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From the Lighthouse: The World and the NYR After Fifty Years

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Petr Josek/CTK Photo/AP Images
Václav Havel addressing a crowd in Wenceslas Square, Prague, December 10, 1989

It was a bright cold day in 1984 and a conservative American friend was berating me about my article in The New York Review. How dare I even think of comparing US policy in Central America with Soviet policy in Central Europe? What kind of whining Chomskyesque relativist had I become? We were just beginning a long car journey. I was his prisoner. On and on went the interrogation.

This memory returned unbidden to my mind when I was contemplating the subject of this essay, which is the political world around The New York Review over the fifty years between the first issue, published in 1963, and this fiftieth anniversary one. For the theme of that 1984 article,1 my first contribution to this journal, spoke directly to what seems to me one characteristic way in which the Review has responded to the political challenges of the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

Now it would, of course, be not merely absurd but insulting to many other highly individual contributors, living and dead, to pretend to summarize their more than 15,000 contributions over fifty years. Yet I do detect an approach that runs through many, though obviously not all, of the political articles that have appeared during that period. Since it is an approach with which I strongly identify, and to which I have contributed for nearly thirty of those years, I will deliberately say “we.” That “we” carries a warning. This is just one writer’s partial and personal view of a vast political and intellectual landscape. It is an attempt to explore, by the light of the Review, what has remained the same and what has changed politically over this half-century—and to say something, in the end, about challenges the next years will bring.

So think of the Review as a lighthouse at the center of the Western world. Time-lapse photography reveals how the world has changed under its steady illumination.

Yet first we have to understand the specific quality of the light beam. This is what I will, arbitrarily, but not without a mass of evidence from many thousands of archive pages, call a New York Review approach to the world. Consistently, over five decades, this journal has published critical essays, reportages, and analyses of totalitarian and authoritarian states, whether their rulers were opposed to or currently aligned with the United States: friendly dictatorships in Latin America; the Soviet Union, subsequently just Russia; China; South Africa; Eastern Europe, when it still existed as a geopolitical entity; Iran; Nicaragua; Iraq; Vietnam; Egypt.

These exposés have been written by dissident writers inside those countries and Western writers traveling through them. In a text published in the Review in 1964, explaining why he had rejected the Nobel Prize for literature, Jean-Paul Sartre sniffily remarked that the prize stood “objectively as a distinction reserved for the writers of the West or the rebels of the East.” As if those Eastern rebels might not be writers too, and Western writers also rebels. (Boris Pasternak not a writer? Heinrich Böll not a rebel?) Across fifty years we find in these pages the writer-rebels and rebel-writers from East and West. Every one has an individual voice and view, but if I were compelled to summarize the shared starting point of this half-century of political reportage, analysis, and dissent in just two words, those two would have to be “human rights.”

Equally characteristic—and the other edge of the same razor blade—is a persistent, stubborn strain of criticizing US policy, at home and abroad, whenever it falls short of the high ideals proclaimed in this country’s own Constitution and by its own leaders: continued racial segregation in the Review’s founding year of 1963; the war in Vietnam and bombing of Cambodia; Washington’s support for the contras in Nicaragua; Bosnia, as an American sin of omission; retrograde Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United; Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib; mass surveillance by the NSA. “We have got ourselves a moral monster for a President,” begins a 1973 article by I.F. Stone.

Thus, the Review has, at its best, followed the principle promoted and exemplified by George Orwell (notably in Homage to Catalonia) that the political writer has a duty to be especially astringent in identifying the faults of his or her own political side. In my experience, this has had a notable effect abroad: precisely the fact that Western writers in journals such as this have been so outspokenly critical of the West in general, and American writers of the United States in particular, has enhanced the credibility of the West and the United States. Were I a Parisian lover of the sweeping simplification, I might write (for preference, in French) that the more The New York Review has criticized the abuse of American power, the more it has strengthened American power. If you want more pedestrian, Anglo-Saxon explicitness, add “hard” to the first mention of power, and “soft” to the second.

Also characteristic, and unsurprising in a journal at the frontier between literature and politics, is an Orwellian focus on the political abuse of language. We think immediately of Václav Havel’s explorations of the systemic mendacities of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, or Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee on apartheid South Africa, but the West has also contributed its smaller quota of newspeak. Browsing through old issues I chance, for example, on a short piece from 2003, excoriating CNN for parroting the ghastly, death-concealing euphemisms of the US military’s Centcom, including a description of Iraqi units being “attrited.”

If we believe that we should “speak truth to power,” the word “truth” in that phrase needs to be more closely defined. In his 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Noam Chomsky quotes Martin Heidegger’s self-indicting declaration in 1933 that “truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge.” There are also the (often mutually incompatible) revealed truths of different religious faiths. These are not what we mean. We mean the more modest, skeptical, always self-questioning truth that is based on evidence, fact, and reality.

There are other ways of describing this combination of value system and method. We could call it “liberal,” frankly defying the grotesque metamorphosis of that word in the political rhetoric of the United States over precisely the period of the Review’s existence, such that in everyday American political (ab)use today the word “liberalism” has come to denote some devilish mixture of big government and fornication. A telling symptom of this semantic poisoning is that American politicians—including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—who obviously are liberal, in the good, time-honored sense still prevalent in British English, fear to use the L-word.

We could also call it Applied Enlightenment. Indeed, this journal has been—not always, to be sure, but in very large measure—the vehicle for a modernized version of the European-American Enlightenment (as well as publishing some of Isaiah Berlin’s strongest essays on thinkers who challenged that Enlightenment). Many of its contributors have both applied and extended the original Enlightenment principles of equal individual human liberty and dignity under law, at home and abroad, and explored the social and economic conditions that are an essential complement to those civil and political rights.

Meanwhile, the whole community of Review writers and readers has been a contemporary equivalent of the Enlightenment’s “republic of letters.” It has been a surprise to discover, at a series of recent conferences organized by the Review, that many longtime contributors had never before met in person, but merely read each other for years, and perhaps corresponded, publicly and privately—exactly like those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literati and savants whose correspondence you can now read on an Oxford University website called Electronic Enlightenment.

This republic of letters might further be characterized as the Widest West. Its core undoubtedly remains in North America and Europe. Indeed, despite several brave European attempts to create a pan-European intellectual review, The New York Review is the closest thing we Europeans have had to a European Review of Books. But our republic also extends to the whole English-speaking world, Latin America, and South Africa—and to wherever, be it in India, Burma, Egypt, or China, there are writers and readers who share the basic values of this modernized version of the Enlightenment.

These are, I claim, recurrent features of a certain basic approach to a recurrent set of political problems. Not only can I point you to examples from each decade: these echo and speak so loudly to each other that, turning the pages, you involuntarily exclaim “plus ça change….” Read Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” and you are reading about Edward Snowden and the NSA. Jump aboard Mary McCarthy’s 1967 report on the US military in Vietnam, and you are transported to Afghanistan in 2007. In a piece about American politics published in the autumn of 1963, David Riesman evokes “the fantastic traffic jam of American political institutions, vested interests, ideologies, paranoias, and ‘don’t fence me in’ chauvinism.” What a perfect description of Washington in this autumn of 2013: The Fantastic Traffic Jam.

Yet beside continuity there is always change. We see time’s cycle, but also time’s arrow. Our story begins in Camelot. The Review emerges in the full, glorious glow of the John F. Kennedy presidency. 1963 is the year of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and of Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” (phonetically written down as “Ish bin ein Bearleener”). The United States, this president has promised the world, will “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Insiders knew then, and we know even better now, how far the reality of Camelot fell short of the Arthurian dream. (There’s a gloriously savage 1965 Review essay by Malcolm Muggeridge about the “pile of Kennedyana” he has just “pushed aside…with mounting distaste.”) And yes, that year descends into darkness with the bombing that takes the lives of four innocent young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of JFK.

Yet there is no doubt that this was a time of extraordinary promise for a certain vision of a better America at the heart of a better world, one accompanied by a persuasive reality of American military, economic, cultural, and scientific power. (“Oh, and by the way, we’re going to put a man on the moon.”) That promise was believed by millions around the globe. As I noted in the 1980s, Martin Luther King was a much more direct inspiration for the German Green politician Petra Kelly than Martin Luther. The Review reinforced at home and magnified abroad the attraction of that modernized Enlightenment vision, not least because it was so critical of the United States’ repeated failure to live up to its own proclaimed ideals (which was my point about Central America in 1984).

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    Back Yards,” The New York Review, November 22, 1984. 

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