Sunday, July 03, 2005

Column on my guilty pleasure

My Guilty Pleasure

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I have one, and I am not sure I can be forgiven for it. I like
reading The New York Review of Books, this country?s most erudite liberal
?book review? magazine. (It is only nominally a review because too much of
it departs very significantly from the substance of the books being
discussed and lets reviewers scurry all over the disciplinary landscape if
just a bit of what they discuss is related to that substance.) Of course,
I like the learned, if highly opinionated, essays included in each issues;
some of them are nearly completely unrelated to politics, such as the
abundant discussion and disputation about the nature of consciousness and
the varieties of fine arts. But even the most explicitly political work is
enjoyable to read.

Yet that alone wouldn?t make reading The New York Review the guilty
pleasure it is for me. There is one attribute to this publication that is
so blatantly paradoxical, so outlandishly contradictory, that each issue I
receive provides me the joy of seeing everyone in the editorial department
squirm?or to turn a deliberate blind eye?so as to be able to live with
himself. You see, The New York Review of Books is nothing if not
dogmatically egalitarian in its political economical philosophy. Such
legal stars writing for it as Ronald Dworkin have attained near celebrity
status in their advocacy of a level playing field in nearly all realms of
social and economic life. (His book Sovereign Virtue [2002] lays out his
case in detail.) Mandated affirmative action is just one case in point?The
Review?s contributors consistently defend it. Yet another indication of
its egalitarianism is the scholars it has targeted for debunking, such as
the late Leo Strauss and Hoover Institution fellow Thomas Sowell. (Some of
the treatments are, however, quite good, as when in a recent piece
Professor Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago Committee for Social
Thought straightened out may liberals about whether Strauss can be blamed
for the current American administration?s neo-conservative zeal in foreign
military policy matters.)

The fact is that The New York Review of Books is one of this country?s
most elitist publications. One need only read it for about a year to
notice that the selection of works to which the editors pay attention is
uncompromisingly prestigious. The authors whose books get reviewed
invariably have the highest possible academic pedigree, as do the
reviewers themselves. The publishers, too, are ranked the
highest?virtually no books from non-prominent presses get discussed. And
as far as letters to the editor are concerned, only the highest ranking
correspondents manage to get it?I know, since for about 30 years I have
tried to chime in and never managed to get published, despite writing some
very good letters, ones that are routinely responded to with considerable
interest by the Review?s authors when I send them a version of my comments.

The pleasure of seeing these adamant champions of equality of results on
all significant fronts completely ignore their own counsel is indeed a
significant one for me, someone who thinks fairness toward and equal
treatment of people in nearly all areas of life (outside the protection
owed our individual rights by the legal authorities) is bunk. When the
premier journal in the country that peddles the egalitarian line cannot
manage for the life of it to live by its own egalitarian edicts, that is
certainly a pretty clear hint that egalitarianism is an impossible dream.
I, of course, consider it a dreadful dream, a nightmare, but the editors
of The New York Review evidently believe in it with all their hearts and a
bit of their minds, yet they are unable to do what that very social
philosophy requires, namely, give a fair chance to those who do not meet
their standards, whatever they may be, within the pages of their

Witnessing one?s adversaries being hoisted on their own petard is indeed
a guilty pleasure of mine (which is why I find the idea of taking US
Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter?s home in an eminent domain measure
by the city where he lives, one he recently helped authorized, so
appealing). The New York Review provides that pleasure in each issue by
combining a straightforward, uncompromising practical elitism with the
relentless and unyielding political and legal message of egalitarianism.
This certain contributes evidence for the naiveté and ultimate futility of
its social-political message.

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