus,
Primo Levi and various aspects of international
affairs since 2001. 

How did 9/11 influence him? "For the first time I felt
alien, a little out of place, even in New York. And
then I realized that, in some ways, it was especially
in New York, and that was because of the Israel
thing." For years Judt had privately lamented the
passivity of the "American Jewish community, and
indeed, the American Jewish intelligentsia, what used
to be called 'the New York Intellectuals' and so on."
Their silence on Israel--and their reluctance to
accept, as he wrote in November 2001, that the
"Israel-Palestine conflict and America's association
with Israel are the greatest single source of
contemporary anti-US sentiment"--bothered him. After
9/11, he says, "I started saying what I have for
fifteen years been thinking, but had not written." 

What he wrote, in a series of essays for the Review,
was not unfamiliar to readers of Israeli or European
newspapers but, in the American context, was rather
startling. These essays, which were provocations as
much as prescriptions, tackled a variety of themes:
the political uses of the Holocaust, the Jewish
psyche, Israeli assassination squads and Ariel
Sharon's "shameless" manipulation of the US
government. "Most Israelis are still trapped in the
story of their own uniqueness," Judt wrote in May
2002. "The problem for the rest of the world is that
since 1967, Israel has changed in ways that render its
traditional self-description absurd. It is now a
regional colonial power, by some accounts the world's
fourth-largest military establishment." Three hundred
letters, most of them abusive, greeted that essay. 

In an even more incendiary essay, "Israel: The
Alternative," published in October 2003, Judt argued
that the very structure of the Israeli state is
hopelessly--and dangerously--rooted in the past: 

The problem with Israel, in short, is not--as is
sometimes suggested--that it is a European "enclave"
in the Arab world, but rather that it arrived too
late. It has imported a characteristically
late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a
world that has moved on, a world of individual rights,
open frontiers, and international law. The very idea
of a 'Jewish state'--a state in which Jews and the
Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which
non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded--is rooted in
another time and place. Israel, in short, is an

Judt finished with a thunderclap: "The behavior of a
self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone
else looks at Jews.... The depressing truth is that
Israel today is bad for the Jews." And he went on to
propose a rather provocative solution to the current
impasse: "A single, integrated, binational state of
Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians." (The New
York Review wasn't always friendly to the "binational
state" concept. When Noam Chomsky proposed "socialist
binationalism" in his 1974 book Peace in the Middle
East?, Bernard Avishai, writing in the Review,
dismissed the idea as "misleading and contradictory.")

Judt's essay drew 1,000 smoldering letters. "I got no
direct death threats," Judt recalls, "except for a
number of e-mails that said, 'You'd be better off
dead.'" He has since implemented certain changes to
his daily routine. "We do now very carefully check our
mail. My wife and kids don't open the mail. It's
awful." But the venom of his critics has only served
to fortify his opinions. "To be a Jewish
American--what does the identity comprise?" Judt
pointedly inquires. "It now comprises one identity in
space and one in time. Its space is Israel and its
time is Auschwitz. This is something I find obscene,
ultimately dangerous and abusive on multiple counts." 

Judt is not the Review's only critical voice on
Israel. Henry Siegman and Amos Elon have also written
with great force and clarity, and in August 2001
Robert Malley and Hussein Agha produced the most
nuanced insider account of the demise of the Camp
David 2000 summit, one that shattered the mythology of
"Ehud Barak's unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat's
uncompromising no." Gore Vidal affirms, with a trace
of admiration and surprise in his voice, "They're
getting very interesting on Israel, which they're
taking a lot of flak for, obviously. For them, that's
quite brave." 

What accounts for the Review's post-9/11 revival? One
word that continually tumbles from the lips of
seasoned Review-watchers is "Vietnam." Says Mark
Danner, who worked for Silvers after he graduated from
Harvard in the early 1980s, and who has recently
produced some searching essays in the Review about
Iraq, "If you look back over the Review's history,
you'll find that periods of crisis bring out the best
editorial instincts of the leadership of The New York
Review. It certainly happened with Vietnam and
Iran/contra. It gets the juices flowing." 

Some observers point to a circular continuity between
the Review's coverage of Vietnam and Iraq. "The late
1960s, for the paper, were, to some extent, the age of
Chomsky," says Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann.
"The Review was a very strong critic of the Vietnam
War. Gradually it became less militant, if you like.
And indeed in the last year it has found some of its
old vigor again, but it never lost what can be called
a highly critical viewpoint about a number of aspects
of international relations and foreign affairs." 

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who got his
start at the Review, takes the view that Bush's
shenanigans on Iraq have "reawakened the youthful
energies of some of these people." He's referring to
Judt and Mailer, but the same sentiment may well apply
to Silvers and Epstein. In the run-up to the Iraq war,
Silvers phoned Judt in London--at 3 am--and begged him
to draft the text of a full-page advertisement in the
New York Times protesting the rush to war. "He thought
this was an urgent matter," recalls Judt. The same
urgency propelled Silvers to track down Brady Kiesling
in Greece and obtain permission to reprint his
resignation letter. These faint echoes of the late
1960s--late-night phone calls, antiwar petitions,
diplomatic contretemps--must have provided Silvers
with at least a fleeting sense of déjà vu. 

In the case of Iraq, as with Vietnam, the Review saw
what many other commentators missed or ignored. "In
both instances," Hoffmann says, "Bob Silvers was, in
effect, whether deliberately or not, compensating for
the weaknesses of the more established media."
Hoffmann recalls that Silvers and Epstein published
some of the earliest criticisms of the Indochinese
conflict--years before the mainstream press awoke from
its slumber. "It was important," he says, in the case
of Iraq, "that a journal which has the authority of
the Review in a sense took up the slack and presented
viewpoints which were extremely hard to get into the
established media." 

Indeed, a great many Review contributors have objected
to the media's performance since 9/11, and few were as
lucid as Norman Mailer. With war imminent, Mailer
noted that support for a full-scale invasion of Iraq
was prevalent within influential sectors of the
"liberal" media. Dissecting a New York Times op-ed
column by Bill Keller, in which Keller aired his
ambivalent prowar sentiments, Mailer noted, with
pitch-perfect accuracy, "It is as if these liberal
voices have decided that Bush cannot be stopped and so
he must be joined." How refreshing to see Norman
Mailer aggressively confront the Bill Kellers of the
world; and how refreshing, too, to see the Review once
again engaged in pugilistic combat on the pressing
issues of the day. 

It's probably too much to infer, as Mailer does, that
Silvers and Epstein were "radicalized" by Bush, since
they are not radical people by background or
temperament. One suspects they yearn for the day when
they can return to their normal publishing
routine--that gentlemanly pastiche of philosophy, art,
classical music, photography, German and Russian
history, East European politics, literary
fiction--unencumbered by political duties of a
confrontational or oppositional nature. That day has
not yet arrived. If and when it does, let it be said
that the editors met the challenges of the post-9/11
era in a way that most other leading American
publications did not, and that The New York Review of
Books--which turned forty last fall--was there when we
needed it most.

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