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Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma

Editor of The New York Review of Books, author of Theater of Cruelty, Year Zero: A History of 1945, and Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War

Articles by Ian Buruma

The Specious Special Relationship

September 22, 2021

There may be good reasons why Australia decided American submarines would be more suitable than French boats as a defense against China. But what the United Kingdom’s interests in the region are, apart from puffing up a self-image of “global Britain” after Brexit, is less clear.

NEW YORK – Two days before the Normandy landings in June 1944, Charles de Gaulle demanded the right to govern France after it was liberated by the Allies. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who detested de Gaulle, had no intention of agreeing to this. Winston Churchill, who rather admired de Gaulle’s illusions of grandeur, sided with Roosevelt. He told the Free French leader that if he had to choose between de Gaulle and Roosevelt, he would always

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Banning Opinion

August 5, 2021

At a time when lies and conspiracy theories run rampant across the internet, it is not surprising that many would look to governments and private companies to censor irrational and harmful beliefs. But even if this could be done effectively, that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.

NEW YORK – In May 1980, students in the South Korean city of Gwangju rebelled against the unpopular military regime. Many hundreds were brutally murdered by paratroopers sent in to quell the uprising. General Chun Doo-hwan, the leader of the military government, claimed that the students were North Korean revolutionary stooges.
The Dangers of Endless Quantitative Easing

Win McNameeGetty

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The Death of Free Speech in Hong Kong

June 25, 2021

In most liberal democracies, publications such as Hong Kong’s Apple Daily are usually seen as the unfortunate price to be paid for the right to freedom of expression. But with mainland China tightening its control over the territory, the tabloid was a pillar of that freedom, and now it is gone.

NEW YORK – The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily has been forced to close. On the day it was shuttered, people queued to buy one last copy; a million were printed. The paper was doomed since last year, when China’s Communist government imposed a harsh National Security Law on Hong Kong. Its offices were raided by the police. Its journalists were threatened with violence. Its assets were frozen. Salaries could no longer be paid.

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What Is the Point of the Olympics?

June 10, 2021

Tokyo in 2021 surely doesn’t need the Olympic Games. And yet, even during a pandemic, the Olympic army marches on, upholding its only ideal: making enormous amounts of money for itself, for sponsors, for property developers, and sometimes for corrupt politicians.

NEW YORK – Kaori Yamaguchi, an Olympic medalist in judo and an executive member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, made an astonishing statement – astonishing, that is, for an Olympic official. She said that Japan had been “cornered” into holding this year’s Games during a pandemic: “What will these Olympics be for, and for whom? The Games have already lost meaning and are being held just for the sake of them. I believe we have already missed the opportunity

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Taiwan and the Ghosts of History

May 7, 2021

It may be that in today’s world, when a superpower conflict could destroy much of mankind, China and the US will avoid a war over Taiwan. But the two sides are engaged in a game of chicken, which can escalate quickly and unpredictably, with fear of humiliation making it difficult to back down.

NEW YORK – Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? President Joe Biden laid out his vision clearly last week. He sees the rivalry between the PRC and the US as a global conflict between democracy and autocracy, and the ROC is unquestionably one of Asia’s most successful democracies.

Waking the

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Asian Demonstrators and the American Dream

March 4, 2021

Protesters against the military coup in Myanmar hope for a US intervention, showing that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” isolationism. But the US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one.

NEW YORK – One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

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The Right Time for Joe Biden

February 2, 2021

The new US president may not be an original thinker, a courageous leader, or exude personal magnetism, but are liberal democracies best served by such leaders in times of crisis? In fact, those hoping for a new New Deal in America can take comfort in the precedent of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

NEW YORK – It is easy to underestimate Joe Biden. The new US president has been dismissed by some people on the left as a party hack, a trimmer, a holdover from a corrupt and broken establishment. An article in the conservative journal National Review bore the headline: “Joe Biden: Mediocrity Personified.” It was written by that right-wing admirer of great men, Conrad Black, the former newspaper owner and convicted fraudster.

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Overcoming Trumpism

January 18, 2021

Much has been made by Donald Trump’s critics of his “unprecedented” trampling of political norms. But it is also true that the problems that Trump exploited – the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor, the heavy hand of corporate power, the harm to some people from globalization – long preceded him.

NEW YORK – Butler, Pennsylvania, is a small steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, with a population of 13,000 people. Donald Trump is popular there. One of its citizens, Nadine Schoor, 63, expressed her feelings about the president to the New York Times. “I look at President Trump,” she said, “and we’re the family – the country’s the family… And he’s the parent. He’s got a lot of tough love, and he doesn’t care what

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Trump’s Götterdämmerung

January 8, 2021

Without Trump’s bizarre but effective grip on the party, Republicans may well face a period of vicious infighting, which could conceivably tear their party apart. If so, they richly deserve it.

NEW YORK – Anyone who was surprised by the mayhem in Washington, DC has not been paying attention for the last four years. The grotesque scenes around the Capitol on January 6 were indeed shocking: wild-eyed thugs with neo-Nazi flags and Trump banners smashing their way into the House of Representatives and the Senate, while mobs roared “USA” and “Stop the Steal” and others took selfies to show their moment of glory to their grandchildren one day.

Remove and Ban Trump Now

Brendan

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Who Is America?

December 24, 2020

One of former President Barack Obama’s verbal tics was to declare that the baser instincts lurking in the darker corners of American life did not represent “who we are.” But four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, which is ending with an unprecedented spree of federal executions, suggest that millions of Americans disagree.

NEW YORK – Why would a US president in the last weeks of his administration want to start executing federal prisoners at a furious pace, even as he pardons four American mercenaries who murdered 14 Iraqi civilians in cold blood? The federal government has killed ten men already this year – more judicial killings than in all of America’s states combined. Three more executions remain to come before Donald

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Who Still Loves Trump?

December 2, 2020

Most Europeans and a majority of Americans are overjoyed that they will soon see the back of US President Donald Trump. But Trump retains an allure to many in Asia not only for standing up to China, but also for his boorish political incorrectness, which is viewed as both refreshing and principled.

NEW YORK – Apart from 74 million voters in the United States, who still approves of President Donald Trump? Most Europeans are overjoyed to see the back of him. But he has been popular with a number of right-wing strongmen and demagogues, and many of their followers. His admiration for autocrats, his disdain for immigrants, racial minorities, and Muslims (except for a few Saudi princes), and his contempt for liberal democratic norms

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The Revenge of the Special Relationship

September 7, 2020

Of all the older democracies, it is in Britain and the United States that right-wing populists have taken over conservative parties and rule their respective countries. This is not an accident, but rather an outcome that has been 75 years in the making.

NEW YORK – Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world.

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Trump’s Hypocrisy on China

August 4, 2020

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently called Richard Nixon’s opening to China almost 50 years ago a failure, and went on to declare a virtual cold war against the Chinese. But Trump’s blustering unilateralism and contempt for democratically elected leaders have left the US unable to forge the alliances Pompeo rightly says it needs.

NEW YORK – In a speech last month at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared politely that Nixon had been wrong about China. Opening up to the People’s Republic, in the hope that its Maoist dictatorship, moderated by a warm international embrace, would become freer at home and more cooperative abroad, has ended in failure.

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Conservatives Versus Trump

July 8, 2020

US President Donald Trump’s most trenchant critics are not to be found on the political left. The most effective assaults are coming from the political right, where "Never Trumpers" are openly supporting Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger in November’s election.

NEW YORK – For a while now, the most interesting critiques of US President Donald Trump and Trumpism have come from the right. By right, I don’t mean alt-right, radical right, evangelical right, or racist right, but true conservatives who have voted or worked for Republican presidents in the past.

Understanding the Pandemic Stock Market

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Another Long, Hot Summer in America

June 3, 2020

Many Americans are clearly horrified by President Donald Trump’s crass and incendiary words in response to the protests sweeping the country’s major cities. But will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken, or even acknowledged, still make them vote for the false security of a coarse white bully?

NEW YORK – Could the United States be facing a reprise of the summer of 1968? Then, too, the world saw images of popular rage boiling over in America, as mostly African-American inner cities went up in flames, and young people were tear-gassed, charged at, and often brutally beaten by riot police and National Guardsmen.

America’s Mis-Police State

Stephen Maturen/Getty

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The Virus of Fear

March 6, 2020

The panic that often occurs during a health crisis or in the aftermath of a natural disaster can – and has – led to spasms of irrational violence. Lack of truthful public information can lead to conspiracy theories, which become lethal when politicians or the media deliberately stir them up.

NEW YORK – In September 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake devastated large parts of Tokyo, mostly owing to firestorms. Rumors spread, and were often repeated in the mainstream press, accusing Koreans, a despised and poor minority, of planning to take advantage of the disaster by starting a violent rebellion. Japanese vigilantes, armed with swords, bamboo spears, and even guns, then set upon anyone who sounded or looked Korean. Up to 6,000

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Trump’s Talk Could Mean War

February 6, 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made reunification with Taiwan a priority. And what US President Donald Trump would say or do if Xi decided to assert the People’s Republic’s sovereignty by force is anyone’s guess.

NEW YORK – Even some of Donald Trump’s Republican supporters in the Senate did not doubt that the US president extorted a vulnerable ally to help him get re-elected in November by smearing a political rival. To be sure, they avoided using the word extortion. But, as Lamar Alexander, a senator from Tennessee, put it in a carefully worded statement: “It was inappropriate for the President to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and [to withhold] United States aid to encourage that investigation.”

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America’s Sacred Politics

January 9, 2020

It is unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result.

NEW YORK – Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although one of the Founding Fathers, as a Catholic Carroll was not allowed to hold public office. This changed only in 1788, when the Constitution prevented Congress from establishing any religion, and religious affiliation ceased to be a test for those seeking public office.
The Suleimani Assassination and US Strategic Incoherence

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Trump’s Racist Ban on Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2019

To combat racism, wherever it occurs, is a laudable aim. But singling out anti-Semitism in an executive order, especially when the concept is so intimately linked to views on the state of Israel, is a mistake.

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump thinks that anti-Semitism is a serious problem in America. But Trump is not so much concerned about neo-Nazis who scream that Jews and other minorities “will not replace us,” for he thinks that many white supremacists are “very fine people.” No, Trump is more worried about US college campuses, where students call for boycotts of Israel in support of the Palestinians.
Cronies Everywhere

PS OnPoint

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

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The Patriot versus the President

November 23, 2019

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman should be a Republican poster boy, given the party’s routine invocation of love of country and encomiums to military valor. But to the GOP and its supporters, Vindman’s recent testimony in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump automatically makes him an enemy of the people.

NEW YORK – It was an extraordinary spectacle: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a US military officer in full dress uniform decorated with a Purple Heart, testifying in the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings on November 19. Knowing that his testimony might well wreck his military career, Vindman believed it was his duty to express his concerns about President Donald Trump’s alleged

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Sporting Tribes

November 8, 2019

It is remarkable how quickly tribal feelings can adapt to new circumstances. To see how and why, look no further than British soccer clubs, which, like clubs in many European cities, once commanded ferocious loyalty along geographic, ethnic, and even religious grounds.

NEW YORK – Siya Kolisi, who raised the Webb Ellis Cup for his country in Yokohama, Japan, early this month, is the first black man to captain the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, in a game that used to be associated entirely with white South Africans. He was born in a poor township in the Eastern Cape. Jean de Villiers, a former Springbok captain, said the Springboks’ victory was “for the whole country.” But it was something in

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The Hooligan Spirit

October 8, 2019

There are many reasons why even the oldest democracies, such as the US and the UK, are increasingly riven by tribal hatreds. But when political leaders deliberately exploit these rifts and whip up hostile emotions even further, they do immense harm to the institutions that guarantee people’s freedom and safety.

NEW YORK – The late Alan Clark, a British politician of the Margaret Thatcher era, chiefly known for his womanizing and his hard-right views, once lamented to me the decline of the British fighting spirit that built empires and won wars. Half in jest, I suggested that this aggressive disposition was still there among British soccer hooligans who ransack stadiums and foreign towns. He replied with a dreamy look

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Britain’s Enemy of the People?

