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Who Gets A Chance

Who Gets A Chance

Photo by Loimere Who Gets A Chance

Ian Buruma is out as the editor of the New York Review Of Books. Buruma had voluntarily published an essay written by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio host who had lost his show and his job in the aftermath of 20 women accusing him of having abused them; the essay gets top-billing on the magazine’s cover. The essay, subtly titled “Reflections from a Hashtag” in an attempt to criticize the #MeToo movement, was intended to be Ghomeshi’s re-introduction to the literary and cultural world. Ghomeshi’s essay has been widely panned for all kinds of reasons including what it got wrong which was, as it turned out, most of it.

Buruma, having published the essay before immediately coming in for intense criticism for having done so, attempted to defend himself in an interview with Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner, an attempt that went…well, poorly would definitely be one word for it. Catastrophically would be another.

Chotiner wanted to understand what would convince Buruma to give Ghomeshi another chance; Buruma seemed deadset on making sure everybody understood that having published Ghomeshi was a fine thing to have done. That they were talking past one another is, perhaps, an understatement, but Buruma’s answers are breathtaking in their utter indifference to any criticism. Although it is tough to select a single, standout moment, this one below comes close, owing to him – in the very most generous interpretation possible – badly bungling ideas of consent.

There are numerous allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi, including punching women in the head. That seems pretty far on the spectrum of bad behavior.

I’m no judge of the rights and wrongs of every allegation. 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 behavior—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, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.

Buruma is making two things perfectly clear: that the allegations themselves do not trouble him (“The exact nature of his behavior – how much consent was involved – I have no idea, nor is it really my concern”) and that surely Ghomeshi paid enough of a price for his behavior. It should be noted that Ghomeshi went to trial and was later found acquitted, owing to a lack of available evidence and witnesses considered unreliable by the presiding judge. Evidence can be, of course, extremely difficult to produce in such cases and witnesses are human beings, with all that humanity entails. Ghomeshi benefitted from both though, up to and including Buruma’s decision to give Ghomeshi a publication. Buruma said as much, declaring that the trial’s outcome showed Ghomeshi had been treated unfairly. Buruma in fact explained that one of the reasons that the allegations do not concern him is that he cannot be certain that the allegations themselves are true.

I think even if he hadn’t been is perhaps the point to be made. But let’s also note that Ghomeshi signed a peace bond and avoided another trial by apologizing to a victim. And these allegations were from more than 20 women. We don’t know what happened, I agree. But that is an astonishing number, no?

I am not going to defend his behavior, and I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. My interest in running this piece, as I said, is the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion and what somebody like that feels about it. It was not run as a piece to exonerate him or to somehow mitigate the nature of his behavior.

You say it’s not your “concern,” but it is your concern. If you knew the allegations were true, I assume you would not have run the piece.

Well, it depends what the allegations are. What you were saying just now was rather vague.

Punching women against their will.

Those are the allegations, but as we both know, sexual behavior is a many-faceted business. Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances. I am not a judge of exactly what he did. All I know is that he was acquitted and he is now subject to public opprobrium and is a sort of persona non grata in consequence. The interest in the article for me is what it feels like in that position and what we should think about.

To recap: twenty women came forward telling roughly the same story about Ghomeshi’s behavior and Ghomeshi denied them, repeatedly. Buruma decided that only one of those two sides was deserving of an essay, a publication, a front-cover. Buruma decided that only one of those two sides would be given the opportunity to speak. Buruma decided that only one of those two sides was worth it.

In his own essay, Ghomeshi describes having endured unfair treatment owing to the media’s creation of a “singular, sexualized identity that was repeated.” Then, this:

 As things came crashing down, I became obsessed with the inaccurate stories and the pattern of salacious details taken as truth in the echo chambers of social media outrage. That foreclosed any focus on my own accountability.

Since then, I have spent almost four years reflecting on my relations with women I dated. For some, nothing I say here will be enough or be put the right way. Even as I feel deep remorse about how I treated some people in my life, I cannot confess to the accusations that are inaccurate. What I do confess is that I was emotionally thoughtless in the way I treated those I dated and tried to date. As well, I leveraged my influence and status to try to entice women and lead them on when they were interested. There are all sorts of old-fashioned words to describe men like this: player, creep, cad, Lothario.

But it went deeper than that. I was demanding on dates and in personal affairs. I would keep lobbying for what I wanted. I was critical and dismissive. Some women I cared about went along with things I wanted to avoid my disappointment or moods. I ought to have been more respectful and responsive with the women in my life. To them I say, you deserved much better from me.

The women who came forward to report Ghomeshi’s behavior recounted literal assaults. Ghomeshi, above, is describing emotional and psychological manipulation. For example, women, he writes, “went along with things I wanted” which is mealy-mouthed nonsense when those “things” are not being clarified anywhere. Nowhere does he specifically account for what women reported him guilty of doing and for what he himself later apologized for. It was all, and remains, a simple misunderstanding between himself and (at least) twenty individual women, at least as far as Ghomeshi would have his readers believe.

Buruma not only gave Ghomeshi a platform but apparently asked nothing of him along the way, allowing him to present his case on terms entirely favorable to himself and without accounting for what he was accused of having done. Buruma then doubled down on that strategy in his own interview with Slate.

It is worth noting that, in the same interview, Buruma suggested that the real issue with #MeToo was not one of gender, but of generation. Chotiner asked if Buruma had run his decision by any of the women in his office:

Was there a gender breakdown during the discussion?

I would say not necessarily just in this particular case. I would say that on issues to do with #MeToo and relations between men and women and so on, there isn’t so much a gender breakdown as there is a generational one. I think that is generally true. I don’t think our office is in any way unusual. I think people over 40 and under 40 often have disagreements about this.

Buruma is 66. And perhaps, to his credit, he is on to something: older generations are much, much worse at identifying and confronting abuse in any kind of meaningful, productive manner. Horrific abuse scandals have repeatedly played out throughout the broader culture, always enabled and abetted by older generations who either abdicated their responsibilities entirely or who voluntarily encouraged their ongoing occurrence. In fact, one does not have to look far to find people spending time and energy defending and encouraging and rehabilitating accused men. This month it was Buruma going to the wall for Ghomeshi, but he is just the latest in a long line of cultural examples of attempts to give accused men chance after chance after chance. To these advocates, men not having everything they want, whenever they want it, is surely a punishment equal to the actual abuse heaped upon their victims. Which is how various accused performers, for example, have continued to plot returns, including Louis CK, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer, with each counting on the sort of cultural forgiveness that men in their positions have so often enjoyed.

And then there is the cultural criticism heaped upon those who speak do out. To take but one prominent example, Katie Roiphe and Andrew Sullivan each targeted Moira Donegan for having had the alleged audacity to create the means for women to warn other women about dangerous men they might encounter. Each dismissed Donegan’s work because it proved insufficiently deferential to the needs of men. Surely she owed those men something. Donegan disagreed, obviously, but both Roiphe and Sullivan argued implicitly that women owed men their ignorance and their safety, and that to not willingly turn over either was to do abusive men an unfair disservice. Donegan, to her credit, has not budged from her position.

The battle lines have, perhaps, always been clearly drawn, but they seem starker and brighter now. If the issue is generational, as Buruma claims, then there is no denying that younger generations of activists have had more than enough of being told by older generations that older ways can be counted on to get the job done. Those older ways led Buruma to make an attempt at rehabilitating Ghomeshi with seemingly no awareness of what the response might be. Now, he is out of a job.

“But it was a one time thing!” might be the reply from those anxious to defend Buruma. “He made a mistake. He should not have to pay with his job!” Chotiner seemingly thought of this reply too. So he laid out one of the other ways that Buruma’s selective preferences played themselves out in the magazine that he edited.

No, you have published Naipaul and Mailer, who did not behave well with women. This seems different. Last question: Last year, near the end of which you took over, VIDA, an organization that measures gender parity in publishing, reported that your publication “had the most pronounced gender disparity of 2017’s VIDA Count, with only 23.3% of published writers who are women.” Are you making an active effort to change that?

Yes. We are very conscious of having as many women writing in each issue as we can. I don’t believe in quotas. I believe in having things that are of the greatest interest. But we make an effort with every issue to have as many female voices as we can get.

Amusingly, Buruma insists that he does not believe in quotas. It is a hell of a thing to claim when more than three-quarters of the articles published in his magazine are written by men. Maybe the decision to give Ghomeshi space was driven by the same sort of thinking. Maybe the decision to forbid any other perspectives was too.

