Last week, the New York Review of Books published a long essay entitled “Reflections from a Hashtag” by the disgraced Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired from his job at CBC in 2014 and then pilloried in the press when multiple women alleged that he had engaged them in non-consensual sexual violence. In the essay, Ghomeshi proposes to “inject nuance” into his “mass shaming.”
The response online was quick and vicious, and in an interview with Slate, the Review’s editor, Ian Buruma, who took over the editorship in 2017, doubled down on his decision to publish the story. Since the #MeToo movement was full, as he put it, of “undesirable consequences”— by which he appeared to mean the professional exile of famous men who had been outed as harassers—the piece was meant “to help people think this sort of thing through.” On Wednesday various media outlets announced that Buruma was “out” as editor; Buruma soon told a Dutch publication that he stepped down after being “convicted on Twitter, without any due process,” implying that his fate was much like Ghomeshi’s before him. Inevitably, some see the flap as just the latest troubling manifestation of a call-out culture in which free speech is at risk.
But the real issue here wasn’t merely Buruma’s decision to publish the essay—a theoretically forgivable editorial mistake. In defending himself, Buruma revealed that he was out of touch, almost uninformed, on a major subject of our time—things an editor cannot afford to be.
Disconcertingly, Buruma believed the Review was doing something intellectually interesting in publishing the Ghomeshi essay, a misjudgment of epic proportions. Talking with Slate, Buruma referred to his “interest” in the story multiple times as a justification for it, asserting that it offered an “angle” we hadn’t heard. At the same time, he demonstrated a lack of interest in the finer points of Ghomeshi’s case.
In the editing process, Buruma let the former broadcaster get away with misleading statements. For example, Ghomeshi claims in his essay that “several” women made allegations against him. In fact, more than 20 did, and the counts included choking, biting, slapping, and more. Ghomeshi also notes that he was acquitted—but not that he offered a public apology as part of the terms of one case that was settled.
Accuracy aside, the piece Buruma found so “interesting” is, actually, unbearably trite. As a literary personal essay, it is a failure, written in abstract and bland language, drowning under the weight of vague therapeutic bromides, like “This period has also been a tremendous education,” and “Self-involvement will make you deaf to important things you should be hearing. Humility comes with perspective—and listening is a big part of it.”
As a piece attempting to “inject nuance” into the more complex consequences of the #MeToo movement, it is also a failure. To justify such an approach, Ghomeshi would have to provide insight into the compulsions that led him to behave violently, or try answer to what he sees as his central question:
“If the opinion of others is how you define yourself, what happens when all of the outside props of status—the ratings, the followers, the social media likes—are torn away overnight? Who are you?”
Theoretically I suppose this is, as Buruma contends, an “interesting” question, an angle we haven’t heard. But Ghomeshi doesn’t know who he is, and so he can’t answer the question. Instead, he perpetuates a new kind of post-shame bragging, in the form of self-abnegation, as he waxes on and on about how wrong he was, while complaining about “inaccurate stories” and the women who initially supported him and then “backed away, too scared or conflicted or shocked at the headlines to take a public stand”; the friends who “simply have not spoken to me since”; and the fact that in the public pillorying “There were few limits to how far some would go,” including sending racist hate mail.
The piece is what another editor might have called a hot mess.
Ghomeshi takes responsibility in one sentence, and in the next insists that many of the claims made against him are inaccurate. After tedious pages of pivoting back and forth from self-blame to finger-pointing, he concludes—literally—“I am moving toward what might be seen as a trite point: we learn from our mistakes.”
In the Slate interview, Buruma showed similarly little understanding of his own role. As editor, he was responsible for ensuring that a controversial article is truthful and penetrating, that its writer resist the lure of self-justification. It was Buruma’s responsibility to question, fact-check, and hold Ghomeshi to editorial standards consonant with journalism. After all, if it was one thing to commission the piece on the theory it could be of interest, it was another thing to publish the dreck that came in, and insist that its airing in the prestigious pages of the Review was a worthwhile endeavor.
What makes the whole thing even stranger is that Buruma was the editor of the New York Review of Books. He could have asked any number of sophisticated writers or thinkers—maybe even a woman—to write an essay that more thoughtfully probed the “undesirable consequences” of the #MeToo movement.
Watching Buruma suggest that this piece, replete with self-delusion, meaningfully explored those consequences, felt like just one more moment in the culture’s intellectual gas-lighting of women. The whole episode puts a fine point on why so many women feel that the rush of professional men to rehabilitate themselves is coming too soon: Both Ghomeshi and Buruma don’t grasp the real terms here. The concern they proclaim for women rings hollow; the concern they have for their own interests rings clear.
We learn from our mistakes, as Ghomeshi tritely says. Buruma could have listened to the criticism lobbied at him and responded more thoughtfully—more persuasively—to Slate’s questions. He didn’t.
Personally, I think editors should be able to make a few mistakes on the job, especially if they don’t have a prior history of doing so. I want to see a literary culture that is robust with debate. But it would be false to pretend that the piece Ghomeshi wrote or the answers Buruma gave in that interview added to the debate in any way.
That the #MeToo movement contains what Joan Didion once called “certain irreducible ambiguities” (in her critique of the second-wave women’s movement) is certainly true. But Buruma didn’t bring us any closer to elucidating those ambiguities. He brought us back to the old model in which the man’s side of the story is accorded a kind of respect that the woman’s isn’t.