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In Conversation: Robert Silvers


You published many critiques of Freud and psychoanalysis.
Particularly Fred Crews’s very intensive analysis of Freud’s changing concepts, and their obscure, sometimes hidden origins. Of course, at the time we started the Review, it seemed everyone was being analyzed. That has changed.

It seems to me that one secret of the Review is that, even as a rarefied journal of ideas, it is actually meant for a general audience.
I always feel I want to learn from the articles we publish. And I have to assume that there’s an audience that wants to learn in the same way.

You are the audience, in other words.
Yes, that’s it. And often I hope the book under review can be brought closer to some reality that’s heretofore often been presented in a rather masked, misleading way.

For instance, in a recent issue we had a long article on General Petraeus. It’s not a big attack on him. It tries to show how his mind evolved since his days at West Point—in his Ph.D. essay at Princeton on the failures of American policy in the Vietnam War and in his work on the uses of special forces against insurgency in Iraq and in Afghanistan, especially in the Iraq War, which the Review opposed from the first. It took Tom Powers months to finish his review, drawing on more than twenty books. In all that, he has one half of one paragraph on the recent scandal.

And yet, of course, the interest of readers will be drawn there because of it.
No doubt. But the Petraeus of the scandal, the Petraus involved with Mrs. Broadwell and Tampa social life—all that depends on the record and the ideas of Petraeus the warrior, the subject of Tom’s article. That’s the only reason we even know about these small matters of domestic life.

Speaking of the relationship of the Review to the news, here is a recent issue where the lead piece is by David Cole, “Drones and the CIA: 13 Questions for the New Chief.” Now, this article appeared exactly—
On the day of the confirmation hearings for John Brennan.

So the Review comes out right on time.
Or we come out a year later and we say, Here are eighteen questions not asked at the hearing!

The book-review category is a strange one. It doesn’t constrain you from sending Mary McCarthy to Vietnam, and it also makes possible a new form, in which writers give close readings of public documents that tend otherwise to be mostly ignored—for example, congressional reports.
It does give an enormous possibility. In the case of a congressional report or transcript, it’s a text that is there to be consulted, by the entire world, and checked. There’s a big difference between that and the ephemeral, anonymous quote from the cloakroom of the Senate.

So far as I know, the man who made the most of analyzing such reports was I. F. Stone. He had physical troubles that made it difficult for him to attend public hearings, and he was wary of press conferences. But he took home public documents and subjected them to a kind of Talmudic study.

I’ve done some of it myself, for you—in particular reviewing the reports on Abu Ghraib and torture. What was interesting to me about those was that the fact of the investigations was taken as proof that the truth had come out but in fact the reports together combined to hide the truth.
These reports are often part of a presentation aimed at reassuring the public—closing up the subject and “classifying” it.

The politics of the Review fascinate a lot of people. For example, one sees pieces that are rather praising of Obama, and other quite critical ones.
Any first-rate group of writers will have very different views of Obama. You wrote for us your essay “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie” about his first campaign and the youth and the sexiness and rapport he seemed to evoke. David Bromwich wrote a very caustic and critical piece about his foreign policy. You then wrote critically about his use of “the politics of fear.” Michael Tomasky has argued that he’s brought about a transformation in American life in which a series of different groups have been drawn into politics and that he has in fact succeeded in making some fundamental changes, for example in health care. There must be room for very different, conflicting perspectives, different judgments about Obama and public policy generally.

But is it not hard to claim that the Review has no political identity at all?
We’ve had to have several political identities. As editors, it was as if we were being confronted by successive waves of historical development and challenges—waves like the Vietnam War, like the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, like Star Wars and the economics of the Reagan administration. And these different historical and political forces also loomed in the form of books. We tried to react by asking the people whom we respected as perceptive and as knowledgeable to deal with them, and we sent writers we admired to report on them—Joan Didion, for example, who reported on the war in El Salvador, and the Cubans in Miami. What becomes more and more clear is that victims and persecutors can change parts.


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