The New York Review of Books specializes in highbrow think pieces on culture and society and prides itself on being an arbiter of good taste. But in its latest issue, the prestigious magazine veered away from its history of thoughtful and rigorous commentary by publishing an ignorant, pandering essay by Canadian former radio host Jian Ghomeshi.
For those who don’t remember Ghomeshi from his time in the spotlight, he was the popular host of the radio show “Q” who was ignominiously fired in 2014 after three ex-girlfriends accused him of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and punching and choking women without their consent. Ghomeshi, for his part, always maintained that the sex was consensual and claimed he was shamed and dismissed for his “adventurous” sexual preferences. He was acquitted in 2016 after a judge ruled that the complainants had changed their stories, but eventually more than 20 women came forward with accusations.
Now, Ghomeshi has returned to the public eye with an essay titled “Reflections From a Hashtag.” Its purpose, according to the essay, is to “reclaim” and “inject nuance into” his story. It describes the fallout of the allegations and how Ghomeshi has spent the past four years reflecting on his behavior. Though he claims some of the accusations were “inaccurate,” he acknowledges that he was a “player, creep, cad, Lothario” who was dismissive of women and “part of a systemic culture of unhealthy masculinity.” The thrust of the essay can be boiled down to a single line: “We learn from our mistakes.”
But there’s one major issue with this redemption story: It fundamentally minimizes the allegations against Ghomeshi and almost entirely erases his accusers’ experiences. Ghomeshi was never just a “cad” and “Lothario” who enjoyed demeaning women during sex. The allegations run far deeper: While he was never accused of rape, multiple women accused him of violence and assault. A producer on his show, Kathryn Borel, claimed he physically and emotionally harassed her for years while the leadership at the radio station looked the other way. Yet in the essay, Ghomeshi talks about men being “bewildered by gender relations and sexual behaviors” without ever showing that he understood the scale of his alleged misconduct.
So why was Ghomeshi given a platform to reflect on #MeToo when it is clear that he has done very little self-reflecting at all?
In an interview in Slate, Isaac Chotiner pushed NYRB editor Ian Buruma on his decision to publish the piece. Buruma argued that the story of being “a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried” was worth hearing, and said that the specifics of Ghomeshi’s past misconduct were not his “concern.” He clarified that the piece was not meant to be a defense of Ghomeshi’s actions. But the essay, advertised as “Jian Ghomeshi on Jian Ghomeshi” on the magazine’s cover, delivered only the gentlest of mea culpas and obfuscated the nature of his allegedly abusive behavior. That might not count as a defense, but it certainly was a diversion — one that the NYRB editors had a responsibility to correct.
What Buruma and the NYRB leadership failed to grasp was that men like Ghomeshi aren’t entitled to a nicely packaged redemption arc, and readers won’t benefit from having an alleged abuser describe life after being exposed as abusive. At the end of the day, the essay never tackled the tensions brought on by the advent of the #MeToo movement. Instead, it read like a thinly veiled attempt by Ghomeshi to resuscitate his career and relevance. Thankfully, it seems to have failed.
In the process of failure, Ghomeshi’s essay has revealed much about the NYRB, which in 2017 was found to have the “most pronounced gender disparity” in publishing by the women’s literary organization VIDA. At the end of his interview with Chotiner, Buruma was asked whether he would consider running a piece by Harvey Weinstein. Buruma responded, “I don’t think I can answer that question because it is not only a hypothetical but an extremely unlikely event, since he has been accused of rape, which Ghomeshi was never accused of. I think it’s a very different case. … People very quickly conflate cases of criminal behavior with cases that are sometimes murkier and can involve making people feel uncomfortable, verbally or physically, and that really has very little to do with rape or criminal violence.” That answer tells us all we need to know about how little Buruma and the NYRB leadership have learned from the #MeToo movement — almost as little as Ghomeshi did in all his years of “reflection.”