Ian Buruma and the age of sexual McCarthyism

The New York Review of Books editor is the latest casualty of the identitarian mob

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Those unfamiliar with the politics of New York’s intellectual Brahmin class will find this hard to get their heads around, but Ian Buruma, the editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books, has just been forced to resign for publishing an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio host who was accused of sexual assault several years ago. To be clear, Buruma’s sin isn’t having committed a sexual misdemeanour himself. Rather, it consists of having run a piece by someone who was charged with sexual assault, even though Ghomeshi was acquitted. Welcome to Salem, 2018.


Those unfamiliar with the politics of New York’s intellectual Brahmin class will find this hard to get their heads around, but Ian Buruma, the editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books, has just been forced to resign for publishing an essay by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio host who was accused of sexual assault several years ago. To be clear, Buruma’s sin isn’t having committed a sexual misdemeanour himself. Rather, it consists of having run a piece by someone who was charged with sexual assault, even though Ghomeshi was acquitted. Welcome to Salem, 2018.

The essay, headlined ‘Reflections from a Hashtag’, caused uproar on social media when it was published at the beginning of the week. Some critics focused on the fact that Ghomeshi hadn’t gone into detail about the crimes he was accused of – choking and hitting women, among other things – and glossed over the sheer number of his accusers – he used the word ‘several’, when there were at least 20. This was a failure of ‘fact-checking’, apparently. Others pointed out that, even though Ghomeshi wasn’t found guilty of any of the charges, one was only dropped on condition that he apologise to his accuser and sign a ‘peace bond’, whereby he promised to stay out of trouble. Still others objected to the fact that his accusers weren’t given the opportunity to respond at equal length in the same issue of the NYRB.

Buruma didn’t help his cause by giving an interview to Slate on September 14 to explain why he’d published the piece. This question and answer, in particular, seems to have enraged a lot of people:

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

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 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, but how long should that last, what form it should take, etc.

At the time of writing, Buruma hasn’t issued a public statement about his departure, but he has given an interview to a Dutch publication in which he stands by his decision to publish Ghomeshi’s piece and explains that the reason he stepped down is because the NYRB’s owner and publisher, Rea S. Hederman, was concerned about losing advertising revenue as a result of the scandal.

‘No, he did not fire me,’ says Buruma. ‘But he made clear to me that university publishers, whose advertisements make publication of The New York Review of Books partly possible, were threatening a boycott. They are afraid of the reactions on the campuses, where this is an inflammatory topic. Because of this, I feel forced to resign – in fact it is a capitulation to social media and university presses.’

I can sympathise with Buruma. I felt obliged to stand down from various charities at the beginning of the year after a social media outrage mob called for my head. You don’t want to ‘capitulate’, as Buruma puts it, and you know that by doing so you will make it harder for the next person who finds themselves targeted in the same way to withstand the pressure. But you feel a moral obligation to protect the institutions you’re linked with and, however robust their boards are, they are dependent for their survival on the good will of others who may not be so steadfast. (I wrote a piece about my defenestration for Quillette, an Australian magazine, a couple of months ago.)

What’s so depressing about this episode is that it reflects the new climate of intolerance that is now sweeping North America’s liberal institutions (Canada is just as bad) and is rapidly spreading to the UK. Complaints about ‘fact-checking’ and Buruma’s saying the veracity of the allegations against Ghomeshi are not ‘his concern’ aren’t the issue here. The NYRB doesn’t employ any fact-checkers and the point Buruma was making is that Ghomeshi was acquitted.

Buruma’s real sin was not to observe the #MeToo edict whereby any man accused of a sexual misdemeanour – or who dissents from any of the politically correct orthodoxies when it comes to gender equality – should be cast out of polite society, even those subsequently found to be innocent. To get a sense of just how McCarthyite the atmosphere has become – guilty as charged, no due process, hand in your security pass on the way out – have a read of this piece about the Canadian author Steven Galloway. He lost his job as a creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia after being falsely accused of rape and anyone expressing any sympathy for him was immediately targeted by the Twitchfork mob, including the feminist author Margaret Attwood.

Newspapers and magazines which you would expect to be staunch defenders of free speech have been quick to crumble under pressure. Earlier this year, the Atlantic hired and then fired the conservative writer Kevin Williamson when it emerged he had made an inflammatory remark about abortion

And it isn’t just men accused of #MeToo crimes that you’re forbidden to provide a platform to. Last month, the editor-in-chief of the New Yorker David Remnick was forced to rescind Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak at a forthcoming festival after pressure was applied by his own staff, among others.

