Bret Stephens writes another dangerous column

March 2, 2021 • 10:15 am

I swear, Bret Stephens is bucking for a New York Times pink slip and a slot on Substack along with the other canceled columnists. Not long ago, Stephens wrote a column for his paper about the firing of his colleague Donald McNeil, concentrating on the Times‘s excuse that McNeil deserved firing for using the n-word (even didactically), because “intent was not relevant”.  The point of Stephens’s piece wasn’t to defend McNeil’s language but to say that journalism must take intent into account. As he wrote then:

Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.

That ought to go in journalism as much as, if not more than, in any other profession. What is it that journalists do, except try to perceive intent, examine motive, furnish context, explore nuance, explain varying shades of meaning, forgive fallibility, make allowances for irony and humor, slow the rush to judgment (and therefore outrage), and preserve vital intellectual distinctions?

Journalism as a humanistic enterprise — as opposed to hack work or propaganda — does these things in order to teach both its practitioners and consumers to be thoughtful. There is an elementary difference between citing a word for the purpose of knowledge and understanding and using the same word for the purpose of insult and harm. Lose this distinction, and you also lose the ability to understand the things you are supposed to be educated to oppose.

As I reported, the NYT, which considered the column critical of its staff, refused to publish it and Stephens’s piece got printed in the New York Post instead. I don’t think that made the editors happy.

Well, they’re not going to like the new column by Bret Stephens, either. Although the title is conservative in tone, Stephens is a conservative columnist. And, as we saw, the paper just published a pretty good piece on the racial troubles and administrative malfeasance at Smith, so this shouldn’t be a topic that’s off the table (and apparently isn’t, as this column didn’t get spiked). Still, I sense a Substack in Stephens’s future, simply because he tells the truth about both Wokeness and the effect of Critical Race theory on colleges, which is a divisive one. Further, Critical Race theory is beginning to infiltrate the paper itself, so this can be taken as further criticism of the NYT, though Stephens doesn’t make that comparison.

After going through l’affaire Smith College, Stephens asks the critical question:

Still, the most interesting aspect of the drama at Smith has less to do with the details and more to do with the location. To wit, why is it that racial tensions keep boiling over at some of the nation’s most emphatically progressive-minded institutions, whether it’s at Smith, YaleNorthwesternBryn Mawr or the Dalton School? Why does the embrace of social justice pedagogies seem to have gone hand in hand with deteriorating race relations on campus?

It’s especially interesting because, as Stephens implies, these schools are emphatically not bastions of structural racism, and have done about everything possible to both placate protestors and ensure that there is no obvious inequality on campus.

This implies that Wokeness is a concomitant of “privilege”, which is to some extent true. It’s the educated people, who can afford these schools and have their life success well on track, that have the time to not only learn about Critical Race Theory, which is often taught at these schools, but also the leisure to agitate and make demands and petitions. Importantly, the students also have the ability to threaten prestigious schools in a way that could damage their reputations. After all, Yale, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Harvard, and The Dalton School can charge huge tuitions because of their reputations. That’s why Smith, which stands to lose its reputation because of people like Stephens, is now in trouble, just as Evergreen State was in trouble a few years ago (Evergreen lost lots of students and had to cut back on faculty hiring and programs).

And here are Stephens’s answers to his question, which are pretty accurate.

One answer is that if many students are enjoying a diet of courses on critical race theory, and employees are trained on the fine points of microaggressions, they might take to heart what they are taught and notice what they have been trained to see.

Another answer is that if those who report being offended gain sympathy, attention and even celebrity, more accusations may be reported.

Those are both likely reasons; you can read about the advantages of claiming victimhood in a recent article in Quillette.

But the most important answer comes from realizing that all of these colleges, like nearly all American colleges, have administrators and staff that lean mostly to the Left (you will find few people at the schools named above, for instance, who will admit to being conservative). Stephens:

The deeper answer, I suspect, is that the Woke left has the liberal left’s number. It’s called guilt.

The telling line in Powell’s story comes from a letter the Black Student Association wrote to McCartney, Smith’s (white) president, saying its members “do not feel heard or understood. We feel betrayed and tokenized.” Tokenized, most certainly: Behind every affirmative action program at every liberal institution is a yearning for moral redemption — admission to its present ranks is granted in exchange for absolution for past sins and acceptance of its ideological assumptions.

The Woke left doesn’t want to be a party to this bargain. Absolution is off the table. And the liberal ideals themselves are up for renegotiation.

