SPEAKING FREELY: MY LIFE IN PUBLISHING AND HUMAN RIGHTS
By Robert L. Bernstein
The New Press, $27.95, 341 pages, illustrated
Publishing maven Robert Bernstein has given his book the perfect title, since it is clear from his account of a long life well-lived professionally and personally not only that he has no problem speaking freely himself, but has fought dedicatedly to see that others all over the world could enjoy the same freedom. Indeed, he writes that “This book was started late in life after my family began asking questions about how a life in publishing led me into the world of human rights.”
After reading this engaging memoir, three things jump out from this typically direct sentence: life, publishing and human rights. For we get them all in these pages. His New York upbringing, Harvard education and World War II Army service in India — not to mention references to family threaded throughout his story — make this a full autobiography, not limited to career and other public activities. There’s plenty about publishing here, from its corporate side to editors and authors, told forthrightly and larded with numerous anecdotes, many of them humorous about everyone from tycoons to movie stars. And if he’s undeniably passionate about his day job, he is even more so about fighting for the rights of those writers whose governments stifle their efforts to bring their work into the light of day.
Wearing his publisher’s hat, Mr. Bernstein traveled to the Soviet Union in 1970 as part of a delegation trying to induce the USSR to sign the Universal Copyright Convention. It would take more than one trip before they eventually did so, but there’s nothing like actually experiencing a closed society like that up close and personal to appreciate the need to try to reform it and others of that ilk. “To say that the Soviet Union had not been anywhere near the front of my mind before the trip to Moscow would be an understatement,” he writes.
For the next two decades, while never neglecting his duties in New York, his fights with Soviet bureaucracy and advocacy for dissident writers like Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner were relentless. And hands on, too, as is evident from the many personal interactions he recounts in these pages. Few of them are as frivolous — or as funny — as accompanying an irrepressible Ms. Bonner to a late-night Parisian tourist nightclub, but all of them show an absolute commitment to those he championed.
It is characteristic of Mr. Bernstein that he had not been long in the USSR before he learned what he was up against and how he had to confront it:
“I realized that when the Russians were being firm with you, it was best to treat them in the same manner. It was hard, though. With all the minders watching you, the sense of being controlled began to feel suffocating. I now recognize that this was the type of social control the Soviet authorities used over the whole society.”
No wonder that on his return, he founded Helsinki Watch, which did such sterling work behind the Iron Curtain and expanded into Human Rights Watch, with a global perspective.
But it is equally characteristic that when decades later he saw that organization being hijacked as part of an unjust campaign to demonize Israel, he did not hesitate to speak out publicly against it. His iron integrity, impeccable compass when it comes to what is and isn’t injustice, and his aversion to singling out a society loaded with self-critical institutions while remaining silent about others that single-mindedly preach hatred left him no choice. He is especially impassioned in his condemnation of anti-Semitism, which is not surprising given what he has seen in his long life: He rightly reminds readers of Julius Streicher’s vicious rants against Jews, which helped lay the groundwork for Nazi genocide. But it is clear that all hate speech, as well as all forms of true injustice and stifling free expression, arouse his anger, contempt and well-grounded fear as to its rolling effects.
Well into his 90s, Mr. Bernstein’s concluding insight shows that his passionate advocacy is still undimmed:
“Looking back, Ted Geisel and Andrei Sakharov were perhaps the two biggest influences on me. I thought both were geniuses, and though outwardly very different, I think they walked the same path — both tried to bring a little more humanity into the world . If anything shows the importance of free expression in the world, look at the millions of kids who have read and been influenced by Dr. Seuss, and then think about how Andre Sakharov struggled to get his message out. It strikes me that in a world where all can speak freely, the Seusses will emerge. We have to keep fighting for the Sakharovs.”
It is Mr. Bernstein’s triumph that through his enterprise in commercial publishing and his tireless devotion to cracking open the barriers to speaking in closed societies from the Soviet Union in the past to 21st century China, he has contributed more than most to keeping the banner of speaking freely waving ever more proudly.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.