The Rebirth of the NYRB
"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 security."
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."