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Who Goes There?

Washington Diarist

IT TAKES ONE to know one, as we used to say in Brooklyn. Jeff Bezos, one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the history of gatekeeping, had the effrontery to rhapsodize not long ago about “eliminating all the gatekeepers.” The eliminationist rhetoric was consistent with the monopolistic inclinations of his company. “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere,” he hypocritically declared, referring no doubt to his fellow Internet oligarchs, whose codes and algorithms and policies and interests have broken new ground in the manufacture of gates. (Bill Gates.) Rarely has so much control presented itself as so much freedom. The destruction of gatekeeping by digital technology is one of the cherished myths of our day. The inebriated literature about the Internet is riddled with this illusion, which diverts attention from the uncool fact that the promise of anarchy and equality was swiftly usurped by the appetite for power and profit. Every revolution exaggerates its discontinuities. This is not always a bad thing. Gatekeeping, after all, is merely an ominous term for the exercise of judgment and the expression of preference. Curating is gatekeeping. Aggregating is gatekeeping. Running a website is gatekeeping. As for marketing, it thrives by the manipulation of desire online and off. All these activities require definitions and decisions. All include and exclude. And why would one want to enter a realm that had no standards for entry? Distinction, after all, is a consequence of selection. It was the apostle Matthew who established the difference between the strait gate and the wide gate: “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,” whereas “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.” The better dispensation must be earned, as a matter of merit. Levels will be established. Recently I came upon a short oppressive work by John Bunyan called The Strait Gate, or Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven (it has the charming subtitle, “Plainly proving, by the Scripture, that not only the Rude and Profane, but many great Professors, will come short of that Kingdom”). “A gate, you know, is of a double use;” the pietist wrote, “it is to open and shut.” He was right. If the gates of heaven were open to all, it would not be heaven. It may be protested that they are open to too few, that the criteria for admission are unjust—modern religion has sought to widen the narrow gate; but whatever the theological basis for the higher gatekeeping, the collapse of distinctions of effort and effect would make a mockery of human striving. Even in the digital empyrean, people strive.

THE GATEKEEPERS whom Amazon especially detests are editors and publishers. Bezos’s letter to his shareholders this year was full of testimonials to Kindle Direct Publishing by writers who (in the words of one) “get their work in front of readers without jumping through insurmountable hoops” and (in the words of another) “blow through all the traditional gatekeepers.” I am glad that they are happy. Also I have no doubt that the traditional system of book publishing makes mistakes. The history of taste and reputation is replete with the rejection of talent. But that is not the only mistake that publishers make. If there are unwarranted exclusions, there are also unwarranted inclusions. Too many of those hoops are surmountable: just walk into a bookstore, if you can find one. Perhaps this is the injustice against which the digitals have rebelled: it seems arbitrary to publish one man’s junk but not another’s. In the case of unwarranted inclusions, the problem lies not in the success of gatekeeping but in its failure. For the editor’s interference with the writer’s spontaneities, the editor’s resistance to the writer’s satisfactions with his own work, is a service to the writer. “Direct publishing” is shabby publishing, because it rejects the improving influence of editorial animadversion. Bezos boasts that his “powerful self-service platforms” at last “empower others to unleash their creativity—to pursue their dreams,” but writing is not primarily an affair of self-service (Auden blessed the imposition upon writing of rules that “force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self”) and creativity is no assurance of quality, and all dreams are not equally interesting. Amazon’s list is notable mainly for its mediocrity. There are many such lists in the good old physical world, too; but the “Amazonians” should lose the liberationist crap, because so far they have made advances in commerce but not in culture. Their Miltons are no longer mute but they are still inglorious.

INCOMPETENT GATEKEEPING is indeed hard to suffer, as Anna Wintour’s Syrian adventure, the latest chapter in the long history of fashion’s bewitchment by fascism, illustrated. Trying to post her way out of a disgracefully adoring profile of Bashar al Assad’s wife, with photographs sadly by James Nachtwey of the dictator who would kill children playing with children, the editor-in-chief of Vogue fatuously stated that “subsequent to our interview [in 2010], as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that [the Syrian regime’s] priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue,” that famous organ of freedom and democracy. Of course there was nothing about the Assads before 2010 that should have elicited anything but repugnance. And the callow writer of the piece accurately represented the values of the magazine when she explained that “Vogue is always on the lookout for good-looking first ladies” and the tyrant’s wife is “extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.” You see, they were in over their heads. They should have stuck to the worship of red-soled shoes. Wintour gave gatekeeping a bad name, because she was keeping a gate that she is not qualified to keep. About untrivial matters she lacks authority, I mean inner authority. The war against gatekeeping is finally a war against authority. Or a war against me: I am one of the villains who keep some out and let some in. I confess that I make no apologies for my exclusions. I can defend my reasons, and my severities, and my conception of my responsibilities, and my sense of the stakes. The authority that I claim is owed to more than the accident of my appointment. But I am here to say that the deepest pleasures of my position are the inclusions. Happy is the keeper of the gate, because he can say: welcome. 

This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.