Kilgore Q. Trout
The scariest thing about The New York Review Of Books firing it’s ultra-progressive White Male editor for being a White Male were NOT the strains of Horst Wessel for Vuvuzela emanating from the Code Pink Reichstag. That ANY White Male editor would have the unmitigated testosterone to allow a fellow Male (albeit, brown ) accused of sexual misconduct (and completely cleared ) to mansplain his side of the story is, of course, too triggering to contemplate in the Age Of Ballsy Ford #METOO hysterics. No, the thing that should frighten anyone remotely interested in liberal education or free expression is that publishers of textbooks and academic journals threatened to pull advertising if the White Male editor was not instantly removed.
This is not kind of, sort of like the 1950’s Red Scare Hollywood Blacklist Era when movie moguls banned writers accused of Communist sympathies: IT IS PRECISELY THE SAME THING. Except, of course, WORSE! And if you don’t think so, please consider the evidence
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING MAY CAUSE UNDUE SHRINKAGE
As the stuff of drama, the incidents leading to the fateful dismissal of the NYRB editor have become as hackneyed and predictable as a Hillary Clinton rant. Without adding a clue beyond: A male host on Canadian Broadcasting was accused…it’s a safe bet a blond amoeba with a Dolly Parton hairdo in the Wheel of Fortune audience could fill in the blanks without a prompt from Pat or Vanna. But what makes the incidents so particularly eye-opening –not to mention, obscene —is that all the participants were overtly progressive politically and culturally , all upper middle class , all with expensive educations and to a lady privileged and white –that is, with the odd exception of the accused who happens to be a brown Muslim male .
But despite owning all the credentials the Children Of The Enlightenment believed were the keys to happiness, or at least the pursuit thereof, these women, by their own admission, were and continue to be, as hopelessly sad, aggrieved and helpless as Dickensian orphans. Think: Little Dorrit without sewing skills and fighting obesity.
Not that the male counterparts of the dramatis personae were types you’d want to have to rely on in any emergency whatsoever –but we’ll get to that later.
Ghomeshi, Buruma & Pikachu
In October 2014 Jian Ghomeshi, host of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s highly rated radio interview show Q, was accused by an ex-girlfriend of choking her during a rough sex session twelve years before. He was put “on leave” by CBC that day, and before the week was out three more women came forward to accuse him of additional sexual transgressions. Jian was arrested and jailed He was released on $100,000 bail. When he appeared in court in January 2015 to plead innocent at pretrial still another three women came forward to make allegations
Sixteen months after the initial allegation the trial of Jian Ghomeshi began on February 1, 2016. And by this time the number of women willing to testify against him had grown to twenty. Seven weeks later on March 24, 2016, the judge acquitted Ghomeshi of all charges on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of any sexual misconduct and added that “the inconsistency and ‘outright deception’ of the witnesses’ testimony had irreparably weakened the prosecution’s case.” Judge William Horkins accused the complainants of “lying or trying to conceal evidence from the court” Beyond that, not a single accuser could recall specific dates or places of the alleged incidents. And under cross-examining the particulars of many of their stories changed. But most damning of all: none of them had reported or even mentioned to anyone else the assaults when they occurred. Most of the women also admitted they continued to meet, talk to, e-mail and go out for dinner and/or drinks with the accused after the incidents took place.
But fortunately for womankind –and the still ravenous and outraged international media—a second trial was immediately scheduled which promised to fully expose Ghomeshi’s arrogance, diseased libido, and workplace-related crimes. After the court was apprised of the specifics, however, it turned out that case revolved around the accusations of exactly one woman. And after her accusations were recited the trial ended in an anticlimactic whimper. It was agreed that the workplace charges would be dropped if Ghomeshi took the stand and apologized to the victim. Which Mr. G. proceeded to do in a speech which explicably but inexpediently contained notes of self-pity, thus enraging the gallery, the media, and the judge.
