Opinion | What Ian Buruma’s Departure Will Price Us



When Robert B. Silvers, the founding editor of The New York Overview of Books, printed an article in late 2011 speculating that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a outstanding French politician accused of sexually assaulting a lodge housekeeper in New York, may need been arrange, I keep in mind being shocked and appalled. If you happen to accepted the proof that the writer, Edward Jay Epstein, had amassed (timeline inconsistencies, lacking cellphones), you needed to conclude that the accuser wasn’t simply mendacity, she was additionally collaborating with nefarious entities to carry down Mr. Strauss-Khan, who occurred to be planning a presidential run in France.

A global conspiracy on this scale appeared exhausting to credit score, and nonetheless appears inconceivable. Ultimately, the felony case in opposition to Mr. Strauss-Khan was dropped due to important discrepancies within the accuser’s story; she accepted a settlement in a subsequent civil case in opposition to him. The varied mysteries within the case had been by no means cleared up.

The Epstein article got here to thoughts with the abrupt departure this month of Mr. Silvers’s successor, Ian Buruma, after he printed an essay by one other man accused of sexual assault, the previous Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, referred to as “Reflections From a Hashtag.” The consensus on social media gave the impression to be that working the Ghomeshi essay was an unforgivable mistake: Necessary details had been omitted or misleadingly introduced (for instance, there have been many extra accusations in opposition to him than those {that a} choose acquitted him of), and giving Mr. Ghomeshi a platform was seen as equal to excusing or exonerating him. Mr. Buruma appears to have fatally underestimated the quantity of pushback the essay would generate.

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Mr. Buruma was my editor at The Review, so perhaps I’m not objective enough. And I don’t know what precise calculations informed the decisions concerning his departure. But I have sympathy for The Review’s owner-publishers, who perhaps feared possible economic repercussions (rumors circulated about advertisers threatening to flee). As someone who has occasionally taken controversial stances on sexual harassment policies, I myself fear the possible economic repercussions that being on “the wrong side” of this moment could entail: Will my own opportunities to write and publish, in The Review or elsewhere, be curtailed? Self-censorship is the pragmatic move right now.

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It would also be craven. What I found, writing for The Review under Mr. Buruma, was a rare opportunity — or rare in a periodical with significant circulation — to take intellectual and stylistic risks, be offbeat in my opinions and get the last word in editorial scuffles. I also got the chance to enthuse about the impact and necessity of the #MeToo movement in an essay commissioned by Mr. Buruma last November, shortly after the first wave of accused men starting falling. I hear there are now a lot of victory dances about bringing down Mr. Buruma, too. What’s painful about the stance of many now claiming the #MeToo mantle is the apparent commitment to shutting down voices and discussions that might prove distasteful or unnerving. What use is such an intellectually stifled version of feminism to anyone?

I recall, as a teenager, reading the former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver’s prison memoir “Soul on Ice” and being beside myself with fury at his description of raping white women as a political act (and black women for practice). It shook me up. It also demanded that I grapple with the experience of someone — a criminal, a rapist, an enraged black man — entirely unlike myself. Is this a book that could still be published at the moment?

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What about Joan Didion’s famously tough-minded essay in The Review in 1991 on the Central Park jogger case, which raised doubts about the guilt of the five accused teenagers, all of whom were black or Hispanic, while parsing the sentimentalized stories told about white rape victims? Would the savvy editor of today publish such an article?

It’s impossible to say whether another article by a person accused of sexual assault would arouse the response the Ghomeshi essay did, or whether the reaction to it was specific to its particular flaws. Allocution is a tough genre. But even when the account is disingenuous and self-pitying, I’m interested in what the accused have to say for themselves, including those I think are guilty and despicable and who haven’t learned the proper lessons from their crimes. One of the reasons we read prison literature is because we’re all guilty and despicable. One of the reasons we read literature as such is to know what it’s like to be a criminal, a coward, a refugee, a pariah. In other words, human.

Something significant was lost last week. One consequence of Mr. Buruma’s departure will be a new layer of safeguards we won’t even know are in place, including safeguards from the sort of intellectual risks The New York Review of Books always stood for.

Laura Kipnis is the author, most recently, of “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.”

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