David Remnick has been the editor of the New Yorker since 1998 and is the author of six books. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Lenin’s Tomb, about the final days of the Soviet Republic. He also wrote a biography of President Obama that focused on issues of race, published in 2010. In his Thurs., Nov. 12 Master’s Tea, he admitted to sleeping five hours a night. He sat down with me after the talk in Branford Common Room to talk about race at Yale, the media’s portrayal of recent events on campus, and his terrible band.
Yale Herald: What do you think of the dichotomy that’s been set up between free speech and the discussion of race on campus?
David Remnick: Because of who I am, and the job I do, I’m as close to being a first-amendment absolutist as it’s possible to be. As far as I can see, this is a false argument. Was that scene at Missouri edifying? No. Particularly the faculty member was, to say the least, disappointing. And I found a great dignity in that photographer not giving an inch, saying why he was there repeatedly, and not losing his cool, which is very hard to do. But I also know that free speech is not the issue. The issue is, as I understand it, that there are both institutional racist aspects of these institutions, and individual acts that are repulsive. I think everybody would agree that, at Yale, you want your diversity of faculty to be much better than it is.
YH: One thing that’s come out of this debate is the idea that certain national media outlets are taking things out of context. What does it mean to take something out of context? To some degree, of course, all journalism is taken out of the context of the original situation.
DR: It’s a matter of degree. People who think that there is proper context and improper context are deluding themselves. But there are matters of degree. If somebody loses their cool—really loses their cool—but it was preceded by a precipitating reason, then it’s a better and deeper thing to have a broader sense of what happened. Then there’s the historical question of context. Why are we having this discussion in the first place? Why are we talking about Halloween costumes? There’s a reason for it. I want to read that full story.
YH: As someone who’s written extensively on the subject, what do you perceive as the greatest misunderstanding about race in America today?
DR: For starters, a lot of people my age are under the misbegotten notion that we’ve solved the problem because they have a distinct memory of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath. Because of legislation and other advances, people think: problem solved. But, you know, we live in a country that is constantly being formed. If you just allow that to be a cliché without meaning, then it’s all too convenient. Being formed means there’s pain all along. The assertion that nothing’s changed since 1960 is just demonstrably wrong. But to rest on those laurels is worse than wrong. It’s tragic, it’s stupid, and it’s cruel. In this country, any number of states and state legislatures are determined to limit the black vote. To limit the franchise of African-Americans through all kinds of voting rights infringements. The Supreme Court of the United States has encouraged this. The election of Barack Obama was a fantastic advance, and I think it can only serve as an inspiration to other minorities, and young African-Americans, about their own sense of possibilities, but at the same time it has unearthed layers of racist feeling and resentment that could not be more manifest.
YH: In college newspapers across the country—and in the Yale Daily News and the Herald—there’s been a movement towards the personal narrative on certain issues. What do you think of the use of “I”-driven pieces to address sexual assault, or racial harassment?
DR: Let’s take sexual assault. I think that’s an excellent example. Are there instances in which somebody gets falsely accused of sexual assault? Yeah, yes. But the emphasis on the false accusation is a way of dismissing the larger problem. The larger problem is: how do we describe it? Is a more dispassionate way of describing it a different avenue and an effective avenue? I think so. Does that discount personal testimony? No, it does not. There are different ways of describing things and they all have their potential value.
YH: In the vein of the “I”, why doesn’t the New Yorker have comments enabled on its website?
DR: Mostly because they tend to be dominated by very few people who then go off on their own tangents, and it’s of limited value. And we’re not the only ones. I think you’ve seen this all over the internet. There’s been a cutback in them. I can see the danger, and I can also see the value. One only has so much energy and if we’re going to expend it on the policing of comments, maybe that’s not the best use of our time.
YH: What do perceive as the audience of the New Yorker? When he founded it, Harold Ross said, “It’s not for the little old lady in Dubuque.” Is that still true?
DR: I’d be happy for little old ladies in Dubuque to read us. I think he said that in a day when the New Yorker was a comic weekly for Jazz Age Manhattanites. This is at a time when New Yorkers probably thought that everywhere else was Nowheresville. John Updike once said that people who live in New York think everyone else is vaguely kidding about where they live. I don’t think that. I think the country is far less provincial, and I’m grateful for every reader we have. Of course, nothing can be for everybody, and if we tried to be for everybody, we’d be a radically different publication. There are things in this life that try to be for everybody. McDonald’s, for instance. I have no beef—no pun intended—with McDonald’s. But that’s not who I want to be. And I know what the criticism of that is: elitism. But no one is blocking the gate to your reading this. No one. Any more than anyone is blocking the gate to somebody reading any book or watching any movie. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. If we’re missing things then we should be open to new things, but you can’t be all things to all people, and if you are then you’re a very different kind of product.
YH: I can’t really imagine anything that is all things to all people.
DR: Certain bars of soap. Water.
YH: You mentioned in the Master’s Tea that your work is fairly consuming, and you don’t collect stamps on the side. Do you have any hobbies that aren’t stamp collecting?
DR: I do have one. I play the guitar very, very badly. I take lessons and I’m in a horrible band. Tomorrow night we’re playing at Bowery Electric. It’s going to be a catastrophe. A catastrophe.