This last point is perhaps the most important. Jia Tolentino perhaps puts things most succinctly, noting that what got fired was the tone-deaf execution of his plan which included his complete inability to acknowledge that there was considerably more to the story than Ghomeshi’s alleged suffering. Buruma did what a lot of men in his position have always done; he made it all about the man. Tolentino goes further, noting that what comes next is a barrage of men whining incessantly about how unfair it is that there were consequences for doing what has always previously gotten a pass and a cultural thumbs up:

That is just it. No matter what older generations used to venerating men and ignoring their victims want to believe, it genuinely seems as if, perhaps, things are changing, and that acknowledging as much is going to be required going forward, whether the hell they like it not.


Buruma has already given an interview regarding his dismissal, and, as Tolentino predicted, he identifies himself as a victim, claiming that has been “publicly pilloried” without spending too much time accounting for why exactly that was. In Buruma’s defense, he briefly toys with this:

“You could be right that it gave him too much room to tell his side of the story, without a response and without critical questions.”

Then he gets right back to feeling sorry for himself:

“They go far, they are digging through everything I have ever written for proof that I hate women. I don’t read it all, because I don’t want to get depressed, but I do hear about it.”

And finally:

“I have now myself been convicted on Twitter, without any due process.”

One wonders what sort of due process Buruma is imagining for himself. A trial like the one that acquitted Ghomeshi perhaps? Buruma voluntarily did a thing, the marketplace responded forcefully to that thing, and the consequences of having done that thing were made clear to him. The world he thought he knew – the one in which he could exclude women while taking men at their word – is changing. He longs for an undefined process that would have, he assumes, cleared him. He believes, in other words, that he is owed so much more than he is willing to afford others. He is like Ghomeshi in this way.

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15 thoughts on “Who Gets A Chance

  1. I have gone through periods of subscribing to and avidly reading the NYRB, of making a point of reading it regularly at the library, and of picking it up casually when in the library to see if there is anything of interest to me. FWIW, of late there has been little that captures my attention. I was not aware that it had a new editor: just that it wasn’t publishing stuff that interested me. Without suggesting that my interests are normative, from a strictly personal point of view I an glad to see this guy replaced, even apart from his appalling sexual politics.

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  2. My normal human side is completely on board with you here. I have a hard time giving the benefit of the doubt to a man with that many accusers, trial verdict be damned. Because I know very well that acquittal does not equal innocence. Your title is apt, as it really is the question: who should get second chances? Because I do place sexual crimes in a separate category from others when it comes to redemption and rehabilitation and participation in society.

    My lawyer side, and more specifically, my former criminal defense attorney side, worries about a precedent for not presuming innocence or not allowing people to participate fully in society after the conclusion of criminal charges. Of course, that doesn’t mean publishing them in the New York Review of Books, or, say, appointing them to the Supreme Court.

    As for Buruma, he is guilty of atrocious judgment including from a business standpoint and his firing was justified.

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    • I recognize the lawyer side that you are talking about, but keep coming back to the fact that our legal system is overwhelmingly tilted in favor of abusers, and wondering what exactly it would take for that to change in any sort of meaningful way.

      As for re-integrating abusive people, and particularly abusive men, into broader society, I would note that, very often, those anxious to do so often much more concerned with providing those men that rehabilitation than they are with seemingly anything else.

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      • Unless you want to get rid of the presumption of innocence and the burden being on the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, changing the legal system will end up being a cure worse than the diseSe. I’m relatively certain that men of color would fair worse than white men under the new, revised system. The new, revised system could spread to other more mundane crimes like larceny. We could end up with something more draconian than our own. If you want a humane justice system you really need to treat the indecent with decency.

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        • We should at least acknowledge what sticking with the current system accomplishes, which is aiding and abetting widespread abuse. We could at least acknowledge that the system is horrifically bad at dealing with abuse in any sort of meaningful, influential way. Instead, we end up with these systemic defenses that implicitly say, “Making sure that certain men never endure anything is more important than than the suffering of their victims.”

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          • The law has a lot of archaic features that really don’t fit well with contemporary knowledge about many things or modern social norms. I don’t trust Americans to create or fund a real rehabilitation system though. In order to avoid something really grotesque things, there are some fictions that need to be respected. The presumption of innocence is one of them even if it does enable abusers, rapists, and white collar thieves to go free when they should be found guilty or receive a lighter sentence.

            I’m an immigration lawyer rather than a criminal lawyer. Jeff Sessions is currently issuing many decisions that is going to create an inhuman deportation machine because he can. Reforms that are to allegedly help the abused will make the criminal justice system like the immigration court system. Victim rights will be used to support tyranny and the police state.

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            • It shouldn’t be ignored who benefits, and who doesn’t, from that arrangement. The same people continue to suffer. The same people continue to thrive. Respecting a fiction comes with incredible cost for some people, especially since that fiction has only ever really been true for a select few.

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  3. I agree with you. To be clear, because I can’t tell if I was or not, when I place sex offenders in a separate category from others with regard to rehabilitation and integration, I mean that I am less likely to advocate that for them than I am those who sold drugs or committed theft.
    I feel like so much criminal behavior is tied to environment, mental health, etc, things that can be improved. But sex crimes to me speak of deeper character flaws that may not be correctable.

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    • I think for the folks who want immediate rehabilitation and voluntary ignorance going forward, they simply don’t view themselves as threatened in any meaningful way, and thus have no problem with exposing others similarly.

      When I was growing up, there was a man who worked in our school with a student who was severely disabled. It ended up being the case that he was assaulting the student as well. But he also regularly hosted other neighborhood kids who lived nearby for various parties, which included both watching wrestling and (allegedly) watching pornography. He was arrested, served his time, and was released. There are those who content that having paid his price, he should have been cut loose and treated like everybody else. For very obvious reasons, there are very good reasons to object to such immediate rehabilitation, which included things like him moving one county away, and starting work with a charity that worked with children, while promoting wrestling events as fundraisers for that charity.

      To my mind, the concept of something like “trust by verify” works here. But there are others who want absolution for committed crimes. It is a bizarre want, considering the stakes. But again, if somebody doesn’t personally feel threatened, it might be easier to subject others to that threat.

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  4. As people like Erik Loomis have pointed out, none of these people are being arrested or fined. Instead they are being dismissed from their at-will jobs which are extremely privileged, open only to the most selective group of people.

    We as a society seem to have little pity for a MacDonald’s worker who gets dismissed for trivial reasons, or no reason at all even though the consequences of their dismissal are much more dire. Ian Buruma isn’t going to get evicted from his house, or lose custody of his children.

    I notice that there is a whole mantra of “accountability” regarding teachers and school choice, or privatization versus unionization, where the ability to fire underperforming workers is seen as a vital corrective.

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    • I’m with Chip here. I care not one whit about a highly privileged person getting booted from a highly privileged job because they misjudged the climate. Highly privileged people in highly privileged positions are supposed to be good at judging such climates, and if they show their ass, then they should get a boot in it.

      Both Buruma and Ghomeshi can go flip burger at McDonalds for a while, for all I care.

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  5. When Buruma was appointed to succeed — you couldn’t replace — Robert Silvers, he was widely thought of as a good choice. The NYRB has published its share of controversial pieces, as well as pieces by awful persons, and took the heat without pushing people out. I can’t help thinking that there was more to this than publishing one ill-advised piece.

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  6. It was Yom Kippur this week. In the Jewish tradition, repentance only makes the decree against you less harsh. It doesn’t eliminate this. What it seems that many of these men want is complete forgiveness after a brief period away There does not seem to be any repentance at all.

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  7. Punching women against their will.

    Those are the allegations, but as we both know, sexual behavior is a many-faceted business. Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances. I am not a judge of exactly what he did. All I know is that he was acquitted and he is now subject to public opprobrium and is a sort of persona non grata in consequence. The interest in the article for me is what it feels like in that position and what we should think about.

    Good Lord this is stupid.

    I’m not going to say sexual behavior can’t _ever_ include punching, and I’m hardly the expert on BDSM stuff, but…this is just completely idiotic. The number of people willing to _punched_ during sex is…microscopic. Slapped, sure, but punched?

    There might be a fine line between pleasure and pain, but ‘Getting punched in the head’ (As he is alleged to have done) is…pretty far over that line.

    I mean, I’m for teaching people that sex should have explicit and enthusiastically consent, but realize that process might take a while. But the actual _BDSM_ community already does that, from what I understand! The people who actually do this sort of stuff in bed just don’t go around…randomly punching their partner in the head, or choking them, or slapping, or all the stuff he’s alleged to have done.

    So, yeah, changing to explicit consent for sex will take a bit, but can we at least get the media and the courts and everyone to understand that anyone who tries to justify _physical assault_ as sex play has to have some sort of actual, real, formal consent in advance? Preferably written down. And if they don’t, and the victim says it was unwanted, we should actually believe it was assault?

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