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Ian Buruma: A Jihad Apologist at the Helm of the New York Review of Books

Elderly man wearing glasses in a dark room.

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.”