Leon Wieseltier: “I don’t believe that civility or tenderness is a primary intellectual virtue”

An interview with New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, winner of the US$1m Dan David Prize, on critical standards in a technological age, slowing the march of Big Data and Barack Obama's moral vanity.

On Sunday 9 June Leon Wieseltier will be presented with the Dan David Prize at Tel Aviv University. The New Republic literary editor will join French philosopher Michel Serres and MIT economist Esther Duflo in receiving awards worth US$1m for their “outstanding contribution to humanity”. The prize, conferred annually since 2002, emphasises interdisciplinary research and aims to “foster university values of excellence, creativity, justice, democracy and progress”.

A little biography: Wieseltier was born in Brooklyn in 1952. After studying philosophy, literature and art history at universities in Britain and the US, he was made a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He has been literary editor at the New Republic since 1983. His books include Nuclear War, Nuclear Peace (1983), Against Identity (1996) and Kaddish (1998) - part-memoir, part-cultural history, in which the writer traces the history of the Jewish prayer for the dead after losing his father. He also translates modern Hebrew poetry into English and appeared briefly in The Sopranos.

According to the Dan David board, Wieseltier is being honoured for “setting the standard for serious cultural discussion in the United States”. He laughed when I read this aloud to him: “It’s a terrible responsibility to bear…”. I asked whether he believed the award implied a degree of anxiety about declining standards, the influence of technology upon the humanities (he remains involved “at the level of a layman – perhaps a little less than that”), the condition of criticism and the sheer noisiness of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier: The cultural debate in America usually happens at quite a low level, and there isn’t that much of it, but right now it’s never been noisier. The new technology is ideal for generating noise, and I think there’s also a lot of – how shall I put this - worthless praise and empty friendliness out there. Every once in a while somebody has to come in and say something that may seem negative but nonetheless has the effect of making things a little stricter.

There are rules of engagement, are there not, where serious criticism is concerned?

People often accuse me of publishing or writing negative criticism, but I actually believe in negative criticism. When I write an article that seems to be an attack on a book or on a figure, my view is that I’m not attacking something, I’m defending something that has already been attacked. I don’t write ad hominem pieces, I’m not that sort of journalist (I’m not really a journalist at all), but I do believe that when one sees something that one values traduced in some way, the response should be forceful. There are stakes and sometimes the stakes are quite high. It’s not always a matter of life or death, but still, the quality of the culture in which one lives really matters.

There’s an award, the Hatchet Job of the Year, that sees itself in those terms – as a defence rather than an attack.

I’m against gratuitous cruelty in criticism but I don’t believe that civility or tenderness is a primary intellectual virtue, especially on important subjects. If one is in the business of what used to be called “the battle of ideas” one should thicken one’s skin.

Next year the New Republic will turn 100. You’ve been literary editor there for 30 years, and must have seen some big changes, particularly over the last few months. How has the magazine changed?

It’s changed in all sorts of ways in its external characteristics – physically, in the frequency of its publication and of course in the addition of a website and so on. In its internal characteristics – its essential characteristics – there’s been an extraordinary level of continuity. The discontinuities have never wildly outweighed the continuities so that it became unrecognisable. Quite the contrary. One of my roles there is to worry about this and work towards a high degree of continuity. We have a very different look right now visually, but we are still unmistakeably the New Republic, which is a wonderful thing.

My view of the digital revolution and what it’s doing to publishing and journalism is this: just because there are new bottles, it doesn’t mean the old wine was bad. Even at the very beginning of the internet period there was this idea that the medium would change the message and the form would have to be the content. It had to be quick and fast. I think things are calming down a little bit now. I think the first period of internet history – the dizzy, inebriated period – is ending, which is good. But as I say, I think that the challenge for us is to get ideas that are delivered at a high level of intellectual literary quality and to get them onto the new technology. Not to alter what we do because people have no patience anymore.

One could easily be forgiven for getting lost amid all the information, losing track of the value of any of it.

It’s the greatest single assault on human attention ever devised. It’s going to effect everything for better or worse. It’s a huge subject. I write about it sometimes. I certainly worry about it a lot.

You recently focussed on the limits of Big Data, and the “datafication” – ugly word…

It’s OK you can put it in quotes.

