I’ve been turning over the events of yesterday afternoon in my mind, and in particular trying to figure out why I came away from the meeting feeling a bit upbeat. After all, Anne’s tenure as editor of the Scholar has come to a sad and rather sordid end, not because of anything that she’s done, but because of the shabby way that she and her staff have been treated, and because of the contradictory and high-handed way in which PBK has behaved. I ought to have felt like I’d been to a funeral.
But I don’t. And I just figured out why.
It’s not because I now understand PBK’s thinking and course of action: we didn’t get any substantive answers to our many questions. The well-deserved praise that was lavished on Anne by those present– and through several letters that were read at the meeting, people who were absent– was also good to hear, but it also didn’t fully account for my reaction to the meeting. Rather, I came away very proud of the behavior of the Board, and glad to have been part of it. It’s always been a source of amazement to me that I was on the American Scholar board: Joseph Epstein called it the greatest club in the world, and he was absolutely right.
It’s always had dazzling eminence, and frightful intelligence. Yesterday I discovered that it could also have moral courage.
My fellow board members were as brilliant as I could ever hope for: Thomas Mallon, Allison Blakely, Joe Gordon, Graham Burnett– all of them were at their very best. Even though we didn’t get many answers– and it was clear that the people were talking to didn’t feel that we deserved or were entitled to them– the board displayed a kind of frankness, a desire to understand what had happened and why, and a kind of intelligent outrage, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in my life. There was no grandstanding, no posturing, no thrown chairs. People who can be immensely critical (remember Mallon’s savaging of the New York Times 9/11 obituaries?), who are great because they are professional skeptics and perfectionists, were as eloquent and moving in their praise of Anne as they were smart in their criticism of PBK’s decisions. And a group with decades of collective experience in publishing, academia, and administration were unanimous in their view that PBK’s actions made no sense at all. None of it was planned, but it was seamless.
I was deeply moved by the board’s performance. I don’t think anything could compare to what happened in the room on Monday. But I have no faith that the Scholar of the future will be anything like the Scholar of today. And so I’m resigning.
Alas, I don’t have such kind words for the performance of the members of PBK who were there. The best we got were platitudes, evasions, descriptions of process rather than plans for the future. I came away with the same sense that I have when listening to someone at a company who has made a bad decision– fired someone brilliant, approved a stupid project, or merged with AOL– and is now trying to justify it. Well, they say, they did what they did out of a desire to maximize shareholder value and to create new efficiencies. The problem is not that such statements are wrong, but that they’re always true. No one ever seeks to create inefficiencies, and the fact that you can’t come up with a better explanation shows how empty your reasoning or mendacious your motives were in the first place.
What they’re really saying is, Yes, I’m mediocre and I made a bad decision, but the world is full of mediocre people, so it would be a cosmic injustice for me to be singled out and punished. Yes, we treated Anne badly; yes, we did harm to PBK’s public image. But hey, stupid stuff happens all the time. Bad management is almost the norm– after all, doing a good job is [slight whine] hard. Hell, Rumsfeld isn’t quitting. Why should I suffer?
Of course, all too often mediocrity and bad decisions do go unpunished, and I have no illusions that anyone is going to lose their jobs over this. I’m sure that the people who were behind it have managed to spin their decision to the rest of PBK in such a way as to make themselves seem like heroes. But they’ve done absolutely needless damage to PBK’s reputation in the world of letters. People who care about good writing care about what’s happened at American Scholar, and there are people who would have been happy to help with the transition to a new editor who now won’t go near the place.
The thing that strikes me most forcefully is that it wouldn’t have been hard to engineer the situation to get Anne to depart on her own, thus achieveing their goal of getting rid of her while preserving PBK’s reputation. Had they asked for some really, really big budget cuts, and structured them so that it was clear that the quality of the Scholar would be affected, Anne would have made way for someone else.
So they fail both as saints and Machiavellans. In this world, you really ought to be one or the other.
[To the tune of Pat Metheny Group, “Goodbye,” from the album Travels (Disc 1).]