• Somebody compared me to a Holocaust denier the other day for having spoken ill of Elie Wiesel. While I wouldn’t dream of dignifying such a remark by responding to it, I was struck by its sheer nastiness. It goes without saying that the world has always contained plenty of people who assume that you’re a contemptible idiot if you disagree with them about anything. To be sure, I doubt that such creatures are significantly more numerous today than they were a century ago, or even a quarter-century, but I incline to think that they now talk quite a bit louder than they used to–especially when they’re sitting alone at their computers.
I hear the gentleman in the second balcony yelling “You’re one to talk!” He’s got a point: I’ve written some awfully sharp things in my capacity as a professional critic, and will doubtless continue to do so. But I don’t think I’ve ever cast personal aspersions on the artists whom I’ve criticized. That seems to me to be supremely inappropriate, even when the aspersions are true–and I do know a fair number of unpleasant things about some of the artists whom I cover in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. The world of art has always had its share of…well, bad actors.
Speaking as a biographer, I believe deeply that it is my responsibility to tell the truth about artists who are no longer living, even when it makes them look bad. Speaking as a critic and commentator, I think the private lives of living artists are their business and no one else’s. And lest we forget, the argumentum ad hominem is not in fact an argument at all, though it can be effective when deployed with skill and mercilessness.
Which brings us back, however circuitously, to my own case. I’d like to think that anybody who read a piece (or a posting or tweet) in which I was compared to a Holocaust denier would simply roll his eyes and move on. But I’m old enough to know better. More and more of the American people are choosing to live in closed circles of collective concurrence, and I have no doubt that in certain of those circles, those who read such an attack on me would nod their heads sagely and say something on the order of “Yep, it figures. Probably beats his wife, too.”
George Washington once drew up a list of rules of civility. Here is the first one:
1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
I’m with the father of our country. To be gratuitously nasty in public discourse is like relieving yourself in a swimming pool. Even if nobody knows you did it, you still made the pool a dirtier place for everybody–yourself included.
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To put things in perspective, here is Death Mills, a film about the Nazi death camps that Billy Wilder–yes, that Billy Wilder–assembled for the U.S. War Department in 1945. It was shown to Germans immediately after the war in order to force them to come to grips with the terrible reality of the Holocaust, about which many German citizens claimed to know nothing: