Ousted New York Review of Books editor talks finding 'nuance' in a 'polarized' era

Ian Buruma talks with attendees after a talk with Simon Winchester in New Marlborough on Saturday night. It was the first time Buruma had talked to a U.S. audience after feeling pressured to resign from The New York Review of Books following a backlash over his decision to publish an essay by Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi.

NEW MARLBOROUGH — Ian Buruma, who was ousted as editor of The New York Review of Books last month, said Saturday that there are three choices for those in his position in the midst of a hot-button political movement.

They can avoid the subject all together. They can "join the bandwagon" and take the side of the majority. "Or you can try to find different angles, try to provoke a bit," Buruma told a group of about 60 at the New Marlborough Meeting House on Saturday, "which was what I thought an editor should do."

Buruma's decision to publish an essay in the October issue of the literary magazine by a disgraced Canadian broadcaster who had been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women sparked furor from readers and prompted his departure from the publication.

Speaking for the first time to a U.S. audience since he felt pressured to resign, the 66-year-old writer discussed his career, new book and a political climate he referred to as "polarized." The event was moderated by Simon Winchester, a British-American author and journalist who lives in the Berkshires.

"I took a risk," Buruma said about his decision to publish the essay by Jian Ghomeshi. "I was supported very much by the publisher by The New York Review, until I wasn't."

In the essay by Ghomeshi, who was acquitted of sexual assault charges in 2016, he reflected on his fall from celebrity status to an outcast in a tone that had been criticized as self-pitying.

Buruma faced additional backlash after giving an interview to Slate, in which many found him to appear disinterested in the allegations of violent behavior by Ghomeshi.

The essay is now available on the magazine's website, with an editor's note indicating the article "should have included acknowledgment of the serious nature and number of allegations that had been made against the writer, Jian Ghomeshi."

The magazine also ran dozens of letters to the editor about the essay, including from alleged victims.

New York Review of Books spokesman Nicholas During, who released the initial statement about Buruma's departure, attended the event Saturday but left prior to the reception.

Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist with expertise in post-traumatic stress, referred to himself as a longtime admirer of Buruma's work, but said he was "astonished" by his decision to run Ghomeshi's essay without any alternative view from a victim.

Buruma listened to van der Kolk talk at length about what he deemed a history at the New York Review of Books' lack of sensitivity to victims of crimes, dating back to the Holocaust and series of sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests. He declined to respond.

The essay's purpose was to be thought-provoking, he had said.

Calling the #MeToo movement a "more or less" revolutionary movement, Buruma said that it has gotten "tied up with language."

The job of an editor then becomes to "protect writers from people who are constantly on the lookout for missteps," Buruma said. "Sometimes they are missteps, sometimes they're a departure from orthodoxies."

There is a rising culture where people don't want to learn about the opinions of people they might not agree with, Buruma explained, using an example of psychology students at New York University refusing to read Sigmund Freud because he is a "patriarchal white man."

"#MeToo has very laudable aims," Buruma said. "It would be ridiculous to be against the #MeToo movement,"

But for those who don't agree with 100 percent of any movement in today's climate, they may feel pressured to pick a side, he said.

"If #MeToo goes too far sometimes, you don't really want to join the other side either, the sort of conservative backlash," he said. "For anyone who finds nuance, you find yourself squeezed from both sides."

"I think people are fearful of saying what they think," he said. "Except unacceptable people, like Trump. He's not fearful at all."

At a wine and cheese reception following the discussion, Buruma signed copies of his memoir "A Tokyo Romance," which chronicles his time in Tokyo in 1975. Judith Friedlander, an anthropologist, former dean at several New York colleges, and board member of the New Marlborough Village Association, which hosted the event, said she is "deeply concerned" about a growing fear of engaged debate.

"I am shocked that the New York Review of Books could fire somebody because he published an article that was controversial," she said.

Friedlander is publishing a book in February about the history of the New School, where she was dean.

The college was founded in 1919 by a group of intellectuals who wanted a new model of education where students and faculty would be "free to honestly and directly address the problems facing societies," according to the website.

That form of academic freedom may be threatened in the current climate, she said.

Winchester, a friend of Buruma, described some of what he said in his interview with Slate as "unwise," but disagrees with the push for him to resign.

The New York Review of Books had been revitalized in the 18 months that Buruma had been editor, he said.

"The Review, as a consequence, is probably going to suffer," he said.

Buruma has accepted a job at Bard College in New York, he said Saturday.

Saturday's event was the final of this year's New Marlborough Village Association Music and More Speaker Series. The series was founded by former New York Times Book Review editor Michael Levitas, who also lives in New Marlborough.

"The intellectual vigor of both Simon and Ian was extremely high," Ben Harms, the association's president and Metropolitan Orchestra Musician, said at the reception. "The questions from the audience were also quite stimulating." Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, 413-770-6977.