INTERVIEW --- ADAM GOPNIK
THE NEW YORKER
This conversation took place in the Spring of 1996.
Adam Gopnik was The New Yorker correspondent in Paris. He would later publish his best-selling book Paris to the moon. Karim Emile Bitar was a student at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po), preparing to enter the ENA.
This transcript was initially published in a book edited by Harriet Welty Rochefort, The Interview and Interviewers (Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, 1996), which included profiles of several leading journalists and a series of interviews with TV anchors and stars of print journalism in France and America.
Karim Bitar : In last week's L'événement du Jeudi, there was an article about Dorothy Parker and they described The New Yorker as "le magazine à l'usage des snobs et de ceux qui souhaitent le devenir". What do you think of this definition ? How do you react to this ?
Adam Gopnik : I think that in fact there are many myths about The New Yorker. The first myth about The New Yorker is that Dorothy Parker was very important to it. If this isn't too pedantic, let me try and explain the history of The New Yorker a little bit.
Karim Bitar : Yes, can you give me a brief overview of the evolution of The New Yorker, from its foundation by Harold Ross and Dorothy Parker in 1925 to Tina Brown... the evolution of the content, the readers...
Adam Gopnik : In the 1920's they were a group a witers who were already famous, Harold Ross, Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker... who contributed to The New Yorker but they were already famous and established writers. They played a very little role in the evolution of The New Yorker into a great magazine. The real writers who made The New Yorker didn't come until the 1930's. There was E.B. White, James Thurber, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell and many others. So, it is true that there was a period in the twenties when there was sort of a snob appeal to The New Yorker but those writers had all left the magazine by the time it became famous and important. The real appeal of The New Yorker has always been a kind of anti-snobism, a reverse snobism, that is the snobism of simplicity, disingenuousness. The real tone of The New Yorker has always been faux na‹f, rather than falsely sophisticated. And that's the tone I strive to keep in my own writing.
In the 1930's the magazine found its real identity and it became very much a magazine not of sophistication but a magazine of a particular kind of American na‹vet‚ a particular kind of deliberately cultivated innocence and distance which some people found disingenuous and other people found wonderful. It was still though essentially a magazine of humour and reporting in the 1930's. In the 1940's at the outset of the second World War, it became for the first time a truly serious magazine, in the sense that its best writers travelled to Europe and found a new kind of... -I hate the word seriousness, but humour is serious too-, but a new kind of depth, and a sense of evil entered their knowledge. In particular the writers of that period whom I admire are A. J. Liebling, and Janet Flanner, both of whom were here in Paris on and off during the time before and right after the War, during the Liberation. And that period of the magazine's history culminated with John Hersy's Hiroshima, which took an entire issue of the magazine, in 1947 I believe, an account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shortly after that, Harold Ross, the first editor of the magazine died and the magazine was edited in the next 36 years by William Shawn, who was the first editor I worked for. William Shawn was I think the greatest editor who has ever lived and he brought the magazine a combination of its old virtues, humour and casualness and off-handed gentleness and added to it new layers of seriousness and sophistication, and it always remained, in spite of all the changes, a magazine fundamentally of humour, and of reporting, as opposed to a magazine of criticism and of opinions. There has been many critics who have written for it -I am a critic and I write for it- but that was always its identity, a magazine of humour and reporting, more than a magazine of ideas like The New Republic or The Nation. In 1987, Shawn resigned, and Robert Gottley became the new editor. For five years he kept the magazine more or less as it had been in Shawn's era. Then Tina Browm came in in 1992.
Karim Bitar : What did Tina Brown bring to the magazine ?
Adam Gopnik : She changed the magazine dramatically. She would say that she is trying to make it again as it was in the 1920's, much more a magazine of sophistication, for the smart set, then it was in the past few years. But I think though, that if you look at what she continued to publish, there is a great deal of the old magazine that continues to appear in the new magazine.
Karim Bitar : For example, did you agree with the New Yorker's decision to cover the OJ trial ?
Adam Gopnik : Yes I did. I wrote what's called a comment, and which is an editorial as soon as that story appeared. I was here in Paris when Simpson was arrested. I thought that there was a kind of hysteria, associated with the story that was crazy, and I felt it very strongly having been in Europe when it happened. I never changed my opinion. The coverage of this particular story was totally out of proportion to its intrinsic interest. But I don't think that we overpublished or overcovered it. The guy who covered it for us was Jeffrey Toobin, a very intelligent guy, a very good writer, and I think we gave it the appropriate amount of coverage. I don't think you could choose not to pick up something that everyone in America is talking about, the question is what you write. And I thought what we wrote was honourable and good.
Karim Bitar : What did you think of this controversy last month when Paul Theroux published an article about his dinner with the Queen ? I heard that Prince Philip was really annoyed.
Adam Gopnik : I didn't like that article at all, not because he broke the confidence of the Queen but because I thought it was a self glorifying article. There was nothing of interest. The only reason to write about this is : "I met the Queen." That was the whole subtext of the article. "I'm a famous guy and I meet famous people." That's not a good enough reason to write an article. I am not British but it strikes me as absurd and disingenuous to insist on an elaborate protocol that no one takes seriously.
Karim Bitar : According to you, who are the five most important North-American intellectuals alive?
Adam Gopnik : This is a good and hard question. I have to think of it. I would say and this is of the top of my head, the five most important are Richard Wordy, the philosopher, Louis Menand, the critic, Kurt Warnedau, the art historian, Steven J. Gould, the paleontologist, and Daniel Dennett, the philosopher.
Karim Bitar : Do you think that intellectuals in France are much more influential than their American counterparts and why is that ?
Adam Gopnik : Yes. I think they are more influential certainly in the short term. Intellectuals in France have an immediate access to the public, in a way that intellectuals in America don't. As you probably know, I wrote an article for the magazine talking about the Underground affair, the debate over Kusturica's movie, the Bosnian film. And one of the things I was struck by is that what intellectuals think about a movie really matters in France. It doesn't matter in the US, at all. And every day, I am struck by some evidence of the enormous respect that the French nation continues to have for writers and intellectuals. I was at the funeral of Marguerite Duras a month ago, and it would be impossible to imagine a similar occasion in American letters. You would have to barbecue Susan Sontag to get this kind of turnout for a writer's funeral. So yes, I think that French intellectuals have much more influence than the Americans. In the short term. In the long term of course, great American thinkers like the ones I mentionned and many others have this much effect. But they don't have a public role in the way that intellectuals in Europe do.
Karim Bitar : And do you think that the French intellectuals are succesful in using this public exposure to advance important causes?
Adam Gopnik : Yes, on the whole. I know that every French intellectual will tell you that the other French intellectuals are advancing their own careers. But I'm struck by how disinterested they genuinely are. Bernard-Henri Levy is obviously someone who doesn't mind publicity, but his fight for Bosnia was a sincere fight. Andre Glucksman, who is a good friend of mine is another example. His fight for Chechnya for instance was sincere. These are not causes that he can benefit from personnally. So I think they generally, on the whole fight, specially recently have an honourable record. Of course the history of French intellectuals in the twentieth century has in many ways been a very terrible one, with their embrace of Stalinism and of the Communist Party. But since that ended in the 1970's, I think they have had overall an honourable record.
Karim Bitar : And who would you consider the most important European intellectuals?
Adam Gopnik : Jurgen Habermas in Germany, Umberto Eco, of course in Italy, not just for his novels but for his work as a semiotician, Richard Dawkins, the Cambridge biologist...
Karim Bitar : I interviewed some journalists, like Tom Sancton of Time and according to him, French journalists are light years behind the Americans in terms of the aggressiveness of their investigations. Do you agree and why do you think is the French Press so reluctant to dig up the dirt?
