This week’s New York Times has a decent essay (click on screenshot below) by John McWhorter on the history of the “n-word”, which he actually spells out repeatedly—34 times. The reason? He’s discussing three things: the origin of the word, its various morphs and meanings, and how it became a slur at the same time that once-unsayable words like “fuck” have become pretty mainstream.
As McWhorter notes, the use of the n-word as a complete taboo has been in the air for some time, and was still used openly on “The Jeffersons” television show and on McWhorter’s own radio interviews. But when Christopher Darden refused to utter the word during the O. J. Simpson trial (remember that Detective Mark Fuhrman was accused of having used it), the true taboo period began, and of course is with us still. It’s even taboo to use it in a didactic fashion, or reading it as part of literature (see below).
This essay is not one of McWhorter’s best efforts, I thought, but is still well worth reading. I wasn’t as interested in the etymology of the word as how and when it became taboo, and in McWhorter’s main point, which he states succinctly:
Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.
In other words, the n-word is the new “fuck”.
Another issue with McWhorter’s essay is that he offers no opinion on whether the word can be uttered didactically, as in a reading of Huckleberry Finn or in a classroom discussion. While McWhorter clearly feels it’s warranted in his essay (he spells it on in full over thirty times), this is an essay on etymology and the demonization of a word—not exactly the same thing as teaching a book that uses the word. I would have expected McWorter to give an opinion about using the word in full in other contexts, but he doesn’t.
But perhaps he was prevented from doing so. If you recall from earlier this year, NYT science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr. was forced to resign because he used the word, and in a didactic context, on a trip with students to Peru. McNeil was simply trying to ascertain whether the word was actually used by another student, and was not using it as a racial slur.
It didn’t matter. As editor Dean Baquet emphasized in the NYT’s statement (my italics)
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
In other words, as the Daily Beast summarized its summary of the NYT staffers’ objections, which swayed Baquet from merely disciplining McNeil to eventually firing him:
But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel. . .
That would seem to settle the issue as far as the New York Times is concerned. It is the reaction that is important, not the intent of how the n-word is used. Ergo the NYT should never, ever allow that word to be printed, for its usage in print will certainly offend some people. (Remember, too, that McNeil used the word verbally, in a question, and did not print it 34 times!).
I guess, though, that the paper has rethought its stance. Apparently intent DOES matter now, at least in the Times‘s explanation of why it decided to publish McWhorter’s piece including multiple instances of the n-word. Click on the screenshot below (the link appears in the header of McWhorter’s piece):
The NYT’s explanation (there’s more in the short piece):
McWhorter’s piece is about the word itself — its etymology, sound and spelling. Using asterisks or dashes to veil the word would render this discussion incomprehensible, as would using a phrase like “the N-word.” Employing that phrase as a stand-in would also make the essay hard to follow, since part of the article concerns the distinction between the use of “the N-word” and the slur itself. So we came to the conclusion that printing the word was the right solution.
McWhorter’s argument has implications that go well beyond linguistic curiosity. As he writes, “What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people.”
Tracing the evolving use of this slur and the controversy it engenders — even within The Times — shows us how our society and what it respects have changed.
The first paragraph is bogus; I replaced every use of the full word in McWhorter’s essay with either “the n-word” or “n—-r”, and it did not make the essay any harder to read.
The second two paragraphs totally undercut editor Baquet’s earlier statement that “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” Well, apparently they do, at least in an erudite essay by a black linguist.
Don’t get me wrong: I think McWhorter’s essay was readable and enlightening, and the recent transposition between slurs and profanity is a good point. There was no reason for him to have to use the euphemism “the n-word” instead of spelling it out. What I object to is the hypocrisy of the NYT in saying that they won’t publish any “racist language regardless of intent”, and then backing off in this essay. As Greg asked me when he sent me these links, “How does Dean Baquet live with himself?”
Other recent contexts in which the Times thought printing nigger was acceptable include movie dialogue (March 2021), a Frederick Douglass quotation (February 2021), an essay about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (December 2020), a David Dinkins obituary (November 2020), a review of Barack Obama’s book A Promised Land (November 2020), a news analysis comparing Donald Trump to George Wallace (July 2020), and an essay on police reform (June 2020). Yet the paper’s executive editor, in explaining why McNeil had to go, claimed “we do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” If there is any sensible or even consistent standard at work here, it is pretty hard to discern.
On Wednesday, famed columnist Mary Schmich, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her Chicago Tribune columns, came to Botany Pond with Trib photographer Antonio Perez. I had emailed her that Honey and Dorothy had arrived, and she wanted to continue her series (two last year: here and here) on the remarkable duck who’s come here five years in a row. (I think Honey now deserves an honorary degree from the University of Chicago!)
And so Mary wrote a great column (below) in which Honey gets top billing, so to speak. I was not expecting her to want to write another piece, but she told me that Honey’s tale is a great human interest story and she’s gotten tons of positive feedback on it. You can access the column here, or by clicking on the screenshot below. If for some reason you’re out of town and/or paywalled, judicious inquiry can yield the piece.
I am grateful to Mary for taking an interest and writing such heartwarming stuff, and also to Mr. Perez for his photos. (One is shown below, which shows Honey’s distinctive bill patterns.) The U of C facilities people, of course, have been instrumental in protecting the ducks and ducklings.
(One is shown below, which shows Honey’s distinctive bill patterns.)
For a while, NYT columnist Bret Stephens has had, as the saying goes, “One foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave.” The banana peel is his columns, which are not only semi-conservative in politics, but also against the policies of the paper itself. (For example, Stephens wrote a column criticizing Dean Baquet’s views on the n-word, with Baquet arguing that uttering the word in any circumstance was a grave journalistic misstep, and “intent didn’t matter”. Stephens’s column got spiked and then was published in The New York Post.) At the time I wrote that Stephens was “bucking for a pink slip” from his newspaper. The pink slip (or a resignation) is the grave.
That pink slip is closer to arrival now that Stephens has published another contrarian column in his paper. In this case he will anger his editors in three ways:
a. Stephens calls out the ideological bias of casting the Atlanta spa murders as Asian “hate crimes,” saying that there’s no evidence for that. While that’s true, and while federal prosecutors have so far seen no evidence for a “hate” charge, this doesn’t matter. All the protestors seem to already know the motive. It’s a sign of the times that saying we need more evidence for such a motivation, especially when there is none, is regarded as a racist view.
b. Stephens goes against the way his own paper, as well as others, have reported on the crime, emphasizing over and over again its roots in hatred of Asians. While this is likely true for other attacks on Asians, it may well not be true for the mass shooting in Atlanta. As Andrew Sullivan wrote of the NYT last Friday,
I believe the count is now closer to a dozen. Stephens, of course, won’t mention this, as they’d either spike the column or make him leave that out.
c. Stephens notes that many (I estimate at least half, though the media tends to hide this fact) of the recent assaults on Asians were done by people of color, mostly African-Americans (see some data below). This goes against the Critical Race Theory view that now dominates the New York Times.
How long will Stephens be allowed to stay on? (I suspect he’s already a pariah in the newsroom.) And will he move to Substack, the refuge for journalists expelled by the Woke? We shall see. It would be odd of the paper didn’t have any conservative columnists, though!
Click on the screenshot to read the piece; it’s not long.
And here’s what he says about a) and c), though he doesn’t go after his paper explicitly:
The ideological bias:
And the motive, while still requiring scrutiny, is confessed: The killer claims to have been struggling with a sex addiction at odds with his evangelical beliefs. According to The Associated Press, “All three businesses where people were fatally shot Tuesday have detailed recent reviews on an online site that leads users to places that provide sexual services.”
So how do we get headlines like “The Atlanta Spa Shootings and the Year of Hatred Against Asian Americans” on a news story from U.S. News & World Report? And why has reporting of the incident by so many news outlets emphasized the race of six of the victims when there is, as yet, only one rumored bit of evidence (in a South Korean newspaper) that the victims were attacked on account of their race?
The reason is that we have two things that, separately, are important and true, but that are being dubiously conjoined for reasons of ideological convenience.
The two things are:
1.) Hate crimes against Asian-Americans are on the rise, at least in 16 U.S. cities, and have risen by 149% in 2020 over previous years, while hate crimes in general have decreased 7%. This clearly shows (given that the sample size isn’t terribly small) that there’s a significantly disproportionate increase in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic.
2.) Donald Trump “stoked anti-immgrant hatreds that very likely contributed to the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2019 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso.” And don’t forget his incessant references to the “China virus” and the “Kung Flu.”
And Stephen’s lesson, which will irritate his editors most:
But if the news media should have learned one thing over the past 20 years, it’s to be exceptionally wary of trying to map one truth onto another for the sake of a compelling narrative.
. . . Now we have a rising rate of anti-Asian hate crimes, and a horrific crime in which the perpetrator is white and most of his victims were of Asian descent (although two were white). The powerful ideological temptation is to treat this as yet another shooting in the vein of Pittsburgh and El Paso — or, as one CNN headline put it, “White Supremacy and Hate Are Haunting Asian-Americans.”
Tempting — but mostly baseless. The same study that found last year’s rise in anti-Asian hate crimes also notes that the overall incidence of these crimes is relatively small, both in absolute numbers (122 incidents in 2020, out of a total of 1,717 hate crimes), and compared with other victimized groups. It should go without saying that one hate crime is one too many, but even though reports of these incidents may be a small fraction of the overall crimes, proportions matter.
And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.
Well, had I been Stephens, I would have left out the argument that the overall incidence of crimes is small, as it looks like an attempt to minimize something that angers a lot of people. Yes, it’s true that hate crimes occur less often than most people think, but that’s not all that relevant here. What is relevant is that more blacks than whites committed hate crimes against Asians, and that the proportion of blacks who commit hate crimes on Asians is twice their proportion in the population. This definitely contradicts the white supremacy trope wielded by CRT, and explains, I think, why it’s hard to find from news reports the ethnicity of those committing hate crimes on Asians.
Here’s some data from 2018 on the proportion of different groups who were subject to violent crime, and the ethnicities of the criminal. These were tweeted by Wilfred Reilly. Now the data are three years old, and don’t reflect the uptick in crimes on Asians that’s said to have occurred. At least back then, Asians were not predominantly assaulted by Whites, but Whites, Blacks, and other Asians assaulted Asians with roughly equal frequency.
In 2019, the total population percentage of these groups from Census statistics were:
Stephens does refer to hate crimes from 2020, but only in New York City:
And while data about the identity of perpetrators is hard to come by, the New York Police Department did keep tabs last year. It found that out of the 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in which arrests were made, two arrestees were white, five were white Hispanic, two were Black Hispanic, and the rest were Black.
What can one conclude from this limited data? Not a lot, except that the idea that white supremacy is what haunts Asian-Americans rests on empirically thin ice. Like so much else in public discourse today, it’s another capital-T ideological Truth in search of lower-case-t factual truths to validate its predetermined, overstretched hypotheses. That it has the laudable goal of “raising awareness” and “combating hate” does not relieve journalists of the responsibility to report facts scrupulously, not play to fears in the service of a higher good.
His indictment of journalism is, of course, an indictment of the New York Times as well, as is his last sentence, which he adds after saying that people also want to know how the perp was able to buy his gun on the day of the killing, how religious fanaticism can lead to such a killing, and why local authorities overlook the sex trade that goes on in spas.
All of this would be journalism in which the public could have confidence. Instead we have morality plays.
After leaving the New York Times for, among other things, uttering the full n-word while accompanying a group of students on a 2019 junket to Peru, Donald McNeil has finally told his part of the story—on the day after he left the paper. The story, in four parts on Medium, was vetted by two lawyers. And it’s long. Printed out in 9-point type, single spaced, it still occupies 43 pages, and took me 70 minutes to read.
However, if you want to see how toxic things are at the Times, and read McNeil’s defense, you might want to take an hour to read it. Here are the links to the four parts:
Now the n-word accusations, and several others by 13 students, had already been investigated by the NYT in 2019; McNeil was reprimanded, and a letter put in his folder, solely for using that n-word, but he wasn’t penalized beyond that. But when The Daily Beast published a story on the accusations on January 28 of this year, the merde hit the fan. The Times staffers, largely the black ones, met with executive editor Dean Baquet, and, well, there was a complicated process of negotiation, with Baquet finally telling McNeil that he should “consider” resigning. Somehow—and this part isn’t clear in the account—McNeil, who didn’t want to resign, finally wound up leaving the paper. I suspect a lawsuit is in the offing.
Here are McNeil’s defenses, written this year, against three of the most serious accusations against him. The first is that he used the n-word in a discussion with a student, the second that he supposedly said that there was no such thing as “white privilege” and also denied the existence of systemic racism, and the third that he suposedly justified the use of blackface. None of the students’ accusations hold water, save that he did use the n-word, but just in a question about whether the student had indeed used that specific word.
McNeil’s partial defense (he goes on at length later in the series):
1. Yes, I did use the word, in this context: A student asked me if I thought her high school’s administration was right to suspend a classmate of hers for using the word in a video she’d made in eighth grade. I said “Did she actually call someone a “(offending word”? Or was she singing a rap song or quoting a book title or something?” When the student explained that it was the student, who was white and Jewish, sitting with a black friend and the two were jokingly insulting each other by calling each other offensive names for a black person and a Jew, I said “She was suspended for that? Two years later? No, I don’t think suspension was warranted. Somebody should have talked to her, but any school administrator should know that 12-year-olds say dumb things. It’s part of growing up.”
2. I was never asked if I believed in white privilege. As someone who lived in South Africa in the 1990’s and has reported in Africa almost every year since, I have a clearer idea than most Americans of white privilege. I was asked if I believed in systemic racism. I answered words to the effect of: “Yeah, of course, but tell me which system we’re talking about. The U.S. military? The L.A.P.D.? The New York Times? They’re all different.”
3. The question about blackface was part of a discussion of cultural appropriation. The students felt that it was never, ever appropriate for any white person to adopt anything from another culture — not clothes, not music, not anything. I counter-argued that all cultures grow by adopting from others. I gave examples — gunpowder and paper. I said I was a San Franciscan, and we invented blue jeans. Did that mean they — East Coast private school students — couldn’t wear blue jeans? I said we were in Peru, and the tomato came from Peru. Did that mean that Italians had to stop using tomatoes? That they had to stop eating pizza? Then one of the students said: “Does that mean that blackface is OK?” I said “No, not normally — but is it OK for black people to wear blackface?” “The student, sounding outraged, said “Black people don’t wear blackface!” I said “In South Africa, they absolutely do. The so-called colored people in Cape Town have a festival every year called the Coon Carnival* where they wear blackface, play Dixieland music and wear striped jackets. It started when a minstrel show came to South Africa in the early 1900’s. Americans who visit South Africa tell them they’re offended they shouldn’t do it, and they answer ‘Buzz off. This is our culture now. Don’t come here from America and tell us what to do.’ So what do you say to them? Is it up to you, a white American, to tell black South Africans what is and isn’t their culture?”
He expands on these explanations in detail, but it’s pretty convincing that, although he is a bit of a curmudgeon (and admits it), he wasn’t guilty of the offenses of which the paper accused him. The n-word was used more or less didactically—certainly not as a racial slur—and the paper itself has used the word (printed in full) several times. Their claim, then that “intent is irrelevant” when you use the word also holds no water.
If you want the short version, the NYT itself has published a pretty straightforward summary of the story and McNeil’s defense. But you won’t get the full flavor of this incident unless you have a look at McNeil’s side. Why is this important? Because the New York Times is America’s best newspaper—or at least used to be. Right now it looks to be a slave to Wokeness and a paper run not by the editors, but by an easily outraged staff in combination with social media.
There are indications of how toxic the NYT atmosphere is throughout the long series, but I’ll let Greg Mayer put this in an addendum to this post, so come back here in a day or so. Of course McNeil’s defense is just that: his defense, and you can say that he’s covering up things or putting a favorable spin on what happened. But it doesn’t seem like that, and we already know about the toxicity of the New York Times from its treatment of other staffers like Bari Weiss and James Bennet.
What offends me most is that the paper already fully investigated the accusations detailed in the Daily Beast article two years ago, and nothing new arose since. But it was the publicity, and the new outrage of the staff in the newsroom, that made the paper revisit the accusations and finally decide to dump one of its best science reporters.
Watch this space for the addendum by Greg. I’ve concentrated briefly on the accusations against McNeil, while Greg is outraged at how the whole incident bespeaks a ham-handedness and unfairness in how the paper deals with its employees.
Addendum by Greg Mayer; as promised, here are some further thoughts on the McNeil matter.
When I first spoke to Jerry about McNeil’s account, I referred to the New York Times as a “hellhole” for the people who work there. Jerry, who focused his attention on the veracity of the allegations against McNeil, later asked me what made me characterize it in that way, and I responded with an unrehearsed litany of woe, as recounted by McNeil. When Jerry suggested I add something here about this, I at first hesitated to use that word, but, reflecting on what I had just told him, hellhole it is.
McNeil had a decades-long career at the Times, and had long been stationed overseas. Returning from overseas, he became a union leader, negotiating with Times management over contracts. The Times, however much it professes to be so on its editorial page, is not a champion of workers’ rights when it comes to its own workers, either in their compensation or their workplace rights. McNeil engaged in some tough negotiations, and the Times‘ eagerness to squeeze its workers is unedifying.
In 2019, some prep school students, who participated in a Times-sponsored trip to South America, complained about McNeil. He was called before a veritable star chamber, where he was peppered with questions, given no opportunity to examine or even learn what ‘evidence’ was being used against him, and– the pièce de résistance— his interrogators were the very management negotiators with whom he had already tangled on behalf of his fellow workers. Surprisingly, his union gave him little or no assistance. Times editors and managers, including those who asked McNeil to go on the trip, proved to be either ineffectual or unwilling to aid in his time of need. This ended, as one might expect, badly and unfairly– McNeil was officially disciplined.
Earlier this year, an article in the Daily Beast publicized the 2019 event, and the Times came back at him for a second round of punishment. Once again, Times editors were helpless, hostile, or both, and the union did little or nothing. The added element now was that McNeil’s fate was also put to a sort of plebiscite of his fellow workers– or some selected set of them, anyway– and they don’t like him. Displaying their weakness as a badge of honor, they called for management to get rid of him. Whatever happened to worker solidarity! As Marx didn’t write,
Workers of the world divide! You have nothing to lose but your institutional safeguards against arbitrary dismissal!
McNeil was forced to resign. (This may be construed as constructive dismissal, and it might also violate the union contract to be disciplined twice for the same ‘offense’, so McNeil may have grounds to sue. However, he has indicated a disinclination to do so. I’d like to see him write for the NY Daily News!)
Executive editor Dean Baquet comes off especially badly in the whole affair. Appearing weak and ineffectual in 2019, in 2021 he feigns sympathy, and then stabs McNeil publicly in the back, issuing his transparently mendacious and now infamous “regardless of intent” statement. If Dean Baquet likes you (as McNeil thinks–or thought– he did), you’d better run!
What McNeil– and the Times— needed were discerning adults who knew what was going on, and had some sense of judgment; who knew how to weigh a few teenagers’ complaints against a decades-long career, which was just, in many ways, peaking, with much lauded coverage of the COVID pandemic. Instead, he got inquisitors who combined personal animus, management vendetta, ideological axe-grinding, and corporate CYA into a witches brew of poison, which has now ended his career, and further degraded the now sagging reputation of the Times.
McNeil expresses some fondness and respect for the Times— who wouldn’t, after having given more than 40 years of his life to it. And any institution as large as the NY Times must have good and bad aspects. But it’s beginning to seem a bit like East Germany– sure, you could live a decent life there if you kept your head down and went about your business, but woe betide he who runs afoul of the system.
(I’ll mention two things parenthetically here. First, I met McNeil several years ago when he visited UW-Parkside as part of a program the Times was running to encourage subscriptions and the use of newspapers at college campuses. I went to his presentation, and asked him a few questions afterward. I mention this not because I have any relationship to him, but because it shows that, good Timesman that he is– or was– he was out on the hustings, hustling for the Times– much as he was in Peru.
Second, disrespect for a shaman? You gotta be kidding me. Having taught a course called “Science and Pseudoscience” for many years, this really riled me. In a trip designed to educate students about rural public health, the teachers damn well better be able to distinguish between medicine and quackery, and to develop that skill in their students. While the distinction between cranks and charlatans is a useful one (the former to be granted some leeway for their sincerity), disdain and even ridicule is sometimes called for. As H.L. Mencken said, and Martin Gardner endorsed, “One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.”)
According to the New York Post (click on screenshot below), New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing his editors and many staffers for asserting that, in firing science reporter Donald McNeil for saying the n-word, the intent of his utterance did not matter.
That, of course, is absolutely ludicrous. In fact, I find it hard to believe that the paper, even mired in its wokeness, cannot make the distinction between the didactic use of the word, as McNeil apparently used it, and a word thrown in someone’s face as an nasty racial slur. The law, of course, recognizes such differences. If you run someone down with your car deliberately, it’s not the same crime as accidentally hitting someone in the street because you were distracted. There are many examples like this. We use notions of intent all the time in our daily lives, trying to decide whether someone did something nasty on purpose or out of sheer cluelessness. Forgiveness has everything to do with intent.
Here, let me list a few slurs used about Jews like myself: hebe, yid, sheenie, big-nose, hymie, Ikie, kike, moch, and Shylock. In fact, there’s a whole section of a Wikipedia article listing these words and their derivation, part of a longer article on “Religious slurs.” Is publishing these words just as bad as hurling them at Jews? You’d have to be bonkers to think that. Likewise, my listing them as insulting synonyms—many of you may not know them—is not the same as using them to insult Jews.
But the New York Times apparently cannot make this obvious distinction. Columnist Bret Stephens called out his paper for its obtuseness in a column, and what did they do? They ditched the column! Why? Because it spoke truth to the spineless people in charge of the paper, who told the staff—who themselves maintained that their harassment training taught them that intent is irrelevant to shibboleths like the n-word—that they agreed: intent is irrelevant.
But he New York Post got hold of Stephens’ column and published it. How did they get it? They explain:
Last weekend, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece criticizing the rationale behind the forced ouster of Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr., but it was never published. Stephens told colleagues the column was killed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Since then, the piece has circulated among Times staffers and others — and it was from one of them, not Stephens himself, that The Post obtained it. We publish his spiked column here in full.
Check the link above, which claims that although publisher A. G. Sulzberger was consulted about trashing the column, op-ed editor Kathleen Kingsbury said the ultimate decision to trash the piece was hers. Here’s what she said:
“I have an especially high bar of running any column that could reflect badly on a colleague and I didn’t feel that this piece rose to that level,” Kingsbury told the site. “Bret and I had a professional conversation to kill the column on Monday night and he expressed his disappointment and we moved on.”
