Dicks in the Wilderness 


Last Friday, the New York Review of Books published an almost 3,500-word mea culpa by Jian Ghomeshi, in which the disgraced Canadian former radio host—who had been accused by more than 20 women of sexual abuse and assault, including punching them in the face during sex—attempted to redeem himself in the public eye. In the years since the women came forward, he had “become a hashtag,” Ghomeshi wrote. Fired in 2014 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation where he for years he had hosted a popular show, he had experienced “enough humiliation for a lifetime,” having been the target of a “contemporary mass shaming.”

While proclaiming to have learned from what he called his “mistakes,” the lesson he seems to have drawn from the past several years is, tellingly, as Jia Tolentino put it in The New Yorker, “empathy primarily for the accused:” “I now have a different way of seeing anyone who is being attacked in the public sphere,” Ghomeshi wrote, “even those with whom I may profoundly disagree.”

The backlash to Ghomeshi’s essay—which came on the heels of Harper’s magazine’s publication of a navel-gazing essay by John Hockenberry, the former public radio host who himself was accused of sexual harassment—was swift. Still, there is an audience for this type of redemption narrative, or at least that’s what Ian Buruma, the editor of the NYRB, seemed to believe when he made the decision to publish Ghomeshi’s apologia.

But Buruma seems to have miscalculated. On Thursday, it was announced that Buruma had left the magazine. Unsurprisingly, Buruma, as his logic demands and as he has expressed in interviews, is now the victim, not of his own decisions, but of the mob.

In an interview on Thursday with the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, Buruma told the magazine, “I have now myself been convicted on Twitter, without any due process.” He said that he felt forced to resign—an unwilling move that he described as a “capitulation to social media and university presses,” the latter which had reportedly threatened an ad boycott. (The director of the Columbia University Press told the New York Times that “to my knowledge no one threatened to pull ads.”)

As the accused become victims, time out of the spotlight is framed as banishment, and meanwhile, the consequences meted out remain depressingly uneven

Buruma was, by his account, taken down by the same online hordes that he clearly believes singled-out Ghomeshi. “It is rather ironic,” Buruma said. “As editor of the New York Review of Books I published a theme issue about #MeToo-offenders who had not been convicted in a court of law but by social media. And now I myself am publicly pilloried.” Despite this, he continues to feel he did the right—and brave—thing: “I still stand behind my decision to publish,” he said. All he wanted, he reiterated, was to “open a discussion about what to do with people who behaved badly, but who were acquitted in a court of law.” (Ghomeshi’s essay, which omitted numerous details of the sexual assault and abuse allegations against him, now includes a substantial note at the top that states it “should have included acknowledgment of the serious nature and number of allegations that had been made against the writer.”)

He had similarly defended his decision to publish Ghomeshi’s essay in an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner. As he told Chotiner, his interest lay in exploring what he perceived as Ghomeshi’s victimhood: “[W]hat it was like to be, as it were, at the top of the world, doing more or less what you like, being a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried.” This, he felt, was “an angle on an issue that is clearly very important and that I felt had not been exposed very much.”

While calling the #MeToo movement a necessary corrective, Buruma insisted that “like all well-intentioned and good things, there can be undesirable consequences,” before going on to proclaim that we now live in a “general climate of denunciation.” He expressed skepticism of the women who alleged Ghomeshi abused and assaulted them. “I don’t know if what all these women are saying is true. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t,” he told Slate.

Buruma, in his telling, is cast in the role of an unrepentant truth-teller, unbeholden to the hysterical mobs that many have warned about—an ideological position that has been seized on not just by Buruma, but by those who question the broad necessity of #MeToo. (This is not a new posture for him—he once described that challenging the “dogma” of “moral policeman” who “preach a catechism of gender and race”—in other words, people who are rightfully calling attention to the ways that white men have remained not only gatekeepers, but the sole arbiters of moral authority for centuries—as “the postmodern version of sin.”) As the accused become victims, time out of the spotlight is framed as banishment, and meanwhile, the consequences meted out remain depressingly uneven.

In the same NYRB issue that features Ghomeshi’s essay is a nuanced and thoughtful piece that has received far less attention. In it, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild seriously engages with the question of masculinity. Towards the end of her piece, she recounts being sent a series of photographs taken by photographer Richard Misrach of penises scrawled on abandoned buildings and stark landscapes throughout the United States. “There were no images of women,” she writes, before describing the photographs as “express[ing] the idea of an organ isolated, castrated, expressing a story all its own.”

Dicks in the wilderness, telling their own stories and pleading for an increasingly vanishing audience, is an apt metaphor for Hockenberry, for Ghomeshi, and for Buruma

Dicks in the wilderness, telling their own stories and pleading for an increasingly vanishing audience, is an apt metaphor for Hockenberry, for Ghomeshi, and for Buruma. It works too for all of the men who are unable to grasp that the terrain on which they once unwaveringly operated has shifted—not enough, but enough that their attempts at restoration in the public eye and misguided comebacks are—finally—beginning to be scrutinized.

Still, I wonder how much time will pass before Buruma writes his own take on his own fall from grace, and who will provide him the platform to do so. There are, as we have seen time and time again, plenty of people who are willing to give these men a second chance. The gatekeepers remain. How long is his fall, and how cushioned will it be once he finally hits the ground?

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