The Logic of Woke

“Society is a game with rules, people are players in this game, and politics is the arena in which we affirm and change these rules.  Unlike the rules in standard game theory, however, social rules are continually contested by players allying to scrap old rules and create new rules to serve their purposes.”

That framing, by Herbert Gintis, in the first paragraph of Individuality and Entanglement (2017), struck me as particularly apt when I read it. It’s been useful to me ever since in understanding matters large and small.

Take the case of Blake Bailey’s biography of the novelist Philip Roth, now withdrawn from print. Its publisher, W.W. Norton, returned the manuscript to the possession of its author, along with that of Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, which Norton published in 2014.

Ten days ago, The New York Times reported that accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior by Bailey, 57, had led the publisher to stop shipping and promoting the book, which had just that week reached the Times’ best-seller list.

Two days after that, Terry Pristin, a former reporter for the Times, in a letter published on the paper’s editorial page, wrote, “If Blake Bailey, Philip Roth’s biographer, is credibly accused of rape and attempted rape, let him be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  But why punish the rest of us? Don’t prevent me from reading a biography that no less a writer than Cynthia Ozick has labeled a ‘narrative masterwork.’

The difference between the front-page treatment the story received initially, and the less prominent play, on page B4 in the business section, of the news that the publisher had taken out of print its editions of both books,  reflected contesting opinions about the story’s significance, perhaps even within the newspaper. Then again, the second story, being a follow-up and so subsidiary to the first story, may have reflected nothing more than classic journalistic procedure.

Bailey has adamantly denied the charges.

The most interesting details had to do with the timing of the allegations, their nature, and the manner in which they were communicated to the publisher. Most of these were spelled out with clarity in the Times’ account.

It was apparently in 2018, that a publishing executive, Valentina Rice, using a pseudonymous email account, wrote to Julia A. Reidhead, the president of Norton, accusing Bailey of non-consensual sex three years earlier, when both had been overnight guests at the home of a Times book critic and his wife. She also emailed a Times reporter, who responded, but Ms. Rice decided not to pursue it further and did not reply.

“I have not felt able to report this to the police but feel I have to do something and tell someone in the interests of protecting other women,” she wrote to the publisher, adding: “I understand that you would need to confirm this allegation which I am prepared to do, if you can assure me of my anonymity even if it is likely Mr. Bailey will know exactly who I am.”

The publisher did not respond to her note, Rice told the Times. But a week later Rice received an email from Bailey, who said that Norton had forwarded her complaint.

“I can assure you I have never had non-consensual sex of any kind, with anybody, ever, and if it comes to a point I shall vigorously defend my reputation and livelihood,” he wrote in the email, which Rice shared with the Times, though it is not clear when. “Meanwhile, I appeal to your decency: I have a wife and young daughter who adore and depend on me, and such a rumor, even untrue, would destroy them.”

In other words, Rice wrote Norton just as the Me Too movement gathered steam. It was some months after the Times and The New Yorker had published the stories about powerful Hollywood sexual predators for which they were awarded the 2018 Public Service Pulitzer Prize.

What was the president of Norton thinking? What did Blake Bailey think to himself?  What did the publisher and author think might or might not happen when the biography eventually appeared?  Litigation and much shoe-leather reporting seem sure to ensue.  We can hope that eventually a satisfying reconstruction will appear, along the lines of other careful post-mortems of furiously contested events: Sanford Ungar’s The Papers and the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers (1974); Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), about the strategies of authors dealing with sensational events (in this case, the murder of a Green Beret physician’s daughters and pregnant wife); Devlin Barrett’s October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election (2020),  about FBI decision-making in the last months of the 2016 presidential election.  I should mention how proud I am that that Norton published my Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery (2006). Like many others, I consider the company to be among the very best in the industry.

In the meantime, the story of the Roth biography is one more illustration of how culture changes and why:  social rules are contested by allies who, often successfully, seek to scrap old rules and create new ones to serve their purposes. Call me cynical, but I believe the relevance of stories about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior was driven home by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, despite plentiful evidence of his sexual misconduct. Heightened attention to racial inequities, exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, was stoked even more by the murder of George Floyd.

There are times when the law is not enough.

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