I’ve been thinking about power and influence this week.
I was right!
Readers who have been with the newsletter for a while may recall a post from last year in which I lamented a couple of examples of what looked like pairings at the New York Times Book Review of books and reviewers designed to deliberately advance a particular political agenda.
While I personally disagree with that agenda, I was less troubled by its presentation, than the lack of transparency around its presentation. The Book Review is hugely influential, viewed by many as a kind of - if not necessarily neutral, at least fair - arbiter of both quality and culture.
One of the pairings was the book Trans by Helen Joyce with the reviewer, Jesse Singal.
At the time, I thought even the choice to review the book in the most prominent books publication in the country was odd, given that it was written primarily for a British audience arguing within the controversy around trans rights in the UK and movement of TERFs, (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), which believes recognizing trans women as women is a diminishment of what they call “biological women.” Up to this point, this argument has been much more prominent in the UK, but it is now gaining traction in the U.S.
The choice of Singal as a reviewer was a virtual guarantee of a sympathetic hearing for Joyce’s case. Singal and Joyce were (by Singal’s acknowledgement) friendly acquaintances who has previously shared their perspectives on trans issues. While Singal positions himself as a neutral reporter on trans issues (as well as other things), without discussing the merits of his work, it is undeniably true that the much of the trans community views Singal as anti-trans.
The obvious, but unstated rationale for this pairing is to provide a sympathetic hearing and platform to Joyce’s message.
My chief objection was that this rationale was not transparent to the reader, and that the imprimatur of the New York Times as a fair arbiter was being used and abused to further a partisan agenda without revealing that agenda.
At the time the review ran, Pamela Paul was in charge of the Book Review. I did not know much about Paul other than she’d written a couple of books, had once been married to the brutally terrible Times opinion writer Bret Stephens, and was a generally uninspired helmer of books coverage. The New York Times Book Review is far too established for anyone to run it onto the shoals and break it into pieces, but under Paul’s tenure whatever good came out of the section was largely due to the staff reviewers, many of whom were there prior to her tenure.
After leaving the editorship, Paul was named an opinion columnist for the paper, and all I can say about her early efforts is…woof. Her young tenure reached a nadir with this week’s column headlined, “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count.”
It is a column of connect the dots writing out of the well-thumbed TERF playbook that will go down in the annals of false equivalency.
Somehow, Paul manages to draw a connection (and equivalence) between a radical, right wing Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade and the relatively small number of activists and academics that advocate for trans rights in ways she finds troubling. Again, I never object to anyone expressing their individual point of view, but as an argument, it is absurd, resting on a flimsy premise, and relying on (as it turns out) non-existent evidence.
As always, I’m a fan of people drawing their own conclusions, so in addition to reading Paul’s piece (linked above), I recommend the work of Parker Molloy at her newsletter. “The Present Age,” writing a counterpoint to Paul’s claims.
If nothing else, Paul’s column confirms the agenda she was prosecuting as editor of the Book Review in assigning Trans to Singal. I actually prefer that she’s now a columnist expressing these views in a transparent and open manner. It’s a much more respectful stance towards the reading audience.
What does this have to do with power and influence?
As a columnist, Pamela Paul possesses influence. As an editor, she was exerting power.
Writers, artists, commentators, creators, etc…all exert influence on the culture. Consider Elvis, or The Beatles, and the way that they shaped the attitudes of America’s youth entirely through their performance and presentation.
We could perhaps argue that some figures become so influential they possess a kind of power, but there is a marked difference between people influencing culture through the work and their words, and what happens once they seize control of actual levers of power.
As an illustration, consider the difference between Donald Trump as ex-President (noisy buffoon who influences Republican primaries), versus Donald Trump as President (existential danger to the country).
Influence involves a generally transparent process of putting something (ideas, music, art, etc…) into the culture and seeing if it will take root and grow. For sure, someone with a column at the New York Times has a greater opportunity to be influential than someone tapping away in his independent Substack newsletter (ahem), but Pamela Paul and I are both employing the same essential mechanism, trying to shape the attitudes and beliefs of the people who read us.
But I would argue that Paul’s position as editor in which she controlled access to an important institution like the New York Times Book Review was one in which she exerted a kind of power over the U.S. book industry.
And judging from some of the Twitter chatter about Paul, she was possibly doing so in a rather capricious way, with reports of her apparently refusing to review books by writers who criticized her eminently criticizable ex-husband on Twitter, and even requiring edits on a review to make it less obviously pro-trans rights.
The broader criticism of Paul among writers and editors on Twitter has been sort of remarkable, and it was interesting given that it reflects longstanding complaints about her editorship, but were also not publicly aired when she was editor for fear of torpedoing one’s chance at coverage in the Book Review.
The petty tyranny of Paul’s editorship was apparently an open secret, but the power she held kept it largely secret indeed.
Stripped of that power and relying only on her ability to influence, Paul primarily writes on topics and in ways that curry favor with a particularly privileged class of folks, a move to maintain her influence by telling the powerful what they like to hear.
I was under the impression that Paul’s move to columnist was a promotion, but writing at his “Indignity” newsletter, Tom Scocca lays out the long history of the Times moving people out of positions they don’t necessarily want to fire by giving them the fig leaf of a column.
Scocca’s assessment of Paul as a columnist is perhaps as damning as it comes, that everything Paul has to say “had been previously expressed by someone else.”
Don’t mistake influence for power
Like a lot of other people, I think we’re in a very dangerous moment where reactionary forces have responded to cultural change brought about through gradual influence by seizing power, often in un-democratic ways.
The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade is the most prominent example, but it is far from the only one. Another decision in the same term, Carson v. Makin, essentially legalized prayer (actually Christian prayer) as part of sanctioned (even coerced) school activities, in clear disregard for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Virtually the entire Republican Party refuses to acknowledge what has become the obvious truth, that Donald Trump conspired to reverse the results of the 2020 election.
In Florida, educators are already preemptively pulling resources and lessons related to Civil Rights for fear of running afoul of recently passed legislation. Librarians across America are being accused of promoting pedophilia for the apparent sin of making books available to young people who want to read them.
The moral panics around race, sexuality, and gender identity, largely stoked by admitted propagandist Christopher Rufo, who is in the employ of a right wing think tank, are not sincere expressions of belief meant to influence the culture, but crude attempts at inflaming passions just long enough to seize tangible power. For example, in Oklahoma, after the passage of an “anti-CRT law,” a single complaint has triggered a state-level investigation of the entire Tulsa Public School system. This law will be used to punish the Black citizens of Oklahoma under a pretense of justice. It’s perverse.
Once power is seized by those who do not believe in democratic ideals, there is no amount of influence that can reverse course. Wisconsin is largely no longer a democracy as an extreme gerrymander has left Republicans with an unassailable electoral advantage in the legislature. A 50/50 vote would result in 63 of 99 seats being held by Republicans. This gerrymandered legislature, out of step with the majority sentiments of the citizens has been resolutely stripping Governor Tony Evers of power formerly invested in the executive branch.
This is what makes the false equivalence of Pamela Paul’s op-ed so distressing. Even if you share her view that only what she would call “biological females” should be considered “women” (I do not share this view), she is casting activists on the left who have no tools other than persuasion and influence, with an authoritarian right that is now using governmental power to strip LGBTQ citizens of their civil rights.
I don’t know what else to say other than it’s wrong, it’s gross, it’s un-American, and by all accounts the authoritarian movement is only going to get worse.
Isn’t this newsletter supposed to be about books?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is one of my all-time favorite novels, and among other things it is as disturbing a portrait of how influence can shift into power, and in turn destroy lives, as you will ever read. The novel is told through paired stories, one in the present, one in the past, both narrated by Olympia “Oly” Benewski, one of the children of Al and Crystal Lil Benewski who exposed Crystal Lil to radioactive isotopes during pregnancy in order to create children with extreme mutations in order to stock their traveling circus “freak show.”
One of the children is Arturo (Arty) the “Aqua Boy,” who was born with flippers instead of hands and feet. Over the course of the story thread set in the past, we see Arty start a cult in which he convinces members to, bit-by-bit, amputate body parts so that they can achieve “PIP” (Peace. Isolation. Purity), that he claims to have achieved for himself.
Ultimately, the plot turns on who or what will stop Arty, and we see how difficult it is to reverse this kind of tide.
It is a truly chilling presentation that makes this kind of abnegation of the self, and rejection of good sense all too plausible.
It also illustrates that once influence has tipped over into actual power, no amount of reverse influence will change the trajectory of events.
I think we’re at a similar point in the nation’s history.
My Chicago Tribune column two weeks ago (during my absence here) was about how enjoyable it was (some of the time) to pack up my books for moving, giving me a chance to reconnect to some old friends. This week I wrote about how publishing has for sure made progress in publishing more diverse voices, but that this progress is also no guarantee of more progress in the future.
This is a must-read from the Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli, a conversation with Chicago-born writer and one of our very best cultural critics, Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland.
Here’s some good news: more than 300 new independent bookstores have opened in the last couple of years as readers crave the kind of interaction and expertise that real-live book people can provide. I feel this very profoundly, as with our recent move, Mrs. Biblioracle and I are now an extra 25 minutes away from my preferred bookstore, The Village Bookseller, but I can’t imagine buying books anywhere else.
Over at LitHub, 13 independent booksellers recommend summer beach reads, including a recommendation for Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories, which does not strike me as a prototypical beach read, which is shows how independent, free-thinking booksellers can expand our perceptions.
Here’s an example of an inventive new series at the New York Times Book Review, instituted after Pamela Paul was moved out, different authors recommending books to help you “read through” a city. In this installment, it’s Daniel Kehlmann, author of Tyll, exploring Berlin.
NPR has released its “Books We Love” for the first half of 2022, and all told, it’s more than 160 books long, which tells you something about the sheer scope of what’s published and what different readers respond to.
1. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
2. The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
3. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
4. The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
5. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Beili W. - Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA
Packing for our move brought me closer to some books I’ve forgotten about. One of those is The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard, which is an emotionally tough read, but I'm hoping it’s a good fit for Beili.
Well, moving was not a whole lot of fun, but it’s over, and really, having the time and resources to move is a pretty significant privilege, so you will hear no more complaints from me. I’m pleased to be at my desk in my new location on a Sunday morning, wondering how everyone else is doing today.
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Thanks, as always, to the readers of the world, and the readers of this newsletter.
I actually hesitate to spell out Singal’s name because he is unbelievably sensitive and manages to bring an army of some of the worst people on social media along with him when he responds to others who are critical of his work, inevitably claiming to be misrepresented and misunderstood.
Singal calls this “a smear,” and I have seen times where it seems like he has been unjustly accused of promoting anti-trans positions, but it is indisputable that his work finds favor with the most overt of anti-trans bigots.
Excellent writing. I learned so much from this column. Thank you. Keep up the good work.
I recently finished Nevada by Imogen Binnie and am still thinking about it. Quite an eye-opening and breathtaking journey with richly textured and authentic voices. I found myself really trying to listen to the characters and learn more about what it feels like to be transgender and navigate any number of paths forward in this world. A humbling, rewarding, hopeful read.