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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.