Thomas Walkom: Freedom of expression in a MeToo world
The New York Review of Books is a beacon of U.S. east-coast liberalism. It is eclectic, smart and almost always interesting. It solicits essays on everything from Roman Catholic theology to Dadaism.
Its political writers have a bent (you won’t find much that’s favourable to Donald Trump). But, in general, they support civil rights, freedom of the press and freedom to speak.
They criticized George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. But they also took Barack Obama to task for authorizing drone strikes that kill civilians.
They haven’t been afraid to wade into the fraught Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So the decision by Review management to sever ties with its editor, Ian Buruma, is particularly distressing.
Buruma’s sin was to publish a retrospective essay by former high-profile CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi describing his experience as the target of social shaming.
Ghomeshi was accused by at least 15 people of inappropriate sexual behaviour. He was eventually charged with sexually assaulting four women.
In three of those cases he was acquitted. In the fourth, the Crown dropped charges after Ghomeshi agreed to apologize publicly and sign a peace bond.
But he remained a target of scorn. That’s what interested Buruma, who published Ghomeshi’s essay last week as part of a package titled “The Fall of Men.”
“I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation,” Buruma told Slate magazine. “How can I be? All I know is that in a court of law he was acquitted, and there is no proof he committed a crime.
“The exact nature of his behaviour — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern. My concern is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium.”
Which in a more normal time would be the kind of argument that the editor of a liberal publication like the New York Review might make.
But these are not normal times. Buruma’s words were taken to mean that he didn’t take sexual assault seriously (which is not what he said). In that same Slate interview, he also dared to gently critique the MeToo movement.
“I have absolutely no doubt that the #MeToo movement is a necessary corrective on male behaviour that stands in the way of being able to work on equal terms with women,” Buruma said. “In that sense, I think it’s an entirely good thing.
“But like all well-intentioned and good things, there can be undesirable consequences. I think, in a general climate of denunciation, sometimes things happen and people express views that can be disturbing.”
He’s right, of course, and his comments don’t mean he’s unsympathetic to women. Rather they mean that, like any good journalist, he is instinctively suspicious of those who would present a complex reality in stark black and white terms.
Buruma himself is a nuanced writer who has authored books on the culture and politics of Japan, China and his native Holland.
A long-time contributor to the New York Review, he seemed the perfect choice when the magazine hired him as editor last year.
But the Ghomeshi essay proved his undoing. As he told a Dutch magazine, he was essentially forced to resign last week after university presses threatened to pull their lucrative advertising from the Review. (Sigh. That universities are complicit in this sorry business is even sadder.)
Incidentally, the Ghomeshi essay itself is oddly dissonant. He acknowledges that he has been a cad but doesn’t address specific allegations. He talks of how tough his life has been. But details he describes — being befriended by one woman at a New York karaoke bar and flirting with another on a train to Paris — suggest that matters are more complicated.
Still, and perhaps because it is ultimately unsatisfying, the essay is worth reading. Perhaps dissonance best describes Ghomeshi’s world.
But the main point is that Buruma shouldn’t be penalized for publishing it. If America’s distraught liberals truly believed in freedom of the press, they would understand this.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom