Grievance, paranoia, and Ian Buruma
Many observers in the Dutch press had a hard time understanding the fall of Ian Buruma. My explanation was published in Dutch in Letter&Geest on September 29, 2018.
Ian Buruma is out. Our man in New York, the Dutchman who made his name in the English-speaking world with insightful books about Japan, his family history, and a murder in Amsterdam, winner of the Erasmus Prize, resigned under pressure last week as editor in chief of The New York Review of Books.
Buruma’s offense was to publish an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, who wrote about losing his job and friends after several women accused him of sexual assault. The first-person account by the Canadian former radio host was meant to add nuance to the fierce debate around #MeToo. Yet Buruma was sharply criticized in the media and online. In an interview with Dutch monthly Vrij Nederland he called his resignation “a capitulation to social media and university presses,” which had sided with #MeToo against freedom of opinion.
Only there was something fishy about Ghomeshi’s soul-searching. If Buruma had Googled his name, he would have discovered that ‘several’ women was actually more than 20. Ghomeshi spoke of being charged with two counts of sexual assault, not seven; these included non-consensual hitting and choking during sex. He mentioned a settlement, but not that it was for a three-year-long campaign of sexual harassment of a colleague. Descriptions of more violent abuse, given by women outside the courtroom, he insinuated were baseless gossip.
When an interviewer pointed out the discrepancies, Buruma dug his hole deeper by stating that the facts of the case didn’t matter. To him the piece was about Ghomeshi’s humiliation and exclusion and whether he had now served his time. Besides, he added, Ghomeshi was acquitted. Nothing was proven. It was impossible to say what really happened, and to him it didn’t matter. “The exact nature of his behavior…I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”
His indifference was his undoing.
After word of his resignation went around, I got into a conversation online with a few other American writers. Some were celebrating his fall. Some worried about the destructive power of #MeToo. Misogyny! Freedom!
The big words started to bother me. Why, I asked, should this be about anything more than poor editorial judgment? An editor is responsible for the facts and, in a personal essay, the emotional honesty of what he prints. Buruma hadn’t done his job.
Another writer, friends with Buruma, said he was concerned nonetheless about the dampening effect on public discourse. Buruma had always had a strong ethical compass, he pointed out. If someone like him couldn’t publish about #MeToo, then who was free to speak?
I agreed about his moral compass. Buruma was an ally who had worked at the NYRB to hold Trump to account. But did that mean we had to throw his case into the free-speech soup? I suspected he had been too eager to run the piece, had overridden others’ warnings. (Later the publisher of the NYRB stated that Buruma had “had cast longstanding editorial practice aside and excluded all the magazine’s female staff” from the reading process, showing the draft to only one other editor, a man.) A bad article is not the same as a risky stance. Couldn’t we keep those separate?
We agreed that that was the question. We didn’t have an answer.
Meanwhile it became clear how poorly Buruma understood the debate he’d entered. In Vrij Nederland he defended his decision: Ghomeshi, he emphasized, was not convicted. “It is absolutely not true that I do not have empathy for women who are mistreated or assaulted. But I also want to know: what happens when you are publicly pilloried on social media? That story had not been told.”
Yet that story has been told over and over, by women, who very often find themselves subject to online insults, threats, and campaigns of intimidation. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, wrote an excellent book about it last year, Women and Power. Letter&Geest interviewed her on it, and I wrote about it here. The NYRB didn’t run a review.
Buruma’s first assertion is equally irrelevant. From the beginning the goal of #MeToo was to bring to light the actual events and lived experience of survivors of sexual abuse, in the face of men whose whole career as abusers was predicated on their being powerful and willing to lie. Unfortunately, acquittal in court often means little more than no witnesses and insufficient proof.
To see how an abuser works this to his advantage, just listen to America’s current president. In ‘Fear’ Bob Woodward quotes his advice on the subject: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women…. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”
It’s almost impossible for someone in the Netherlands to understand the effect on the body politic of a president who swims in lies like a predatory fish in a muddy lake. America is awash in grievance and paranoia. Trump turns all the news into a matter of opinion, and freedom of expression into a sludge in which the press is slowly going under. As NRC critic Thomas de Veen commented, a personal essay like Ghomeshi’s “is in practice almost a license to bend the facts to your own ends, because it’s ‘your story.’”
What America is suffering from is not a shortage of opinions, but a lack of solid ground.
Bad timing certainly abetted Buruma’s fall. As a writer, he’s known for being wary of strong emotions and extremist political positions. From such a reasonable point of view, though, it’s hard to comprehend just what a powder keg America is right now. Rights, including women’s rights, are under pressure. If women seem “hysterical” to you, it’s because we’re looking over your shoulder at everything that’s coming at us.
That includes Brett Kavanaugh, whose youthful assholery is being aired in public because we aren’t being told his judicial views, and because his apparent hostility to women’s rights isn’t enough by itself to keep the Senate from confirming him. Democrats are weaponizing #MeToo as a last defense against institutional sexism. It’s risky, desperate, destructive, but I’m right there with them.
The American Left (young people, women) is out for blood. So is the Right (old people, men). Even my calm, level-headed 80-year-old mother is breathing feminist fire. This situation is distorting everyone’s judgment, including mine. Including that of Buruma, who wanted to preach peace to the opposing armies and was left lying on the battlefield, a martyr to the ill-chosen free word.
No, I finally concluded, it’s not possible to see Buruma’s departure separately from larger questions of political anger and freedom of speech. But it’s not a threat to free speech, either. On the contrary: free speech thrives not on self-serving half-truths but on integrity, transparency, and accuracy.
The Left’s insistence on openness can seem dangerously Puritan. But in these days of Trumpian gaslighting, all I crave is the truth. And honestly? You can get lost with your fact-free contrary opinion.