“Cancel Culture Won’t Last”
You remember Ian Buruma, right? He was forced to resign as editor of The New York Review of Books in 2018 after he published an essay by the Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who was accused and acquitted of sexual assault. Now, Buruma talks to The Telegraph about his new book (on Churchill and Britain’s “special relationship” with America) and “cancel culture”:
Having been toppled himself, he is worried that cancel culture will lead to ‘a kind of timidity and fear and caution on the part of people who edit and write. The whole point of being a good editor is having the freedom sometimes to do something that might be provocative, because that helps debate, and debate helps people think. And if you cancel that out, you get a sort of boring and fearful conformity that is inimical to a lively intellectual and artistic culture.’
He sees the new ‘intolerance and puritanism’ as a substitute for religion. ‘It is particularly strong in the New World, in Australia, Canada and the United States, and Britain to a slightly lesser extent, than in non-English-speaking countries. There is a sort of puritanical zeal that is very strong in America and the intolerance of unorthodoxy may be a secular version of it.’
The point of Ghomeshi’s article, he says, was to explore the question of how we set the perimeters of the length and severity of the punishments doled out by the court of public opinion. ‘I deliberately did not want the article to be about what he had done, there was no way that I wanted to stick up for that or defend it. I was interested in it because it was a voice that hadn’t been heard, somebody who’d actually had that experience.’
Is there not a danger that his viewpoint might be a bit too detached, I ask? Isn’t there an argument that the many abused women who never even get to see their abuser in court and feel unheard are quite right to be angry that a liberal magazine should give a voice to somebody like Ghomeshi?
‘Well that’s probably true, statistically, that most cases of abuse go unreported and therefore we never hear about them. But it would be false to say that the voices of women, or men for that matter, who’ve been abused in one way or another have never been heard – we’ve heard quite a few, maybe not enough, but we’ve heard them. So I don’t think that that is right.’
Has being ‘cancelled’ affected him much? ‘All I will say is that certain publications I used to write for do not ask me any more because it would upset people – not so much readers but people who work for those publications.
‘I don’t miss being in an office, I’m perfectly happy sitting in my own office writing whatever I want, but I miss the job in the sense that I could have done something interesting with [the NYRB] and I no longer can. I wanted to have more voices from South America, more on Africa, Asia. I think the problem with a lot of American publications today is that they look inward too much.’
In other news: Thomas Homer-Dixon says reading The Lord of the Rings made him a better parent. He explains why in The Walrus: “Many Christian commentators and scholars say Tolkien espoused a Christian hope based on faith in redemption and God’s ultimate intervention. (He was a devout Roman Catholic.) By this view, hope, which in this case would be Estel, can remain secure because we know God will take care of us in the end. Other Tolkien aficionados have argued that he eschewed hope entirely: his protagonists keep going because of nothing more than their ardent commitment to courage and cheer regardless of what the future seems to hold. Neither argument convinces me. I see little hint of Christian eschatology in the pages of The Lord of the Rings, and the book’s life philosophy is deeply informed by Norse, Germanic, and Celtic myth. Indeed, to my mind, Tolkien’s heroes possess the Finnish virtue sisu, which translates roughly as ‘fierce tenacity’ or ‘toughness’ and indicates inner strength in the face of daunting odds.”
Richard Mabey reviews Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights: “I longed for a bird that was just itself, not a token of class war or a sop to emotional neediness.”
Richard Reinsch reviews George Weigel’s The Next Pope: “Weigel’s book is an attempt to spell out spiritual criteria for the next pope — to explain, in his view, how the next pope should act in order to revive the church’s fortunes in the modern world. There are many elephants in the room here, but one of the biggest, prudently left unnamed by Weigel, is Pope Francis’s pontificate. Weigel drops small vignettes throughout the book of what the next pope must do and not do.”
What’s wrong with the university today? Many things, but the main problem, Mario Biagioli argues, is a preoccupation with gaming the system rather than focusing on its core purpose: teaching and research. “According to Goodhart’s Law, as soon as a measure becomes a target, gaming ensues, which undermines its function as a measure. Charles Goodhart, an economist, was referring to the gaming of economic indicators, but his law applies equally well to all sorts of regimes of evaluation, including the metrics that command so much authority in today’s higher education. Universities are investing ever more heavily in curating and occasionally faking figures that enhance their national and global rankings, while simultaneously keeping those metrics in mind when deciding anything from campus development projects to class size. (Architecturally ambitious campuses attract alumni giving, which is a positive factor in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of universities, as are classes capped at 19 students.) Now in full swing, this trend started inconspicuously a few decades ago. Already in 1996, Northeastern University’s president, Richard Freeland, observed that ‘schools ranked highly received increased visibility and prestige, stronger applicants, more alumni giving, and, most important, greater revenue potential. A low rank left a university scrambling for money. This single list […] had the power to make or break a school.’ Freeland quickly figured out which numbers Northeastern needed to privilege. Ranked 162nd in 1996, Northeastern jumped to 98th in 2006 and, ten years after his departure, 47th in 2016. This trend goes hand in hand with another distinctive feature of the modern university: the discourse of excellence. Because ‘excellence’ is devoid of a referent that can be either empirically or conceptually defined — its meaning effectively boiling down to ‘being great at whatever one may be doing’…”
Jeremy Seaton reviews a new edition of Russell Kirk’s Old House of Fear: “While the novel itself remains unaltered so far as I can tell, the current edition features the addition of a wonderful introduction by James Panero that offers much insight into both Kirk and his works. This edition also restores Kirk’s dedication of the volume: ‘This Gothick tale, in unblushing line of direct descent from The Castle of Otranto, I do inscribe to Abigail Fay.’ This inscription, brief as it is, offers valuable revelations regarding the Old House of Fear and its residents.”
Why time flies when you’re old: “Over a three-minute period, younger people can count down the seconds almost perfectly. Older people, on the other hand, can be out by as much as forty seconds — meaning that if they counted seconds for an hour they’d think the task done with around the 47-minute mark. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s that slowing of the older person’s body clock that leads to their faster counting — and their feeling that the rest of the world is speeding up.”
In search of the English Proust: “Writing to his publisher Gaston Gallimard, Proust opted for an unusually crisp register: ‘I refuse to let the English destroy my work.’ He was protesting at translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s use of a pretty Shakespeare quotation (Remembrance of Things Past) for his analytically more precise title (À la recherche du temps perdu), not to mention the now iconic but misleading Swann’s Way (for Du côté de chez Swann). He softened, though his subsequent communications with Scott Moncrieff himself are best represented as polite rather than cordial. Scott Moncrieff remains nevertheless the true hero in the story of Proust in English, and any bad feeling on Proust’s part is a mere bagatelle compared to how he would have felt about John Middleton Murry’s unintelligible proposition: ‘No English reader will get more out of reading Du côté de chez Swann in French than he will out of reading Swann’s Way in English.’ It is, alas, the sort of thing that also infected Conrad, who came up with the lunatic claim that Moncrieff’s Proust was superior to Proust’s Proust.”
Photos: New Hampshire
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