At the end of March I participated in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan—a lively conversation on up-to-date themes with Leon Wieseltier and Bernard-Henri Lévy, moderated by Alana Newhouse, the Tablet editor. The discussion made for an agreeable evening, reasonably stimulating and entirely friendly and civilized—except for one problem. At the conclusion of the event, a well-known professor at one of the New York colleges, who is also a columnist at a liberal magazine, came up to me and announced that he was blackmailing me.
The professor’s posture and behavior attracted the attention of the security guards, who escorted him from the building. But he had sufficient time to explain to me what he wanted. He wanted me to publish a denunciation of myself in Tablet. He told me that, if I did not do what he demanded, he was going to humiliate me. He explained that somehow he had gotten hold of an erotic correspondence between me and someone else, and he intended to publish it. “Are you threatening me?” I said.
The security guards insisted on accompanying the members of the panel to our next appointment, which was at a bar, where they left us to drink in peace. I put the incident out of my mind. A couple of days later, however, the professor sent an email:
“Dear Paul Berman,
“Like you, I enjoyed our conversation of the other night but I thought it ended uncompleted.” He explained that I should write a self-denunciation in the style of Augustine or Alexander Hamilton.
“Since you already have a column in Tablet, that would be a great place for it to appear.
“It would also be a good career move. Right now, you are best known to the world for having pimped for George Bush’s disastrous war.”
But this sin was going to seem as nothing, compared to the erotic correspondence.
“My guess is that you will end up being known for this anyway, so it would be best for you to put your own self-interested, spin on this….”
He compared me to Norman Podhoretz, the retired editor of Commentary. “I’m sure you know that you already have a lot in common with Podhoretz, who also pimped for right-wing Republican presidents and foolish, destructive wars, and also shared with you a roguish reputation with the ladies. So there’s a useful precedent.
“To be sure, since you raised the issue, I am not threatening you with anything. I just think that the truth has a way of coming out given how interesting people find gossip relating to”—and here he pointed to the frisk in the frisky correspondence. “There’s a whole industry that makes its living off of it, after all.”
This last point seemed to me all too accurate.
A week later came another letter:
“looking forward to your public confession in Tablet. My guess is that this will work out best [he meant “better”] for you than any imaginable alternative.”
A few days passed. Then another letter:
“I can’t imagine Tablet (or anyone) will want to employ you once they know of your exploits, so you might as well go out on your own terms.
“My guess is that if you don’t do it, it will likely appear somewhere else, quite prominently, would be my guess, since it is such a marvelous tale of outrageous hypocrisy from someone who professes to lecture other people how to behave. (I see someone has already started a twitter account for this purpose.) Those emails, if anyone prints them, are going to look mighty embarrassing…
“I look forward to reading it from you rather than from some other source who might get some of the gory and disgusting facts incorrect.”
I took this last sentence to mean that the professor was planning on spicing up whatever correspondence he might have, in order to achieve his goals. The doctoring of pilfered correspondence is, of course, the modern style.
Next another letter, remarking that I had failed to do as he demanded:
“I find this unfortunate as the world continues to think of you only as the liberal intellectual who whored for Bush’s war.”
Then came another letter to the same effect.
This has been going on for more than a month. It has been a little spooky, and a lot exasperating. I do not know if the professor is going to go ahead with his threats. I do not know what correspondence he has gotten hold of, if he has gotten hold of anything at all. I hope that, if he does publish something and attaches my name to it, the correspondence is well-written. Some of my erotic correspondence is quite well-written, I like to think. I am an admirer of Georges Bataille, and an even greater admirer of Juan García Ponce, the Mexican writer, who is unknown in the United States but deserves to be known: a great erotic writer. (I should devote an essay to him. A crazy priapic imagination!) I dedicated myself not so long ago to a study of the artfully obscene poetry of Pierre Louÿs, André Gide’s friend, in the hope of impressing a particular someone. Perhaps there is an amorous tone in some of my more Louÿs-like efforts that belongs more to me than to him, not that I foreswear the vulgar. And Louÿs is a wicked man, and I am not. In any case, if my erotica were ever to appear in print, I would prefer that it did so under my own control. Some of it doubtless needs editing and revision. And I would prefer not to be threatened by a blackmailing pig.
But such is the modern world. My blackmailer is a tenured and accomplished person who, from the heights of his respectability, evidently believes that the line between private life and political persecution ought not to exist—a staple of a certain kind of politics. There is nothing to be done about people like him. It is creepy to be blackmailed, but then, as everyone is beginning to learn, an ability to shrug things off is, like the ability to handle electronic devices, a necessary new skill in modern life. They should teach it in the schools.
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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.