Read Stephens’ trashed column for yourself; there’s nothing in it that would warrant its trashing, and almost nothing about Stephens’ colleagues, for it’s largely about the use of “intent” in journalism. It was ditched because it implicitly criticized the editors and publishers for bad behavior:
A few excerpts:
Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.
It is the difference between murder and manslaughter. It is an aggravating or extenuating factor in judicial settings. It is a cardinal consideration in pardons (or at least it was until Donald Trump got in on the act). It’s an elementary aspect of parenting, friendship, courtship and marriage.
A hallmark of injustice is indifference to intention. Most of what is cruel, intolerant, stupid and misjudged in life stems from that indifference. Read accounts about life in repressive societies — I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” and Nien Cheng’s “Life and Death in Shanghai” — and what strikes you first is how deeply the regimes care about outward conformity, and how little for personal intention.
I’ve been thinking about these questions in an unexpected connection. . . .
Stephens then recounts l’affaire McNeil, and quotes editor Dean Baquet’s and managing editor Joe Kahn’s memo to the staff:
In an initial note to staff, editor-in-chief Dean Baquet noted that, after conducting an investigation, he was satisfied that McNeil had not used the slur maliciously and that it was not a firing offense. In response, more than 150 Times staffers signed a protest letter. A few days later, Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn reached a different decision.
“We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent,” they wrote on Friday afternoon. They added to this unambiguous judgment that the paper would “work with urgency to create clearer guidelines and enforcement about conduct in the workplace, including red-line issues on racist language.”
Stephens emphasizes that his column is not about McNeil’s case in particular or whether the n-word is offensive and hurtful. As he says, “This is an argument about three words: ‘Regardless of intent’.” He then shows that the Times itself has used the n-word, in full, repeatedly, and explains why, especially in journalism, the question of intent is important:
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.
You can read the rest for yourself; here’s Stephens’ ending:
We are living in a period of competing moral certitudes, of people who are awfully sure they’re right and fully prepared to be awful about it. Hence the culture of cancellations, firings, public humiliations and increasingly unforgiving judgments. The role of good journalism should be to lead us out of this dark defile. Last week, we went deeper into it.
Now can you tell me why this column was spiked except that it was clear, true, and a big spanking for the Times‘s editors? A discussion like this one is important—important for the paper and for journalism. Many op-eds that get published in the NYT are far less weighty. Yet they chose to throw it in the circular file. In general, the NYT does not like to report on itself: this affair has appeared mostly in the pages of The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, and even CNN Business.
And I wonder if Stephens, after his column was spiked and passed on by somebody to the NY Post, now has an uncertain future at the Times.
Glenn Greenwald is a mixed bag, and though I generally agree with what he has to say, I’m not a fan of his angry and often self-aggrandizing tone. That tone is on display in his new Substack column, but it’s a good column and well worth reading. (Substack is now the go-to place for disaffected journalists; Greenwald went there when he parted ways with The Intercept.) I don’t think I’ll subscribe, but I did get a note to look at today’s piece, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below. And you should, while considering whether you want to ante up $50 per year. (This seems to be the standard fee for our comrades at Substack.)
Greenwald takes out after those “journalists” who spend their time monitoring others, often in online chatrooms, to call them out for using ideologically impure language or for other political transgressions. He recounts the Donald McNeil “n-word” firing from the New York Timesthat we discussed the other day, and has a few other choice tidbits of journalistic malfeasance. But first, his general take:
I’ve written before about one particularly toxic strain of this authoritarian “reporting.” Teams of journalists at three of the most influential corporate media outlets — CNN’s “media reporters” (Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy), NBC’s “disinformation space unit” (Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny), and the tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their “journalism” to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention). These hall-monitor reporters are a major factor explaining why tech monopolies, which (for reasons of self-interest and ideology) never wanted the responsibility to censor, now do so with abandon and seemingly arbitrary blunt force: they are shamed by the world’s loudest media companies when they do not.
Just as the NSA is obsessed with ensuring there be no place on earth where humans can communicate free of their spying eyes and ears, these journalistic hall monitors cannot abide the idea that there can be any place on the internet where people are free to speak in ways they do not approve. Like some creepy informant for a state security apparatus, they spend their days trolling the depths of chat rooms and 4Chan bulletin boards and sub-Reddit threads and private communications apps to find anyone — influential or obscure — who is saying something they believe should be forbidden, and then use the corporate megaphones they did not build and could not have built but have been handed in order to silence and destroy anyone who dissents from the orthodoxies of their corporate managers or challenges their information hegemony.
He particularly dislikes the New York Times‘s tech reporters, and tells a pretty disturbing story about how one of them, Taylor Lorenz, went onto a new private chat site called “The Clubhouse”, reported that Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Andressen had said the “r-word” (“retarded”, rapidly approaching the n-word in offensiveness), and then broadcast it on Twitter, at the same time showing photos of the other discussion participants and calling them out for “not saying anything”. Have a gander at this grade-school bit of tattling:
Remember, this is a star tech reporter for the New York Times. But the worst part is that Lorenz lied: Andressen had not said the word—somebody else did, and it was in reference to a discussion of a GameStop group on reddit who call themselves the “retard revolution”. Besides the lying and the doxxing, there’s clearly a difference between using “retard” as an insult (especially towards someone who is mentally deficient), and describing a group that calls themselves that. It’s the same difference in kind between McNeil’s use of the n-word when repeating what a student had told him, and its use as a real racial slur. For some reason the New York Times staff don’t seem to grasp differences of intent. Actually, as I mentioned in the McNeil piece, they really do, but don’t give a rat’s patootie what the intent is: what matters is only how the word makes someone feel that determines whether its user should be damned. And when another participant called Lorenz out for her lying and distortion, she didn’t apologize, but just emphasized feelings. More immature behavior:
Then Lorenz closed her Twitter account, as if, Greenwald notes, she were the victim. In fact, Lorenz had, after being blocked from the “Clubhouse” private group, obtained a fake account and mocked Andersson for blocking her:
It is unbelievable that reporters, especially for the Paper of Record, can behave in such a petty and childish way. They have no right to insinuate themselves into private groups to eavesdrop, much less to act as hall monitors and go squealing to the general public if someone isn’t ideologically pure. Greenwald calls them out properly, though his assertion of personal purity in covering the Right Stories still irks me from time to time:
To declare any discussion of that term off-limits — as Lorenz tried to do — is deeply anti-intellectual. To pretend that there is no difference in the use of that term by the Redditors and its discussion in Clubhouse on the one hand, and its malicious deployment as an insult to the cognitively disabled on the other, is dishonest in the extreme. To publicly tattle on adults who utter the term without any minimal attempt to understand or convey context and intent is malicious, disgusting and sociopathic.
But this is now the prevailing ethos in corporate journalism. They have insufficient talent or skill, and even less desire, to take on real power centers: the military-industrial complex, the CIA and FBI, the clandestine security state, Wall Street, Silicon Valley monopolies, the corrupted and lying corporate media outlets they serve. So settling on this penny-ante, trivial bullshit — tattling, hall monitoring, speech policing: all in the most anti-intellectual, adolescent and primitive ways — is all they have. It’s all they are. It’s why they have fully earned the contempt and distrust in which the public holds them.
There are more reports by Greenwald, but I’l just give one regarding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff lawyer Chase Strangio, a transgender man who fights for transgender rights. We’ve met Strangio twice (here and here), once defending Connecticut’s law stipulating that surgically and medically untreated biological males who identify as women should be able to compete in women’s sports. In the other post, I showed how he demanded for actual censorship of Abigail Shrier’s new book Irreversible Damage, which calls for great care in allowing very young women (young teenagers and below) to undergo medical treatment for transitioning to the male gender.
