The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.

David Brooks Should Take A Knee And Stop Writing Stupid Op-Eds

David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.”  This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and  “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:

We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….

Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”

Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.

The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.

Prohibitionists and Their Impoverished Sense of Human Motivation

A few days ago, I wrote a post here on David Brooks’ inane ‘Weed: Been There, Done That‘ Op-Ed. Looking back on it now, what strikes me as most galling about Brooks’ post and other pro-prohibition sentiments that I’ve heard expressed in the past is the shriveled, impoverished, reductive view they have of human character. Their advocacy of prohibition reveals no concern for their fellow humans; it merely highlights their narrowly conceived view of them.

To wit, the (extreme) prohibitionist seems to believe that once someone, any one, is exposed to an intoxicant, a pleasurable one, perhaps offering some palliative relief from daily routine, or diversion, or entertainment, the consumption of that intoxicant will immediately be placed atop their hierarchy of desires. From then on, the user, now an addict, will divert his time, energy, and monetary resources to the pursuit of the intoxicant. Nothing else may compete with its allure.

This–possibly caricatured–description of prohibitionist sentiment highlights its most salient assumption: that pursuit of intoxicatory pleasures will override other goals entertained by the human agent, even if the price to be paid is ill-health or financial ruin.

I hope this sounds ludicrous to you. For humans have many desires that compete for their attention; these are satisfied depending on their standing in our scheme of values, our capacities, and our stations in life. Many are the pleasures we decline because we feel that some competing goal of ours will be compromised. Some of us, admittedly, are unable to adjudicate thus between competing desires and fall prey to a possibly pernicious indulgence repeatedly; but when these compulsions become pathological, we rightly suggest that such folks seek treatment for behavior that appears to self-destructive.

This point is broader, of course. We are all assumed hedonists by the prohibitionist: any experience deemed pleasurable by us will always be pursued by everyone no matter what its cost. Our tastes are alike; our dislikes and likes are alike.

But all too often, we find that experiences found pleasurable by others are not so for us. Many of my friends love scuba diving. I have been assured it’s an otherworldly experience, taking its exponent into a magical realm beneath the waves. I’m sure that’s the case. But I tried it, and I didn’t like it. I felt no desire to pursue that experience; knowing myself and my capacity to panic at inopportune moments, I reckoned I stood a good chance of hurting myself, and hurting others too, if I continued. So, after one dive down to the Great Barrier Reef, I gave it up. There are many other things I’d rather do on my vacations (hiking well above sea level, for instance!) I might have compromised other goals of mine if I had continued to pursue scuba diving. So, to reiterate, I didn’t do it any more. Or there are those, for instance, like mountaineers or F1 drivers, who pursue their pleasures and then give them up because the risks of their pursuits has become too visible and they feel their lives with their families threatened.

These examples can be multiplied endlessly.

The understanding of human beings as being constantly and relentlessly afflicted by a form of what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, and thus not worth being granted the freedom to live their lives according to their own, autonomously-arrived-at scale of values, is prohibition’s central incoherence.

David Brooks Smoked Weed So You Didn’t Have To

David Brooks put down his bong a long time ago:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships. But then we all sort of moved away from it….

This was not a decision made lightly:

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons….I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Stoned people do stupid things….most of us developed higher pleasures….I think we had a vague sense that smoking weed was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire…. So, like the vast majority of people who try drugs, we aged out. We left marijuana behind.

Well, that’s not too bad. You did some weed, as did your friends; you went on to ‘higher pleasures’ (no pun intended, right? Right?). No one seemed to have been harmed; heck, some of you became columnists for The New York Times. There’s no stories of stoned assaults on significant others, overdoses, or even bouts of violent retching or hangovers induced by marijuana. The narrative arc of this little bildungsroman that Brooks has deigned to share with us is disappointingly slight and bland: young men indulge in lower pleasures, then move on to higher ones–some opera, some good food, some ballet, perhaps?–the salaried life  and a comfortable middle-class existence. (Some might have been fortunate enough to become one-percenters.) It’s not a particularly enlightening  one, and one might be mystified by why a highly-paid writer for the nation’s most prominent newspaper thought this was a story worth sharing with his readers.

Well, apparently, the dangers seen on this scenic road to enlightenment were enough for Brooks to want to warn off everyone from ever traveling on it. Whatever the lessons learned on it, one of them didn’t include enough respect for individual self-determination or choices or the consideration of the possibility that others–like Brooks and his cohort–might possess the capacity for arriving at a host of idiosyncratic decisions about how their lives should be lived. Humans are interesting; they just aren’t interesting enough to be left to their own devices.

So:

I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

How so discouraged? Apparently, by keeping marijuana illegal, and continuing an expensive, racist ‘war on drugs‘, a moral, economic and legal catastrophe whose full cost has still not been reckoned with:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government….subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

Funnily enough, I hadn’t thought that illegality amounted to ‘subtle discouragement.’ And interestingly enough, another lesson that Brooks learned while aging out–a peculiar one given his avowed insistence that laws do not change behavior as much as social norms, expectations and customs do–is that we cannot rely on them to adequately discourage marijuana use. This isn’t the moral I would have derived from Brooks’ little tale of how his youthful indulgence in marijuana waned, where its continued illegality had nothing to do with his decision to stop consuming. Instead, Brooks, along with his other friends, managed to figure out, miraculously enough, that marijuana didn’t fit into the life he wanted.

And so Brooks made his choice. But the freedom to arrive at such decisions on their own is not one he can trust the members of this society with, Perhaps his cohort was a moral and rational singularity in a universe of blindly hedonistic, amoral original sinners who need protection from themselves. Thus, leaving to them the choice of how to live their lives is in fact, inhibiting them from self-realization:

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are….nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Mostly, columnists reveal their internal incoherence of thought in their corpus of writings. It takes a rare talent to so do so as comprehensively as Brooks does in the space of just some seven hundred words.

2012’s Top Five Posts (Here, Not Elsewhere)

2012, the year that was (or still is, for a few more hours), turned out to be a busy one for blogging at this site. I wrote three hundred and twenty-four new posts, bringing the total for this blog to three hundred and fifty-five. The blog finally crossed fifty thousand views. (A humbling figure, if you think that major blogs receive those many hits in a day.)

The five most popular posts in terms of views were the following. (I don’t think these are necessarily the best pieces I wrote, which is a judgment I find hard to make in any case, but they definitely attracted some attention.)

  • David Brooks Went to a Springsteen Concert, And All I Got Was A Stupid Op-Ed: I wrote this post in response to a typical display of asinine, pseudo-profound commentary by a columnist who is an integral component of the embarrassment that is the New York Times Op-Ed page.  It was a bit silly, and I suppose could be described as satire, but really, it was a pretty straightforward reaction to idiocy. Among others, Brian Leiter linked to it, as did Bradford DeLong, and Corey Robin, and that brought in many viewers. Many thanks to you all. (In particular, Leiter and Robin have brought many readers to this site, so I owe them multiple thanks.)
  • Bill Keller Needs to Drop the Snark and Do Serious Journalism: This was an angry reaction to a New York Times Op-Ed that I found profoundly politically offensive. I have grown increasingly depressed by the state of political journalism in the US and Bill Keller’s writing on WikiLeaks at the nation’s premier newspaper summed it up for me. As a public display of confusion about the responsibility of the journalist, and the relationship they should maintain with those in power, Keller’s piece has few parallels. Glenn Greenwald and Corey Robin linked to this post.
  • On The Lack of Women in Philosophy: The Dickhead Theory: This post grew out of a long-held concern of mine that the academic practice of philosophy often betrays what should be its guiding principles, among which should be the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere conducive to open and unfettered inquiry. I find the lack of women in philosophy appalling, and remain convinced that the way male philosophers run the profession has a great deal to do with it. This post was prompted by articles by Jennifer Saul and Helen Beebee.
  • Occupy Wall Street And The Police: Why So Estranged?: In this post, I wondered why the police, who should be on the side of those protesting the 1%, are instead, so committed to doing the bidding of those that would keep them in a state of economic and political deprivation. Again, Brian Leiter cited this post.

I wrote three hundred and nineteen other posts of course (check ’em out!). Most of them sank into obscurity, but that’s quite all right. I’m still amazed that anyone bothers to read anything posted out here.

So there you have it folks. Another year awaits, and while I’m not quite sure that I will blog at the same rate as I did in 2012–primarily because I two new book projects planned (besides a newborn!)–I will continue to write as often as I can. Do stick around.

Note: I also owe thanks to all those folks on Facebook and Twitter who linked to, and shared my posts. Much appreciated.