Radical Unchic and the New York Review of Books
Long ago I claimed that NYRB contributors were mad dogs and Englishmen. Or could it have been that, though I have been a subscriber to the review from its beginning in 1962, last year I canceled my subscription?
I canceled my subscription, not in high dudgeon, the way outraged subscribers tend to do, but because the NYRB had been boring me a fine Matisse blue for at least a decade and maybe longer. The Englishmen among its contributors are now third-rate and the mad dogs have become entirely uninteresting dogs.
The mighty may have fallen, but the NYRB was a powerful cultural influence for decades. How it achieved this position is an interesting case study.
The New York Review at 50
Where the Review once featured such A-list intellectuals as W.H. Auden and Hannah Arendt, at their recent 50th anniversary celebration the marquee names included Joan Didion, Daryl Pinckney (who?), and Daniel Mendelsohn.
Ho, I mean to say, hum.
Linking politics and high culture proved to be a potent cocktail. The NYRB was only one of many culture warriors who mixed it and served it to an eager audience.
In the pages of the NYRB, the great cultural figures in effect lent their imprimatur to the political radicalism. … The combination-- high culture admixed with radical politics-- made a fine blend upon which the bien-pensants in the media and academic life happily puffed. When I taught at Northwestern University, every two weeks the professorial mailboxes filled with fresh copies of the NYRB.
Robert Conquest recounts one example from the 1930s in explaining why Stalinism managed to gain such a foothold among the intelligentsia:
“Prestige, that magical aura which captures the minds of the young in advance of argument and establishes compelling fashions” The young are not the only ones susceptible to fashion and fads. Stephen Koch describes how the Stalinists wielded every tool at their disposal to win influence during the Twenties and Thirties in his book Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas against the West.
The Australian poet James McAuley wrote penetratingly of the pro-Communist phenomenon: 'During the thirties and forties Australian intellectual life became subjected to an alarming extent to the magnetic field of Communism. All sorts of people who would regard themselves as being non-Communist, and even opposed to Communism, in practice were dominated by the themes and modes of discussion proposed by the Communists, danced to the Communist tune, and had serious emotional resistances to being identified with any position or institution which was denounced by the Communists as "reactionary".' He adds that 'one reason for all this was that schools of thought genuinely independent of and opposed to Communist suggestion were in this country not well organized and publicly present. They lacked prestige, that magical aura which captures the minds of the young in advance of argument and establishes compelling fashions' [Reflections on a Ravaged Century]
For instance, he notes that the Kremlin never thought of Red Hollywood as a propaganda vehicle. Instead, one of its key objectives was to attract movie stars to the right fronts and causes in order to “Stalinize the glamour culture.” Once thoroughly Stalinized, the glamour culture could be used to rally the public to what most suited Bloody Joe’s needs.
Every age, after all, has its low-information voters. Glamour and “sophistication” can sway them far easier than tedious arguments that use facts and logic.