A new New York Times opinion columnist

April 27, 2022 • 10:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry and I have lamented here at WEIT the decline of The New York Times, including its descent into woke ideology and pseudoscience. But we have noted some encouraging shifts in the position of the editorial board, even if they are sometimes confused, and the odious Dean Baquet is stepping down as executive editor. A new opinion columnist, Pamela Paul, has just been added, and her first column is encouraging, as it suggests that the Times may be diversifying its opinion writers beyond its stock conservatives. In the column, she takes on the notion of “lived experience”.

The accompanying illustration is quite clever. If “lived experience” limits our art, then all an artist can do is reproduce a precise image of himself. (The artist looks rather more like a physician from a 1950s cigarette ad than a sculptor, though.)

The central tenet of identity politics is that an individual’s “identity”, primarily “race” and “gender”, defines and constrains an individual’s position in society, both in what that individual will suffer from in an unjust society, and in what that individual may do in a just society. A frequent rhetorical flourish in the assertion of this central tenet is that “lived experience” is the sine qua non of non-problematic expression– unless an individual has the same identity, that individual may not write about, depict, study, evaluate, or otherwise comment on someone who is of that identity, or the identity in general.

Paul disagrees. She begins by questioning her own competency to write about anything outside her experience:

Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?

and notes that to the “establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts” the answer is, increasingly, ‘no’:

It’s the ultimate litmus test: Only those whose “lived experience” matches the story are qualified to tell the tale.

She explains what this means:

So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

It’s essentially a turf war. Only Latino authors can write novels about Latinos. Only Holocaust survivors can convey the truth of the Holocaust. Only disabled people can portray disabled people. Everyone else is out.

But she does not accept this constriction of creativity and commentary:

This is one point of view, and as with most points of view, some of it is valid. Clearly those who have lived through something — whether it’s a tsunami or a lifetime of racial discrimination — have a story to tell. Their perspective is distinct and it’s valuable.

But it is, crucially, only one perspective. And to suggest that only those whose identities match those of the people in a story — whether it’s the race of a showrunner or the sex of the author of a book under review — is a miserly take on the human experience.

Think about the great art that would be lost if we loyally carried out this rigid identitarian mandate.

There is in her piece one thing that I originally took to be a false step. Early in the piece, she wonders whether Jews are entitled to update “West Side Story”, since it is “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”. This statement, taken at face value, displays a shocking ignorance of the play on which it purports to comment. (A sort of ignorance which is, unfortunately, increasingly evident in the pages of the Times.) “West Side Story” is not “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”, anymore than it is about “Polish lives” or even “Veronese lives”– it is about human lives. As everyone knows, “West Side Story” is a musical retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”, set in New York in the 1950s. In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare, an early modern Englishman, mined “Italian” sources for a story set in the Renaissance based on tales that go back to Classical antiquity in Greece and Rome. To locate the heart of this story in any particularity of “Puerto Rican lives” is a profound misinterpretation.

Upon reflection, however, I believe she is merely parroting and parodying the complaints of the woke, and I read this passage as mockery rather than error.

Do read her whole piece, with its salutary thesis that “lived experience” is a “miserly take on the human experience.”

44 thoughts on “A new New York Times opinion columnist

  1. Hi Greg! Good to hear that the NYT may be shaking things up. I’m so tired of hearing about the “lived experience” and am glad that someone at the NYT is expressing views to the contrary.

    And, yes, Jews are free to update West Side Story. After all, the original concept was by Jerome Robbins, the original lyrics were by Steven Sondheim, and the original music was by Leonard Bernstein. Who better to do an update than Steven Spielberg?

    1. I would contest the idea that Jerome Robbins originated the concept of a musical version of Romeo and Juliet.

      Anyway, that aside, West Side Story must be cancelled because it tells the story of gangs from two different ethnic backgrounds – so nobody could live the experience of all the characters in the musical. Also, it culturally appropriates a play from sixteenth century England which itself culturally appropriates a play from classical Greece. Furthermore, sixteenth century England was a white supremacist colonial power and Shakespeare was an old white man. Even furthermore, since West Side Story was written by people of Jewish origin, it must be boycotted in solidarity with Palestine.

      And it probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.

