What’s at stake in publishing essays like Jian Ghomeshi’s New York Review of Books piece?
Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books, is out of a job. The news comes following Buruma’s decision to publish a lengthy essay by disgraced Canadian celebrity Jian Ghomeshi about how Ghomeshi’s life changed when, in 2014, he was fired from a radio station after multiple women accused him of sexual assault. (Ghomeshi was eventually acquitted in court after he agreed to sign a peace bond and apologize to one of his accusers.)
The New York Review of Books has not said whether Buruma resigned or was fired, and has not responded to a request from Vox for comment.
The Ghomeshi essay was published not long after Harper’s magazine published an essay by former radio host John Hockenberry, who retired in December after he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. (“Looking back, my behavior was not always appropriate and I’m sorry,” Hockenberry said at the time.)
Taken together, the two essays seem to form a bizarre new genre: the “I’m sorry you’re offended” apologetic, the “regrettably, mistakes were made” expression of non-guilt. As pieces of writing, they are less interesting for the fact of their existence than they are for the fact that they were granted prestigious platforms in literary institutions like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books.
Titling his essay “Exile,” Hockenberry writes of his fall from grace and defends his actions on the somewhat confused grounds that our pornographic culture has killed romance.
“Do I dare make a spirited defense of something once called romance from the darkness of this exile?” he asks. “Not only do I dare, knowing what righteous anger is out there, I really believe I have no choice.”
Meanwhile, in “Reflections From a Hashtag,” Ghomeshi writes of experiencing suicidal depression after his fall from grace, and as a result of receiving “a crash course in empathy.” To illustrate his newfound empathy, he describes meeting a woman on a train and feeling an urge “from my days as a Somebody. Tell her about your show. Tell her about your band. Sell your book.”
But instead, he writes, his newfound empathy led him to listen to his travel companion talk and to ask her questions — “As if maybe I had the ability to be worthy without reciting my résumé” — and to leave without ever giving her his name. (One might assume that he’d also want to withhold his name because he is now famous for being accused of sexually assaulting women, but Ghomeshi does not confront that assumption in his essay.)
Notably, neither Hockenberry nor Ghomeshi engages meaningfully with the accusations against them. Hockenberry will only allow that he is “guilty of bad judgment,” and he condemns his accusers for not responding when he reached out to them, expressing furor over their “stony and, in my view, cowardly silence.” (Some of Hockenberry’s accusers told the Cut that he had never reached out to them.)
Ghomeshi, for his part, leaves out the number of women who accused him of sexual assault (24), what the accusations include (beating and choking), how far back the accusations go (to his college days; he’s currently 51), and why the charges against him were eventually dropped (he had to “publicly accept responsibility” for his actions but did so while maintaining that he was not admitting wrongdoing).
As Buruma’s ousting attests, the backlash against essays like Hockenberry’s and Ghomeshi’s was intense.
“The worst thing about this accursed genre of personal essay — ‘My Year of Being Held Responsible for My Own Behavior’ — may be that it consists, almost necessarily, of terrible writing,” wrote Jia Tolentino at the New Yorker.
“I feel sorry for a lot of these men, but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all,” wrote Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times, adding, “Maybe they’d find it easier to resurrect their careers if it seemed like they’d reflected on why women are so furious in the first place, and perhaps even offered ideas to make things better.”
But what’s at stake here is less the question of whether their essays were any good, and more the question of why they received the platforms they did in the first place. What message was Buruma sending when he put Ghomeshi’s essay in the New York Review of Books, and was it ever worth reading?
Both mea culpas failed to engage with the allegations at hand. Harper’s and the NYRB gave them a platform anyway.
The obfuscations from Ghomeshi and Hockenberry follow a familiar, consistent pattern that we’ve seen time and time again when men accused of hurting women prepare to reenter public life: Be vague, imply heavily that it was all a long time ago and you’re the real victim here, and never discuss what’s happened to the people you hurt. (Men who’ve notably veered away from this pattern include Community creator and Rick and Morty showrunner Dan Harmon, whose apology after a female Community writer accused him of sexual harassment set the high-water mark for this kind of public redemption attempt.)
So the interesting question here is not, “Why are these men so bad at apologizing?” — it’s pretty clear that they’re bad at apologizing because they don’t seem to want to actually admit that they did anything wrong. They consistently frame themselves, not the people they hurt, as the real victims of their actions. “Here’s the thing about being an erstwhile ‘celebrity’ who is now an outcast,” writes Ghomeshi: “You’re not just feeling sorry for yourself. You’re also feeling sorry for everyone around you — sometimes even the strangers.”
