The United States has lost one of its most remarkable citizens, at a moment when we can least afford it. Yet most Americans have never heard of him, and probably never will. He never won an NBA championship. He never made a billion dollars from software. He never appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
Robert Silvers died this week at age 87. He was one of the co-founders (with his friend Barbara Epstein) of the New York Review of Books, arguably this country’s — perhaps the world’s — most important journal of ideas. For the past 54 years, he read every word that made it into the magazine (or “the paper,” as he preferred to call it). And what words they were: From Vaclav Havel. Hannah Arendt. Susan Sontag. W.H. Auden. Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell. Joan Didion. Desmond Tutu. And those are just the names from the early days. One really doesn’t know where to start. You could make a long list just out of the Nobel Prize winners who wrote for him.
But why should we care, you might ask? After all, the New York Review has a circulation of just 134,000. That’s just a droplet in the vast ocean of social media noise and televised babble that define American life today. (By comparison, pop star Selena Gomez has 46.6 million Twitter followers. Nothing against her, of course.) Yet Bob’s legacy has had a profound and lasting impact on generations of American thinkers, and I can’t help thinking that, if we manage to survive this current era with our minds intact, we’ll owe him part of the credit.
And yes, I do have a personal agenda. I, too, had the great privilege to write for Bob from time to time. He was my mentor, my hero and my friend. So perhaps I’m a bit biased when I argue that his departure is a great loss for American society.
Why? Just look around you. The citizens of the United States have lost their bearings. We are living through an astonishing collapse of spiritual standards. We are lurching through a storm of brazen lies, bitter incriminations and breezily tolerated corruption. Our president is a reality TV star masquerading as a head of state. Hollywood celebrities serve as sources of moral emulation. We get our news from late-night comedians, and wonder why our Internet echo chambers seem to be making things worse.
We could learn a thing or two from Bob’s example. He lived a life of relentless respect for the truth — embodied, among other things, by his work ethic, which would have put any captain of industry to shame. (He sometimes worked around the clock as his teams of youthful assistants struggled to keep up.) He was interested in everything, from constitutional law to cosmology, and always wanted to learn more — a spirit diametrically opposed to the world of Twitter, which rewards specialization, silos and those who shout the loudest. He never worried about cultivating his “brand.” He always put his writers in the forefront: He saw his job as helping them to shine.
You can sum up his legacy in two words: clarity and compassion. On the first score, Bob was the antithesis of the ivory-tower intellectual. He despised academic jargon, sloppy language and grand abstractions. He prized the concrete, the vivid, the sharply phrased.
He loved ideas but looked askance at ideologies. His guides were Czeslaw Milosz’s book “The Captive Mind,” which explored coming of age under Stalinism, and George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” These works shared a realization that language, for all of its power to forge connections and create communities, could also be turned to nefarious ends when harnessed by dehumanizing philosophies. For Bob, getting at the truth wasn’t just a laudable exercise — it was also a vital ethical and political act, one that he pursued with unwavering single-mindedness, every day.
This respect for the truth, which he managed to uphold without a trace of sanctimony or pompousness, was closely linked to his second prominent trait, a deep sense of empathy with other human beings. In the 1960s the Review commissioned a whole stable of writers — most notably, perhaps, the dogged investigative journalist I.F. Stone — to report on the catastrophe of Vietnam, predictably outraging conservatives. But the magazine also went on to embrace Soviet Bloc dissidents, defending Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to the horror of many of Bob’s friends on the left. (The New York Review was one of the first American publications to examine the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric clinics against dissidents.) The magazine defended physicist Fang Lizhi, one of the greatest critics of the Chinese Communist Party, and Desmond Tutu, a leader of the fight against apartheid.
In the 1990s Bob commissioned journalist Mark Danner to chronicle the war in the former Yugoslavia, exhaustively detailing Serb aggression. But in 1999 he also published a memorable essay by U.S. poet Charles Simic (who also happened to be an especially eloquent critic of Slobodan Milosevic) mourning the NATO bombing of Belgrade during the intervention in Kosovo.
Ann Kjellberg, a deputy editor at the Review who went to work for Bob in 1988, recalls how the Review resoundingly condemned the onset of the war in Iraq in 2003, citing the devastation that was likely to result. The liberal magazine the Nation then published an article praising Bob for returning to his left-wing origins, but he didn’t see it that way at all. “It was a continuum,” Kjellberg says. “He was always sensitive to state overreach. He was always asking the questions, ‘How many civilians are being killed? Who’s dying? Who’s in prison?’ It wasn’t ideological. He always brought it back to the human.” And he was doing it right up to the end, allowing his writers to examine the darkness of the Syrian civil war, the crackdown in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring, the slow-motion collapse of Europe as an idea.
Needless to say, the current political leaders of the United States have made it clear that they couldn’t care less about human rights or democracy, especially when applied to people who live outside our own borders. Could it be that this disregard for the rights of individuals also has something to do with our current president’s blatant and cynical disregard for the truth? For Bob, Kjellberg says, “there was always an association between clarity of expression and democratic commitment.” Ponder that the next time you hear Trump speak, and then ask yourself: Would you rather live in his world or Bob’s?