…of subjectivity. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier write confidently about Twitter's capacity to act as a kind of barometer of sentiment. It reminded me of that Emerson quote: “Life is what a man is thinking of all day”. I couldn’t help but think it really isn’t what a person is tweeting. Mind and Twitter will never converge. There is data and there is the human activity of contextualising and understanding and emoting and processing things. They are distinct.

I think two things about that: one, you’re right when you speak about Twitter as a barometer. Unfortunately, a great many people are now busy looking at the barometer once every five minutes. Imagine if you did that about the actual weather! The distinction between information and knowledge is the central point. I think that there are two things which differentiate information from knowledge – one is time and the other is method. The computer reduces all knowledge to the status of information. You can go online and you can Google my security number, you can Google God’s existence, but essentially they're the same type of request.

I don’t know how things are in the States, but here, “global competition” is being used almost as an excuse to reduce those areas of learning that are seen as in any way inefficient.

Oh yes, the attitude towards knowledge now is highly instrumental and highly pragmatic. Those are the values that are generated by a technological culture. There’s no question about that. Sometimes the things that most change one’s life or comfort one in times of sore need or enable one to help other people are the kinds of knowledge that are in some sense useless.

You have written about the “emotional efficiency” of the American response to the Boston Bombings. This story rolled on for weeks in the States, while in Britain it fizzled out after a few days – does this imply a greater trauma than the refusal to appear moved by terrorism implies?

Don’t be fooled. Efficiency in motion is in some ways an American value – in others you’d think that wallowing in emotion was more of an American trait, except of course wallowing in emotion is never really experiencing emotion – and yet the efficiency of emotion was in fact an expression of fear. Terrorism works. It scares people. I didn’t follow the British coverage of the American events but of course England has had more experience of this than the United States has had in terms of terrorism in the homeland. The United States is freakishly insulated by history, geography, culture. When these things happen they are especially startling, but Americans like to move on. To achieve “closure”. When all the stuff about the brothers emerged it felt like it was time to hold a memorial service. But they’d already held it – Obama spoke.

The way the mechanism springs into action as if it’s been pre-planned leaves even less room for reflection.

Speed is the central quality of technology. It’s about the acceleration of things, including the inner life, and you saw that in the response to Boston. What one has to do, not just as a writer or as a thinker but even in one’s own life, is look for those experiences that allow one to de-accelerate. In other words, to find those things that cannot be sped up and cherish them more.

You have spoken a great deal about Syria, which has been a case of analysis and hesitance rather than expediency. It is a daily horror show, and has been for soon time. After the attacks in Boston people in Britain were keen to point out what was happening around the world – in Iraq, for example, or Syria, on the same day – where death tolls were much far than in the United States. Where are you now on Syria?

I’m still for western intervention. I still think we have to build up a force that will be friendly to the west after Assad is gone. A political force that will owe us something and will fight the jihadists. It’s not too late to deny Al-Qaeda a government in Damascus. It isn’t too late to stem the tide of refugees. It’s a huge problem. Even on humanitarian grounds, I don’t think the west should sit back and watch a dictator rain scud missiles on civilians or use chemical weapons. In foreign policy there are such things as moral emergencies that require rapid deployment, and as I understand Syria’s not the only moral emergency. I never understood the argument that because we can’t act in one place we shouldn’t act in any. It’s late though, our options would have been better two years, or even one year previously.

And waiting is not a neutral action.

That’s exactly right. It’s been more than two years. It was quite a lot more than two years in Bosnia before the United States and the west decided to take action. One keeps at it, but it is not the job of the President of the United States to bear witness to anything. You and I have to bear witness to things because we don’t have the power to actually affect them, but there are people in the world, starting with the President of the United States, who can pick up the phone and actually alter the situation. It’s grotesque. Obama’s indecisiveness and the disconnection between his lofty moral rhetoric and his actual behaviour is the central feature of his foreign policy.

There are example from recent history of course – Bill Clinton famously spoke of his regrets over the Rwandan genocide. Will Obama speak similarly about Syria?

I don’t think so. Obama’s moral vanity is so large I don’t think he’ll ever apologise. I thought Clinton’s apology on Rwanda was a little cheap – that’s easy enough, I’ve apologised – but no, Obama’s bearing witness. It’s the strangest thing. The most powerful man in the world has decided for reasons I don’t entirely understand to be genuinely passive about the most important challenges.

“We have to look for those experiences that allow one to de-accelerate. To find those things that cannot be sped up, and cherish them more”. Leon Wieseltier in his office. Photograph: Books Kraft.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge