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

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…

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