Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s. We spoke about Ian Buruma’s departure as editor of New York Review of Books. Rick is a friend, I should say. I should also say that I believe he is a hero of free expression — and an increasingly lonely voice speaking up for authentic dissent in America. You can hear our podcast here.
Buruma, in case you haven’t heard, lost his job after he decided to publish an article by Jian Ghomeshi in the forthcoming edition of New York Review of Books. Ghomeshi, in case you haven’t heard, is a disgraced Canadian media personality who was accused of various heinous sexual crimes and then acquitted in court — though he is still widely despised because, evidently, he was a heavy perv, or male predator, if you will.
He admits as much in his NYRB piece, though his essay is marred by his self-serving self-pity, and his omission of the particular accusations made against him. But Ghomeshi is interesting at points — especially on what it is like to be a sex monster. The rational mind can see why Buruma decided to publish it.
Buruma underestimated the irrationality of the #MeToo mind, however, and the power of its unreasonableness. A furious social media storm broke, Buruma’s higher-ups were targeted, and the university presses — who give NYRB lots of money — threatened to pull their advertisements. Buruma had to go — and now the righteous Twitter mohicans can claim another scalp.
Rick says this ‘is a catastrophe for American democracy and freedom.’ By caving in, he says, these publications will only ‘encourage other mobs to do the same thing.’
We are seeing this again and again at American left-of-centre magazines: they publish something or hire someone controversial, perhaps because they want to be interesting to readers. Their decisions — more than the authors or the arguments — cause controversy, so the magazines freak out and shut themselves up. We saw it with the Atlantic and Kevin Williamson, the New Yorker and Steve Bannon, and now with Buruma.
What is going on? Toby Young says it is a new McCarthyism, Rick says it is part-McCarthyite, part-Soviet. I think it is connected to what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call ‘the coddling of the American mind’.
We are used to reading about snowflakes on university campuses — so much so that it has become a right-wing cliché. But the snowflakes aren’t melting as they get older and wiser. They now have jobs in publishing and media and are marching through the institutions they work for. They are trying to create media safe spaces — places where their sensibilities cannot be harmed — and they are becoming more tactical in the ways they silence the voices they don’t like. What we are seeing with the Buruma story, in other words, is the coddling of American journalism.
Rick knows how this works. He’s become something of a bête noire for the #MeToo movement because his magazine runs controversial pieces and he refuses to apologise for them — even if it means upsetting some of his staff. Harper’s recently published another ‘confessions of male predator’ type piece from the disabled writer John Hockenberry, which was also deemed unacceptable. But Rick has stood by the piece and has weathered the Twitter storm, as he did last year when Harper’s ran a piece by Katie Roiphe that suggested the #MeToo movement was becoming unhinged.
Good for him. What is most disturbing about this shutting down of dissent or proactive publishing is not that men won’t feel free to leer at women in future or that human being might feel inclined to agree with Steve Bannon. It is that the Twitter mob risks making the world so terrifyingly and maddeningly boring. As Rick says; ‘It would be a very dull magazine if everybody agreed in everything that was published.’ Anybody who believes in journalism or freedom or sanity should agree. But hey, you know what, you don’t have to — that’s the beauty. Just don’t try and get me fired for saying so. That’s all I ask, please.