If evidence mattered, the most damning evidence about Bari Weiss would be what her defenders say about her. Evidence doesn’t matter, of course. That was the lesson of the profile of the narrowly notorious editor and columnist that Vanity Fair got around to posting online yesterday, written by Evgenia Peretz and published under the headline “Mad About Bari Weiss: The New York Times Provocateur the Left Loves to Hate.”
There was nothing in the headline or article that anyone familiar with the Bari Weiss phenomenon wouldn’t have already expected, but it was dully stimulating, like a doctor thumping a nerve, to have those expectations met so exactly. The Bari Weiss story does not depend on content; it is a form that has existed from the beginning and never needs to change. Bari Weiss has friends, and she has enemies, and to her friends the existence of her enemies is proof that the world is vicious and unreasonable. Every controversy is the same, and all of them are unfair.
This liberates her supporters from ever having to talk about anything the intellectual provocateur actually says or writes. Here is a roundup of the case for Weiss, as presented by Peretz:
• Jennifer Senior, who works with Weiss at the Times: “She was so adorable! I wanted to wrap her up in tissue paper and take her home with me”…“The irony, and what almost breaks my heart, is that she has almost no snark in her. She’s super-generous and loving.”
• James Bennet, Weiss’ boss, who hired her at the Times opinion section: “[A]nybody who knows Bari realizes what a generous colleague she is. And what an openness she herself brings to these conversations.”
• Alana Newhouse, Weiss’ former boss at Tablet magazine: Weiss’ critics “would love for somebody who doesn’t share their politics to seem musty and unsexy.”
• Dan Savage, the longtime editor and sex columnist, and a friend of Weiss’: “Bari does good and interesting work and she’s a kind and lovely person.”
“Good and interesting work” was as specific as it ever got. No one pointed to a brilliant passage or sentence Weiss had written, because she has no style or even merit as a writer. No one brought up a challenging and novel idea she had put forward, because she has never expressed any ideas that haven’t been expressed before. She is the inheritor of a long tradition of writers who deliberately annoy people for attention, but she has lost any sense of the old obligation to play the heel with agility and flair.
Instead, there’s puppy-dog shtick. Peretz described meeting her:
When she walks into Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, blocks from her fifth-floor walk-up, you might peg her as a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face. She’s effusive and warm, immediately popping out with one eager question after another before I can successfully steer the conversation around to her. Her minor insecurities are blurted fodder for making a connection. “I have pen marks on my boob. I was like, ‘I’m going to meet a Vanity Fair writer and I have pen on my boob.’ I was really embarrassed. Also, I’ve been sweating a lot.” She says that her father has been urging her to freeze her eggs. “Should I do it now?” she asks, sincerely searching for an answer. This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm. Weiss seems genuinely fueled by curiosity, the desire to connect, to cross boundaries and try out new things. As she sums up her outlook, “I just want to gobble the world.”
“This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm,” the magazine profile writer wrote, as the dopey act charmed her into a state of adoring stenography. Calling Peretz credulous would be too kind; being credulous implies that a writer failed to put enough effort into checking the subject’s claims before accepting them. Peretz didn’t need to accept Weiss’ version of things. She already inhabited it. Peretz is a second-generation Establishment journalist, daughter of the New Republic‘s old owner-editor and troll-king Marty Peretz, the sort of person who is the Us in the Us-Against-Them drama Bari Weiss so assiduously constructs.
A different sort of journalist—Janet Malcolm comes to mind—might have noticed the progression from a subject making a show of deflecting questions away from herself to that same subject talking about scribbling on her boobs and freezing her own eggs, or might have remarked on the uneasy fit between a “desire to connect” and the desire to “gobble the world.” A Janet Malcolm might have dug a little more deeply where Peretz, recounting Weiss’ high school years, wrote “Weiss says she felt excruciatingly nerdy and alienated, though she was student-council president,” or where Peretz wrote that in college, Weiss “found herself, quite by accident, in the role of activist, writer, and lightning rod.”
Was it really quite by accident? In her writing, and in her Twitter disasters, Weiss has established a habit of retreating and rephrasing to cover her tracks, of getting people mad about one thing and then defending a fictitious and innocent version of it. The people on her side know what she meant.
And so she has evidently never developed the ability to give a coherent and plausible account of herself. Peretz’s story of how Weiss went from the Wall Street Journal to the Times was a mystery presented as an epiphany:
Weiss might have stayed in the books section at the Journal, but Trump’s candidacy woke her up to her real passion: the intersection of politics and culture. She realized that she was one of the most left-wing people at the paper, a situation that became constraining. During the campaign, she tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon but was told that she “didn’t have the standing.” She wanted to write about Melania Trump’s hypocrisy with her cyber-bullying issue but wasn’t allowed to. (“Bari wrote many fine pieces for the Journal, and I don’t want to comment on work that wasn’t up to her usual standard,” then-acting op-ed editor Melanie Kirkpatrick says, referring to those proposed topics.) On the morning after Trump won, “I was sobbing, openly, at my desk. I wanted people to see how I felt about this, and what I thought it meant for the country. I realized I had to leave.”
Thus awakened by her dismay at the rise of Trumpism, she gave up on fighting the right-wingers at the Journal and began using the Times as a platform to bait the left, raise scares about activism, and promote the message that reactionary pundits are the victims of politically correct thought police. Having “tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon,” she settled for carrying out cultural warfare on his terms, for his side. But she was always very nice about it, in person.
The insistent emptiness of it all, after a while, began to seem like the true point of the profile, and of Bari Weiss. Weiss is a success because she has dissolved the boundaries between online and offline, to apply the pure transactional logic of social media to meatspace. She doesn’t convince people, she gets them to give her likes—likes from verified people, within the network of the verified. And here I am, so disgusted by it all that I’m quote-tweeting her.
Ambitious writers have always been able to go beyond their talent with flattery and networking, but now the flattery and networking are the only thing. Weiss’ lone Times piece so far this month was a review of the new intentionally obnoxious book of nonfiction by Bret Easton Ellis. It was a weird sidling non-argument that smirked simultaneously at the book’s effort to annoy and at the people who would be annoyed by it—“a veritable thirst trap for the easily microaggressed”—and ended up praising the idea of Bret Easton Ellis as an intellectual even as it conceded his intellectual failings:
And one of the earliest casualties of our fun-deficient, conformist age (Ellis is entirely right about this) has been the intellectual gadfly. Ellis is one of them.
Yet he refuses to own the role he has chosen. “I was never good at realizing what might offend someone anyway,” he writes. And you want to throw the book across the room because you know that the very reason it was written was to offend.
This was evasive, as an act of criticism or judgment—had it been a Facebook post, the reader could have clicked any one of the reaction icons—but as autobiography or commentary on persona management, it was Weiss expressing her principles with a rare and singular conviction: Hate the pose, love the poseur.