I’ve been enjoyed Bruce Bawer’s essays on politics and culture for nearly 30 years, so I’ve been troubled over the last few weeks by the way his name has become entangled with that of the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
Bawer has had a fascinating career: he’s a gay writer who made his name in some extremely homophobic magazines, an avowed Christian has sought to reconcile his sexuality with his faith, a literary essayist who is also a formidable political polemist, and an American expatriate who has become a central figure in Europe’s burgeoning anti-immigration movement.
I first came across Bawer’s byline in the very early days of The New Criterion, circa 1983 or 1984. He was a fledgling book reviewer but wrote with great confidence about poets and novelists like Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bishop and John Hawkes. I was particularly impressed (in fact overjoyed) by the fact that he very convincingly analyzed a particularly thorny fiction collection by Guy Davenport, a great favorite of mine but also not a very easy writer to decipher.
I’m not alone in admiring Bawer as a literary critic. A friend of mine who is a superb poet still remembers with delight an essay Bawer wrote about Helen Vendler that appeared in the Hudson Review in 1989.
Later Bawer took up film reviewing for The American Spectator. His reviews were by far the best thing in that magazine, which is perhaps a slightly insulting way of putting it since much of that journal was given over to right-wing frat boy humor of the “Nuke the Whales” variety. In retrospect it is interesting that almost all the good prose in the American Spectator in the 1980s and early 1990s came from closeted (or semi-closeted) gay men. Aside from Bawer there was Thomas Mallon (who would make a distinguished name for himself as a novelist) and David Brock (whose journalistic exposes were obnoxious but at least written in readable prose, unlike much of the rest of the magazine which tended to feature pale pastiches of H.L. Mencken).
As can be guessed by Bawer’s affiliation with The New Criterion and The American Spectator, he was then a man of the right. But he never seemed comfortable in that role. One obvious reason for this discomfort was sexual politics. Bawer would start explicitly writing as a gay man in the 1990s and both The New Criterion and The American Spectator had their fair share of homophobic content.
One notably example is worth recalling: P.J. O’Rourke’s 1986 article “Manhattan Swish” from The American Spectator which contained such insights as this: “The rights of inverts are debatable. A school board may feel it has good reason to not want a lesbian girl’s gym teacher….Some people believe (and the first amendment allows them to do so) that homosexuality is a horrid transgression of God’s plan. Do these people have to live and work with a man whose activities they detest?….Their prejudice is, no doubt, as foolish as any other prejudice, but there is a difference. A black man is not free to be white, but a sodomist is free not to sodomize.” O’Rourke has a reputation in some circles of being a wit but again I don’t think Mencken’s ghost needs to tremble and quiver in the face of such competition. For a while, Bawer showed a surprising forbearance by being willing to share the pages of a magazine that printed rubbish like this but to his credit he became increasingly uncomfortable with the homophobia of his fellow conservatives.
But aside from the sexual politics, although not unconnected with it, was the simple fact that Bawer was much more cosmopolitan than his conservative peers. To be sure, he could often mouth mindless neo-con catchphrases. He was quick to condemn any artist that offered a satirical view of contemporary life as being “anti-American” or “anti-Western”. But such lapses were offset by his evident learning and curiosity which took him far off the political reservation.
In the 1990s, as he came out of the closet as a writer and grappled with his Christianity, Bawer started writing with even greater confidence and verve. To be sure, he still remained far too conservative for my taste. I didn’t like his habit of snidely dismissing gay radicals, the peoples whose bravery going back several decades made it possible for Bawer to enjoy the sexual freedom of the contemporary era. This tendency to mock earlier writers like Allen Ginsberg seemed ungrateful and childish, like a trust-fund kid who mocks the hard work of his parents and grandparents.
Still, as an openly gay Christian conservative, Bawer was able to bring a message of tolerance to many readers that would otherwise be unreceptive. Along with Andrew Sullivan, Bawer has been crucial in spreading the message of gay rights to the American political conservative movement. Bawer’s 1993 book A Place at the Table remains a compelling argument for sexual freedom all the more compelling because it is grounded in essentially conservative arguments.
This strong conservative streak in Bawer’s thinking was part of his appeal to me. As a social democrat, I’m leery of only reading left-wing writers lest I fall into confirmation bias, so I’m always looking for intelligent conservatives who can challenge my pre-established ideas and force me to make better arguments. John Stuart Mill used to read the arch-reactionary Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the same reasons. Along with Andrew Coyne and David Frum, Bawer has long been my favorite right-wing foil.
