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We Must Protect Criticism, Says Guy Who Anonymously Attacked His Critics Online

"Is this the end of critics?" Let's hope not -- I wouldn't have much to write about.

The practice of criticism is under attack. Movie stars don’t like it. Directors don’t like it. Editors aren’t too interested in it. Critics, in other words, need a champion.

At (British) GQ.com, they’ve got one in the form of columnist Johann Hari, who has written a passionate defense of the form entitled “Is This the End of Critics?” Surveying the rather inhospitable landscape facing critics today — firings, layoffs, disgruntled subjects, the explosion of amateur criticism on social media — Hari explains why professional critics still matter…

“Because critics perform two essential tasks in the cultural ecosystem – and as with any ecosystem, if you knock out one part, the entire network is at risk of unravelling. Their first task is simply consumer advice… but critics have a deeper role still. When something new and startling comes along, it often baffles us, and we are tempted to drop it, pained, for easier cultural lifting. A great critic can help us to figure out what is going on, and to appreciate it in a richer way. When I saw Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree Of Life,’ I was sure I had seen something extraordinary, but I felt I had barely begun to understand it. It was reading the body of criticism by terrific writers, such as Dana Stevens and Peter Bradshaw that led me deeper in. As film critic Pauline Kael put it: ‘We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work.'”

Well said. Hell yes, criticism is important (says the guy whose livelihood depends on its continued importance). It does help guide our purchases. It can enrich our understanding of complex works of art. It should be protected. It deserves to be supported. 

That support, in this case though, may come from a dubious source. The intro to Hari’s piece on GQ-Magazine.co.uk  says that the writer “was last year embroiled in his own media storm after admitting to plagiarism and confessing to using a pseudonym to attack his critics online.” So the guy saying criticism needs to be protected recently got into trouble for anonymous bashing his own critics?

Apparently. An article in The Telegraph by Cristina Odone details how, after a fight with Johann Hari, her Wikipedia page was defaced by a commenter who rewrote her personal history to include fabricated incidents involving anti-semitism and homophobia. That commenter, it later turned out, was actually Johann Hari. And Odone wasn’t the only one of Hari’s enemies attacked by his online alter ego, either.

After Hari’s misdeeds came to light he apologized, took a leave of absence from his job, enrolled in a journalism training program, made amends. He seems to be in a better place professionally and I still think his message is a good one. But is he the right messenger to deliver it? I mean, this is weird, right? If criticism is under attack, this feels a little like an undercover agent sent to destroy it from within. Let’s all agree to do as he says, not as he did.

Read more of “Is This the End of Critics?

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