NEW YORK CITY Harlem is glowing in the afternoon sun. The buildings are low here, the avenues wide. The light shines on the concrete and on the rowan trees that pierce it. Two motorbikes race along Malcolm X Boulevard, their roar disappearing in the distance. A stooping man with kind eyes asks me for 50 cents.
It is mid-October, temperatures have dropped, revealing one of the first chilly autumn days.
Harlem is just as alive but less gentrified than New York City’s downtown boroughs. A suitable base for an intellectual.
Ian Buruma arrives five minutes early wearing a tweed cap and purple scarf underneath a brown leather jacket. We meet at Settepani, a modest Italian restaurant with outdoor seating next to 120th street. He lives around the corner.
Life has returned to what it was like before the incident, which Ian Buruma is now forever associated with. He writes a thousand words every morning, which takes about three hours. Then he reads newspapers and literary classics. Some days he teaches at Bard College in upstate New York.
He places his cap on the table and looks down the street.
”There is not much you can do about what people think. The worst thing I could do would be to get bitter about it. You just have to carry on. There is nothing you can do about it,” he says.
Ian Buruma was 65 years old when he was offered the position as editor-in-chief of The New York Review of Books. Having landed the job, he experienced a youthful euphoria, a feeling that life had suddenly changed for the better. He had great plans for the prestigious cultural magazine that he had been writing for since 1985. He wanted to make it less introspective, more cosmopolitan. There would be more focus on art. Younger talents would be recruited.
But things didn't turn out the way he had planned.
In September 2018, he left just 12 months after taking up the position. An edition on the theme ”The Fall of Men” became his own downfall. In one of its essays Canadian media personality Jian Ghomeshi contemplated his journey from famous radio host to infamous molester of women. The headline: ”Reflections from a Hashtag”.
I think the owner of the magazine panicked
The essay and the decision to have it published caused immediate criticism. Neither the scope nor the nature of the accusations was discussed in detail in the text. More than 20 women had previously accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault and harassment. They testified about beating, choking and taunting during sex. Ghomeshi had been acquitted by a court of law, but he did apologize publicly to a colleague for the sexual abuse that he was accused of.
Ghomeshi’s piece in The New York Review of Books was interpreted as relativizing the alleged assaults. In an interview with online magazine Slate, Buruma explained that the point of the essay was to give voice to a man who had been pilloried and to depict #MeToo from the accused's point of view, for a change. Critics, however, claimed that in publishing the piece, Buruma neglected the accusations against Ghomeshi and displayed his own his insensitivity to the current societal mood.
In Europe, Buruma who was born in the Netherlands, was known as a liberal voice in culture, an esteemed and acclaimed intellectual praised for his non-fiction books on Asia and essays on right-wing extremism and radical Islam.
It seems ironic that he, until then considered a voice of reason, would become the symbol of a generation of mainly men who were seen as not understanding contemporary perceptions of power and oppression.
”It is remarkable,” he says. ”Ten years ago it wouldn’t have happened and in another ten years it might not happen. It was a very feverish atmosphere and I think the owner of the magazine panicked. I have no other explanation.”
According to Buruma, advertisers reacted to the panic across social media and threatened to pull out. The university presses who advertised in the magazine, worried about reactions on campuses.
”There was a lot of panic and the owner of the magazine thought that the way to deal with the panic was to let me go. I was very surprised. It wasn’t my choice. The owner had supported me until the very last minute. Until the day before I left. I think he was intimidated,” Buruma says.
Rea S. Hederman, the owner of The New York Review of Books, dismisses claims that Buruma was fired in order to please advertisers. The magazine is not sustained by university press advertising, he adds, but rather ”a subscriber-supported publication with the overwhelming amount of our revenue derived from subscriptions.”
”That has allowed the Review for the last 55 years to print what we want to print,” Hederman writes in an email to Svenska Dagbladet.
”However, the Review has high editing standards which Ian did not follow. This piece in question had many factual errors that would have been corrected if he had not taken the piece out of the established editing process. Only one editor was allowed to review the article until just before publication.”
Ian Buruma denies that the publishing process failed. He tells me that two other editors were involved from the beginning and that two additional editors reviewed the essay before it was published. He also mentions a meeting with all the magazine’s editors present, and adds that Rea S. Hederman himself read the essay prior to publication.
My generation, who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, actually admired things that were a little bit provocative, a bit scandalous even
The Jian Ghomeshi essay split the editorial office in different camps. According to Buruma, the conflict began with critic Laura Kipnis’ review of TV host Gretchen Carlson's bok ”Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back” in which Carlson accuses the late Fox executive Roger Ailes of sexual exploitation.
”In the review her attitude was that of course men have to change their behavior and way of thinking and so on, but women have a responsibility too. That already went too far for some of the editors. They thought such sentiments should be crossed out,” Buruma says.
The essay by Ghomeshi was part of a larger argument about which voices were to be represented in the magazine.
”It was not the first time there were differences of opinion. It was never a row, we never shouted. The differences were very generational. The people, let’s say over 40, had a slightly different attitude to those under 40.”
In what way?
”Well, as you know, in America, any issue to do with race and gender very quickly causes problems. These are sensitive things. People under 40 were more inclined to censor a piece on the grounds of language and opinions that they disagreed with, whereas my attitude was that you need different opinions that you don’t necessarily have to agree with.”
Which could be considered a classical intellectual approach.
”Yes. But that’s an approach that at the moment is widely challenged. My generation, who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, actually admired things that were a little bit provocative, a bit scandalous even. The generation under 40 is much more about fighting for social justice and equality and so on, and anything that doesn’t fall in that way of thinking has to be censored.”
This is how Ian Buruma describes the conflict. As a divide between those older and younger than 40 years of age. A generational view of freedom of speech and of who should have the right to exercise it.
For the New York Review of Books, Buruma’s stepping in as editor-in-chief was an opportunity to reshape the magazine. His predecessor, the magazine's founder Robert B. Silvers, ran it as he pleased from 1963 until he passed away in 2017. ”The old school way where editors are dictators”, in his successor's words.
”So when I became editor I thought we should be more democratic. We had office meetings where we discussed pieces. The younger editors had much more input than they ever had before.”
Silvers was editor for 54 years. Buruma's single year as editor looks like a parenthesis in comparison. A break with tradition.
Ian Buruma orders mint tea, and refers to Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and aristocrat who wrote ”Democracy in America”.
”When you think about it, it’s not terribly surprising. That is the way things often are. Tocqueville said that revolutions come from rising expectations. They don’t come when everyone is oppressed. They come when oppression is lifted and people think: now it’s going to get better, but it isn’t enough. Then you get a revolution.”
In similar fashion, #MeToo came about at a time of relative equality between men and women. In the White House, the reigning president had been preaching assaults as a means of seduction, (”grab them by the pussy”), but elsewhere women were conquering the kind of freedom and influence that had previously been male privilege. In newsrooms, governments, banks and companies around the world, gender equality was finally becoming a priority.
Even at Harvey Weinstein’s film studio women were promoted to higher positions. What remained was telling the world about the hidden cost of female success: the sexual harassment that accompanies female strive, and the norms and quiet agreements that had kept women from speaking out.
It is absolutely necessary that men and women are treated equally
Ian Buruma sympathizes with the #MeToo-movement, but objects to the idea that its sole purpose was to expose the inequality between men and women.
”It is absolutely necessary that men and women are treated equally. But #MeToo is also a youth rebellion against people who are associated with the older generation, especially men. So these kind of movements are not only about principles, they are also about power. There is a strong political element.”
The New York Review of Books was one of the publications where male writers outnumbered their female counterparts. Ian Buruma was criticized for not doing enough to correct the imbalance. He squirms a little when I bring that up.
”It just wasn’t so easy to change that very quickly. It wasn’t that I prefer men or wasn’t looking for women, it just wasn’t so easy. I think partly because the women who are good tend to be very much in demand and they often have less time and say no, whereas there are plenty of men who may not be the very best but there is plenty of supply.”
The #MeToo-movement put the news media to a test. Balancing between attracting a progressive audience and living up to the ideals of objectivity in journalism. To simply reflect society rather than pushing it in a given direction. The pressure from social media was immense. Activists demanded that newspapers should follow the examples of social media and publish the names of well known men who were accused of abuse. Anything else was seen as ”protecting the perpetrator”.
In some ways that was more shocking to me than losing my job, this idea that you are ´persona non grata´
In Sweden several newspapers broke the ethical codes of conduct. Many failed to show caution when revealing identities, for example. Several national news media outlets were later reprimanded by The Swedish Press Council.
In the aftermath the debate came to focus on press ethical violations, defamation, arbitrary revelations and journalists turned activists.
In the U.S., such self-scrutiny has not been as prevalent. Many journalists have preferred to further investigate the stories that brought down the predators. Several such books have been published. In ”She said”, The New York Times-reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey outline the work that led to the story about Harvey Weinstein’s exploiting women who were dependent on him and later bought their silence.