Lately the ACLU has taken up transgender rights in a big way. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course: transgender people’s rights should be defended. But I do object to the ACLU’s claim that transgender women are women in every respect, regardless of medical treatment, so long as they claim to identify as women. Sports and issues like prison choice and rape counseling are the stumbling blocks here. And I do object to Strangio, in his tweet below, characterizing Shrier, along with J. K. Rowling, as “closely aligned with white supremacists in power and rhetoric.” That is defamation, a slur, and a lie. If the ACLU were the New York Times, they would fire Strangio for a scurrilous and misleading tweet like the following. Oh, wait—no they wouldn’t!
The reality is that people like JK and Shrier and all the rest of them are closely aligned with white supremacists in power and their rhetoric in turn creates dangerous policy proposals and eventually laws. We have a lot of mobilizing to do. https://t.co/YltsTKIc1s
The overarching rule of liberal media circles and liberal politics is that you are free to accuse anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy of any kind of bigotry that casually crosses your mind — just smear them as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, etc. without the slightest need for evidence — and it will be regarded as completely acceptable. That is the rubric under which the most famous lawyer of the ACLU, an organization once devoted to rigid precepts of due process, decided on Saturday to brand two of his ideological opponents as “closely aligned with white supremacists.” Fresh off being named by Time Magazine as one of the planet’s 100 most influential human beings — this is someone with a great deal of power and influence — trans activist and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio decided to spew this extremely grave accusation about J.K. Rowling and Abigail Shrier, both of whom oppose the inclusion of trans girls in female sports. . . .
As I’ve written before, I’m not in agreement with those who advocate this absolute ban. I’m open to a scientific consensus that develops hormonal and other medicinal protocols for how trans girls and women can fairly compete with CIS women in sporting competitions. But that does not entitle you — especially as an ACLU lawyer — to just go around casually branding people as “closely aligned to white supremacists” who have never remotely demonstrated any such affinity, just because you feel like it, because you crave the power to destroy your adversaries, or are too slothful to engage their actual views.
But this is absolutely acceptable behavior in mainstream and liberal circles.
This is absolutely true. In fact, the New York Times staff acts as a single cudgel against people like James Bennet and Donald McNeil, demanding blood as if they were spectators at a Roman gladiator battle.
At the end of his piece Greenwald gets a little defensive, clearly hurt by people who called him a misogynist after he recently attacked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for rejecting Ted Cruz’s offer to work with her on the GameStop affair. Greenwald objected to AOC’s claim to Cruz that “you almost had me murdered.” Greenwald considered that hyperbolic, and it was. But though he’s defended AOC many times, this one critique was too much for her woke supporters, who branded Greenwald as a “misogynist”. In this piece he spends too much space defending himself and recounting his past support of AOC, when he really should have ignored the slurs completely. If Greenwald has one fault that mars his journalism, it’s that his skin is too thin, and it shows in his work.
Beyond that, it’s a good piece and deserves to be read, for it presages the decline of respectable journalism in America.
This sad story is cobbled together from two stories at the Washington Post (here and here), two at The Daily Beast (here and here), and then one at the New York Times itself. This is getting to be a familiar tale: someone at the New York Times commits an act seen as “hate speech”, and that person is giving a stern talking-to but not let go. Then the Times staffers, a bunch of entitled, privileged, and easily offended members of the Outrage Brigade, protest that only firing will slake their thirst for blood. The editors then decide to fire the “hater”.
That is what happened to op-ed editor James Bennet, who (horrors!) published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, and had to leave the paper. And it’s just happened to science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a prize-winning science reporter, known for his coverage of the AIDS and Covid-19 epidemics, who’s been with the Times for 45 years. The episode reflects very badly on the paper, and in fact has got me quite depressed. During all the time I’ve been criticizing the NYT for wokeness, I hoped that it would turn around and get back to the admirable organ it once was. Perhaps, I thought, it didn’t need to be so woke once Biden was elected. But now I see that I was wrong. Wokeness is here to say, both at the NYT and in America, and the major liberal media have become hopeless. I see no abating of the authoritarianism of the Left.
Here’s a precis of the events that led to McNeil’s firing.
A. McNeil took a group of 26 students to Peru in 2019 as part of a regular program in which students pay $5,500 to get an educational experience with a Times reporter.
B. On that trip, McNeil committed the firing offense, using the n-word. The context: McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist remarks.” Apparently the student had said the word first, and McNeil repeated it, but not using it as a slur or in a racist way.
The students complained about this to the travel company and then to the Times, also noting that McNeil had made other offensive claims. These include an assertion that he “did not believe in the concept of white privilege” (!). Finally, there are unspecified complaints that McNeil “used stereotypes about Black teenagers,” though there’s no report of exactly what he said.
C. The complaints reached the ears of Times editors, including executive editor Dean Baquet. They launched an investigation and found that while McNeil had overstepped his bounds, his offense was not a firing one because his remarks were not hateful or malicious. As the Daily Beast reports (emphases henceforth are mine):
A Times spokesperson told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “In 2019, Donald McNeil, Jr. participated in a Student Journeys as an expert. We subsequently became aware of complaints by some of the students on the trip concerning certain statements Donald had made during the trip. We conducted a thorough investigation and disciplined Donald for statements and language that had been inappropriate and inconsistent with our values. We found he had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language. In addition, we apologized to the students who had participated in the trip.”
Times executive editor Dean Baquet addressed the controversy in an email to the newsroom Thursday night, saying that when he first heard about McNeil’s remarks, he was “outraged” and expected to fire him.
“I authorized an investigation and concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that that his intentions were hateful or malicious,” he wrote.
Baquet went on to acknowledge criticism that the Times has been “too tolerant in disciplining high-profile journalists” and said he welcomed having that conversation. “Fair treatment has to be the foundation of the diverse and equitable newsroom we are building,” he wrote.
Baquet is a African-American.
D. McNeil tendered a fulsome apology. This was probably part of the sanctions that the paper imposed on him
As Andrew Sullivan said in a tweet, “This reads like a confession procured by the Khmer Rouge. It’s both ridiculous and terrifying.”
E. In the meantime, the investigation reached the ears of Times staffers, the public-relations department, and publisher A.G. Sulzberger. There was also a meeting with black staffers, including Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project. The final blow: 150 staffers wrote to Baquet and other top officers of the paper. Their plaint was that the discipline meted out to McNeil wasn’t nearly harsh enough, and that they were in “pain”. And Baquet’s conclusion that McNeil didn’t utter the n-word with malicious intent was irrelevant. From The Daily Beast:
But the company’s conclusion about McNeil’s intent was “irrelevant”, the irate staffers wrote in the letter, adding that the paper’s own harassment training “makes clear what matters is how an act makes the victims feel; Mr. Mcneil’s victims weren’t shy about decrying his conduct on the trip.”
I think the paper needs better harassment training.
Signees called on the paper to study how racial biases affect pitches, editing, and sourcing, and reiterated a commitment to the paper’s existing non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
The letter also called on the Times to reinvestigate the 2019 trip as well as “any newly surfaced complaints,” noting that in the days since The Daily Beast’s article, current and former staffers have also said that McNeil had shown “bias against people of color in his work and in interactions with colleagues over a period of years.”
These other accusations apparently had not been reported before, and I suspected were recalled post facto. At any rate, what got McNeil fired was clearly his use of the n-word [JAC: see below; John McWhorter agrees]. The Beast report continues:
“Our community is outraged and in pain,” the signees wrote. “Despite The Times’s seeming commitment to diversity and inclusion, we have given a prominent platform—a critical beat covering a pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color—to someone who chose to use language that is offensive and unacceptable by any newsroom’s standards. He did so while acting as a representative for The Times, in front of high school students.”
