I admit it up front — I want to be published in The New York Review of Books, even if only by means of a letter to the editor. I have been reading the magazine ever since it started and often I have something to say about what appears in its pages.
Now and then, actually, I have started very civil discussions with some of the authors. Many to whom I send comments have answered and in some cases we have carried on email correspondence for some time.
But The New York Review of Books, unlike The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, National Review, The Claremont Review of Books, Mother Jones, and numerous other publications Left or Right to which I have sent letters to the editor, will not budge. I simply don’t get admitted within its hallowed pages.
In the very recent past one of the most frequently published authors from TNYRB, Tony Judt, got bumped from a talk he was to give at the Polish Consulate in New York City and the whole bunch of his fellow authors from that magazine have been bellyaching about this.
Apparently what he wanted to talk about was deemed unwanted by his hosts, so they uninvited him. But now all his pals are in a tizzy about it and there have been angry letters from them in TNYRB about this, sounding very much like the authors believe that Mr. Judt has some kind of natural or constitutional right to speak wherever he wishes to speak.
Hey, let’s consider this for a moment. Mr. Judt is not wanted at the Polish Consulate, which is not some public square in the United States of America but, effectively, a private one, belonging to the Polish government. He definitely has no natural or constitutional right to sound off there, any more than he would in the Consulate of some other country or, indeed, on any terrain that doesn’t belong to him or those who want to hear him.
Indeed, this is not much different from my case — I would like to sound off in TNYRB and have sent them many letters over the years (having subscribed very early to the magazine). I do not send them hate mail, nothing uncivil, only some brief missives arguing a point or making a criticism of some point made in the publication.
Yet, I am excluded from those pages regularly, even while some of their authors find what I say worthy of a response when I send them the comment.
Now that is the nature of a free press. You don’t get to publish in a forum where you aren’t wanted. It is not your right. Newspapers and magazines and web sites belong to people and unless those people invite or permit you to sound off there, you don’t get to. Not even if you are Tony Judt, friend of the editors of and of many contributors to TNYRB.
But then this is not really all that novel a phenomenon. Those on the Left regularly make use of concepts of freedom, whether deployed legitimately or not, when their agenda is at issue — while happily excluding from discussions in their forums anyone who isn’t on their side.
The Left and, especially its communist wing back in the 50s, were notoriously lopsided in their defense of individual rights to free expression — they insisted on it in the United States of America and other places in the West (sometimes quite wrong-headedly, as when they protested blacklists by private parties which they later eagerly employed themselves toward racists and others they didn’t like much) while making no protests at all when the Soviets ran a state-owned press and publishing industry and barred anyone not toeing the party line from them.
No, The New York Review of Books is not a commie outfit and often it publishes letters protesting violations of free speech rights across the globe, be it by right- or left-wing governments.
But they have a problem. They fail to understand that not every forum is subject to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Like my home or the Polish Consulate in New York City, for example, which are not available to their pals to peddle their ideology. Just as the pages of TNYRB aren’t available to me if they don’t choose to have me in there.
Tibor Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute (San Francisco, CA) and the Hoover Institution (Stanford University, CA).