The Strange Career of Bruce Bawer

Bruce Bawer in happier days.

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.         



9 thoughts on “The Strange Career of Bruce Bawer

  1. I, too, was briefly an admirer of Bawer’s writing, but in retrospect it’s clear that the rot set in early. If you know, for example, the political leanings of a writer Bawer is considering in his 1988 collection, Diminshing Fictions: Essays on the Modern Novel and its Critics, you can guess, even without opening the book, what Bawer’s judgement of the writer will be. Assessments that hew that rigidly to the party line do not make good criticism.

    The only possible exception is Bawer’s piece about Davenport, perhaps because Davenport was never easy for casual readers to politically pigeonhole (he says in his Paris Review interview that he always voted Democrat). Or maybe that Davenport wrote for the National Review fooled Bawer into thinking they were kindred spirits.

    You may argue that Bawer was more than a casual reader of Davenport, but I’m not so sure. It’s clear, for example, that he believes Adriaan van Hovendaal existed in the world, not just in Davenport’s fiction.

  2. I’ve heard about Bawer, have never read his work, but I enjoyed your profile of him. One thing that I would take issue with is your discomfort of his dismissal of earlier gay radicals like Allen Ginsberg. I’m not sure how Ginsberg was really moving the ball forward – at best he was preaching to people who were already favorably disposed to a live and let live philosophy on those matters. Do we really need another hirsute, smellier version of Noel Coward? How was Ginsberg’s schtick going to change the mind of an NRA member who might be persuaded that the same principle of minding ones own business on gun ownership extended logically to the bedroom and vice versa?

  3. Also, in regards to P.J. O’Rourke, I won’t offer a defense of what he wrote, but will put forward a couple of observations. As far as I know, he has never reprinted that particular piece in one of his columns, and comments he has made in pieces over the last ten years or so would seem to indicate that his attitudes have taken a giant leap forward in some respects.

    But P.J. O’Rourke is a conservative, so our expectations are already pretty low. Why doesn’t Tony Hendra, his colleague at The National Lampoon, and someone who isn’t afraid to let his progressive and liberal flag fly high ever get called out for his egregious sexism?

    While some of the most blatant examples of his misogynistic attitudes from the seventies could be chalked up “to the times”, how do you explain the fact that in his memoir of writing for The National Lampoon during the seventies he never mentions the contributions of Mara McAfee or Shary Flenniken? On some level, O’Rourke worked well enough (and thought highly enough of their talent) with the women on staff to get Trina Robbins and Shary Flenniken to illustrate the pieces he wrote. I’ve read pretty much the entire run of the National Lampoon from it’s start in the seventies to a couple of years after O’Rourke resigned as Editor in Chief, and never saw any evidence that Hendra ever collaborated with a woman while on staff.

    If that neanderthal P.J. O’Rourke thought Flenniken was qualified to work on the editorial side, or collaborate with, why couldn’t Hendra see it? In my humble opinion, one P.J. O’Rourke who says all the wrong things but actually does the right thing is worth a thousand Tony Hendra’s endlessly talking about doing the right thing, but never acting on those words.

  4. Mark is certainly right that Ginsberg had no effect on the NRA demographic. He was hardly alone in that. I can’t think of many gay activists (no matter how well-barbered and bathed) in the 60s, 70s, 80s—or even today—that managed to influence that group. Perhaps Mark can name some?

    That doesn’t mean, however, that Ginsberg’s contribution was insignificant. In his very public wide-openness about his sex life, Ginsberg was, I believe, an inspiration to closeted gay men. That’s where his importance as a gay activist lies.

    With regard to P.J. O’Rourke, when he was a humorist his schtick was being outrageously politically correct (that was also a key component of National Lampoon’s humor). It sometimes worked—Holidays in Hell was laugh-out-loud funny—but became problematic when O’Rourke decided to make a career change and become a serious (cough) political commentator, and then, as a serious commentator, to employ the same old schtick.

  5. @onlyablockhead

    I can’t…but if you were trying to legalize gay marriage in Idaho, who would you rather put on the campaign poster:

    a) Allen Ginsberg
    b) Dan Savage
    e) Jesse Tyler Ferguson
    d) Peter Thiel

    Because that’s what it boils down to. I’m definitely not the NRA demographic. I occupy more of the mushy middle. I’ve read my share of Ginsberg, but Savage and Thiel have been more responsible for moving my attitudes in a more progressive direction than Ginsberg.

    I think you misunderstand why The National Lampoon was so funny in the seventies and early eighties. It had nothing to do with being politically correct or incorrect, and everything to do with never knowing from what direction the jokes would be coming from.

    As for P.J. O’Rourke, and Holidays In Hell, while I’m sure it will still be in print fifty years from now, as far as I’m concerned his reputation as a humorist is built on National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook, Modern Manners, and The Bachelor’s Home Companion. None of the aforementioned titles are contingent on agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s political beliefs, or caring about who Newt Gingrich or Ted Kennedy was.

    To be honest, I couldn’t care less about whether or not P.J. O’Rourke is the equal of the Sage of Baltimore. I bashed Tony Hendra a little bit earlier, but truth be told, he is funny, brilliant, profane, and every bit as pleasurable to read as O’Rourke. Is Tony Hendra the liberal, progressive, heir to Mencken that can knock that pretender, P.J. O’Rourke, off the throne?

    We’ll never now. As brilliant as Hendra can be – as well his other liberal counter-parts on the National Lampoon staff – he never produced a substantial body of work on which a judgment can be based. O’Rourke, on the other hand, has more quotes in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations than any other living writer.

    Sometimes the prize goes to the person who shows up for it.

  6. In my previous post, with regard to O’Rourke, I should, of course, have written “outrageously politically incorrect.”

    And Mark, I’m sure you’re right about National Lampoon. It’s clear you’re the go-to-guy with regard to that publication.

  7. In regards to the National Lampoon, you’re probably right:) Just to be clear, I’m not mounting a defense of O’Rourke’s politics so much as his literary merit as a humorist. I’ve read the Karp biography of Douglas Kenney (which is also pretty much a history of the National Lampoon during it’s glory days) and while Karp and the people interviewed in the book clearly don’t like O’Rourke, there is a grudging respect for his ability to go the distance and produce a substantial body of work which is something that his peers were unfortunately, and in a couple of instances, tragically so, unable to do.

    That said, in the end, I’m sure Flenniken and McAfee will be as collectible as Hogarth when P.J. O’Rourke has become nothing more than a brief footnote in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

  8. A very interesting debate gentlemen. My two cents: I was perhaps being a bit harsh on O’Rourke, some of whose essays & books I’ve enjoyed (I think Mark is right about his core body of work). Hendra was also good, back in the day, although I have reservations about some of his work. Like almost all humor, National Lampoon is hit and miss but it had its great moments — I’d recommend going to a used book store and picking up random copies of issues from 1974-1977. Also worth looking up is the book DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great by Rick Meyerowitz (although some Lampoon experts — Lampoonologists? — have expressed reservations).

    I also agree with Mark that Flenniken was especially great. See my appreciation here:

  9. This is one Lampoonologist who would agree that the book “DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD” is definitely worth reading. The CD-DVD ROM of the entire print run of the National Lampoon is also definitely worth the price of purchase, especially for the work of John Hughes before he became more famous as a Hollywood director.

    Thanks for the Flenniken link, I look forward to reading it with pleasure!

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