F. Apparently the editora “rethought” his sanctions after the letter from the staffers and the meeting, and fired McNeil. Here’s their announcement:
Apparently the n-word had now become a firing offense regardless of intent. That means, of course, that those who use it didactically, as McNeil may have done, have committed an unforgivable offense, because the simple sound of the word, no matter how it is used or what intent was behind its use, is sufficient to get you dumped, and put a 45-year career into the toilet.
The whole affair stinks, and reflects badly on the paper’s staffers and executives. To my mind the initial discipline, whatever it was, was sufficient: McNeil was kept on the paper and forced to apologize, as cringe-worthy as that apology was. Since he didn’t mean what he said in a hateful way, and wasn’t trying to be racist (for crying out loud, many of us question the idea of “white privilege”!), it wasn’t as if he had donned a white robe or burned a cross. Remember, McNeil had served the paper well for 45 years. All he needed was a strong lesson about how to behave in the company of impressionable teenagers (and NYT staffers!).
This clearly shows that the paper is ruled by the mob, the mob being the oh-so-easily hurt NYT staffers who had no patience with McNeil staying on. After all, his mere presence in the building could be seen as dangerous and harmful! (They said the same thing about James Bennet and about Bari Weiss, who left the paper after being declared persona non grata by the staffers.)
But in what world should intent not matter? If someone reads a passage of Huckleberry Finn containing the n-word to her students, is that really as bad an offense as screaming the word in hatred to a group of black people? And why should people be just as hurt by the former as by the latter? That’s not right! We should not accept the contention that one’s intent is irrelevant in judging one’s language, particularly when people these days are histrionic, often pretending to be more offended than they really are. After all, the more offended you act, the more goodies you get and the more power you can wield.
The New York Times has now become terminally woke, with its staffers constituting a Star Chamber about what language can and cannot be used by other staffers. And the editors are apparently so fearful of the staff that they’ll bow to their wishes, whatever they may be. Those editors are not leaders, but craven followers. The paper just gets worse and worse, and woker and woker.
After I wrote the above, I got an email from John McWhorter’s new Substack site noting that he had just written a short piece about this debacle. Click on the screenshot to read it, as it’s free (but consider subscribing):
As usual, McWhorter is far more eloquent than I in analyzing this episode. First, he uses his expertise as a linguist:
That is, for people like this [the staffers], the N-word has gone from being a slur to having, in its mere shape and sound, a totemic taboo status directly akin to how Harry Potter characters process the name Voldemort and theatre people maintain a pox on saying “Macbeth” inside a theatre. The letter roasts McNeil for “us[ing] language that is offensive and unacceptable,” implying a string of language, a whole point or series thereof, something like a stream, a stretch – “language.” But no: they are referring to his referring to a single word.
The kinds of people who got McNeil fired think of this new obsessive policing of the N-word as a kind of strength. Their idea is “We are offended by this word, we demand that you don’t use it, and if you do use it, we are going to make sure you lose your job.” But the analogy is off here. This would be strength if the issue were the vote, or employment. Here, people are demanding the right to exhibit performative delicacy, and being abetted in it by non-black fellow travellers.
After remembering that several decades ago the n-word wasn’t seen as always taboo, with people able to differentiate betweens its didactic versus offensive use, McWhorter says this:
Even Times executive editor Dean Baquet understands this, one can tell. He at first retained McNeil after an apology, but has now caved to this body of ever-aggrieved Times workers. I guess after they managed to hunt out James Bennett, Bari Weiss and now McNeil, Baquet worries that he might be next. Or maybe it’s a matter of racial loyalty to him – it is not mine to know.
Finally, McWhorter reaches a few conclusions that only a black person would be able to say in public:
Upon that, two matters require address. One is that it is only a certain mob who are making this “determination.” The idea that it is inherent to black American culture to fly to pieces at hearing the N-word used in reference is implausible at best, and slanderous at worst.
But the second and more important is that insisting on this taboo makes it look like black people are numb to the difference between usage and reference, vague on the notion of meta, given to overgeneralization rather than to making distinctions.
To wit, the get McNeil fired for using the N-word to refer to it makes black people look dumb. And not just to the Twitter trollers who will be nasty enough to actually write it down. Non-black people are thinking it nationwide and keeping it to themselves. Frankly, the illogic in this approach to the N-word is so obvious to anyone who does make distinctions that the only question is why people would not look on and guiltily wonder whether the idea that black people are less intellectually gifted is true.
. . .The reason a black person engages in this kind of inquisition is not ill-will, and it isn’t stupidity. It’s insecurity. Slavery and Jim Crow have many legacies, and one is on black psychology. People who really like themselves can’t be destroyed by someone referring to a word, even a word that has been used against them.
. . . It’s pretty simple – if you are genuinely proud, then you spontaneously recoil from the idea that some stuff somebody says in passing can hurt you. You’d be embarrassed to engage in the transaction. If you really like yourself, it takes a hell of a lot more than some cranky stuff a Donald McNeil says one day to ruin your day, or even affect it in the slightest.
The only problem with McWhorter’s analysis is that it’s not just African-Americans who signed that letter to the editors. It’s not just black people who continue to enforce this taboo. He leaves out that a lot of this faux offense comes from whites—who sometimes object even more vociferously than do blacks. And that’s because whites have an additional fear: if you don’t go along, you can be called a racist. And that, too, is a kind of insecurity.
A while back, when John McWhorter and Glenn Loury were chatting on “The Glenn Show” podcast, McWhorter mentioned that he was writing a book on wokeness and anti-racism as a religion. In fact, he’d already written most of the book. I really look forward to reading it. But if you want an advance peek, you can subscribe to McWhorter’s new Substack site, “It Bears Mentioning” ($50 per year; click on screenshot below), where he’s just put up what seems to be the book’s preface and the first chapter (or summaries thereof). I am going to show only the preface because it’s a pay site for most posts (i.e., the first one below); but you can read the short bit of the preface here to see if you want to either subscribe or buy the upcoming book.
The second article, on black fragility, is free, and you can get it by clicking here.
Oy! Between Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, and John McWhorter—three good writers disillusioned by wokeness—it could run into serious money to subscribe to them all!
Here’s the preface of McWhorter’s book as reproduced in the post above. The title is good. But Chapter 1 (or a summary) is there too, and it’s much longer. If you want to see that, subscribe here.
NEORACISTS POSING AS ANTIRACISTS
AND THEIR THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA
I’m not one for long introductions – I like to get to the point. However, before we begin I would like to give the reader a sense of the trajectory of these installments, and what kind of statement they are intended as making.
This book is not a call for people of a certain ideology to open up to the value of an open market of ideas, to understand the value of robust discussion, and to see the folly of defenestrating people for disagreeing with them. My assumption is that the people in question are largely unreachable by arguments of that kind.
Rather, I aim to illuminate where these people are coming from, how their ideology and behavior is quite coherent in itself, and what the rest of us can do to live with grace and honesty, as people concerned with the state of the world, who nevertheless must grapple with obstacles laid in our path by people who see their religion as an ultimate wisdom.
My main aims will be:
to argue that this new ideology is actually a religion in all but name;
to argue that to understand it as a religion is to see coherence in what may seem like a welter of “crazy” or overblown behaviors;
to explore why this religion is so attractive to so many people;
to show that this religion is actively harmful to black people despite being intended as unprecedentedly “antiracist”;
to show that a pragmatic, effective, liberal and even Democratic-friendly agenda for rescuing black America need not be founded on the tenets of this new religion;
to suggest ways to lessen the grip of this new religion on our public culture.
I hope my observations will serve as one of many contributions to our debate over what constitutes “social justice.” Thank you for your subscription. I will release this manuscript in ten segments, and I welcome your feedback.
