Outdated New York Review : Radical Chic Forever

Almost everyone knows a sad sack who can’t move on. He’s the

college athlete who’s still wearing his faded championship jacket long after

his brief triumph. The New York Review of

Books is a magazine version of that guy. A cutting-edge publication in the

1960′s, when the street fighters at Elaine’s signed on to the revolution, today

many of its articles have the musty feel of a C. Wright Mills polemic. Once

interesting even if infuriating, the NYRB

rarely figures in the debates of the last two decades.

Yes, it still publishes articles of considerable

sophistication on history, literature and philosophy, such as Tony Judt’s

recent essay on the French collapse in World War II. And once in a while it has

something interesting to say on contemporary issues, as with Christopher

Jencks’ two-part article on homelessness in 1994. But that’s the exception. On

a variety of subjects from the American economy to race to the Cold War and the

Middle East conflict, the magazine generally runs new versions of the same

arguments it’s been hawking for nearly 40 years. 

When it comes to New York City, the NYRB is almost always at sea. In the early 1990′s, founding editor

Jason Epstein blamed the disaster of the David Dinkins era on capitalism and

Robert Moses (the latter has been one of the NYRB ‘s longtime villains). Annoyed when Rudolph Giuliani deposed

Mr. Dinkins and began recording historic drops in crime, the NYRB flailed away at Mr. Giuliani in a

series of articles until it concluded, in 1997, that the city’s

“broken-windows” theory of policing was simply “rudimentary” and that it

shortchanged the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In 1996, essayist Michael

Massing was sure that Mr. Giuliani’s policing success would be short-lived. He

predicted a vast new crime surge because the Mayor wasn’t spending enough on

social services. Mr. Massing approvingly quoted a middle-aged black man who

predicted that “crime is going to go up” because “they’re hounding people off

welfare. These people are not going to starve. They’ll steal.” Another piece attributed the crime drop to the “little

brother phenomenon,” whereby younger brothers see the damage that drugs

have done to their older siblings and stay clean. Yet another noted the general

decline in drug use nationally. Both of these points are true to a degree. But

what marks the NYRB is its general

inability to adapt to new evidence, combined with an unwillingness to deal

honestly with its political adversaries.

In explaining the Cold War, for instance, the NYRB -which once fervently supported the

argument that the U.S. forced the conflict on Stalin-now asserts, in a recent

article by Thomas Powers, that Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with the

collapse of the USSR. Mr. Powers asserted that it was “not the Americans, not

the Russians, but the bomb” that won the Cold War. There can be no doubt that

many factors brought the Soviets down: Chernobyl, the demoralization of the

Soviet military in Afghanistan, increasing contact with the West, President

Carter’s human-rights initiatives and the war in Lebanon, when Israel

demonstrated the superiority of Western technology by quickly knocking out

about 90 Syrian MiG’s without losing any of its planes. That said, surely it

was Mr. Reagan’s pressure on Mikhail Gorbachev that pushed the Soviet leader

into his failed attempt to reform Communism. But the NYRB cannot bring itself to concede the point, just as it cannot

give Rudy Giuliani credit for cutting crime without embracing root-cause


The same refusal to question outdated dogma applies to the NYRB ‘s take on the Middle East. No matter

what the circumstances, the NYRB ‘s

editors are sure of one thing: The Israelis must be blamed. It is beyond the

magazine’s limited imaginative capabilities to understand that the Palestinians

are both bully and victim. When the story that Edward Said peddled about his

family’s history in Jerusalem proved substantially fraudulent, the NYRB sprung to his defense in November

1999 with one of its most bizarre articles yet. The apologia, written by the

veteran Israeli dove Amos Elon, minimized Mr. Said’s penchant for exaggeration

and distortion. Rather, Mr. Elon argued that criticism of Mr. Said, an

apologist for the Ayatollah Khomeini and an opponent of the Persian Gulf war,

was in effect an attack on the peace process. But surely even the cloistered NYRB must have known that Mr.

Said-recently pictured turning his words into actions by throwing rocks into

Israel from Lebanon (yet another topic about which he lied)-has been one of the

leading opponents of the Oslo peace negotiations with Israel. After Israeli Prime

Minister Ehud Barak made wide-ranging concessions to Yasir Arafat and received

not a counteroffer but war, the NYRB ‘s

editors learned nothing. In their most recent offering on the topic, they

insist nothing good can happen until all Israelis fervently and frequently

apologize to the Palestinians for their very existence. 

Few issues demonstrate the NYRB ‘s intellectual rigidity better than the devastating impact of

family breakdown in the African-American community. Most observers across the

political spectrum now recognize the terrible impact of illegitimacy and absent

fathers on poor black children. But not the editors of The New York Review of Books. While Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s

famous 1965 study on black family breakdown now is considered prophecy, NYRB writers on race, like Andrew

Hacker, either ignore the issue, minimize it or continue to throw darts at the

report, as Garry Wills recently did.

In fact, the former Senator has long been a bête noire at the NYRB , even as others (with the notable exception of The New York Times Magazine )

acknowledged him to be one of the nation’s greatest scholar-statesmen. Whether

the issue was the black family or America’s role in the world, the NYRB has long disdained the former

Senator. Tellingly, the one time the NYRB

embraced a Moynihan position-his vehement opposition to the 1996 welfare-reform

bill-the Senator was wildly off the mark. In an overwrought NYRB article entitled “Congress Builds a Coffin,” Mr. Moynihan

predicted that welfare reform would be a catastrophe.

Traditionally under the tight control of its editors, the NYRB was founded by New Yorkers Robert

Silvers and Jason and Barbara Epstein in 1963. Mr. Silvers, a man of British

affectations, said that he wanted it “to be read in the common rooms of American

universities.” During the turmoil of the 1960′s, however, the NYRB found a wider role as the primary

voice of both radical chic and the rapidly rising population of new faculty

members. Sometimes original and interesting even when it was over the top, the NYRB’ s success came from connecting

literary academia to the larger issues of the day, such as the debates over

black nationalism and the war in Vietnam.

Too clever to be

straightforwardly Marxist, too detached from mainstream America to have a clue

about how life was really lived beyond the Hudson River, the NYRB made a splash after the 1967 riots

in Detroit and Newark by running a do-it-yourself diagram of a Molotov cocktail

on its cover. The diagram illustrated an article by a Time magazine writer turned radical named Andrew Kopkind, who

thrilled the publication’s highbrow readers with an approving reference to

Chairman Mao’s dictum that “morality, like politics, flows from the barrel of a

gun.” The NYRB’ s coverage of Vietnam

didn’t merely excoriate American policy; its lead articles by Noam Chomsky

posited America as the center of evil in the world. At the heart of that evil

was an American people so stupid that they were unable to grasp the convoluted

conspiracy theories that the NYRB was

peddling. The magazine’s contempt for the middle class “grunt(ing) its way

upward,” in the unlovely words of Mr. Epstein, was as boundless as its

unlimited credulity in romanticizing racial thuggery. New York, Mr. Epstein

argued in the midst of the Ocean-Hill school-decentralization Kulturkampf , was “faced with a classic

revolutionary situation.” He intoned: “The alternatives left to the white

majority are capitulation or genocide.”

The intellectual origins of this Tory radicalism lie in both

a home-grown, Mencken-like disdain for the “booboisie” and the transformation

of American intellectual life by German neo-Marxist emigrés in the 1950′s. The

Frankfurt School emigrés perceived signs of fascism in every nook and corner of

American life. They detested American mass culture, which they argued submerged

class consciousness beneath a sea of mass consumption; they saw America’s

fascination with science through the eyes of the Nazi philosopher Martin

Heidegger; and they assumed that technology would soon become an instrument of

totalitarian domination. They were sure that strong, father-centered American

families were a source of what they called “the authoritarian personality,” yet

another path to fascism.

The most influential of

the emigrés, Hannah Arendt, famed as the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, had an enormous influence on the NYRB . Anticipating today’s campus

literary theorists, she was an expert on everything. Arendt’s high-toned sense

that she alone commanded the truth, and her track record for factual errors as

well as errors of judgment, helped set the magazine’s tone. A lifelong

apologist for Heidegger, her professor and onetime lover, she argued in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jews of

Europe had been done in not so much by the Nazis as by their own leaders. She

was also convinced that a flowering of the arts was underway under Stalin in

the early 1950′s, while automation, she was certain, would eliminate most work.