It’s not just the print media, either. Last week, the comedian Norm Macdonald was told he could no longer appear on the Tonight Show to promote his new Netflix series after he gave an interview to the Hollywood Reporter in which he expressed sympathy for Louis C.K., a comedian who lost his career overnight when several women accused him of masturbating in front of them. To be fair, Louis C.K. hasn’t denied the charges – not all of them, anyway – but Macdonald didn’t defend him. He just said he felt sorry for him. That, alone, was enough to make several female staffers at the Tonight Show burst into tears at the prospect of Norm appearing on their show.

The atmosphere on American campuses is even more febrile, thanks to the Obama administration’s advice to universities that they’re liable to have their funding removed if they fall foul of Title IX, a civil rights law designed to protect women in schools and colleges from harassment, among other things. Male students are now expected to ask for ‘affirmative consent’ at every stage of the seduction process – that is, they have to ask if it’s OK to make a pass before making a pass, then secure express permission for every item of clothing removed, and so on.

One poor young man was found responsible for sexual assault by university authorities because even though he’d asked for all the relevant permissions, and received assent, he couldn’t remember whether he’d asked the woman in question if he could remove her belt.

It’s not an exaggeration to say thousands of young men have been kicked out of college for similar offenses after kangaroo hearings in which, more often than not, they’re not allowed to submit evidence and the burden of proof is ‘on the balance of probabilities’ not ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. So far, only about 200 men have legally challenged these decisions and the court has sided with roughly half of them.

Laura Kipnis, a film studies professor at Northwestern who is also a contributor to the NYRB, wrote a piece attacking the sexual hysteria on campuses surrounding Title IX and, for her sins, she ended up under investigation for a Title IX offense by her own university. She wrote a book about that episode and was then targeted again.

It is hard to know what has caused this sexual McCarthyism. One claim, often made by #MeToo advocates, is that American universities are in the grip of a rape epidemic and if the authorities don’t start taking their responsibilities to protect women more seriously it will only get worse. In fact, sexual assaults of female college students in the US dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2013. In the same period, young women in college were less likely to be assaulted than those who weren’t. The ‘rape epidemic’ claim is a symptom of the hysteria, not its cause.

My own theory is that a small minority on the identitarian Left have used various Maoist tactics, including public shaming on social media, to persuade people that their doctrinaire positions on #MeToo allegations and a range of other issues – gender is a social construct, masculinity is toxic, climate change is caused by misogyny, etc. – are much more ubiquitous than they really are, thereby stifling dissent.

To think about how this might work, imagine a modern-day version of ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’ set at an American Ivy League college. A sceptical undergraduate is taking a gender studies class and suspects midway through that only a small minority of his classmates actually believe anything the professor is saying. So when she comes up with a particularly far-fetched bit of postmodern Neo-Marxist nonsense – for instance, that menstruation is a social construct – he decides to call her out on it. How do his classmates react, assuming the majority of them share his scepticism?

Unlike in the original story, they don’t immediately burst out laughing and applaud him for his courage. Rather, they look around, trying to gauge the reaction of others and, at the same time, keep their own expressions neutral until they get a sense of what the majority believes. Nothing they see on each other’s faces tells them it’s safe to indicate they share the undergraduate’s scepticism – even though a majority of them do – so they keep quiet. Some of them may even start tutting and shaking their heads, not wanting those they imagine to be in the majority to suspect they hold the heretical view. At this point, the gender studies professor narrows her eyes, accuses the undergraduate of being a misogynist and uses the bias reporting hotline to contact the university’s diversity officer.

A week later, the miscreant has been kicked out even though the professor in question was clearly spouting nonsense and a majority of the undergraduate’s classmates secretly agreed with him.

The blogger Scott Alexander provided a real-life example of exactly this dynamic at play:

Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said ‘Probably for the same reason I did’.

Who knows how long this paranoid atmosphere will continue. America seems to go through periodic bouts of hysterical puritanism, which partly accounts for the enduring appeal of The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials. I think it largely depends on what happens in the mid-terms. If the Democrats emerge the victors, Trump Derangement Syndrome will start to fade and reason may creep back into America’s liberal institutions. But if the Republicans win the day, the Democrats will likely descend into civil war and the identitarian Left may capture the Party, just as it’s captured the UK’s Labour Party. If that happens, don’t expect this hysteria to die down any time soon.