Jewish World Review June 15, 2005 / 8 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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I hate that (the rise of identity journalism)

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | From time to time someone will suggest that we add a particular columnist to the opinion section at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — not because he's a great writer or she's got some interesting ideas, but because the paper needs someone who'll represent a certain race or class or age group. Or, as I've heard it gratingly put, a certain . . . demographic.

You've heard of identity politics, the theory that we're just extensions of our group? Well, there's also an identity journalism, in which newspapers are supposed to shop around for an Hispanic columnist or a female commentator or a red-headed stepchild or whatever identity it takes to make the paper's stable of opinionators faithfully reflect the U.S. Census.

The object is to achieve Diversity — not a diversity of thought or style or ideas but the capital-D, skin-deep kind that has become a shibboleth, cult and rather profitable industry in these superficial times.

And I hate it.

Because this kind of Diversity views the individual as only a reflection of a race or class or creed or sex — excuse me, gender — or whatever category is being emphasized at the moment. Such an approach not only demeans the writer but writing itself, as though it were just a product of socioeconomic circumstances, not the result of independent thought.

Identity journalism takes no account of an individual's talent — or diligence or inspiration or education or experience or anything else that might go into the making of a commentator. At its root is the assumption that we can classify writers (or anyone else) by outward appearance, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Nothing they may actually think or say matters. They're stamped, labeled, pigeonholed and dismissed without further ado. It's unjust, of course, but it's also unrealistic. It doesn't account, to cite just one example, for someone like Eric Hoffer, a member of the longshoreman's union who became a conservative guru a few decades back, and whose collection of essays, "The True Believer," is still worth reading. Even studying.


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All of which brings me to my favorite magazine. The New Criterion is one of those little magazines full of great ideas. It began when Hilton Kramer, an art critic for The New York Times, realized he would have to choose between being an art critic, at least in a serious way, and The New York Times.

Luckily for readers, he chose to go his own thoughtful way, and what began as a critical review basically of the arts has become a critical review of the culture in general, or at least what passes for it in this our new Rome.

My favorite writer for my favorite magazine is a prison doctor who is also one of the remaining practitioners of simple English prose, which is no simple art at all. (Maybe it helps to come into daily contact with such a wide variety of characters.)

Theodore Dalrymple, M.D., devotes his article in the current issue to a literary scandal that wasn't one. It seems that in the 1980s a feminist publishing house, Virago Press, put out a book ("Down the Road, Worlds Away") by one Rahila Khan. In a series of short stories, she told about the lives of Muslim girls and white working-class boys who are thrown together in a certain kind of hardscrabble English neighborhood. It sounds like a finely written, sensitive book.

So? Well, it turns out that Rahila Khan was the pen name of the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar who was reared in just such unlovely surroundings in the cities of the English Midlands, and so knew what he was writing about.

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The professional feminists were not pleased. And when Virago Press found out the author's identity, its literary judgment of his/her work ("hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity") no longer mattered. He was the wrong sex. Virago Press destroyed all copies of the book it had on hand (thus making the remaining ones quite valuable), and demanded that he return his advance and pay the printing costs.

I'm glad to say that the Reverend Forward has done nothing of the kind. Indeed, his story would make any sensible observer ask just whose conduct is scandalous here. Why didn't the vicar submit the stories under his own name? Well, he'd already had some experience along those lines. When the Rev. Toby Forward sent the stories about working-class boys to the BBC, he got a less than polite brush-off. When he submitted the stories about the girls as the work of Rahila Khan, the response was warm and encouraging. Lesson learned.

Theodore Dalrymple tells the whole, all too revealing story in the May 2005 issue of The New Criterion. He quotes a response to the "scandal" from a professor of Feminine Studies. Its typically humorless, incoherent prose reads like a parody of deconstructionist dizziness. Unfortunately, it isn't intended as such. You'll laugh, or maybe just utter a slow, sad sigh when you realize how familiar this form of literary fraud has become.

Identity politics, identity journalism, identity literature, they're all branches of the same, blinkered identity mentality. And I hate it.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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