Tuesday, September 13, 2022


Graeme Wood's moment in the sun came in 2015, when The Atlantic published his article "What ISIS Really Wants." It chided then-president Barack Obama and other Western liberals for what Wood regarded as a naive approach to the Islamic State. Members of the exterminate-the-brutes right -- whose cynical transformation into cheerleaders for Trumpian isolationism would come a year or two later -- made use of the article in their ongoing campaign to portray Obama as a morally relativistic hater of Western civilization and a pro-jihad fifth columnist. They overlooked (or probably never read) the part of Wood's piece where he warned against an American invasion to overthrow ISIS and instead recommended "continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare." Obama essentially agreed with, and successfully pursued, the "slow bleed" strategy; the right mostly dropped the subject (Hillary Clinton's emails were a far more tempting target), and the ISIS book Wood published just after the 2016 election was decidedly not a bestseller.

Wood, unsurprisingly, is now trying to rebrand himself as a critic of Western "cancel culture." Because it's 2022 and takes have to be truly spicy to cut through the clutter, he argues that there's essentially no difference between cancel culture here and the ongoing fatwa that nearly cost Salman Rushdie his life a month ago. It's inconvenient for Wood that the cultural establishment in the West supports Rushdie, but he plows ahead anyway in a recent Atlantic piece:
No one is saying, as Jimmy Carter did in 1989, that Rushdie had committed a great evil by offending Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But that is because they still have a sense of shame, and the near-murder has silenced them. Rushdie’s sin is decades old. A fresh evil, unaccompanied by bloodshed, would attract a freshly craven response, dinging the author for the offense caused and if possible banishing his novel to the great reject pile in the basement of Random House.
Let's overlook the fact that Wood mischaracterizes the New York Times op-ed Jimmy Carter wrote about The Satanic Verses in 1989. (Carter's concern was that the book offended Muslims, not the ayatollah. He's been criticized for the op-ed ever since.) And let's also overlook the fact that Random House has kept The Satanic Verses in print since 2008, and continues to do so. (Random House, it should be noted, was the publisher of Wood's unsuccessful book.)

Now, take a look at the phrase "great reject pile" in the above quote. Each word has a link, intended to inform the reader of the chilling climate in American culture today.

The first link goes to a story about how cultural sensitivity complaints and social media eruptions have led to the cancellation of several young-adult books that were on the verge of publication. I agree with Wood that this is not a good trend. Censoriousness in children's publishing seems excessive to me.

The third link goes to a story about Woody Allen's memoir. Yes, Grand Central, a part of the Hachette media empire, canceled the book in 2020. But it was then picked up and immediately published by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse, which also quite successfully publishes Alan Dershowitz, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and other best-selling reprobates. Simon & Schuster is Skyhorse's distributor. The Woody Allen memoir was widely available and made the New York Times bestseller list.

And then there's the middle link -- an NBC story from April 2021 about protests at Simon & Schuster after the company signed Mike Pence's memoir. I bring this up because Axios today is helping to begin the publicity blitz for Pence's book, more than two months before its publication date. Wood portrays the Pence protests as cancel culture, but the book wasn't canceled. Simon & Schuster rejected employees' critiques of Pence and scheduled publication just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when book sales are highest. The book is getting the treatment a publisher provides when it expects a major bestseller.

The book won't sell like an Obama memoir, but there'll be plenty of legitimate buyers. And whatever happens to it in the marketplace, please note that it will be in the marketplace. Pence hasn't been silenced. Yet Graeme Wood thinks there's a fatwa against Pence, simply because people protested his book deal. To Wood, that's the equivalent of a death sentence.

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