I always take care when criticizing the public writings of students at my own university. After all, I am on the same campus, may encounter the student, and, although I no longer teach, I’m cognizant of a perceived power imbalance that may intimidate students whom I criticize.
On the other hand, the ideas of a student who writes a public op-ed in a newspaper, as did one undergraduate in a recent issue of the Chicago Maroon (a student paper directed at the University community), constitute a fitting object for criticism—especially if you go after the ideas and not the student’s character. After all, the Maroon has a comment section, and our University is renowned for encouraging a give-and-take of ideas.
Ergo, I wrote a response to the editorial, for it was something that bothered me: an undergraduate who wanted to do away with free speech on campus because it supposedly propagates hate and white supremacy. Indeed, the student maintained that modern liberal education, as well as the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, were designed to buttress a status quo of bigotry (“By following the Chicago principles, the University effectively legitimizes and encourages students who may share similar bigoted ideologies.”) This is disturbing, for it seems to be the view of many undergraduates, and I’m not a little worried that one modern trend, especially on the Left, is to dismantle the traditional liberal ideal of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.
Today’s post demonstrates what you can expect when you criticize the ideas of an undergraduate of color. This morning I found a comment (posted here only) from one “Olivia.” The appended email was “email@example.com”, and the IP address indicates that it comes from—get this—Columbia University.
She’s literally 18 years old you fucking freak. You’re letting all these people attack a literal college freshman. A fucking teenager. You wrote an article entirely targeting this one girl and are encouraging her public critique as if she’s not EIGHTEEN. You put a student of color on the stage and are effectively putting her in danger and letting weird adult “intellectuals” villify [sic] and attack her. You’re a fucking weird, fully-grown white guy attacking an asian eighteen year old and saying her experiences as a marginalized person is [sic] not correct because of your dumbass views as a white heterosexual who doesn’t face oppression in those facets. You’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell.
Note four points here. First, the commenter says not a single word about my argument, which was about the need to retain free speech on this campus and others. Ideas are no longer important: identity and power differentials are paramount. What was apparently “targeted” was a student, not her ideas.
Further, the commenter implies that I have no right to comment publicly on a publicly-written editorial because of a status and color differential. The woman was “a fucking teenager”, ergo she should be immune from criticism by someone older—and white. I would have thought that a student writer would welcome engagement with a professor, so long as it was a meaningful engagement in which the student’s ideas are taken seriously. When students arrive at college, they should be treated as adults and their ideas treated as adult ideas. That’s what college education is all about. Imagine a professor who deferred to the views of her students because they were young! Instead, though, I let “weird adult ‘intellectuals’ engage with the ideas” —exactly as they do in the comments section of the Maroon. (And what are “weird adult intellectuals”?)
Most important, the central point of the comment is an identitarian one: the subject was an “asian eighteen year old”. (I didn’t know how old the woman was, and I don’t really care.) Because of her identity and mine—as a “fully-grown white guy”—she should be immune from criticism. In a way, “Olivia”, as unhinged as he or she may be, is making the student’s point for her: I was engaged in “hate speech” and therefore should “rot in hell.” And no, I didn’t say that the student’s experiences as a marginalized person were not correct; the argument is about whether people should be censored for speech that others don’t like. That is an “idea”, not a “set of experiences”.
Finally, the writer claims that I have effectively “put the student in danger.” I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. If you feel “endangered” when someone criticizes your published ideas, then you shouldn’t publish your ideas in the first place, especially under your name. This is the conflation of “criticism” with “harm” that we see so often in arguments against free speech.
“Olivia”, in his/her intemperate and rude diatribe, inadvertently demonstrates many of the features of those who oppose free speech: some people have the right to censor others; that privilege depends on your position in the hierarchy of oppression, in which those on the lower rungs are deemed immune from criticism but able to criticize everyone “higher up”; that hate speech causes harm, which is reason enough to ban it; and, finally, it’s okay to completely demonize one’s opponents (“you’re a fucking freak and I hope you rot in hell”). That last bit reminds one of the criticism atheists get from religionists, which, I suppose, is what people like Olivia resemble. They are ideological fundamentalists.
It’s telling that “Olivia” from Columbia University won’t divulge his/her name. That’s yet another lesson: social media brings out the worst in people, especially when they are allowed to speak anonymously. Aggressive cowards hide behind pseudonyms.
I stand by my arguments in favor of free speech at The University of Chicago, and urge “Olivia” to learn how to debate ideas rather than identities.
I used to get angry when I read the newspaper because of the foibles of politicians and other miscreants it described, or things like laws being enacted to make it impossible for women to get abortions. In other words, I didn’t like bad news, but I had to read it anyway. One must be informed.
Now, however, I get angry for another reason: the ideological bias of every news source I read, whether on the Right or Left. In fact, I don’t know of a news source whose bias isn’t worn on the sleeve. On the Left we have HuffPost, one of the most egregious examples, but also the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which have gone nearly completely woke. Even in the editorial sections you’re hard pressed to find a conservative columnist (remember the firing of the NYT op-ed editor because he allowed an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton to be published?) The Right is even worse, with places like Breitbart or The Daily Wire having an absolutely predictable take on everything. I’m told the Wall Street Journal has a very good news section, but it’s editorially hard on the Right, and I’m not sure I want to subscribe to a paper like that.
I suppose what I’d like is a paper whose news is objective, not ideologically slanted in tone and the subjects chosen for coverage, and whose editorial section makes me think—challenges me with heterodox opinions that go against my own, or at least, if on the Left, has thoughtful and unpredictable takes. I know of no such paper. I am reading some Substack blogs like Andrew Sullivan’s and Bari Weiss’s, because sometimes they do surprise me but they’re also thoughtful, even when I disagree. But they don’t replace the news. They are commentary on the news.
In other words, the news situation is very dire. The thesis of this City Journal article by Martin Gurri (click on screenshot below) is that the mainstream media (MSM to the cognoscenti) has entered a “post-journalism” phase in which objectivity of news coverage isn’t the goal. That goal has been replaced, argues Gurri, by journalism that caters to a niche audience, aims to keep it coming back by scaring it, and makes no pretense of evenhanded coverage. That’s what the WaPo and NYT seem like to me.
Gurri is a former CIA employee and now a news media analyst, and City Journal is published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, but that’s no reason to dismiss Gurri’s argument. (By the way, it really irks me when people dismiss an argument solely because it comes from one portion of the political spectrum, or if the writer has said one or a few wrong or dumb things in another venue. Do not do that on this site, where we try to stick to arguments and not reject them because they come from this or that person or ideology. Scientists argue about the data and its meaning, and don’t worry about the ideology of their opponents.)
But I digress. There’s a lot I agree with in Gurri’s views, and I’ll give a few excerpts. You can can address his arguments in the comments, and you might tell me what news sources I would find more to my liking.
Gurri mostly goes after the Times, but his arguments could apply to any slanted paper. Here’s his definition of “post-journalism” journalism:
Led by the New York Times, a few prominent brand names moved to a model that sought to squeeze revenue from digital subscribers lured behind a paywall. This approach carried its own risks. The amount of information in the world was, for practical purposes, infinite. As supply vastly outstripped demand, the news now chased the reader, rather than the other way around. Today, nobody under 85 would look for news in a newspaper. Under such circumstances, what commodity could be offered for sale?
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Times stumbled onto a possible answer. It entailed a wrenching pivot from a journalism of fact to a “post-journalism” of opinion—a term coined, in his book of that title, by media scholar Andrey Mir. Rather than news, the paper began to sell what was, in effect, a creed, an agenda, to a congregation of like-minded souls. Post-journalism “mixes open ideological intentions with a hidden business necessity required for the media to survive,” Mir observes. The new business model required a new style of reporting. Its language aimed to commodify polarization and threat: journalists had to “scare the audience to make it donate.” At stake was survival in the digital storm.
