Barry Gewen, one of the editors on the staff of The New York Times Book Review, has written a fierce little post on the NYTBR‘s Paper Cuts blog, in which he calls out the famously severe New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier for calling Malcolm Gladwell an “idiot” in a recent column.
“Wieseltier has always enjoyed a good literary brawl, most famously perhaps, with his long takedown years ago of the work and career of Cornel West,” Mr. Gewen writes. “Wieseltier knows how to spew vitriol, and the smoke that rises from the page can be fun for readers to inhale… But in a column Wieseltier did for the March 12 issue of The New Republic, I think he stepped over the line. “
The column Mr. Gewen was referring to was a Washington Diarist about how the vocabulary of pop economics has infected the American consciousness and corrupted our notions of what is good and desirable. Why is it, Mr. Wieseltier asked in his piece, that the highest compliment one can pay a public figure these days is that he or she has become a “brand”? Branding, he wrote, “is actually inimical to the human spirit, an estrangement from it…. the transition from ‘self’ to ‘brand’ is catastrophic.”
He went on to say that “society is surrendering not to economics but to economicism, which is what happens when economics settles where it does not belong. The popularity of Freakonomics and of that idiot Gladwell is evidence of this epidemic error.”
This last bit is what angered Mr. Gewen. “Malcolm Gladwell’s books can certainly be criticized for a superficial and homiletic sheen,” he wrote in his Paper Cuts post, “but their author is anything but an ‘idiot.'” Mr. Gewen wrote that Mr. Wieseltier, in deploying his criticism of Mr. Gladwell in such a cavalier manner, had behaved with no more intellectual integrity than a Rush Limbaugh or a Bill O’Reilly.
“Gladwell hardly needs anyone to defend him,” Mr. Gewen wrote. “He is more than able to do that himself, though he probably could not care less what Leon Wieseltier thinks. But the rest of us should care, not about the attack itself, but about its drive-by, bomb-tossing quality.”
Asked to respond to Mr. Gewen’s post, Mr. Wieseltier wrote in an email, “Barry is right. I’m sorry to have polluted American life in this way. ‘Idiot’ was too general. ‘Cynic’ would have been more precise, since what Gladwell is marketing is nothing but marketing – the marketer’s view of the world. But that view of the word is, I’m afraid, idiotic.”
Reached by phone a few minutes later, Mr. Wieseltier said he didn’t take offense at Mr. Gewen’s criticism in the slightest. “He’s a perfectly serious man,” he said.”
He added: “As a matter of principle, I admire negative criticism, since it is usually a way of defending something positive. American criticism is much too polite and tender and clubbable. If one can back up one’s harshness, one shouldn’t have too much of a conscience about being harsh.”