Bowdlerizing Bower

Bowdlerizing Bower

As promised, I’m revisiting the Tom Bower–Mark Steyn imbroglio. Steyn’s beat, as it were, is the world of irreconcilable political opinion on just about any subject. Promoting himself on three continents as a “one man global content provider,” he’s either preaching to the converted or damning the infidels, fluffing the former and enraging the latter. There’s really no in-between. And it’s hard to tell who needs him more, his allies or his enemies. Steyn understands this game better than most. Because he’s trying to satisfy the bottomless appetite of his constituency’s need for self-affirmation (I am against it/I am for it, therefore I am), by definition, his currency is prevarication and exaggeration.

Tom Bower, who makes his living writing character assassinations (Fayed, Branson, Maxwell and, lately, the Blacks), is a perfect foil. They’re both playing to the cheap seats. At any rate, the back and forth between the two is a little too dreary to recount in detail, but suffice it to say that Bower points out a bunch of mistakes that Steyn made in response to similar accusations going the other way. What’s impressive about Steyn is how he elides the issue in response to Bower—who, I would say, is more interested in “setting the record straight” (he’s a “biographer” after all) than engaging in the sort of “debate” that is Steyn’s stock in trade. Ferinstance, the last bit in Steyn’s rehashing/rebuttal quotes Bower’s protestation before artfully dismissing it:

“Mr. Bower continues:

‘Finally, your interpretation of the evidence by the purchasers of the newspapers from Hollinger Int. is either deliberately distorted or you have not understood the prosecution’s case. I suggest you read my book carefully, ignoring the sex, and then you might realize that the recent submissions by Kipnis in Document 544 and the government’s reply in Document 545 suggest that the contest is more one-sided than you imagine.’

Time will tell. Meanwhile, I’ll try to ignore the sex.”

Nicely done. The use of the phrase “time will tell” is classic dissembling. Rather than responding to the substance of Bower’s argument (and, heaven forefend, having actually to read the documents in question), Steyn falls back on a cliché that extends the period of the debate as if at some later stage he’s actually going to respond to Bower’s specific critique. Which, of course, he won’t. The little joke at the end is the old magician’s trick of showing your left hand while doing the real business with your right. In this case, hitting the delete button and moving on.