As a result, the victim –a secretary named Kathryn Borel –was encouraged by the judge to hold a news conference and list the crimes against her personhood. Which she did –in a prepared statement—immediately after the dismissal on the steps of the courthouse to TV cameras, microphones, smartphones, and scores of supporters wearing appropriate expressions of outrage and sorrow.
Ms. Borel: “There are at least three documented incidents of physical touching. This includes the one charge he just apologized for, when he came up behind me while I was standing near my desk, put his hands on my hips . and rammed his pelvis against my backside over and over, simulating sexual intercourse.”https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/statement-from-kathryn-borel-on-jian-ghomeshi/article29974726/
Stunned silence with outbursts of sobbing, rending of garments and the all too familiar sound of popping smelling salt ampules. But then:
A Humphrey Bogart looking reporter wearing a 3-day growth of beard, wrinkled brown serge suit and crushed Trilby on his head with PRESS stuck in the band, stood up and without removing the lit Lucky Strike dangling on his lower lip, growled :
“And That’s Fucking IT? Help me get this straight, miss. You were working at a progressive public radio station which spews feminist claptrap twenty-four seven and pay taxes in a country which elected Prime Minister a flamer who wears makeup, false eyebrows and 90% of those polled expect to soon transition to a pom-pom girl —and you were afraid to tell management this dork was dry butt humping you?
“Why in God’s name didn’t you haul off and smack the little shit silly? Were you afraid he’d hit you back? Do you have any idea how much cash you would have collected, practically on the spot, if he’d actually did hit you back? Management would have all had to take second jobs. Pledge Drives would be renamed IF Kathryn Borel Doesn’t Get A Fully Loaded Tesla This Week You Can Kiss Off Big Bird and The Cookie Monster Drives .”
The Fifty Year Argument
“Once upon a time Manhattan was the home territory of the most sophisticated people in the world and the neighborhood tattle sheet was the New York Review Of Books.” So said Kurt Vonnegut looking up from the latest copy of the NYRB to no one in particular at the Goose and Gherkin Bar on East 49th one bleak Fall afternoon. “Well that circus has left town,” he proclaimed, defiantly mixing his metaphor, raising his signature eyebrows and sighing his signature sigh. Everyone knew what he meant, even the bartender.
This was in 1982, on the eve of The Great Aids Plague and The Great Atonement. The beginning of mass migration from bar stools to AA folding chairs, bathroom stalls to confessionals. Sophistication no longer existed. Those who might’ve once claimed the status had forever lost it snorting $150 grams of baby laxative at Studio 54, or exposing their dubious charms at all nude mushroom-fueled Crisco parties , or by simply ending it all like Truman Capote with pitchers of vodka and an eight-ball chaser –“a wise career move” according to Gore Vidal.
But when the NYRB was born 20 years prior, Manhattan must have really felt like the epicenter of sophistication, especially to a General Electric public relations flack from Indianapolis who was on the cusp of being embraced by the upper crust for his sarcastic novels and witty repartee like Vonnegut. But as a matter of record, he was only one of tens of thousands of talented types on the island all jousting for recognition, and hundreds of thousands more in the hinterlands dreaming of BEING THERE. But why there? And why then?
The easy answer is after WWII had gutted or impoverished all the other cultural meccas Manhattan was the only one left standing. To the educated cosmopolitans who were running the place —or at least believed they were since they were getting so rich and so influential they hourly had to pinch themselves —nowhere else could compete or could have ever competed with such undiluted energy, opportunity, dazzle, and style. And it’s hard to say they were entirely wrong since nothing like it has existed since.
But there was another ingredient, usually disparaged and often lampooned, that looking back –or looking down from the perch on Babel Tower circa 2018 –arguably made it all possible. Everyone had the same reference points. Everyone who was anyone had prepped at Groton or Hotchkiss and had attended Ivy League schools or made sure they acted as if they did. Women still went to “finishing schools” and proud of it despite their self – disparaging protestations. Hence –and this is a major point— elegant manners were mandatory—the entry fee, a calling card. A must. As a result, gaining admittance to a literary or political circle, developing a reputation, skewering a rival required all the survival skills and temperament of an 18th-century French court jester.