Bawer’s political evolution took another turn after he moved to Europe in 1999 and after the events of 9/11. Suddenly, rather like Christopher Hitchens and Mark Steyn, Bawer became an instant expert on radical Islam, quick to issue warnings about how the Muslim hordes were destroying the West. I have to say, this particular development didn’t impress me at all. Unlike his writings on Christianity, Bawer was clearly out of his depths when writing on Islam and his work was marked by a nasty xenophobic tendency to lump all Muslims into one category and to deny any gradations to the Muslim experience. This stands in sharp contrast to Bawer’s writings on Christianity, where he often tries to distinguish between what he sees as the true loving heart of the faith (liberal Christianity) from various pharisaical pretenders.
On July 22 2011, as everyone knows, the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik went on a killing spree in Norway, targeting those associated with the Norwegian Labour Party, which he thought was destroying Norway by letting in Muslim immigrants. In his manifesto Breivik cited numerous sources for his thinking including Mark Steyn, Geert Wilders, Theodore Dalrymple, Robert Spencer and Bruce Bawer.
On finding himself on Breivik’s reading list, Bruce Bawer should have simply written a note saying, “I’m horrified that this evil man has linked himself to my work, but no author can be responsible for how his words are used. Mr. Breivik’s actions are his own.”
Instead Bawer has penned two very disturbing responses. On the website Pajamas Media he listed off the faults of Norwegian society. And then he wrote the article “Inside the Mind of the Oslo Murderer” which appeared on July 25th in the Wall Street Journal.
In this article Bawer writes that Breivik is “highly intelligent and very well read in European history and the history of modern ideas” and has “legitimate concerns with genuine problems” about the Islamification of Europe but of course Breivik’s methods are beyond the pale. Breivik is guilty of offering an “unspeakably evil solution” to those “genuine problems”.
Having waded my way through Breivik’s turgid and verbose Manifesto, I’d dispute the idea that we are dealing with an intelligent man. It’s true that Breivik was a voracious reader of Anglo-American right-wing journalism and he could expertly regurgitate standard talking points about the evils Eurabia, feminism, multiculturalism, and political correctness. Repeating such tired political jargon hardly constitutes intelligence.
A curious pride of authorship runs through the piece as Bawer notes, “Breivik quotes approvingly and at length from my work, mentioning my name 22 times.”
But Bawer’s main concern, which takes up the bulk of the column is that this massacre will discredit more reasonable Islamophobes like Bawer himself (who merely want to limit migration of certain religions and deport people, not commit mass murder).
In this article and elsewhere Bawer draws on his own years of living in Norway to criticize that society for being too open to undesirable immigrant groups. It is perhaps worth pointing out that people of non-European ancestry make up less than 7% of Norway’s population and Muslims make up less than 4% of Norway’s population. It is one of the whitest societies on the face of the earth but still too “multicultural” for the likes of Bawer and Breivik.
Worth recalling is the fact that Bawer’s Breivik article was written two days after a killing spree that among other things involved the use of explosive dum dum bullets against children so that their wounding and death would be especially excruciating.
What Bawer’s article reveals is that he’s so entirely consumed by his anti-Muslim obsession that he can’t process new information. Everything Bawer sees – even a news report of an anti-Muslim terrorist on a killing spree – serves simply serves as fodder for a pre-existing political agenda.
It is hard for me to reconcile the Bruce Bawer I remember – an elegant and humane essayist – with the Bruce Bawer who authored this Wall Street Journal column and is entirely concerned with protecting his intellectual assets than in bearing witness to those wounded and killed by a hate-filled terrorist.
Here is Bruce Bawer writing about the plight of being gay in a homophobic society: “Straight Americans need an education of the heart and soul. They must understand – to begin with – how it can feel to spend years denying your own deepest truths, to sit silently through classes, meals, and church services while people you love toss off remarks that brutalize your soul.”
This is a very different tenor from the Bawer who offers the following solution for Europe’s supposed Muslim problem: “European officials have a clear route out of this nightmare. They have armies. They have police. They have prisons. They’re in a position to deport planeloads of people everyday. They could start rescuing Europe tomorrow.”
As a gay man Bawer quite rightly wants to be treated with dignity and respect but he refuses to extend this courtesy to European Muslims, preferring instead to write about them in the language of fear and incomprehension. As a member of dispised and often misunderstood minority, Bawer should have more empathy for the plight of Europe’s immigrants.
I’m wondering why I’ve been so saddened by Bawer’s churlish response to Breivik’s crimes. It has something to do with the way readers form relationships with writers. Having read Bawer for nearly three decades, I felt I knew something about the man. I had my share of disagreements with him, just as I do with many people I otherwise like, but I still found he had a voice that was worth a listen, a sensibility describing experiences that I needed to acknowledge. But now, post-Breivik, I feel that the readerly trust I had given Bawer was entirely misplaced, that he is much more of an ideologue than I had been willing to acknowledge, a writer mainly winning intellectual chess games in his own mind rather than paying attention to reality as it offers itself to us.