      1. The classical play you refer to is ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ by Ovid. I guess the original story is even older.

    2. Hey Norm! And Arthur Laurents wrote the book for the original stage play, and Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the 2021 film– six Jews, not just four! Paul alludes to all of these without naming them all, reinforcing my inference that she doesn’t really think that West Side Story is fundamentally about any particular nationality or ethnic group.

      GCM

      1. Speaking of Steven Spielberg, did he have the right to make “Schindler’s List?” After all, he’s not a Holocaust survivor. And only veterans can make war movies, so there goes “Saving Pvt. Ryan.”

        1. Why should Schindlers’s List be told by a Holocaust survivor? How about the guards and their lived experience? If truth is subjective, let’s hear their truth. And down the rabbit hole we go.

    3. Well, hell, Porgy and Bess was written by the Jewish George Gershwin, with lyrics and book by his brother Ira and the WASPy DuBose Heyward.

      And probably the most celebrated recording of the score was by Miles Davis (in collaboration with the Canuck Gil Evans). Miles frequently collaborated with white musicians, but he was about as far from an Uncle Tom as anyone could possibly get, which, you ask me, puts the lie to all this kinda nonsense.

  2. She’s right, of course. What I find sad is that she needs to say it. Although I will defend the existence of the phrase, “lived experience”, it is often used as a cudgel by the Woke. I doubt very much whether they apply it consistently. They just haul it out when they think it will win their argument. After all, if we only listen to those who speak from personal experience, it sort of destroys the idea of consultants, doctors, and helpers of all kinds. Does a doctor have to have lived experience of every disease she treats? And what about the benefit of detached objectivity in general?

    1. The woke readily toss the concept of “lived experience” when it when it requires them to acknowledge that biological women have a different lived experience that trans women. All of a sudden talking about lived experience is bigotry and transphobia. The hypocrisy is staggering.

    2. I must have woke-deafness, because I hardly ever hear the phrase being used that way. (You can always find someone using any phrase as a cudgel.)

      You may have heard the phrases “bird’s eye view” and “frog’s eye view”. The bird’s eye view encompasses a wide field and tells you important facts about how things relate to each other. The frog’s eye view encompasses a small field but is very rich in detail. If you want to know about whirligig beetles, start with the frog’s eye view. Lived experience is the frog’s eye view.

      Detached objectivity is great, after, and only after, you have absorbed the details provided by the frog’s eye view. Sermon over.

  3. “Lived experience” is something of a tautology. What other kind of experience is there? Since use of the phrase indicates a lack of intellectual rigour, you can be sure that the person who used it is about to perpetrate some bullshit.

    1. “Lived experience” is to be considered relative to “vicarious experience”. I don’t see how this isn’t clear. It’s pretty much synonymous with “personal experience”, as the NYT article points out, but like all word choices, it has a slightly different emphasis. If you don’t like it, don’t say it.

      1. I would argue that vicarious experience isn’t experience. It’s more akin to empathy. By the way, the NYT doesn’t stop at equating lived experience with personal experience. The full quote is

        So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.”

        However, I do take your point. Using the phrase “lived experience” is a preemptive attempt to invalidate ways of knowing (e.g. science, empathy) that don’t include experience. i.e.

        But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

        1. As with all phrases, it’s not intrinsically bad but can be used to express bad ideas. I agree that “vicarious experience” has a certain oxymoronic quality to it. Still, it makes sense when used to describe, say, a particularly well-written travel book.

    2. I think, and I could be wrong, but I think the term, “lived experience,” was originally used to distinguish “ascribed experience” from “avowed experience.” Of course, if this is the case, the word “avowed” should have been used instead of “lived” as a moderator of “experience.” Like you said, all experienced lived, so the word “lived” is, at best, imprecise.

      It is undeniable, however, that ingroup members ascribe notions of what it means to be a member of the outgroup, without ever having been a member of that group. Oftentimes these ascriptions are mistaken. There is at least an air of credibility to the notion that first-hand, avowed experience can provide some added insight to an issue. People go too far in saying that ONLY those who have such experience are able to say anything meaningful. Avowing an experience doesn’t automatically make one a reliable narrator or interpreter of that experience (That’s why they call it, “Speaking my truth.” It avoids the messiness of demonstrating the truth.). So the solution to this can’t be the silencing of ascribing voices. Instead, continued progress on mutual understanding of each’s experience through dialog is the answer.