Politics, commerce, academia and THE ARTS were all identified with larger than life, portentous figures. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Clare Booth Luce, John Foster Dulles, Margaret Chase Smith, Pablo Pennington Picasso …
If this sounds to you less like cosmopolitan sophistication than lockstep Fifties conformity, then you’d be wrong.
The reason starlets like Vonnegut and Wolfe and Mailer and Capote and Vidal so admired, referenced and assaulted the era was they worked night and day with heroic determination to distinguish themselves in what was, in reality, a nonstop rough and tumble intellectual free for all. When the reference points are all the same and criticism is handed down from on high, standing out requires more than a funny hat and a practiced monologue –you have to elbow your way onstage and ad-lib like crazy to outshine the others in the chorus line. It formed their personalities, worldviews, adversative writing styles and public personas.
“I’m Norman Mailer And I’m Fightin’ For The Heavyweight Title Of American Letters”
But then tragedy struck:
In 1962, linotype operators for the nine daily newspapers, protesting automation, went on strike and suddenly zero information—like no Google today and with only 3 B&W channels of TV. Most disastrously, the movers and shakers woke up the following Sunday to discover the strike included the Times and Herald Tribune: no editorials to tell them what to think, no theater critic to tell them what to see and no Book Review to assure them they were reading what everyone else was. Publishers, Theater Managers, Gallery Owners were in a panic. The strike was to last 114 days.
Or, time enough for The NYRB to charge into the breach. It was founded by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, together with publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth and writer Elizabeth Hardwick. These were major establishment figures in the publishing world who were sick to death of the establishment figures in the critical world. And with good reason. Getting a review, even a notice, required the promotional skills of a Barnum and the salesmanship of Lincoln Tunnel hooker and the result was too often some squib by an alcoholic second stringer with dyslexia. Hardwick put it more genteelly in an article in Harper’s magazine, where Silver was an editor, by indicting American book reviews as “light, little articles “ that she described as, “lobotomized” praise “blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or literary matters generally.”
The response by writers was overwhelming, actually shocking. In the first six months the following writers contributed articles gratis : Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Truman Capote, Paul Goodman, Lillian Hellman, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Dwight Macdonald, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, Philip Rahv, Adrienne Rich, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren and Edmund Wilson. These are legendary names even today, at least amongst the declining numbers of those who still care about literature, plays, and poetry. Then, these people were recognized national figures, celebrities with groupies and entourages. Their interviews on television guaranteed ratings. Strangers approached them on streets as though they were intimate friends, offering encouragement and criticism.
The attraction for the writers and the reason the NYRB made money from the get-go seem obvious in retrospect. The writers were given unlimited space to unspool their thoughts on anything and everything. If nothing else it gave them the opportunity to explicate what they discovered going through mountains of research, the strange lands whence they traveled and the more or less real people they met to produce their masterpieces. It also gave them the chance to ridicule or encourage their critics and rivals. But no matter how arcane or specialized the subject—or brilliant the contumely– they also expected to get praised and hammered in the next issue.
The letters section immediately became a battleground and often the first thing readers turned to. For publishers, the need to show solidarity with their money players meant advertising often and prominently.
For readers, the NYRB quickly gained the mantle of inimitable, combative erudition. It had more than mundane snob appeal, intellectual or aesthetic If the New Yorker –as per founder Harold Ross–was written for urban sophisticates who liked subjects explained in simple and lighthearted terms. The NYRB assumed their readership already knew much about everything and loved nothing more than a good fight between two preening know-it-alls who were desperate to win
In 1970 Tom Wolfe called the NYRB “the chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic.” What’s equally certain is that Mr. Wolfe never missed an issue, simply because he couldn’t afford to miss out on the gossip, fights or lessons on technique. Or style. But exactly why indeed were the cultural heavyweights of that time and place even slightly enamored with communal progressivism, socialism or totalitarian regimes like Russia or Cuba?
To a personality, they were all giant egotists, heroic self- starters, obsessive workers allergic to weak arguments and entirely unsympathetic to losers. They were also small businessmen in a free market that paid exceedingly well. But they also required good press , and to this point, it’s important to recall the NYRB was born when Black Rights, Women’s Rights, and Vietnam were quite literally the rage and the last thing a writer who spends most of his life in isolation wants to be perceived as is out of step with the Zeitgeist. It also didn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to realize the best way to introduce the latest product –book, play or exhibit—was to make some off the wall statement guaranteed to roil the great unwashed and remind the customers of your continued existence. And controversy in the NYRB always put asses in seats and not mysteriously –given Silver & Epstein’s PR skills and media connections –quite often found its way into the mainstream: esp. Time, The NY Times and Cronkite’s Six O’clock National News.
In any case, the polemics, the diatribes the shouting and screaming were hardly about the finer points of Marxist dialectics or the parsing of Mao’s Little Red Book, they were quite free range and in most cases would be considered alt right by today’s standards. The 2013 Martin Scorsese film The Fifty Year Argument manages to capture enough of that spirit to be worth watching.
When we meet up again with Vonnegut at the Goose and Gherkin that circus had indeed left town. But something else had taken place which Vonnegut would heatedly deny to his dying day and continues to be vigorously denied by progressives but is nevertheless demonstrably true. The Left took on Ronald Reagan and lost.
The greatest single factor was this: when the largest, most educated and by far the most indulged generation in all history –aka The Boomers–was entering the workforce, unemployment was 12% and interest rates 19 %. No jobs. The Reagan Revolution not only gave the male population an opportunity to afford families, houses, and cars but unprecedented prosperity encouraged a female population born and bred on feminist lore to join working America in force.
The next twenty years were just plain bad for the Left, as bad or worse as they had been in the ’40s and ’50s and for much the same reasons. Mostly, it’s hard to sell doom in an expanding economy with opportunity and innovation in evidence everywhere.
And yet, the team of Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers had become brilliant in finding writers and topics that created controversy and intriguing covers. They remained unreconstructed Leftists to the end but they also knew how to earn a buck. From the 2nd issue onward the little biweekly with never more than 140,000 circulation made a decent, often handsome profit , mostly because publishers felt advertising in it was a prerequisite to keeping their authors happy, but also because Silver and Epstein never missed a trick –book clubs, framed illustrations, sex wanted classifieds and finally a catalog section featuring replicas of Edgar Allen Poe’s favorite shot glass, Emily Dickinson’s Garden Tips, tote bags and scarves emblazoned with literary afflatus, all of which proved so lucrative museums and libraries worldwide soon copied the formula.
Epstein died in 2011 and Silvers in 2016.
The Argument Ends
What must it be like to be Ian Buruma? You’ve been lauded as one of the 100 top global thinkers of the 21stCentury by Foreign Affairs Magazine, awarded the Erasmus Prize which goes to individuals who have “ made an especially important contribution to culture, society or social science in Europe,” and for fifteen years been a professor of Human Rights at Bard–the most radically progressive college on earth. You were born Dutch, educated in Japan and English is actually your third language and in 2017 you are chosen to be the editor of THE NYRB—“the premier intellectual-literary magazine of the English Language.”
Only to wake up one morning a year later to find that the people whose opinion you value the most –and not incidentally hand out the big cash grants –really think about you ( actual excerpts from Tweets, editorials, letters ) A) you are a “cock sucking,” “colon trawling,” “ pansy ass queer” who no doubt beats his “subservient, geisha girl Jap wives”—ex and current—whom you only “married to act as beards “; B) you look like a “cross between a carp and Donald Trump’s ass” ; and C) you have always been a “chauvinistic, misogynistic white supremacist” either “in pathological denial” or as “a male who has spent his life plotting the rise of an Old Testament white only patriarchy.”
