how things work

For years I’ve said that there’s a wagon-circling function in media that makes criticism of certain connected people appear professionally risky. A lot of people in the media question the accuracy of that criticism, and I fully admit that at times I can be too sensitive to it. But I’m not inventing it, either. Here’s an email in response to my criticism of The New Republic’s Jeet Heer yesterday:


This is pretty much how it goes. It’s not an explicit threat, exactly. It’s just an editor at a big publication who has the ability to trade writing for money – or not – giving vague warnings about my reputation in the industry. It’s a bit of “nice career you got here… Would be a shame if anything happened to it.” And this, essentially, is how it goes down. This is far from the first email I’ve ever received like this.

Incidentally: some will turn around and say that, by printing this email, I’ll be scaring off other publishers, that this is a bit of exposure for the sausage-making process that I’ll pay for. So the circle gets a little tighter. And you know what? Those people are probably right.


  1. What does “some all turn around age” mean? Anyway, I took the Jeet Heer thing to be pointing out the presence of all white males in the fake room smoking as part of what makes it dated, current shows have more women and “of color” types and no smoking and fake living rooms. The fake living rooms with the smoking generally contained all white males. I don’t know anything about Jeet Heer, but reading it cold without context that’s how I’d read it, not necessarily as a statement that white males are themselves “dated.”

  2. I guess I don’t see what was so baffling about Heer’s comment, or why you felt it warranted a blog post.

    He posted a video that’s almost canonically outdated — a bunch of old white guys sitting around a 50s-era living room, smoking and chatting, and he mentioned that when describing the video. What’s the issue there exactly? He’s just pointing out how it’s different from the kind of literary criticism video you’d expect to see today.

    I’m with you on a lot of the language signaling that happens on the left. I just don’t think it’s an example of it. Or if it is, it’s an extraordinarily weak and benign example of it. And yeah, I agree that’s it’s an example of you unnecessarily picking a fight.

    1. Nabokov is only trivially an ‘old white guy’ in the video. I’m not sure how this description sheds any light whatsoever on his life and work.

      Nabokov’s reputation will survive ‘Jeet Heer’ and this minor slight, obviously. But this kind of stuff is indicative of the intellectual poverty of modern progressivism. I’m hoping Freddie posts on the appalling Vox and Guardian articles he posted on Twitter this morning – you can see where this kind of tic inevitably leads.

      1. Speaking of tics that shed no light on anything, putting Jeet Heer’s name in quotes kinda feels like one of ’em. (I get it, though — funny name!)

  3. I’m usually on your side during these things but I think you were slightly off here. I think Mr. Heer was preemptively attempting to prevent his readership from dismissing the substance of the video because of the optics (old white guys in a fake living room); “hey guys, I know this looks like the worst, and don’t worry because I get it, so trust me when I say you should watch it anyway because there is good stuff here!” The fact that he has to reassure the audience this way is more of a condemnation than anything else; I just see him working to make sure his audience won’t dismiss the video.

    1. Right; it might be true that Heer is correctly perceiving the rhetoric motions he needs to make in order for a fairly standard piece of pre-1970 esoterica to get a fair viewing from his audience; but if so, if every invocation of the past must involve the writer making the sign of the cross to protect the reader, then there is simply no way to create a shared culture. There will be those who want to feel a sense of continuity and kinship with the Western past, and those who want to feel at piece with contemporary left-of-center mores, and they will part ways.

      1. “There will be those who want to feel a sense of continuity and kinship with the Western past”

        And they will be called disgusting bigoted racists until they’ve finally had enough of being shamed, and the insults lose all meaning.
        And the insane left will vanish up its own blowhole, like it always does.

    2. Indeed, FdB did something of the sort himself back when we were all ticked about what John Chait said. Freddie’s post on it contained quite a lot of “okay so seriously guys I’m super-liberal and all cool and stuff, totally hate on all those white dudes out there” in an effort to not be Just Another Racist Sayin’ Racist Stuff.

  4. That “I like you,for now” was pretty lame as far as threats go, great person to have as an enemy. Whatever the take on the Heer quote was, it’s main value seems to be as bait for drawing out the hapless Ryan.

    FdB is clearly in the bullshit detecting game and let’s face it, it’s a target rich environment these days. Lol – thanks!

  5. I kinda felt like I understood what Heer was saying: it’s part of the general effort to keep all-male, all-white panels from seeming “normal”, which is something I basically agree with. But Kearney’s threat is some weak-ass bullshit. You deserve massive praise for bringing it into the open.

  6. Just remember this when some right-winger is complaining about the “main stream media”. They might have more of a point then we would like to admit.

  7. I don’t see why Ryan Kearney would be so upset. 99% of people out there would brush off Heer’s remark as “p.c.” whining. Freddie’s post, on the other hand, takes Heer seriously, and is remarkably accommodating and open-minded as it tries to deal constructively with the issues Heer raises.

    P.S. As a novelist, I have to say, the more people talking about books on TV, white male or otherwise, the better!

  8. Nabokov was racist. Modernism was racist. High literary culture is racist.

    Only corporate capitalist-driven pop/trash culture is not racist.

      1. It’s not hard to find people saying that Nabokov’s aesthetics are the child of racial and sexual privilege:

        “All I had going for me was no small thing: I was a white man in a white man’s world. I didn’t ask for the privileges that no doubt came my way; I didn’t need to. I was taught—by parents, by teachers, by TV, by a thousand million subliminal messages, and by who knows how many more indomitable forces—that I was a singular individual, limitless, unshackled, infinitely deserving of investment. I was defined by nothing; circumscribed by nothing; held back by no gender bias or skin color or religious affiliation, by no conspicuous feature. I was America’s son.

        And so when I began to read seriously, I could take freely to Nabokov’s dictum of aesthetic bliss above all else. I wasn’t a political being. I was, of course, a political actor; everyone is. It’s just that the white man in a white man’s world is often blind to all the ways in which he acts.”

        More generally, the idea that cultivated aesthetics are intrinsically an exercise in oppressive power is hardly a fringe idea these days. Google “poptimism” and you get stuff like:

        “Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down genre snobs”
        “As I read Saul Austerlitz’s extended hysterical diatribe against “poptimism,” I almost thought I was reading a parody. After all, who wants to bring back discourses of authenticity/quality/“good music” that privilege white dudes who make mediocre music above women and people of color, who dominate pop music’s landscape?”

  9. The more the will to power is made nakedly prominent by a faction by its increasing reliance on the form of persuasion, the more it invites its opponents to respond in kind: together, the two dance out the abandonment of the pursuit for common ground until they finish at the belief that words, in the end, were just rhetoric in the service of one’s ultimately arbitrary, but instinctual, values.

    The pettiness with which some have developed an eye for “political infection” has the effect of revealing the deep pleasure they take in acquiring power over the very form the past is remembered and how we may speak at present. It suggests less than pure motivations under the language of the purist goals. But it invites those who disagree to respond only with war, since dialogue ends where the answer to every possible question amounts to little more than “because it’s 2016.”

    As I see it, three white guys sitting together and talking about “important stuff” is not outdated and never will be, because it is insane to put that kind of pressure on particular individuals to turn every instantiation of their politically significant lives (i.e., all of them) into “showcases” of “this is how its done” for their spectators. We cannot really demand this from history, nor even from ourselves, even as we aspire to do better than what has been done before.

  10. What kind of perch does he think he’s sitting on, exactly? The New Republic just had its ownership rights show up at a local flea market, right next to the stall with the shuriken necklaces. And this imperious prick thinks he’s in a position to give you a warning glare?

  11. Freddie’s thing w Jeet Heer is beside the point here, which is that Kearney’s email inappropriately sought to leverage the power he has as an editor — or in Kearney’s case, considering he’s the editor of TNR, presumes to have — over a freelance writer. Good for you Freddie for publishing.

    PS: glad to see you open comments again!

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