September 4, 2019

As a student of the classical world, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be aware that the model of the upper-class demagogue gaining power by stirring up the passions of aggrieved plebeians goes back to the late Roman Republic. If he manages to suspend Parliament and push through a hard Brexit, Britain may well face a similar fate.

LONDON – The idea that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a man of the people, a tribune of the common man fighting the established elites, might seem anomalous, even outright bizarre. After all, Johnson is a perfect example of the English elite: educated at Eton and Oxford, and possessed of all the exaggerated mannerisms, in speech and demeanor, of the British upper

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The Race Card in America

August 5, 2019

Donald Trump has racialized American politics more than any US president in living memory, and many are blaming him for acts of racist violence, like the recent mass shooting in El Paso. But, given that what makes politics in the United States so complicated is the conflation of race, class, and culture, his opponents should not follow his example.

LONDON – The recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a young white man who had posted a hate-filled anti-immigrant screed shortly beforehand, has called attention to US President Donald Trump’s own rhetorical affinity for white supremacy. Trump has consistently insulted Mexicans, African Americans, and other people of color. He referred to

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The Limits of Mass Protest in a Dictatorship

July 8, 2019

Public opinion cannot remove a communist government by electing another one. But the PRC does aspire to a certain degree of respectability in the world. Sending tanks to crush protests in Hong Kong would make China look very bad – though this does not mean that the government would not do so, if it saw no other way.

LONDON – Hong Kong is not Beijing. And July 1, 2019, is not June 4, 1989. First of all, in 1989, the violence in China came almost entirely from the side of the government; the weeks of demonstrations in Beijing and other cities had remained remarkably peaceful throughout. This was mostly true in Hong Kong as well, until a small number of young protesters lost their cool and ransacked the

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Deng Xiaoping’s Victory

June 2, 2019

What emerged intact from the massacre of defenseless students and other citizens in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was not communism, but a version of authoritarian capitalism on a grand scale. It is a model that appeals to autocrats all over the world, including in countries that succeeded in throwing off communist rule 30 years ago.

NEW YORK – China’s massive protest movement in the spring of 1989, centered in (but not confined to) Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, seems to have been the anti-Communist revolt that failed. As the brutal crackdown on and following June 3-4 played out, political freedom was being won in Central Europe – first in Poland and Hungary, and then, beginning that fall, in East

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China’s Path Not Taken

May 6, 2019

China’s tragic modern political history has led some, inside and outside China, to believe that the Chinese are not ready for liberal democracy, or are even unsuited to it. But the more liberal strands of the May Fourth Movement in 1919 – and of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that May 4 inspired – should never be forgotten.

NEW YORK – This month marks the centenary of one of the most important cultural and political episodes in modern Chinese history: the May Fourth Movement. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students and intellectuals launched a massive protest in Beijing, demanding the end of “feudalism” and more political freedom. A century later, it is officially celebrated by a Communist dictatorship that allows no

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Licking the Boot that Kicks You

March 6, 2019

Many people cannot grasp how anyone could possibly support a coarse, narcissistic fantasist like US President Donald Trump. Michael D. Cohen’s recent congressional testimony against his former boss provides one answer: the urge to flatter is as conspicuous as the spectacle of self-love.

NEW YORK – Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist

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The UK’s Suicidal Tendencies

February 6, 2019

Most politicians on the left and the right – including Prime Minister Theresa May, who before the Brexit referendum was in favor of Britain remaining in the EU – know that leaving the European Union without an exit agreement would be a national calamity. So why have almost all refused to do anything to halt the slide toward a catastrophic no-deal Brexit?

NEW YORK – Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are

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Japan First

January 8, 2019

Japanese nationalists, starting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, need no encouragement to follow US President Donald Trump’s example. But if they do, they will echo the worst aspects of contemporary America – and throw away the best of what the US once had to offer.

TOKYO – Even whales have now been affected by US President Donald Trump. This year, Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission and resume commercial whaling. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government claims that eating whale meat is an important part of Japanese culture, even though the number of Japanese who actually do so is tiny compared to a half-century ago. And leaving the IWC will mean that Japanese whalers can fish only in Japan’s

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