In January 2020 the trial against Weinstein will begin, in New York.
Editors have to risk sometimes publishing something that might offend people or challenge them
The typical #MeToo story is about men sexually abusing women and the culture that is making it possible. Stories that complicate or add to the picture are an exception to the rule. The Jian Ghomeshi-essay is still one of the stories that stands out.
Ian Buruma says he has lost a lot of assignments following his demotion.
”I may have lost one or two friends but not more than that, so I can’t complain about that. What is sad is that some magazines have young editors who are asserting their authority against an older generation. I can no longer work for those even though I’ve written for them for many years. In some ways that was more shocking to me than losing my job, this idea that you are persona non grata.”
Ian Buruma is still an internationally renowned writer. He is 67 years old – middle age for an intellectual – and doesn't have to rebuild his career from scratch. He claims to be genuinely worried, however, that young editors are forced to compromise their independence in order to secure their careers.
”Editors have to be able to take risks. They have to risk sometimes publishing something that might offend people or challenge them. I’ve heard them saying that there are certain things they wouldn’t publish anymore because they would be afraid of trouble.”
We talk about publishing, and that participation in the public debate comes with great responsibility. A writer’s main motivation, Buruma states, should never be to please the masses. The same goes for magazines, he says. An intellectual magazine exists, not to be certain, but to try out different ideas.
”An intellectual magazine should not simply be about advocating certain political views. An intellectual magazine wants to make their readers think. That means including different points of view, some which you might not agree with. But as long as they are interesting and make you think, that is for the greater good. I don’t think it is interesting for a magazine to have a very clear political position on every major question and simply advocate for it. Then you are behaving as an activist. You should not be an activist but an intellectual and that means you have to think in ways that are not always comfortable. It can even be an important exercise to challenge your own principles. It is not about simply conforming to what most readers already think.”
True to his principles, Ian Buruma declined when conservative newspapers and magazines approached him after he had been forced to leave The New York Review of Books.
”When I lost my job I was immediately asked by right-wing publications, like The Spectator in England, to write for them, which I refused. Then you are in a particular camp where you only write what the readers agree with already. My view is that you should challenge readers. You don’t do that by just confirming well-established positions.”
We talk about Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel prize laureate for literature. The choice to bestow such an honour on the controversial austrian author caused considerable offense. Handke is suspicious of how the media has portrayed the war in Yugoslavia and says he wants to nuance the image of evil Serbs. His critics claim he has relativized the genocide in Srebrenica, questioning whether it can even be labelled a genocide.
I certainly think that Handke is an important writer but I was very surprised that they gave it to him
Handke’s notoriety increased when he gave a speech at Slobodan Milošević's funeral. The communist leader was being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity when he died of a heart attack in his cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The trial ended after his death. Handke defends himself by saying the speech was an act of love for Yugoslavia. Others view it as a way to legitimize a leader prosecuted for war crimes.
The Swedish Academy’s decision to give the Nobel to a controversial author, such as Handke came as a surprise, even more so with the Academy still recovering from a scandal involving sexual abuse.
I lost my job as the editor of a liberal magazine for publishing an article about a man who was accused of sexual abuse but a writer gets the Nobel prize after defending a man who was a mass murderer
In Europe, the debate has focused on whether an author’s presumed sympathies, murky or not, should influence the election of Nobel Prize laureates. One side argues that literature should be assessed independently of its author, the other points out that such an assessment is inherently political.
It’t not difficult to imagine Ian Buruma in the first camp, but that would be a mistake.
”The Nobel Prize is a political prize. It has to be awarded on literary merit and furthering the ideals of mankind or something like that. It was never only about literature. I think people who say that are not right.”
Alfred Nobel's will states that the prize for literature should be awarded a writer that has produced ”the most excellent in an ideal course”.
”I certainly think that Handke is an important writer, but I was very surprised that they gave it to him. He certainly would not fit that category. Somebody who has defended a leader who is certainly guilty of mass murder seems to be an odd person to give the Nobel prize to, even if he is a good writer. So I find it surprising.”
Handke claims he went to the former Serbian head of state's funeral to ”symbollically bury Yugoslavia” and that ”not a single word of what I have written about Yugoslavia can be condemned”.
The Swedish Academy has echoed his defence saying that Handke may well have uttered politically provocative things but insisted that there is no proof that he has ever praised bloodshed. Ian Buruma says it is at least beyond any doubt that Handke has defended Milošević, not least by speaking at his funeral.
