In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman famously preened, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” After seeing the latest direct-mail solicitation from The New York Review of Books, we suddenly realized how brazenly Whitmanian—on the matter of contradiction, anyway—is that venerable organ of left-liberal orthodoxy.
Granted, appeals for subscriptions are a species of advertising. One expects a certain amount of trumpet-blowing and exhortation. There is nothing wrong with that. But in its latest communication the New York Review has moved from “please-buy-our-widget” rhetoric to inadvertent comedy. The Review’s letter begins by inviting readers to ponder the fate of cultural-political debate in America. “Most of the points of view you read and hear,” it solemnly informs us, “are those advanced by a bullying, bellicose administration, a cowed opposition, and a timorous press.” Standard NYR boilerplate, right? The administration is Republican, ergo it is bullying and bellicose. The Democrats are in disarray, ergo the “opposition” is “cowed.” The public is increasingly suspicious of and disenchanted with the established press—the New-York- Times-NPR-Peter-Jennings-Dan-I’d-Rather- -not-CNN coterie of handwringing anti-Bush liberals—ergo that portion of the press is “timorous.” OK, OK: this is exactly the sort of thing everyone expects from the New York Review. But now consider what follows:
The strong voices you’ve been missing—non-political, non-partisan, informed, concerned —are those you’ll find uniquely raised in The New York Review of Books.
It took us a while to stop laughing, too. The New York Review “non-political, non-partisan”? Right. The same way that Dorothy Parker was Marie of Roumania.
Ask anyone—friend, foe, indifferent casual reader—about The New York Review of Books: what’s the first thing they say? Love it or hate it, everyone instantly acknowledges that the journal is saturated with fashionable left-wing politics. There is a reason that Tom Wolfe identified the Review as the epicenter of Radical Chic. Remember the articles by the Stalinist I. F. Stone, by Tom Hayden, Andrew Kopkind, Noam Chomsky, Jerry Rubin? Mary McCarthy on Vietnam? Remember the diagrammatic instructions for making a Molotov cocktail that the Review published on its cover in 1968? From its very first issue in 1963, the Review has epitomized the snotty haut-en-bas leftism of the academy. To describe it as “non-political, non-partisan” is not simply wrong, it is ludicrous.
What is so bizarre about the Review’s latest solicitation is that, immediately after the declaration about being “non-political, non-partisan,” is a list of contributors and essays that proclaim its allegiance to the frankly political, overtly partisan canon of left-liberal piety. The letter says “round” in its opening sentences, but it preaches “square” for the balance of the appeal. Frances Fitzgerald on the administration of George W. Bush; Joseph Lelyveld on the fate of al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay; Elizabeth Drew on … well, of course it was on some other alleged malefaction of the Bush administration. It’s the same old song that the Review was singing about Bush I, about Ronald Reagan, about Richard Nixon, about America’s interests generally.
Did the authors of that ad copy think that people wouldn’t notice the contradiction? Were they relying on Mencken’s assertion that no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American public? In part, perhaps. We do not rule out an element of cynical exploitation. Even more disturbing, however, is the possibility that those responsible for that ad copy—as well as those for whom it was primarily intended, loyal NYR readers—actually believe that the efforts of writers like Frances Fitzgerald, Joseph Lelyveld, and Elizabeth Drew are “non-political, non-partisan.” They believe this because they believe that the left-liberal view of the world—their view of the world—is not a political view but simply an accurate transcription of the way the world appears to any right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) person. Politics, partisan passion, is what other people suffer. It’s the old story of the trendy journalist who digested the news of Ronald Reagan’s election as president with a mixture of panic and incredulity: “But I don’t know a single person who voted for him.” Hello. She was being perfectly candid, poor thing, just as, we suspect, are those who declare that The New York Review of Books is “non-political, non-partisan” even as they tout its rancid left-wing shibboleths.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 1, on page 2
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