The New York Review of Books was founded during a newspaper strike in 1963 and was edited by Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers until her death in 2006, then edited solely by Silvers until he died earlier this year. Throughout its existence, it’s been the object of obsequious praise. I never got it. From the time I was in college, wandering the aisles of the library’s periodicals section and excitedly perusing one literary journal after another, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the NYRB. It somehow managed to make everything dull: with few exceptions (Gore Vidal, Joan Didion), the articles all read as if they were written by some fusty old Oxbridge don who was also what the Brits call a champagne socialist.
Tom Wolfe, in his famous 1970 essay “Radical Chic,” called the NYRB “[t]he chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic.” In 1967, it printed a diagram showing how to make a Molotov cocktail. Later it spun off a sister rag, the London Review of Books, which after 9/11 published what must have been one of the most reprehensible issues of a magazine ever to see print: the contributors all sought to outdo one another in blaming the terrorist attacks on U.S. imperialism and capitalism.
In The Last Intellectuals (1987), Russell Jaboby described the NYRB as a closed shop that kept publishing the same big-name leftists (Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, I.F. Stone, Tony Judt) and that ran so many British professors that it was redolent more of “Oxford teas rather than New York delis.” Also, it had no interest in developing younger talent. (I must have sensed that, because when I left grad school and started writing for New York literary journals, I don’t think I even tried the NYRB.) In a 2014 article, Jacoby raised a question: although Silvers, then eighty-four, had been “unwilling or unable to groom successors,” eventually “he will have to give up the reins, but when and who will take over?”
The answer came this year. Silvers died, presenting an opportunity to open the NYRB up to non-academic – and even non-leftist! – writers living on the far side of the Hudson. No such luck: it was soon announced that Silvers’s job would be filled by Ian Buruma, a Dutch-born Oxford fellow who is sixty-five and has been a NYRB writer since 1987. For me, above all, he’s the man who wrote Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (2006), pretty much the only book about the Islamization of Europe to receive the imprimatur of the New York literary establishment.
Buruma had been critical of Islam. But in Murder in Amsterdam, a survey of Dutch critics and defenders of Islam, he fell into total PC lockstep on the subject. It was a disgraceful display. As I put it in my own book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom (2009), he strove “to make the supporters of jihadist butchery look sensitive, reflective, and reasonable, and to make people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who saw that butchery for what it was and who had no interest in trying to finesse it away – look inflexible, hard-nosed, and egoistic.”
He wrote about Hirsi Ali’s devotion to freedom as if it were a psychological disorder; for his part, he believed that the Netherlands should tacitly allow behavior on the part of Muslims – such as the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men – that it would never accept from non-Muslims.
That book wasn’t the end of it: in 2007, the New York Times Magazine published a glowing profile by Buruma of Tariq Ramadan, the slippery champion of so-called “Euro-Islam.”
Ramadan seeks to replace Europe’s liberal democracies with sharia governments that oppress women and Jews and punish gays, but Buruma did a masterly job of making him sound like a noble hero of his people and a brilliant prophet of multicultural harmony. Buruma also wrote no fewer than three Times articles on Hirsi Ali, whom he contrasted unfavorably with Ramadan. Having dismissed criticism of Ramadan’s anti-Semitism as “overblown,” he now said that Hirsi Ali’s expressions of outrage about honor killing were also “overblown.”
It was clear that while Ramadan’s slick, professorial self-presentation – and his systematic prettifying of everything ugly about Islam – made Buruma, the faculty-lounge highbrow, feel right at home, Hirsi Ali’s raw, stubborn candor about all that ugliness made him uneasy. For him, Ramadan was a clubbable bridge-builder and master of nuance; Hirsi Ali, by contrast, was a vulgar, fist-waving “absolutist.”
When French philosopher Pascal Bruckner accused Buruma of appeasement, Buruma rejected the charge, saying he simply sought “accommodation” with Muslims. After Geert Wilders came along and gained a following with his own frank talk about Islam, Buruma slammed him, too; in 2009, when Wilders was put on trial for defaming the Koran, Buruma supported his prosecution.
This, then, is the new editor of the New York Review of Books. Not to put too fine a point on it, I consider him a world-class creep. Buruma’s smearing of Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Geert Wilders, and his water-carrying for Tariq Ramadan, mark him as a coward and careerist of the first water.
He reminds me, in fact, of the male, gentile Sorbonne professors in Michel Houllebecq’s chilling novel Submission (2015), who, after an Islamic government comes to power in France and their female and Jewish colleagues are fired, convert to Islam without hesitation or moral qualm. In other words, he’s just the right person to take charge of the flagship publication of the New York literary-intellectual set.