The experiment proved controversial. It sparked a melodrama over standards at the Times, featuring a conflict between radical young reporters and befuddled middle-aged editors. In a crucible of proclamations, disputes, and meetings, the requirements of the newspaper as an institution collided with the post-journalistic call for an explicit struggle against injustice.
The battleground was the treatment of race and racism in America. But the story began, as it seemingly must, with that inescapable character: Donald Trump. . . .
Trump, of course, was the bugbear who sold a gazillion digital subscriptions to the New York Times and other Left-wing venues (I don’t know about Right-wing ones). And Gurri dates the change in journalism to an article in the NYT in 2016 that more or less declared that slanting of news was understandable, if not okay:
In August 2016, as the presidential race ground grimly onward, the New York Times laid down a marker regarding the manner in which it would be covered. The paper declared the prevalence of media opinion to be an irresistible fact, like the weather. Or, as Jim Rutenberg phrased it in a prominent front-page story: “If you view a Trump presidency as something that is potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that.” Objectivity was discarded in favor of an “oppositional” stance. This was not an anti-Trump opinion piece. It was an obituary for the values of a lost era. Rutenberg, who covered the media beat, had authored a factual report about the death of factual reporting—the sort of paradox often encountered among the murky categories of post-journalism.
The article touched on the fraught issue of race and racism. Trump opponents take his racism for granted—he stands accused of appealing to the worst instincts of the American public, and those who wish to debate the point immediately fall under suspicion of being racists themselves. The dilemma, therefore, was not whether Trump was racist (that was a fact) or why he flaunted his racist views (he was a dangerous demagogue) but, rather, how to report on his racism under the strictures of commercial journalism. Once objectivity was sacrificed, an immense field of subjective possibilities presented themselves. A vision of the journalist as arbiter of racial justice would soon divide the generations inside the New York Times newsroom.
Rutenberg made his point through hypothetical-rhetorical questions that, at times, verged on satire: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?” Rutenberg assumed that “working journalists” shared the same opinion of Trump—that wasn’t perceived as problematic. A second assumption concerned the intelligence of readers: they couldn’t be trusted to process the facts. The answer to Rutenberg’s loaded question, therefore, could only be to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of a half-century” and leap vigorously into advocacy. Trump could not safely be covered; he had to be opposed.
The part about assuming readers were dumb rings true: which paper now doesn’t have articles whose headlines are “X: here’s what you need to know.”
Gurri then gives a potted history of the Times‘s descent into post-journalism, exacerbated by, he claims, their and Mueller’s failure to turn up much on Trump and his associates in the “Russiagate” affair. While that looked like a coverage failure for the paper, it produce plenty of clicks—and money:
Yet what looked like journalistic failure was, in fact, an astonishing post-journalistic success. The intent of post-journalism was never to represent reality or inform the public but to arouse enough political fervor in readers that they wished to enter the paywall in support of the cause. This was ideology by the numbers—and the numbers were striking. Digital subscriptions to the New York Times, which had been stagnant, nearly doubled in the first year of Trump’s presidency. By August 2020, the paper had 6 million digital subscribers—six times the number on Election Day 2016 and the most in the world for any newspaper. The Russian collusion story, though refuted objectively, had been validated subjectively, by the growth in the congregation of the paying faithful.
This led to two video “town hall” discussions between the younger journalistic staff and the editors, the first being executive editor Dean Baquet, a black man. The first meeting was in August of 2019, and dealt with how to cover Trump, and whether to refer to him as a racist in the news section. Already, as Gurri percipiently notes, Twitter had begun to be an editor of the paper, and this remains the case. The future of the paper was limned by one young staffer in that meeting:
If Trump lied or made racist statements, journalists had a moral duty to call him out as a liar and a racist. This principle was absolute and extended to all subjects. Since, as one of them put it, “racism and white supremacy” had been “sort of the foundation of this country,” the consequences should be reported explicitly. “I just feel like racism is in everything,” this questioner asserted. “It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.”
And so it was. This had already been instantiated in the 1619 Project, which wasn’t really journalism—nor was it history—but a unique attempt of a paper to bend the minds of Americans and their children (it’s used in school curricula) towards a specific ideology.
It led as well to the debacle that prompted the second town hall meeting: the publication of Tom Cotton’s NYT editorial, “Send in the Troops”, arguing that troops should be sent in to quell violence when there were unruly demonstrations (he was referring to racial unrest). That opinion was shared by most Americans, but the young Times staffers argued that Cotton’s editorial caused harm, even endangered them. That, of course, was ludicrous, but it also spelled the end of true conservative op-eds in the paper. Look at the op-eds these days and you might find Ross Douthat spouting some weak conservative beer and criticizing Trump, but you’ll never see an op-ed like Cotton’s again. (Cotton’s editorial is now adorned with caveats and explanations inserted by the paper, and never appeared in the print edition.)
The day after the Cotton op-ed appeared online, Times employees sent a letter to Times decision makers, expressing “deep concern” over the piece. This document marked the logical culmination of the process that Rutenberg’s article had begun four years earlier. Objectivity now jettisoned, the question at hand was whose subjective will should control the news agenda.
The letter’s authors made a number of striking assumptions. First, the backdrop was an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil, a story “that does not have a direct precedent in our lifetimes.” The place of the New York Times in that struggle was at issue. Second, some opinions were dangerous—physically so. Cotton’s opinion fell into that category. “Choosing to present this point of view without added context leaves members of the American public . . . vulnerable to harm” while also jeopardizing “our reporters’ ability to work safely and effectively.” Third, the duty of the newspaper was less to inform than to protect such “vulnerable” readers from harmful opinions. By allowing Cotton inside the tent, the Times had failed its readership.
This was the essence of post-journalism: informational “protection”—polarization—sold as a commodity. Objectivity had crumbled before the dangerous Trump. On the question of who decided the danger of any given piece, the newsroom rebels presented a number of broad demands. Future opinion pieces needed to be vetted “across the desk’s diverse staff before publication,” while readers should be invited to “express themselves.” The young reporters felt that they had a better fix on what readers wanted than did their elders. Given the generational divide on social media, this was almost certainly true.
All that rings pretty true. Where I disagree with Gurri is his prognostication. He feels that the road the Times went down will reach a dead end, for the younger generation, who, by and large, control what the paper prints via kvetching on Twitter, are not its main consumers. Gurri sees this as untenable, but doesn’t realize that the writers for the paper are drawn from the generation who doesn’t read it, and the writers, combined with social media, will guide the direction of the Times. I see nothing that will stop this trend, which is why I think Wokeness will increase under Biden. What is there to stop it given that even Left-centrists cave to the Outrage Culture, quaking in fear of being called racists? But let me end with Guri’s prediction:
Revolutions tend to radicalization. The same is true of social media mobs: they grow ever more extreme until they explode. But the New York Times is neither of these things—it’s a business, and post-journalism is now its business model. The demand for moral clarity, pressed by those who own the truth, must increasingly resemble a quest for radical conformism; but for nonideological reasons, the demand cannot afford to leave subscriber opinion too far behind. Radicalization must balance with the bottom line.
The final paradox of post-journalism is that the generation most likely to share the moralistic attitude of the newsroom rebels is the least likely to read a newspaper. Andrey Mir, who first defined the concept, sees post-journalism as a desperate gamble, doomed in the end by demographics. For newspapers and their multiple art forms developed over a 400-year history, Mir writes, the collision with the digital tsunami was never going to be a challenge to surmount but rather “an extinction-level event.”
Well, what will die is good journalism, the kind practiced by the “good gray Times.” What will not die are news sites themselves—at least not for a while. And the most valuable thing that will go extinct is objectivity, the heartbeat of a democracy in which citizens are supposed to make up their own minds.