Adam Gopnik : I don't mind it. I wrote a piece attacking the American media for being too aggressive. Aggressiveness is not a virtue in itself. Hitler was aggressive. What's a virtue is aggression in a worthy cause. American journalists tend to consider aggressiveness as an absolute virtue. It is certainly true that investigative journalism is much less institutionalized here in France than it is America. In fact, it is always shocking to me that the major vehicles of investigative journalism here in France are satiric newspapers like Le canard enchaŒn‚. I think it is because French journalists tend to think of themselves as intellectuals, and they regard what we call in America the "shoe-leather part" of journalism, pounding the pavement as undignified, and they much prefer to be giving opinions about things than finding out unknown filth. On the other hand, I think that the problem in America is at least as bad, because we have these ritual inquisitions, totally divorced from any kind of thought. In France, you have thought divorced from aggression, but in America, we have aggression divorced from thought.
Karim Bitar : For instance, if you were a French journalist and you got some information that the president's mistress is living on state's expenses, like Mitterrand's mistress Anne Pingeot, would you reveal it ?
Adam Gopnik : No, I wouldn't. I see that there are issues involved, public money... But that's what you have elections for. But coming from America, being an expatriate of America, and seeing the disaster that has overtaken American public life as a consequence of the press breaking the line between public life and private life, I would much rather err on the side of maintaining that line than seeing it broken again, because the public cost, not just in lives ruined, and people being miserable for no adequate reasons, but also because it distracts people away from the important issues to totally trivial ones. I think it is too great a price to pay. And I admire the French tradition of keeping public and private very separate. I think it is much more civilized.
Karim Bitar : How do you reconcile a public figure's right to privacy with the people's right to know?
Adam Gopnik : I have always thought that there is no such thing as a right to know. I am a radical and you will not hear many radical journalists say that but I think that the people's right to know is a completely invented notion. The people's right to know is something journalists invent to suit themselves. It is sort of like a barber talking about people's right to short hair. It suits a barber to have people with short hair but there is no right, no abstract right to short hair. We obvioulsy don't have an unlimited right to know. Of course in a democracy, we ought to have a right to publish and a right to say what we think and that right is unabridgeable, according to me, but that's not the same thing as the right to know. They don't have a right to know about your private life or about my private life. The problem with this whole absurd notion of a right to know is that it pretends to make the journalist no longer a moral actor. The journalist becomes simply like a policeman, doing his duty. We have no duty. We are private citizens. We are not officials from the state.
Karim Bitar : What did you think of the debate over the alleged decline of French culture? You went on Laure Adler's TV show...
Adam Gopnik : I think it is absurd, but in a more complicated way. I think it is absurd to say that the French culture is no longer influential on the world scene. In fact, French philosophy, literary criticism is more influential at this point than it had been since the 18th century. I come from an American academic background, and French philosophers have almost an hegemony in American universities right now, Foucault, Derrida... So it is ridiculous to say that French culture is no longer influential. But at the same time, it is not the same kind of influence, it is not French novels or French movies, it is French philosophy. Well, the genius of a country changes over a period of time. What is certainly true is that the French self confidence in the centrality of their own culture has changed. The French are no longer as convinced that history is happening here, that modern consciousness has its headquarters in Paris. For most of the twentieth century, the French have been understandably convinced that history was happening in France, in Paris particularly. I think that's a harder thing to be convinced of now. That's a very fundamental change. Buy I think the notion that French culture, in the sense that French writers and French books are less influential now than it was in the past is obviously false. It is something only a journalist would be stupid enough to say.
Karim Bitar : So why did the American press write so many articles on the subject ?
Adam Gopnik : They simply repeat what each other says. And because the real profound influence of French culture right now is at a high intellectual level and most American journalists do not have much knowledge of that part of the world.
Karim Bitar : A couple of US senators, including Joseph Lieberman, and William Bennet, the former education secretary are fighting a high profile battle against day time talk shows. Do you think that trash TV is an indicator of social decline or do you think that this is an elitist point of view ?
Adam Gopnik : Obviously, if we are going to be fighting social plagues, there are better things to fight, violence and guns, rather than trash TV. But I happen to be very conservative on that subject. I think that you cannnot easily separate a symbolic social decline from real social decline. They are intertwined. I do not believe in censorship and I do not believe that it is the role of the government to decide what is going to be on TV. I believe however that it is the role of every citizen to say : "this is disgusting". I don't think that's a governmental role. This is a civic role. We shouldn't accept it. We should exercise our right as citizens and say : "I hate this".
Karim Bitar : So you don't believe in the alleged therapeutic value of shows like Oprah Winfrey?
Adam Gopnik : No. I don't believe they have any therapeutic value. They probably don't do very much harm because they are highly stylized and they are seen as entertainment. I don't think that they do any harm. What I think does harm is violence on television. The fact that intellectuals acquiesce in the cult of violence on TV. Those talk shows don't do any harm, but it is absurd to have this reverse snobism and pretend to enjoy them. That's silly.
Karim Bitar : What about Bob Dole's crusade against Hollywood's "nightmares of depravity" ? Was it only an attempt to please the religious right and score some points on the political level or does it reflect a growing puritanism in mainstream America ?
Adam Gopnik : I am a liberal but I would be on Bob Dole's side if I thought he was sincere. But I don't think he is. It's clearly something that he read on the Q card, and he does not have any strong feelings on one way or the other. I think that there is a central fact about American life right now, there is more violence than in any other civilized society in history. A child is killed by a gun every hour in America. While we sit here in this caf‚, somewhere in the United States, an eight or nine-year old child was killed with a gun. Now that's an unthinkable reality. And to pretend that a simultaneous reality, that we have mass entertainment that is drenched on violence, that these two things are totally unrelatd to each other is absurd. That implies a distance between symbolic life and real life that is just too great to be credible. It is not really puritanism. Puritanism has to do with sex, not with violence. I think it is bound to be unsuccessful. I don't think that changing the symbolic reality is going to change the real reality. But I am sympathetic to people who want to change the symbolic reality. I don't think the government can do it. One of the main mistakes we make is to say that there is a cultural ground and a political ground and that they are separate. You have to try and change it not by passing laws but by offering criticism. That's the role of thought. Governments don't exist to change the culture, but that doesn't mean that we don't have to change it as citizens.
Karim Bitar : There is a tendency in France to tolerate more sex in the movies, while the US tolerate more violence...
Adam Gopnik : Yes and again I am a francophile. The French are right. Sex is a totally harmless and appropriate thing. The correlation of sex and violence is completely arbitrary. I can't see any harm to anybody by having sex in the movies. But I can't see the reason to see violence as something enjoyable. These are two totally different things.
Karim Bitar : You interviewed Mgr Gaillot. Do you think that his relation with the media hurts the Catholic church or is it helpful ?
Adam Gopnik : It is hard to judge. He's clearly a man of great sincerity and he believes in making the Catholic Church Responsive to the media. As he said to me, ironically, he's just doing the same thing that the Pope does. He is "médiatique". But obviously, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church wants to control who gets exposure in the media. Jacques Gaillot is clearly a good man and every time the Catholic church is identified with good men, it looks like a better institution.
Karim Bitar : What do you think of Newsweek's "journalism with an attitude"?
Adam Gopnik : I wrote an article for the New Yorker in which I criticized it. I think that everyone is in favor of skepticism. A journalist should be skeptical, anti-authoritarian, aggressive in that sense. But they have to distinguish between truly powerful people and the people who aren't that powerful. And I think that too many American journalists are skeptical about either meaningless or powerless people. And your skepticism only has way if it is directed against a real target. Your aggressiveness only has meaning if it is a choice, rather than simply your daily attitude. That's the difference between aggression and attitude. Attitude is something you have every single minute. Aggression is something you call in pursuit of some motive, some larger values.