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National Review Tries to Take Down New York Review of Books in Just Four Bitchy Paragraphs

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 12 May 2017
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not everyone’s opinions are well-considered.

A post for the center-right-leaning National Review titled “The Fall of the New York Review of Books” may have set itself up to harangue the fifty-six-year-old liberal publication, which is currently forging ahead leaderless after the passing of its longtime editor Robert Silvers. NR‘s senior editor David Pryce-Jones may have thought he had an easy target on his hands. “The New York Review of Books is one of the great disappointments in the cultural life of today,” he begins. “It might have been the place to discuss ‘the best that is known and thought in the world,’ to borrow Matthew Arnold’s famous words. No such thing. The NYRB is the house journal of the American liberal, a rarified species as uniform in thought-process as herd animals. Contrary writers and opinions will not appear in its pages.”

That’s not a surprising opening for an openly conservative magazine which declares on its website that “the largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so.”

The National Review‘s beef with The New York Review of Books goes back decades. As I note in my piece about the fall of the public intellectual, NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. was a mainstay on the public debate circuit, arguing civilly with some NYRB contributors (James Baldwin) and barbarously with others (Gore Vidal). But even as nasty as things became, neither side ever called for the dismissal of the other’s institution. That would go against the First Amendment, and thus be un-American.

The problem here isn’t fisticuffs. Rather, it is that more that Pryce-Jones shoots from the hip before we even know what the hell has so offended him. For that, you’d only need to look at the url: new-york-review-books-trump-hitler-comparison-inappropriate and the lede of the second paragraph: “In the current issue, a review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 by Christopher Browning is a perfect illustration of the lengths to which the NYRB will go in pursuit of the liberal version of reality.” He cites Browning, also a historian of Nazi Germany, as being “fully qualified to write on the subject” who instead “opens his review by asserting that “it is impossible to read Ullrich ‘outside the shadow cast by our new president.'”

Basically, what’s really rubbing Pryce-Jones is that Browning would compare Trump to Hitler, and he says about as much: “To set circumstances of birth, wealth, war service, sexual experience of the one against the other,” he writes, “is purely gratuitous, nothing to do with history but everything to do with prejudice.”As a conservative intellectual, it’s Pryce-Jones’s prerogative to cry foul here, though his complaint when he gets right down to it, boils down to a single sentence: “Browning may think and write whatever he likes about Trump, but it is ill-mannered, even disgraceful, to hang his animus on to the historian of quite another subject.”

That’s fair, if you can argue why. But Pryce-Jones wanted nothing more than to hoot and holler; he could have sent such a letter to the NYRB (a place used for shanks and slaps). But instead, after pointing out that “an experienced American professor” is warning that Trump carries signs of becoming “a dictator,” Pryce-Jones chooses to end his piece as hyperbolic as he begins it, by calling for the shuttering of an independent critical journal: “It’s a convincing reason,” he writes in conclusion, “to get rid of The New York Review of Books.”

Um, no. But if Pryce-Jones wants to proactively work to end the NYRB, maybe he should just cancel his subscription.