“I thought that this experience needed to be better understood,” Ian Buruma wrote in the Financial Times, on the subject of disgrace. He was referring directly to the disgrace of the former radio host Jian Ghomeshi, but he was trying to write his way out from under his own: his decision last year to publish, in the New York Review of Books, Ghomeshi’s self-serving account of having been accused of multiple serious sexual offenses, which led to Buruma losing his own job as editor.
Ghomeshi’s gloss on events—which was, by extension, the NYRB‘s, and Buruma’s—was that he had run afoul of a shaming mob, which had no interest in understanding the facts and truth of what he had gone through. In the Financial Times, Buruma brought up the underlying facts right away:
[H]e was tried in 2016 on four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. He said that the three women involved had taken part in sadomasochistic acts willingly. They said otherwise, and more than 20 other women made similar allegations. In court Ghomeshi was acquitted on all counts for lack of sufficient evidence. Months later he issued a public apology to a former colleague in return for the withdrawal of a separate charge of sexual assault, and signed a “peace bond”, pledging to behave himself.
Structurally, this made the opening of Buruma’s piece resemble the current introduction to Ghomeshi’s—not the beginning that Ghomeshi wrote and that Buruma published, but the editor’s note that ended up on the top of the story afterward, explaining what had been left out. In this new context, it was a bit of misdirection, a gesture at assuring the audience that there was no important information up anyone’s sleeve.
Buruma never quite leveled with the Financial Times‘ readers about how this information had factored, or not factored, into the original NYRB article. A few paragraphs later, he conceded, “I should have insisted that the accusations against him were spelt out in more detail,” but this was another fakeout, a double one: “insisted” implied that Buruma had sought the facts originally, and had simply failed to ask forcefully enough for their inclusion; “more detail” created the impression that the details he was mentioning just there in the story (one woman’s cracked rib, “the large number of women who had accused him”) might have been the extent of the omission.
Why do this? Because the real victim of the story was Ian Buruma:
For some of my critics, however, the actual content of the piece was not the main issue. Before the piece was even published, the news was leaked from the office to a sympathetic blogger, and the Twitter storm, mostly from Canada, blew like a hurricane. The critics’ point was that a figure like Ghomeshi had no right to write his personal account in a prestigious liberal journal. A great modern taboo had been broken. The transgression was not that any particular view was defended, but that a person accused of sexual abuses should be heard at all.
Again, the storytelling was shifty. Before the irrational Twitter storm, blown up by the violation of taboos and indifferent to “the actual content of the piece” there was…a leak from the office. People who directly knew about the piece, and who were personally invested in the NYRB, wanted to stop it. This was not a storm on the seas of irrational public opinion. It was a mutiny by Buruma’s own crew.
But that, in Buruma’s telling, was the crew’s failure:
I was reminded by a member of the editorial staff that #MeToo was a movement, and by publishing the piece we were way out of line. We didn’t need nuance, I was told; nuance was considered to be a form of complicity.
I disagreed with some members of my staff, who had argued against running the piece. In my view, an editor should not be afraid of publishing contentious subject-matter; the job is to make people think.
It would be interesting to learn how closely any staffers’ actual remarks to Buruma resembled the phrase “nuance is a form of complicity.” Regardless, “nuance” is an odd thing to appeal to when you’ve left central and definitive facts out of a story. And Buruma wasn’t really appealing to it. He was appealing to generalities, principles, anything other than specific, informed judgment about what he actually published and how he went about publishing it.
This was the same argument that Laura Kipnis put forward on Buruma’s behalf in the New York Times, back in September—people may have found the piece “sniveling and dissembling,” but what was at stake was “intellectual culture.” It was smarmy and stupid then, and it’s smarmier and stupider coming from the person directly at fault. The editor’s job is to make people think? The people did think; they thought it was a careless and dishonest piece about an important subject. They thought it replicated, and the decision to publish it likewise replicated, the complacency and contempt and reflexive masculine defensiveness that the movement was seeking to name and bring to account.
They thought, at the root of all this, that the piece was bad. Not transgressive, not provocative, but shoddy and false. Buruma couldn’t argue it wasn’t:
I would not claim that Ghomeshi is a master stylist. But the quality of a person’s prose should not determine how we judge the writer’s moral character. And moral character, in turn, shouldn’t be the sole determinant in whether the person should or should not be published.
Ghomeshi’s piece was badly written, yes, and it was factually inaccurate, but—we should not have judged Ghomeshi’s character on how he wrote about what he did, or even if we had, that should not have—what? Buruma was flinging broken scraps of argument around as if they had any connection to one another. And once more, he was obfuscating the issue: having presented multiple good reasons for someone not to have published Ghomeshi, he argued against taking one of those reasons as the “sole determinant.” But where was Buruma naming even one determinant in favor of having published the piece?
The case, as much as there was one, seemed to be this: Buruma’s publishing decision, like the fact of Ghomeshi’s assault charges, had made people angry on social media. And it was this, the expression of anger on social media, that was all Buruma had ever cared about. That was why he forced a crummy piece into his publication, over the rebellion of his staff. He wanted to do a story about how social media is thoughtless and unreasonable, about how “moral righteousness overrides all other concerns, especially in intellectual and political life.”
“I misread the force of the zeitgeist and ran into the trip-wire that magnified indignation,” he wrote. Given that the entire purpose of the essay was to say something about the zeitgeist, this was a definitive failure. There was no level of the editor’s job—publishing truth, advancing the discourse, managing the staff, understanding the moment—at which Buruma had not, by his own account, failed.
Now he turned from geist and zeit alike, longing for the days when people had their fights on the letters page of the New York Review of Books:
Like all serious publications, editors would filter out gratuitous malice and utter nonsense. This is not true of the Twittersphere, which is often ad-hominem, intimidating and unhinged.
Do tell. On Twitter, New York Times troll-columnist Bret Stephens welcomed the essay as “fascinating” and described Buruma as a victim of “left-fascism (defined here as mob-like attempts by self-described progressives to shut down and punish speech they dislike).” Fascism, on the march! Another victory for the spirit of moderate and reasonable discourse.