In place of former notions of fairness toward individuals regardless of race, the Woke left has new ideas of “restorative justice” for racial groups. In place of traditional commitments to free speech, it has new proscriptions on hate speech. In place of the liberal left’s past devotion to facts, it demands new respect for feelings.

All of this has left many of the traditional gatekeepers of liberal institutions uncertain, timid and, in many cases, quietly outraged. This is not the deal they thought they struck. But it’s the deal they’re going to get until they recover the courage of their liberal convictions.

I’m not sure I agree with Stephens’s notion that liberal academics feel deeply cheated because they’re not being let off the hook for favoring affirmative action. What is important here, and what Stephens only touches on, is not guilt but fear. In particular, fear of being called a racist. It’s the same fear (and guilt) that you read about in Tom Wolfe’s portrait of the Black Panther fund-raiser at Leonard Bernstein’s home: “Radical Chic.”

What is true is that the Woke does have the liberal left’s number. For the fear of being called a racist, and the fear of people saying you are “erasing” or “othering” them, causing “harm” and “violence”, is a strong motivation for change among the Left. And, as John McWhorter realized, absolution is indeed off the table. You go Ibram Kendi’s way or the highway; there is no middle way.

For paragraphs like this to appear in the New York Times is amazing. But you will hear them only from the mouths of conservative columnists, not from centrists and certainly not from anyone else at that liberal newspaper. That the Woke has the Left’s number is palpably true, but nobody dares say it, just like nobody dares stand up to the kind of racialized fascism that did in Jody Shaw at Smith.

I fear that Stephens’s tenure at the Times will soon come to an end, for they can’t bear to hear stuff like this. In fact, they don’t like their conservative columnists at all, as we’ll see when we look at Donald McNeil’s recently published (and horrific) account of the toxic atmosphere at the paper. In truth, the Times administration is no different from the Smith College administration: they are autocrats who expel people accused of racism. For the Times editors, dealing with McNeil, and now reading Stephens, is too much like looking in the mirror.

h/t: Greg


13 thoughts on “Bret Stephens writes another dangerous column

  1. I’ve said this before in these blog pages: losing Stephens will have a horrifying effect on what’s left of the Times’ reputation outside the woke joints the former self-proclaimed ‘paper of record’ seems to be hanging out in these days. It will further confine the Times readership to the noisy minority out there who don’t want to hear anything that throws even a little bit of doubt on their ideological CRT first principles. Meanwhile, a critical mass of talented freethinkers formerly associated with the Times is indeed building up that is far more interesting to a lot of people than the doctrinal hacks at the Times who will be all that’s left of the staff, living in a SJW hall-of-mirrors funhouse .

    If the paper wanted to turn themselves into a kind of neo-Stalinist niche pamphleteering operation, with race replacing class, they’ve found exactly the right way to do it. Firing Stephens would just complete that makeover. I have a sense that Stephens is kind of daring them to do exactly that. Perhaps he’s disgusted enough with them to figure it’s worth jumping a sinking ship in a way that completes the demolition.

  2. “In place of former notions of fairness toward individuals regardless of race, the Woke left has new ideas of “restorative justice” for racial groups. In place of traditional commitments to free speech, it has new proscriptions on hate speech. In place of the liberal left’s past devotion to facts, it demands new respect for feelings.” – yes, Stephens puts it very well.

    1. Meh. I am skeptical/suspicious of his praises. Conservative commenters were against old school liberalism. They’re temporarily singing it’s praises now because wokeism is so bad. When wokeism burns itself out though, folks like Stephens will go right back to bashing old school liberalism.

      Show me a right-wing commentator who admitted/said in 2010 that (unlike others) liberals have a devotion to facts. That’s a conservative commentator worth listening to.

  3. See, this is a fine example of smart, thoughtful conservative. It is greatly refreshing to hear from them. With all the other wing-nuttery coming from the political right, it also seems very rare!

  4. I am surprised that Stephens didn’t raise the example of Swarthmore. There, the attempts of the Woke failed completely because the President of the College took a tough stand and told the aggrieved students, more or less, No, take your demands and go back to class. Valerie Smith is African American, which might give her some advantage in dealing with the Woke. Regardless, she is ensuring that this college will retain its academic standing and not descend into chaos.

  5. Recommend reading McNeil’s 4 part explanation of his departure from the NYT. Incredibly damning of that organization. What a farce to lose a Pulitzer-worthy report covering a literally life-threatening topic.

    1. Seconded. I’m seriously consider unsubscribing from the New York Times as a result of this fiasco, though I would sorely miss it. There aren’t many decent alternatives left, unfortunately.

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