In short, you’d probably feel like a popular 13-year-old girl feels when the cool girls suddenly start bad mouthing you. And not a little like, exactly like, because when the herd turns against you there is no bottom to the…ahem– cunt-tumely. And, as we continue to learn to our infinite regret, things don’t change a bit after high school, particularly for women.
And exactly for what crime?
In an interview in Slate— before he had an inkling he himself was about to become a leperous untouchable — Buruma said this about Jian Ghomeshi “[I wanted to find out] what it was like to be, as it were, at the top of the world, doing more or less what you like, being a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried.”
To which Slate replied: “There are numerous allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi, including punching women in the head.”
Buruma: “ All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime.”
Slate: O.J. Simpson was not found guilty in a criminal trial. I assume, even if he didn’t have other issues, we might have paused before asking him to write an essay.
What? Really? O.J. Simpson ????How about Charlie Manson? The Unabomber? Freddy? Chucky? Locutus of Borg?
When you actually read Jian Ghomeshi’s “ Reflections On A Hash Tag, “ and the pathetic warnings, caveats and pleadings to any and all to write with their objections preceding it, you really have to wonder how or why anyone could even pretend to be disturbed.https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/10/11/reflections-hashtag/
In the UK Spectator, Lionel Shriver (left of center female) does a more than decent job of dismissing the attendant outrage in her column Men Should Be Angrier About #MeToo. “…in the take-no-prisoners of #MeToo, there’s only one side. All women are victims and all women are truthful. Any man who’s had the shadow of doubt cast on his sexual behavior since his first wet dream at 12 is deserving of permanent social and professional banishment and is forever forbidden from saying a word in his own defense.” She objects to Ghomeshi’s essay on the quite reasonable grounds that it’s “so wussy.” That at the very least he should have come out fighting and defended himself laying out exactly what he did do and didn’t do and calling out his accusers to answer specifically what they define as violating and if they thus felt violated why they did not seek retribution at the time. That is, were these transgressions real or simply credentials to participate in a pile on? Instead, Shriver says, the essay “maunders nauseously on about how [Ghomeshi ] soul searched and reappraised his disturbed relations with the opposite sex from the year dot. It’s not only men who don’t have penises.”
Shriver then concludes with, “…Buruma’s ousting sets a grim precedent and is likely to have a chilling effect on other editors’ willingness to supervise a broad church. All of publishing is in danger of becoming one big fat safe space, poofy with beanbag chairs. Only one opinion on a range of subjects is allowed to air in mainstream media. This supine self -censorship goes way beyond political correctness, a shopworn term too pallid for the profundity of the problem. Not only is expressing a view that deviates from progressive orthodoxy a crime but so is merely providing a forum for that deviation.”
What bears out her disturbing conclusion is the shrillness, repetitiveness and lack of originality of the messaging In article after article the same drumbeat refrain Twenty Women , Twenty Women , Twenty Women followed by a cataloguing of Buruma’s now shattered career couched in terms of sexual and racial slurs that are obviously permitted if your progressive papers are in order. That these words and pronouncements will be used against you when the papers are revoked doesn’t seem to have the least inhibiting effect And finally, the judgment that having your reputation permanently destroyed, being bankrupted, unable to support yourself or a family for offenses dismissed in a court of law is justified because twenty women say so .
If all this seems justified as retribution for the treatment women have received at the hands of White Christian America down through the ages –which seems to be the overriding lament and rallying cry –a few additional details might also be worth mentioning.
Manhattan is the wealthiest per capita stretch of acreage on earth presently and in the history of the world. Women control 64% of the wealth, are 52% of the population, live five years longer than any other gender, and have on average more education. Women earn slightly less than men overall because they choose work that doesn’t pay as well or doesn’t involve high physical risk. Equal pay for equal work has been the law since 1964. In exhaustive study after exhaustive study when women are paid less than men for equal jobs it is because they work fewer hours and take more time off And for all that they seem as happy and content as…well…