In the NYRB she pronounced the

creation of a reliable and devoted civil service as “probably the most

important achievement of the Roosevelt administration,” and she compared

Richard Nixon to Hitler and Stalin. Nixon, she insisted, “was engaged … in an

attempt to abolish the constitution and the institutions of liberty.” (She

later backtracked from that position.) She asserted that it was only Cold War

military expenditures that kept the U.S. from collapsing back into a

1930′s-style depression.

The ongoing failure of the American economy and the dangers

of an imminent depression have been two of the NYRB ‘s ongoing themes. One of the NYRB ‘s star writers on the economy was the medievalist turned

prophet of doom Geoffrey Barraclough. The cover of a January 1975 issue had the

headline “THE WORLD CRASH” splashed across the cover. Mr. Barraclough was

certain that the coming depression was likely to be “even more severe and more

world-shaking than the depression of 1929-40.”

The U.S., he argued, could not continue its high standard of living

“unless we wish, like Hitler, to bring the whole world down with us in


In subsequent years, the NYRB

was sure of the superiority of the corporatist German and Japanese models of

capitalism. During the 1980′s, it regularly published articles by Felix Rohatyn

calling on the national government to do for America what Mario Cuomo was doing

for New York. Fortunately, this advice was ignored-after all, Mr. Cuomo’s

version of crony capitalism left upstate devastated. In the late 1980′s, the NYRB was enthusiastic about historian

Paul Kennedy, whose 1988 book The Rise

and Fall of the Great Powers saw the USSR as staid but stable, but the U.S.

in irremediable decline. In a June 1990 article, the NYRB’ s editors still were peddling the idea of American decline,

even after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The NYRB ‘s track

record on crime and the cities is similarly askew. In the 1970′s, it had Garry

Wills arguing for the abolition of prisons, while law professor Graham Hughes

insisted that nothing short of social revolution could make a dent in the crime

rate. “The failure to prevent most crime does not make the state at fault,” Mr.

Hughes argued, “for most crime is probably not preventable.” Not to be

outdone,  Andrew Hacker’s 1988 article

“Black Crime, White Racism” asserted that although crime had tripled since

1960, whites should be grateful, since black oppression justified even more

crime. White concerns about crime, he insisted, were merely a form of subtle

racism. Mr. Hacker, one of a number of

NYRB writers whose slogan seems to be “White Racism Now and Forever,”

insists that “even those who see themselves as fair-minded still show subtle

signs of bias … something we can and should call racism-and without quotation

marks-reveals itself in the attitudes and conduct of virtually all white

Americans.” During a recent discussion at the Century Club, Mr. Hacker said the

absence of a sufficient number of dark-skinned female television anchors was a

far more important source of African-American problems than the proliferation

of female-headed families. 

More recently, the

NYRB ‘s editors have been unnerved by New York’s phenomenal drop in crime.

It doesn’t fit their world view. Last year, I met George Fredrickson, a

Stanford University professor and another member of the NYRB ‘s “White Racism Now and Forever” stable, at a Michigan State

University conference. He told me that “Al Sharpton was doing important things

for New York” and that Sharpton was “far better for New York than- ugh!- Giuliani.” He then admitted that he

hadn’t been to New York recently to see matters firsthand. Asked about some of

Rev. Sharpton’s failings, he said that while he didn’t always agree with the

reverend, “at least he is not a racist like Giuliani.” When I asked for the

specifics of Mr. Giuliani’s racism, he replied, “If you don’t know, I can’t

help you.”

It’s often hard to take the NYRB seriously. It has become the magazine of would-be

sophisticates gulled into irrelevance by their own sense of superiority. But

rather than learn from their failures, the NYRB ‘s

editors have stuck with their roots. Keenly aware of their core market, they

have consistently downplayed the problems of political correctness on campus.

In return, NYRB remains the preferred

“paper” of many aspiring associate professors. In a sense, the NYRB and much of literary academia have

followed a parallel course from heightened influence during their 1960′s moment

of glory to well-deserved marginality today.

Terry Golway will return to this space next week.