The New York Review (of Books) is one of the best periodicals I have ever read. It is up there with the long lost “American Film” and “Musician” magazines, couriers of superlative, thoughtful, original journalism unlike almost everything else out there. Liked “Wired” for it’s first year before it immediately declined into commercial crap gadget marketing manual. Or Byte Magazine before it got bought out and destroyed.
No– it is better than all of them ever were.
But in the past few years, a couple of missteps. First, Editor Ian Buruma is fired because he had the shameless audacity to allow Jian Ghomeshi to defend himself after the women who charged him with abusive behavior were caught lying to the police and to the judge at his trial. I repeat, for emphasis: the women who charged him with abuse and assault lied to the police, to the crown attorneys, and the judge. The evidence of this was indisputable. All of the charges were, as a result, dismissed.
But Mr. Buruma’s publisher decided that the lies did not matter. The fact that some women made the charge against Ghomeshi is sufficient to determine his guilt. Women never lie. And if they do, the men they lie about are still guilty, because they are men.
And so we get to a deeply regrettable review by Joyce Carol Oates in the February 11, 2021 issue of New York Review, “Chronicle of a Death Ignored”. Ms. Oates is discussing a book by Becky Cooper, “We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence”, about the murder of a Harvard graduate student, Jane Britton, in January, 1969. Becky Cooper– to Ms. Oates pleasure– writes mostly, really, about herself, how she connected to the story, how she felt about it, and how important it is for us to know all about her.
She also spends considerable time and effort to condemn Harvard University for not finding the killer among their abusive or “callow” professors for surely they were– as men– abusive or callow or both– and must certainly answer for Ms. Britton’s murder. But Becky Cooper is on to them: she confronts them with courage and conviction and persistence and forces them to admit that they are abusive and callow.
She is selective, of course. Some students felt that Jane was in an abusive relationship with a professor at the time. That must surely be true. Jane’s brother thought she was promiscuous, a drug abuser, and “a bitch”. That must surely be false, since it came from a man.
There is a development that is incredibly inconvenient for Cooper, which explains the odd first three paragraphs of Oates’ review. Cooper has developed her entire project around the assumption that it was a Harvard professor, most likely Professor Lamberg-Karlovsky, who raped and murdered Britton. Thus she is shocked and horrified that Harvard University actively provided legal support to Lamberg-Karlovsky and others. So, having spent 10 years developing this thesis and marshalling all your rhetorical energy to condemn the Harvard patriarchy, what do you do when the murderer turns out to be someone who had absolutely nothing to do with Harvard University? Well, Oates would have you believe that there is some kind of essential, magical truth that makes Cooper’s narrative “a brilliantly idiosyncratic variant of generic true crime, rather more a memoir than a conventional work of reportage”. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Harvard was indeed “silent”: but there was nothing to hide or disclose. It didn’t know who murdered Jane Britton and, as it turns out, there was no reason to think it should have known. Harvard didn’t “ignore” the death. It’s just that Ms. Cooper and Ms. Oates think the Harvard patriarchy is complicit in some way regardless of the facts.
And they are not personally satisfied with the grandiosity of Harvard’s response, as if Harvard owed it to them, as women, to scale it all up.
Well, as in the case of Ghomeshi, it is sufficient to make the charge. How dare they defend themselves! If a woman says you did something wrong, you did something wrong, whether you did it or not.