Yikes, Paul Berman writes terrible porn:
I think that anyone who sits down to read the Wieseltier decades of critical reviews in The New Republic will notice that at some mysterious philosophical level a great many of those hundreds of essays seem to cohere. It is not because they display a particular ideological bent or follow a political line. Something deeper is at work, which I do not know how to describe. (It is a task for a philosopher-historian.) I note a nearly uniform predisposition against the doctrines of determinism, whether they be scientific or economic or identity-political. There has always been, in any case, an intellectual ardor, as if the entire “back of the book” were asmolder with passion—a passion for the creative labors of certain species of writers and artists and thinkers. For the uncorruptible ones, for the ones-of-a-kind, for the people who are allergic to fads and factions and the stratagems of self-advancement. Perhaps the entire section has been animated by the belief, keen and insistent and unstated, that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people. This is not the sort of belief that researchers will declare one day to be scientifically confirmed. But it has the advantage of generating a hot-blooded criticism—occasionally cruel or trigger-happy, but always intense, which means thrilling.
Look, I think the New Republic circa 2014 was a very fine magazine, and I’ve also said many times that Wieseltier’s back-of-the-book was generally good and useful even when the political content of the magazine was dubious-to-actively-pernicious. But this kind of purple-prosed overselling of its virtues tempts me to join with the critics happy to celebrate at the funeral. It was a well-edited book review section that good work out of a lot of good writers and critics, as well as its share of misfires (it was TNR that briefly loosed Lee Siegel on to the wider world, let us remember.) That’s far from a negligible virtue, but let’s calm down with the “asmolder with passion” and “intellectual ardor” and “ones-of-a-kind,” shall we?
Or perhaps I should have started with “humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people” instead, because it reminds us how and why Berman permanently destroyed his reputation by falling for one of the most transparent and destructive cons in known human history. For public intellectuals like Berman and Hitchens and Ignatieff support for the Iraq catastrophe was above all a form of self-aggrandizement; as
FDR and Churchill Bush and Blair were saving us from the new Nazis overruling Europe, the hacks that supported them believed themselves to be the new Orwells. As it turns out, a strong belief that the fate of the world rests in your hands tends to be highly inconsistent with clear thinking, with ghastly results.
And then there’s this:
There is also the fact that, if you were to print out a roster of critics who contributed notable essays over the years to The New Republic’s back of the book, the roster would differ significantly from what you may have been led to expect by the accusations of racial or male exclusivity that have just now been tossed at the magazine. But discoveries and diversities do not sum up the achievement.
The first thing you’ll note is that this rebuttal to serious charges about a lack of diversity remains at the level of a bare assertion; he can’t even be bothered to rustle up some random examples. (In terms of brilliant stuff TNR’s culture section has published by women, I can give him a head start: try Adelle Waldman on Revolutionary Road, Ruth Franklin on Freedom, Martha Nussbaum on Harvey Mansfield, Deborah Friedell on Neal Stephenson.) But this is an empirical question, and as it happens in 2013 4 out of 59 bylines in the book review were female, in 2012 it was 9 out of 88, and in 2011 it was 11 out 82. This stands out even among the dismal standards of the industry — the gender diversity of the TNR back-of-the-book was terrible and actually getting worse, although Franklin has been one of the writers most responsible for bringing attention to the problem. And if the book review has a better record than the front-of-the-book in terms of racial diversity, that would be because it would be nearly impossible to be worse. Berman’s casual hand-waving away of the problem illustrates why it persists.