      1. “Speaking my truth” is right next to “other ways of knowing” and first cousin to the blank slate hypothesis. They all fall under the umbrella idea that everything is subjective. Terrible ideas, all.

        1. Too right, Paul. “Lived experience” and “my truth” set my teeth on edge and are usually red flags that warn something toweringly stupid and often obnoxious is going to be said next. They are both extremely narcissistic lead-ins.
          D.A.
          NYC

          1. Ironically, “my truth” tells you that the person knows that not everyone believes as they do. Somehow they’ve convinced themselves that that’s a good thing. Truth as personal preference.

    3. I interpret it as a superlative meant to distinguish a greater depth of of experience from an occasional, diversionary, or sideline one. So, the fact that I once swam a competitive race in high school does not give me the lived experience of a competitive swimmer, and the fact that I was mugged once does not give me the lived experience of someone whose life has been affected by crime.

      Connotation, dudes. It’s a real thing. English does not always use every word in a phrase for it’s literal denotation.

    4. Cones to mind :

      Nullius in verba

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nullius_in_verba

      … so, maybe “lived experience” can get a cool Latin phrase instead – if only I understood Latin. Something like :

      On the word of no one, except for this because het, its me, and we can’t all have a TV show named after us or get a statue.

      … needs work.

  4. Precisely, Paul Topping. The mythos of “lived experience” is an assault on the experimental method (also referred to as “white empiricism”), and became fashionable in the performance Left. It is typically asserted on a cellphone while driving an electric car to a dentistry appointment. The pose is as
    manifestly phony as was its progenitor, the post-modern insistence that science is just another story. Back in the days of post-modernism, we tended to dismiss this sort of thing as harmless affectation, like dyeing one’s hair green—-and then it started turning up in places like the NYT, Scientific. American, etc. etc. I guess one should never dismiss the significance of mere fashion trends.

  5. Oh hooray, a sign we will move on as a civilization.

    Tangential silly thought :

    A. The New York Times

    B. The New York City Times

    I usually read A while thinking/feeling B. I think there’s a Billy Joel song that applies – or Sinatra… Liza Minelli…

  6. Well, we’ll see whether this is a change at the NYT, or whether the banshees will come out against this sap at the foundations of CRT.

  7. Thanks! I love being able to reframe New Right sentiment in New Left verbiage (and vice versa; they have so much in common!). This gives me a great one. I’ve heard quite a few pro-war Republicans claiming that anyone who has not served in a military should never become US President. Dressing it up in New Left words like ‘Only people with Lived Experience in a military…’ will be fun.

      1. My favorite turnabout is referring to defense spending as a form of socialism; forcing all taxpayers to pay for the service of collective defense, where the state owns the method of production or service. It’s all true, but watching the Far Right dodge the term ‘socialism’ is hilarious.

          1. I used to do the same for the Left, but the New Left seems to live in a post-irony era, constantly defending against criticism and people using words (heavens forfend) against them. Watching a software developer defend a racist New Left stance is just painful. Their reactions to being called ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ are even more denialist than the New Right’s when being called ‘socialist’. https://pbs.twimg.com/media/D6skskMWkAY-UoZ.jpg

  8. The NYT can add all the intellectually diverse op-ed writers it wants, but it’s problem is the way it reports the news. It’s extreme bias is highly damaging, and that’s what 99% of its paper and online material is.

    The 1619 Project, filled with lies so egregious that even the NYT had to walk at least some of them back, though they did so without any mention (“ghost editing”) and continued to use them in their “teaching materials” as they try to promote its adoption by public schools.

    It’s bias in crime reporting: where crimes committed by white people are immediately identified as such and reported on with frequency, while crimes committed by minorities are far more rarely reported on (despite the fact that they happen vastly more frequently) and. when they are, the race of the perpetrator often goes unmentioned.

    It’s bias in reporting on Israel: note that I don’t even bother including “Palestine,” because all the reporting is about how terrible Israel is, and Palestine is only mentioned in the context of being a collection of victims.

    It’s bias in political reporting: pushing stories that fit and promote Wokeness, while ignoring those that don’t and, if a story that is anti-woke becomes too big to ignore, simply lying about what happened to gaslight its readers (cf Kyle Rittenhouse, the “MAGA kid,” or its breathless reporting on multiple shootings of minorities in which the person who was shot was either actively attacking another citizen/officer or holding a gun after having just robbed a store).

    It’s the wholesale creation of narratives that blatantly and intentionally lie about reality. Polls now show that Americans think thousands upon thousands of black people die at the hands of police every year because of this kind of reporting, when the number is usually less than 250 total, and 99.5% of them are entirely justified. People think that Israel kills thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians every year, when they usually end up killing a couple dozen due to collateral damage from strikes on missiles hidden in hospitals and schools, and only in a year when they’re forced by the attacks of Palestinian terrorist groups to conduct a military operation. People think there’s a nationwide epidemic of anti-Asian hate crimes perpetrated by white people, when (1) there have been a few dozen — essentially a rounding error — since the beginning of COVID in a nation of nearly 330 million people, and (2) they’ve almost all been committed by minorities (people also think that the “spa shooting” was an anti-Asian hate crime incident, when there has been exactly zero evidence of such and widespread evidence that the shooter was driven by self-loathing for frequenting that spa which illegally offered sexual services). People think the recent NYC “subway shooter” was just a mentally ill man and have already forgotten about it due to the lack of continued reporting, when he had a years-long history of posting extreme and virulent anti-white, anti-Latino, and anti-Asian racism online, and this was not reported; hell, I reckon most people don’t even know that the shooter was black, because the NYT (among many others) failed to mention this in the vast majority of their articles.

    I could go on with stories about Rittenhouse, Amber Heard, etc., but you get the point: the NYT and its bedfellows lie about anything they feel the need to lie about in order to push their narratives. Their reporting is driven chiefly by their political goals.

    This is what manufacturing narratives does to the population’s psyche. I don’t see any meaningful change in the NYT, and I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

    1. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go over the word count. I only realized after I saw the length of this post on the page that it may exceed it, and I need to plug the post into Microsoft Word to get a word count of a post (unless there’s another in-browser way I don’t know about…?).

    2. Yes, I agree particularly when it comes to Palestine. The recent rumble there was started by two (Palestinian) mass shooters sneaking into Israel and shooting 7 Israelis, no provocation. The blowback was covered by just about everybody as something Israel started. (sigh)

      On the fake Anti-Asian crime wave I wrote an article on that and associated issues lately:

      https://democracychronicles.org/on-the-anti-asian-hate-crime-wave/
      I write for various (usually left) websites.
      D.A.
      NYC

      1. Good article. However, I think there is a real anti-Asian discrimination going on in the admission policies of some US universities.

    3. So let me get this straight: you’re smart enough to recognize the NYT’s bias because you read other sources, but nobody else who reads the paper is?

    4. You are sufficiently well-read and attentive to have figured out NYT’s bias. Why do you presume that the remainder of NYT’s readership is unable to do the same?

  9. I’m an NYT subscriber. I’ve noticed that when it comes to”social justice issue” articles, whether they are critical of a subject like Pamela Paul’s piece, or supportive, the reader reaction comment sections tend to be largely critical of “wokism.” I believe that only NYT subscribers can comment, so that has always heartened me that even NYT’s apparent reader base isn’t swallowing this stuff whole.

    I’d also note that many of the reader comments to this piece by Pamela Paul are excellent – plenty of well articulated arguments against this “lived experience” trope.

  10. Can’t read the original article, but I hope that it goes without saying that imagining another’s perspective, even if quite foreign, is the basis of human empathy.

  11. I have a certain sympathy to those who wish for more experience-based authorship. When you see hilariously bad descriptions of female desire from male authors, it’s worth wondering why those authors didn’t bother consulting women before writing. Same goes for issues of race, ethnicity, culture, etc.

    It would be strange, though, to think that authors should never venture outside of their own identity, otherwise fiction would become solipsistic. Not really sure how anything can have any sort of authorship except as collaborative. Story-telling requires putting oneself into another’s shoes. The best storytellers do this well already, so there really shouldn’t be much of an issue beyond the complaint about mediocrity.

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