This is a cautionary tale for those who move in the world of fashionable ideas. They speak out and raise funds for their causes. Though they tend to work under the spotlight, especially the flashbulb, their little mistakes are generally overlooked. But on very rare occasions they pay the price of adhering to the fickle winds of fashion’s politically correct currents and get splattered. I give you Joan Juliet Buck.
If you have seen the film Julie & Julia, you will remember Madame Brassart, the horrid little Parisian in her constipated 1950s suit and pillbox hat who tries to prevent Meryl Streep’s Julia Child from taking Cordon Bleu courses. That role was played very competently by Joan Juliet Buck in her incarnation as an actress. She was also editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue magazine from 1994 to 2001, wrote a couple of books and had a long association with Condé Nast. In December 2010 she got a telephone call from a features editor at U.S. Vogue asking her to go to Damascus to interview Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad.
“Absolutely not,” replied Joan Juliet Buck, or JJB because space is limited. “I don’t want to meet the Assads, and they don’t want to meet a Jew.” Besides, she felt unqualified for the job. “Send a political journalist,” she said. But she went anyway and wrote a 3,600-word article about Mrs. Assad published in the March 2011 Vogue. The writing was glossy mag prose, so predictable it was practically prefabricated: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies” is the beginning and you can pretty much guess the rest.
Unfortunately, even though Syria hasn’t been a nice place for a very long time, it got world-class attention in 2011 even as JJB was noting Mrs. A’s dark blue-green nail polish. By March 2011, when the profile hit the newsstands, Mrs. Assad’s quotes about encouraging six million Syrians under 18 to engage in “active citizenship” together with her objective of preserving the country’s “customs and the spirit of openness” were not exactly halal. JJB lost her contract with Condé Nast after 44 years. So she spent another 3,000 words in last week’s Newsweek explaining how “I was duped by Mrs. Assad.”
Her apologia was as obtuse as her Assad profile. “Syria,” muses JJB, explaining how she was an innocent in hell: “The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss.” (Which got me thinking about Germany as full of germs and Russia as one big rush-hour.) Lots of wonderful people, explains JJB, had made the same error about Syria and Mrs. Assad: Nancy Pelosi, Sting, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Anything associated with Pelosi would have been a Do Not Pass Go sign for me, but back then in the dark ages of Nancy’s 2007 Syrian visit, who knew? The cultural fashionistas were so taken with the coolness of Syria, its hummus and water pipes, its increasing hipness that Damascus was on high-end travel mags’ lists of places to go. It was also on the U.S. State Department list of State Sponsors of Terrorism since 1979 but that list was definitely not cool.
The photos with JJB’s Vogue story are charming. President Bashar al-Assad is on the floor with his children and wife examining a Lego toy truck with wires coming out of it. Possibly a model for some new car bomb that the terrorist Hezbollah—backed by Iran and given safe haven by Syria—are planning? All reminiscent of those seventies fashion shoots of Yves Saint Laurent’s Russian collection in Red Square, photographed against the backdrop of the Lubyanka, headquarters of the KGB. Lots of wonderful people went on those shoots and who had time to read Solzhenitsyn?
It’s all a question of timing. In 1975, the late publisher Jack McClelland threw a bash for photographer Roloff Beny. Everyone was dolled up to the nines. They were celebrating Beny’s book, Persia, Bridge of Turquoise, commissioned by the Shahbanou of Iran, wife of the reforming Shah. Beny adored the world of the Peacock throne—so culturally intoxicating. Who knew about the SAVAK? Who knew about an old crank in Paris named Ayatollah Khomeini? By the time he turned up in his black robes it was 1979, which is a century later in fashion time.
Remember Harvard professor Roxane Witke’s fawning 1977 book on Madame Mao written even while Madame M was presiding over the merciless and murderous Cultural Revolution, now known officially in China as “10 years of great calamities”? The CBC had all kinds of fashionable thinkers on air in the seventies talking about the greatness of China when it was at its peak of famine, gulags and record-setting terror. Who knew? Well those who were out of fashion, who read the available non-fiction books and reports of dissidents but were not invited to do profiles for magazines or go on the CBC.
JJB is a political journalist notwithstanding her demurrals. In her July 2000 interview with Charlie Rose, she explains her embarrassment when earlier she was offered the Vogue editorship: “Heavens, no! I was an intellectual, what would I do there?” Her political leanings are out front: in her August 2011 column for the Guardian titled “Tax the rich” she eases her conscience at being in the West’s conspicuous consumption game by little displays of fashionable politics that run down the U.S.A. as a country “animated by willful delusions.”
From JJB’s point of view, she’s being crucified when all she wrote was based on what she thought were shared assumptions, all perfectly politically correct. Bashar al-Assad didn’t change. What he is now was evident then. What changed were the people who commissioned and read JJB’s piece. And lo and behold, outside in the dark things moved one step to the left or right and Joan Juliet Buck had the carpet pulled out from under her.