Instead, the interesting question is, “Why are literary institutions like Harper’s and the New York Review of Books giving these men platforms from which to publish their bad apologies?” What is the literary interest in having a Canadian musician who allegedly abused 24 different women say that now he can no longer use his fame to pick up women? Is there any value at all in that piece of writing, outside of generating hate clicks online?
If Hockenberry’s and Ghomeshi’s essays are supposed to have literary value, why aren’t they engaging in good faith with the counterarguments against them? If they have journalistic news value, why aren’t they engaging with the facts that are already part of the public record? If they are more than self-absorbed excuses and “I’m sorry you were offended but you must understand that in my day, it was considered acceptable for men to attack their colleagues”-ing, then where is that value supposed to lie?
Buruma said Ghomeshi’s story was valuable because it was rare. Let’s unpack that.
In an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner last Friday, Buruma argued that Ghomeshi’s story was valuable because it had not been heard before. “It is an angle on an issue that is clearly very important and that I felt had not been exposed very much,” Buruma said.
He added, “I think nobody has quite figured out what should happen in cases like his, where you have been legally acquitted but you are still judged as undesirable in public opinion, and how far that should go, how long that should last, and whether people should make a comeback or can make a comeback at all.”
In a sense, Ghomeshi’s story is unusual, because he has faced some definite consequences for the actions of which he was accused. There have been a lot of stories told by men who got away with sexual assault — Roman Polanski wrote a memoir! — but it’s relatively rare for those men to lose standing and prestige after facing accusations. The story of falling from grace after being accused of hurting women really is pretty rare.
But we don’t value stories only because they are rare. As Chotiner pointed out in the interview, O.J. Simpson, like Ghomeshi, was acquitted of the charges against him in a criminal court, and like Ghomeshi, he lost his celebrity standing after he was accused of hurting a woman.
Unlike Ghomeshi, of course, Simpson was accused of murdering two people: his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. And when Simpson tried to tell his side of the story in a book titled If I Did It, the outcry was so massive that the book was canceled and the editor who acquired it was fired. It would eventually be published by a less established publisher, with all proceeds going to Goldman’s family.
If I Did It was a scandal because it allowed Simpson to profit from his alleged crimes. And it prioritized his story over those of the people he was alleged to have hurt. It was unquestionably a rare story, but it was still not considered valuable.
Nonetheless, if we take Buruma at his word and accept that Ghomeshi’s story has news value because it confronts an underexamined problem, then shouldn’t Ghomeshi have been pushed to accurately characterize both the accusations against him and their legal resolution in his essay?
No, Buruma said when Chotiner asked him that question. A concern like mentioning the peace bond Ghomeshi had to sign as part of his acquittal “does not really add or take away anything from the story at hand, which is what happened afterward and what happened to him.”
In that case, Buruma’s argument is essentially that what’s really valuable here is the story of Ghomeshi’s suffering. The question of what he’s suffering for — the harm he is accused of inflicted on 24 women — becomes irrelevant. His suffering becomes more important than theirs.
Promoting essays like Ghomeshi’s and Hockenberry’s is not a harmless intellectual enterprise in free speech hypotheticals. It has real consequences.
The idea that the suffering of accused men is more newsworthy and valuable than the suffering of those they allegedly hurt is fundamental to the widespread narrative that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. It’s a narrative Buruma appeared to endorse in his interview, in which he also argued strongly that the “Fall of Man”-themed NYRB issue in which Ghomeshi’s essay appeared should not be interpreted as an anti-MeToo statement. He added, however, that he was concerned that the movement may have overreached itself. “Like all well-intentioned and good things, there can be undesirable consequences,” he said.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that for magazines like the New York Review of Books and Harper’s, the value of essays by figures like Ghomeshi and Hockenberry is supposed to lie in a corrective to the dominant narrative, in a sense that the #MeToo movement has gone too far and that we need the voices of those who were hurt by it in order to stabilize the status quo.
But it’s also difficult to understand how the #MeToo movement can be said to have gone too far when Donald Trump was credibly accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and still get elected president, when the Supreme Court currently includes one man who was accused of sexual harassment and may soon include another. It’s difficult to understand how one can reasonably make the argument that the men who lost their jobs in the wake of the #MeToo movement were hurt by the movement and not by their own choices to harass and assault their colleagues.
And it’s difficult to understand how spotlighting their voices in the way the New York Review of Books and Harper’s have is doing anything more than reinforcing a system in which men’s social status is considered to be more valuable than women’s bodily safety, in which accusations of sexual violence are brushed aside as so much shrill hyperbole, and in which powerful men are able to hurt those they have power over with impunity. It’s difficult to understand how these essays are doing anything more than striving to return to the system that necessitated the birth of the #MeToo movement in the first place.