Malin Ekman interviews Ian Buruma
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet United States correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Goodbye to All That
Malin Ekman: In September 2018, you left The New York Review of Books (NYRB) just 12 months after becoming its editor.
You had published an edition on “The Fall of Men” that included an essay by Jian Ghomeshi.
Under the headline “Reflections from a Hashtag,” the Canadian media personality recounted his journey from fame to infamy.
The essay – and the decision to publish it – drew immediate criticism. More than 20 women had previously accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault and harassment, but neither the scope nor the nature of those accusations was discussed in detail in the text. Women had testified in court that Ghomeshi beat, choked, and taunted them during sex. Ghomeshi had been acquitted, but, as part of a civil settlement, apologised to a colleague for the sexual abuse of which he had been accused.
In a September 2018 interview with Slate, you explained that the point of including the essay was to give voice to a man who had been pilloried, and to consider #MeToo from the accused’s point of view for a change. Critics, however, claimed that you neglected the accusations against Ghomeshi and displayed your own insensitivity to the current mood.
Ian Buruma: There is not much you can do about what people think. My reason for publishing the piece was not to defend what Ghomeshi did, but to examine the nature of social sanctions.
ME: In Europe, you’re known as a liberal voice in culture, an intellectual praised for your books on Asia and essays on right-wing extremism and radical Islam. It seems ironic that you would become the symbol of a generation of (mainly) men who were seen as not understanding contemporary perceptions of power and oppression.
IB: It is remarkable. 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 NYRB’s owner panicked. I have no other explanation. The owner thought that the way to deal with the panicked response from advertisers – including university presses worried about reactions on campuses – 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.
ME: Rea S. Hederman, the owner, says the magazine is not sustained by university press advertising, and that the Review has high editing standards that were not followed with this essay.
IB: The publishing process did not fail. Two other editors were involved from the beginning, and two additional editors reviewed the essay before it was published. There was even a meeting about it with all the magazine’s editors present, and Hederman himself read the essay prior to publication.
That said, the issue did split the editorial office into different camps. The conflict began with the critic Laura Kipnis’s review of TV host Gretchen Carlson’s book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, in which Carlson accuses the late Fox News executive Roger Ailes of sexual exploitation. In the review, Kipnis took the view that men obviously have to change their behavior and way of thinking; but women have a responsibility, too. She was rather sardonic about Carlson’s overwrought account. Some editors thought such critical sentiments should be taken out, especially when they were humorously expressed.
ME: So, the Ghomeshi essay was part of a larger argument about which voices were to be represented in the magazine.
IB: Not so much about which voices, but about the opinions expressed, and the tone of the writing. I sometimes had to defend writers against editors, who were over eager to intervene in the texts. There was never a serious row; there wasn’t any yelling. The differences were very generational. The people over, let’s say, 40, had a different attitude than did those under 40.
ME: In what way?
IB: Well, as you know, in America, any issue related to race and gender very quickly causes problems. These are sensitive issues. Sometimes people are over-sensitive. There was an objection, for example, to a headline on an article about North Korea diplomacy that read: “Better Jaw Jaw than War War.” This was held to be “offensive to Asians.” In fact, Churchill had said it, in the US, meaning that negotiation with the Soviet Union was better than military conflict.
On another occasion, one of the young editors held me to task, rather rudely, for wanting “nuance,” as thought that were a bad thing. Younger people 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.
ME: Which could be considered a classic intellectual position and approach.
IB: Yes. But it’s an approach that is widely challenged now. My generation, those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, actually admired things that were a little bit provocative, a bit scandalous even. The younger generation is more interested in fighting for social justice, equality, and so on, and anything that doesn’t fit that way of thinking has to be censored. This can become a form of puritanism.
ME: If you could turn back the clock, would you still publish the Ghomeshi essay?
IB: 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. In retrospect, I probably would have made that clearer. But that is a question of nuance, not a question of whether to publish the piece.
The Media and #MeToo
ME: Your arrival as editor was an opportunity to reshape the NYRB. Your predecessor, the magazine’s founder, Robert B. Silvers, ran it as he pleased from 1963 until he passed away in 2017. As you have said, it was, “The old school way where editors are dictators.”
IB: 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. Even the interns were encouraged to express their opinions.
ME: Silvers was the NYRB’s editor for 54 years. That makes your single year in the job look like a parenthesis by comparison, but also like a break with tradition.
IB: That is the way things often are. Alexis de Tocqueville said that revolutions come from rising expectations. They don’t come when everyone is oppressed. They come when oppression eases and people think: now it’s going to get better, but things don’t improve fast enough. Then you get a revolution.
ME: In a similar fashion, #MeToo came about at a time of relative equality between men and women. Many women elsewhere had been claiming the kind of freedom and influence that previously was the preserve of male privilege. In newsrooms, governments, banks, and companies around the world, gender equality was finally becoming a priority. The task that remained was to tell the world about the hidden costs of female success: the sexual harassment that ambitious women encounter, and the norms and quiet agreements that had kept women from speaking out.
IB: It is absolutely necessary that men and women be treated equally. But #MeToo is also a youth rebellion against people who are associated with the older generation, especially men. Such movements are not only about principles; they are also about power. There is a strong political element to it.
ME: Still, the NYRB is known as a publication where male writers have long outnumbered their female counterparts. And you yourself were criticised for not doing enough to correct that imbalance.
IB: It wasn’t so easy to change things that quickly. I was keen to recruit more women writers, and was partly successful. But the best women writers tend to be very much in demand. They often have less time, so they say no, whereas there are plenty of men who may not be the very best, but are in ample supply.
ME: The #MeToo movement has certainly put the news media to a test. Journalists and editors must strike a balance between the demands of a largely progressive audience and living up to the ideal of objectivity. Complicating matters are the social-media activists who want newspapers to publish the names of well-known men who have been accused of abuses, in order not to “protect the perpetrator.” In Sweden, several news outlets have failed to proceed with caution when revealing identities, inviting reprimands from the Swedish Press Council. But there seems to be less self-reflection in the United States. Following your ouster from the NYRB, would you say that you’ve lost work as a writer?
IB: Yes. And I may have lost one or two friends, but not more than 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, this idea that you are persona non grata that was more shocking to me than losing my job.
ME: But you are still an internationally renowned writer, and you’re 67 years old, so you don’t have to rebuild your career from scratch.
IB: I am worried about younger editors being forced to compromise their independence in order to secure their careers. Editors have to be able to take risks. They have to be able to publish 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.
As for writers, the main motivation should never be to please the masses. The same goes for magazines. An intellectual magazine should not simply be about advocating certain political views. Those overseeing an intellectual magazine want to make their readers think. That means including points of view they might reject. As long as those arguments are interesting and make you think, they serve a greater good.
I don’t think it is interesting for a magazine to have a very clear political position on every major question, and then simply advocate for it. When you do that, you are behaving as an activist. You should not be an activist, but an intellectual. That means thinking in ways that are not always comfortable. It can even be an important exercise to challenge your own principles. Editing an intellectual magazine is not about simply conforming to what most readers already think.
ME: Did conservative newspapers and magazines approach you after the NYRB forced you out?
IB: Yes, when I lost my job, I was immediately asked by right-wing publications, like The Spectator in England, to write for them. I refused. When you do that, you are then in a particular camp, where you can write only what the readers agree with already. If I am to challenge readers, I won’t succeed by just confirming well-established positions.
Art, politics, and the space between
ME: Let’s pivot to a related topic: Peter Handke, the 2019 Nobel laureate in literature. The choice has proved controversial. Handke is suspicious of how the media portrayed the war in Yugoslavia, and says that he wants to paint a more nuanced image of “evil Serbs.” His critics claim he has relativised the genocide in Srebrenica, not least by questioning whether it can even be called a genocide.
In Europe, the debate over this controversy has focused on whether an author’s presumed sympathies should influence the decision to award the prize. One side argues that literature should be assessed independently of its author; the other points out that such an assessment is inherently political. Which camp do you fall into?
IB: 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. But it was never only about literature. I think people who say that are mistaken.
ME: Alfred Nobel’s will states that the prize for literature should be awarded to a writer who has produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”
IB: 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 (Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević) 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. I do find it surprising.
ME: Handke claims that he attended and spoke at Milošević’s funeral in order to bury Yugoslavia “symbolically,” and he argues that “not a single word of what I have written about Yugoslavia can be condemned.” The Swedish Academy has echoed this line of defense. Handke may have uttered politically provocative things, but they don’t see any proof that he has ever praised bloodshed.
IB: I don’t think that is defensible. It is beyond any doubt that Handke has defended Milošević, not least by speaking at his funeral.
ME: So why do you think they gave the prize to him?
IB: 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 their own rape scandal, to go on and do this? I don’t know. Why do you think?
ME: I think they wanted to show integrity and independence. And I think they thought they had balanced it up by awarding the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk the prize for 2018.
IB: But they had already proved that integrity when they gave it to Mario Vargas Llosa in 2010 and to V.S. Naipaul in 2001.
ME: Do you think that the reputation of the prize itself has been undermined?
IB: 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 in 2018, I don’t think they have succeeded. I think that they probably made it worse.
A friend of mine recently pointed out that it is a strange time we’re living in. People are denounced for their opinions about women and race, but one can get the Nobel Prize after defending a bloody tyrant. I lost my job as the editor of a liberal magazine for publishing an article by a man who was accused of sexual abuse, but a writer gets the Nobel Prize after speaking at the funeral of a mass murderer. There is something a bit odd about that.
ME: You’re hardly the only victim of “cancel culture,” the phenomenon – particularly in the US – in which people are stripped of their influence because of their actions or opinions. One is reminded of Ronald S. Sullivan, who was forced to step down as the first black faculty dean at Harvard Law School after it was revealed that he had joined Harvey Weinstein’s legal defense team. In a commentary for The New York Times, Sullivan recalls being confronted with the message “Down with Sullivan” spray-painted across a campus wall when he took his nine-year-old son to school. He told his son that defending controversial clients is an important principle in a state governed by law.
IB: The university leadership should have said the same thing to the students. They should have explained that in a country governed by the rule of law, even a suspect charged with the gravest crimes has the right to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial in a court of law. You can’t condemn a lawyer for deciding to defend somebody. Without defense lawyers, there can be no guarantee of due process. I thought the university behaved foolishly.
ME: You’re a participant in a broader intellectual debate about why liberal democracies have ended up in ideological cul-de-sacs. And you’re currently writing a book on the Anglo-American order from its founding after World War II up to the era of Trump and Brexit.
IB: It is about the liberal world order, led by the US, that I idealized when I was young, and about how it is now coming to an end.
ME: How did that happen?
IB: After defeating Nazi Germany and Japan, the US saw itself as the defender of liberty all over the world. In the name of fighting for freedom, it got involved in a lot of very foolish wars, like Vietnam and Iraq. And Britain, for its part, never played the role in Europe that it should have. The British won the war and thought they were better than other European countries, and should stick to their “special relationship” with the US. In some ways, both Britain and the US are victims of their own success.
ME: Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist that Europe is on the edge of a “precipice.” America can no longer be relied on to defend its NATO allies. If Europe doesn’t think of itself as a major geopolitical player, will it lose control over its own destiny?
IB: The biggest danger, not only in America but in Europe, too, is that liberal democracy is going to emerge from the current historical moment very badly damaged – that the institutions underpinning liberal democracy are already quite fragile. Once people lose confidence in their own democratic institutions, the door is open for authoritarian politics. That is my greatest fear.
You can’t have a democracy without a strong press. You can’t have a liberal democracy when presidents and prime ministers call independent institutions enemies of the people and traitors.
This interview is published in cooperation with Svenska Dagbladet.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. Malin Ekman is a US correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet. — © Project Syndicate 1995–2020