Fall 2009/Winter 2010
NPQ has never been a traditional journal. Rather we have engaged in a continuing conversation over the last two decades with the most interesting minds and authoritative voices anywhere that can shed light on the frictions and fusions of our globalizing civilization. Instead of reporting the dots, we have sought to connect them with perspective and draw correspondences between ideas. As one reviewer put it, “with its editor traveling from country to country around the world, NPQ cross-pollinates at a dizzying pace.”
This special issue is a collection of conversations I’ve conducted since 1987. Though the long-form interview has nearly disappeared from the print media, except in some German publications, it remains for me the best way to mine the insights of poets, Nobel laureates, novelists, scholars or religious thinkers who have spent their lives striving for articulation and understanding. The Washington Post noted in this respect that “NPQ does not look for ideological advantage or smoothing over rough edges. It is actual thought.”
The “dialogical imagination” which informs NPQ’s approach is not incidental, but was born, appropriately enough, in that old stomping ground of Socrates, Athens. NPQ was originally a think tank newsletter that reported on my travels to Russia, China and elsewhere with Edmund G. Brown Jr., the former governor of California. We sought, with the help of Pierre Trudeau and others, including Richard Nixon, to meet the new generation of world leaders back in the early 1980s after Brown’s two terms in the statehouse when he was contemplating a run for higher office.
When Brown changed course and decided to go to Kamakura, Japan, to study Buddhism, I approached Stanley Sheinbaum, a well-known philanthropist and political kingmaker, to help out. Sheinbaum had been a fellow at the famed Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara that was founded by the “great books” president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Sheinbaum and I had gone to Athens to visit with the actress Melina Mercourri and interview Andreas Papandreou, the new prime minister at the time, whose release from jail under the colonels Sheinbaum had secured a few years earlier.
After wandering through the scattered ruins around Plaka one evening, we stopped at a cafe in Kolonaki Square. Under the spell of a double espresso an idea emerged: The Center in Santa Barbara brought great writers such as Aldous Huxley and scholars such as the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal to the sunny climes of Southern California to sit around a table to discuss the big issues. Instead of trying to lure them to someplace like the Center, it occurred to us, let’s make NPQ “a center without walls.” Instead of bringing the world to the table, we’d take the table to the world! Then we’d put it all between the covers of a journal.
Mulling over the idea, we walked and talked for hours, wending our way to another cafe in the port of Piraeus. By the time we finished our beers, gazing out over the Mediterranean Sea, Sheinbaum had committed to selling Willem de Kooning’s “Pink Lady,” a painting which he and his wife, the artist Betty Warner, owned. Its proceeds would fund the modern pursuit of knowledge through dialogue. Every issue of NPQ since has tried to live up to Sheinbaum’s vision. We often went together to the more political interviews, from Willy Brandt in Bonn to Yasser Arafat in Tunis. Later, in the 1990s, Wiley-Blackwell, the Oxford-based publisher, took over.
Today, NPQ is more necessary than ever. For all the Facebooks, iTune downloads and Twitters, the great danger we face now, as the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan has said, is that the information age will become the age of non-communication. NPQ’s commitment to dialogue across cultural boundaries is our small contribution to addressing that challenge.
Nathan Gardels, editor (Pictured on the cover at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul)