CRF Blog

Interview of the Day: Robert Silvers

by Bill Hayes

The New York Review of Books, one of the most successful print publications, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. New York magazine interviews its founding editor, Robert Silvers.

The politics of the Review fascinate a lot of people. For example, one sees pieces that are rather praising of Obama, and other quite critical ones.

Any first-rate group of writers will have very different views of Obama. You wrote for us your essay “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie” about his first campaign and the youth and the sexiness and rapport he seemed to evoke. David Bromwich wrote a very caustic and critical piece about his foreign policy. You then wrote critically about his use of “the politics of fear.” Michael Tomasky has argued that he’s brought about a transformation in American life in which a series of different groups have been drawn into politics and that he has in fact succeeded in making some fundamental changes, for example in health care. There must be room for very different, conflicting perspectives, different judgments about Obama and public policy generally.

But is it not hard to claim that the Review has no political identity at all?

We’ve had to have several political identities. As editors, it was as if we were being confronted by successive waves of historical development and challenges — waves like the Vietnam War, like the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, like Star Wars and the economics of the Reagan administration. And these different historical and political forces also loomed in the form of books. We tried to react by asking the people whom we respected as perceptive and as knowledgeable to deal with them, and we sent writers we admired to report on them — Joan Didion, for example, who reported on the war in El Salvador, and the Cubans in Miami. What becomes more and more clear is that victims and persecutors can change parts.

Your early skepticism about Cuba marked you off from most of the left.

In the first regular issue, there was an article by Daniel Friedenberg. He said, there’s a distinct resemblance between the new system in Cuba and the old system in the Soviet Union; they are both totalitarian. In some of the liberal press at the time, there was a general feeling of sympathy for Cuba, Castro, and the glamour of a new kind of society. When I went there in 1969, the poet Heberto Padilla insisted we could only talk while walking in the park, and there he slipped me a sheaf of poems that we published when I got back.

You’ve said that during the Cold War you wanted to find a place on the left from which you could defend the rights of those under Soviet rule while still opposing the excesses of militarized Cold War policy.

Underlying what we did was concern about the effect of powerful, torturing, bullying regimes on human rights. Barbara and I were both very aware that here we were in America with rights and freedoms. At the same time, we’re very aware that poets in Iran or a writer in the Soviet Union or East Germany — that these editors, writers, and people who wanted to express themselves were being suppressed, and we felt from the beginning that we should try to give them a voice. At the same time we published strong criticism of such Cold War follies as Star Wars.

Does the state of human rights abroad look better to you now?

Where there’s the most at stake is clearly in China. There’s a long record of avoidance of reality. When we began the Review, there was wide support for the Chinese Revolution among intellectual and academic specialists. Little was said about the human costs of the Communist revolution, the crushing of the so-called peasant ownership class, the death of millions. Many people felt that in China was being created something like an egalitarian society, of which they could approve. And this included many American liberals, including many professors who studied China. Some didn’t realize the extent to which the attempts by Mao to encourage local industry in the form of backyard steelmaking were irrational and doomed. The country was about to plunge into one of the greatest famines in human history, with more than 40 million people starving to death, and very few pro-Chinese Americans were aware of it when it happened, or of the brutality and killing of millions during the Cultural Revolution.

In late 1988, during a visit suggested by George Soros’s foundation, I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Beijing, at a time when the regime was relatively tolerant. I said that an ideal situation for intellectual journalism was to have a paper that a group could organize and own outright, and be free to say what the group wanted. It was an ideal, and by some extraordinary convergence of circumstances, this is what we had at the New York Review. I realized, I said, how entirely unreal and unattainable this ideal might seem, but at least it was a basis from which one might start. If you can’t have complete ownership, you might have some. And if you can’t have full say, you might have some. You could aim for more. The audience seemed extremely enthusiastic. That night my friend Grace Dudley and I met in a rickety apartment with the great Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who promised to write for the Review on the need for freedom in China — and later he did. Then I met alone with a very small group of young Chinese who said they had a plan for a Beijing Review of Books. It wouldn’t be published in Beijing; it would be published in a small town somewhere in the West, where they were in touch with a print shop. They intimated they had some sympathizers — no more than that — in the far reaches of the bureaucracy from people supposedly connected with the relatively open-minded Zhao Ziyang. And could we help them? They seemed extremely attractive young people, and I said they could use our archives and articles. And not long afterward came Tiananmen Square. Fang Lizhi had to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy for over a year, and the members of the Beijing Review of Books group went into hiding. Some were arrested. Some of them escaped through Hong Kong. Some paid large sums to do so — $500,000, I was told. One of the most congenial of them, one of the most intelligent, turned out to be a high-ranking security official. He had been guiding the whole thing. [more]