”I don’t think that is defensible.”
So why do you think they gave the prize to him?
”I don’t know. It could be because they were always accused of being politically correct and they wanted to show that they are not. On the other hand: after having a scandal about rape, and then to do this? I don’t know. Why do you think?”
I think they wanted to show integrity and independence. And I think they thought they had balanced it up by awarding Olga Tokarczuk the 2018 Nobel.
”But they had already proved that integrity when they gave it to Mario Vargas Llosa and V.S. Naipaul.”
Do you think that the reputation of the prize itself has been undermined?
”Yes, I would say so. I think it has lost a lot of its prestige already. I don’t think it is taken as seriously as it was 20 years ago. If their intention was to regain credibility after the scandal I don’t think they have succeeded. I think that they probably made it worse.”
Ian Buruma can’t help but mirror himself in Handke-gate.
”A friend of mine said that it is a strange time we’re living in where people are denounced for opinions about women and race but you can get the Nobel Prize after defending a mass murderer. In other words: I lost my job as the editor of a liberal magazine for publishing an article about a man who was accused of sexual abuse, but a writer gets the Nobel Prize after defending a man who was a mass murderer. There is something a bit odd about that.”
Ian Buruma appears crushed and patient at the same time. As if he were contemplating his own fate from the outside, having already reconciled himself with it. Perhaps because he views himself as a victim of ”the zeitgeist”, rather than his own shortcomings. He would have published the story today as well, he says, possibly with a few reservations.
”I might have presented it differently and I might have asked the writer to consider certain aspects of his own past. I might have edited it in a slightly different way, but I certainly would have published it.”
”One of the criticisms was that it wasn’t entirely clear from the article exactly what he had been accused of, and I probably would have made that clearer in retrospect. But that is a question of nuance. Not a decision to actually publish the piece.”
Buruma is not the only victim of ”cancel culture”. The phenomenon, which is widely discussed in the US, refers to the practice of stripping people of influence because of their questionable actions or opinions. Former president Barack Obama has warned of its implications: ”There is this sense sometimes of ’the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible towards other people’”, he said.
”Cancel culture” is widespread in the academic world. Professor Ronald S. Sullivan was known as the first black faculty dean at Harvard Law school. When it became known that he was part of the Harvey Weinstein defense team, he was forced to step down. After protests from students, teachers and colleagues who felt ”unsafe” the university chose not to renew his assignment. In The New York Times, Sullivan described how he was confronted with the message ”Down with Sullivan” spray-painted across a campus wall when he took his nine-year-old son to school. The professor told his son that defending controversial clients is an important principle in a state governed by law.
Ian Buruma says the university leadership should have explained the same thing to the students.
”What the university should have done is explain to the students that in a country that has the rule of law even the greatest criminal still has the right to be defended. You can’t accuse a lawyer for deciding to defend somebody, it doesn’t mean that the lawyer agrees with what the person has done. Defending somebody in a court of law is to make sure that he is fairly tried. I thought that the university behaved foolishly.”
Intellectuals like Buruma are now competing in expressing their theories on why liberal democracies have ended up in ideological cul-de-sacs. The book that Ian Buruma is writing a thousand words a day on, explores the Anglo American society order, starting with the world established after the Second World War and ending in the era of Trump and Brexit.
”It is about the liberated world that I idealised when I was young, and about how it is now coming to an end.”
How did this happen?
”The United States has been seeing itself as the defender of liberty all over the world and gotten involved in a lot of very foolish wars like Vietnam and Iraq, and Britain never played the role in Europe that it should have. They won the war and thought they were better than other European countries. In some ways both countries are victims of their own success.”
Recently the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, said that Europe is on the edge of a precipice. It can no longer rely on America to defend NATO allies. If Europe doesn't think of itself as a major geopolitical player it will lose control over its own destiny, he told The Economist.
Europe is divided and faces tremendous challenges. The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall spurred some crass columns, mourning crushed illusions about the world's progress.
”The biggest fear, not only in America but in Europe too, is that the liberal democracy is going to be very badly damaged and the institutions that hold up the liberal democracy are quite fragile. Once people lose confidence in their own democratic institutions, that leaves the door open for authoritarian politics. That is my biggest fear.”
Ian Buruma puts his tea cup down and pauses, as to underscore what he is about to say.
”You can’t have a democracy without a strong press. When presidents and prime ministers call independent institutions enemies of the people and traitors you can’t have a liberal democracy.”
Translation: Jessica Carleson