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.

Sam Harris Should Read Bernard Williams

In Shame and Necessity (Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2008, pp. 68-69) writing on the ancient Greeks’ conceptions of responsibility and human agency via the tale of Oedipus, Bernard Williams writes:

[T]here is another aspect to responsibility, which comes out if we start on the question not from the response that the public or the state or the neighbours or the damaged parties demand of the agent, but from what the agent demands of himself….

Oedipus’s response, when he made his discovery, was self-imposed: “I have done it with my own hand,” he says of his blinding….he says that he afterwards came to think that what he had inflicted on himself was excessive. He also, at Colonus, says that he did not really do the things for which he blinded himself—and in a notably compacted expression: “I suffered those deeds more than I acted them…What these words express is…Oedipus’s attempt to come to terms with what his erga, his deeds, have meant for his life.

For what, if one can ask a very ingenuous question, is one supposed to do if one discovers that not just in fantasy but in life one has murdered one’s father and married one’s mother? Not even Oedipus…thought that blinding and exile had to be the response. But should there be no response? Is it as though it had never happened? Or rather, to put the right question: Is it as though such things had happened, but not by his agency….The whole of the Oedipus Tyrannus , that dreadful machine, moves to the discovery of just one thing, that he did it. Do we understand the terror of that discovery only because we residually share magical beliefs in blood-guilt, or archaic notions of responsibility? Certainly not: we understand it because we know that in the story of one’s life there is an authority exercised by what one has done, and not merely by what one has intentionally done.

In recent days, Sam Harris has, by virtue of an embarrassing–for him–email exchange with Noam Chomsky, made much of how some actions which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocents should be subjected to far less moral condemnation (if any) than those which resulted because of expressly ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ intentions. Bill Clinton’s orders to bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sudanese innocents thus gets off the hook rather lightly – as say, compared to the ISIS‘ slaughter of innocents (you may, if you like, substitute your favorite act of Islamist mass murder here to get the flavor of Harris’ arguments.)

In the course of the email exchange cited above, Chomsky rather effectively eviscerated the simplistic understanding of politics and human nature this view of Sam Harris’ rests on. Furthermore, as I noted in my initial response to a podcast in which Harris makes this claim in ponderous and pedantic detail, Harris’ view leads to the worst excesses of utopianism:  “I intended to bring about this future desirable state, therefore, all else is excusable, as I certainly didn’t intend to bring about any of these intermediate states. My mind is fixed firmly on the state to be realized, the one I intend to bring about. ” Or more colloquially, “it’s ok to climb over heaps of bodies if you are going to a ‘good’ place.” This sort of argument has the bizarre consequence of considering Dick Cheney to not be a war criminal for the mass murders he is responsible for–after all, Cheney did say he was doing it all for democracy.

As the excerpt above shows, Harris, who considers himself an educated man, should really read some Bernard Williams, and using him as an introduction, read some more about the ancient Greeks. Otherwise, he will find himself, time and again, getting schooled by those who know better.

Polygamy And Joseph Smith’s Convenient Revelations

In Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer cites Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, her classic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

Monogamy seemed to him–as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness–an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pay for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

That ‘stupendous theological edifice’, of course, was constructed by conveying some rather conveniently timed and worded ‘revelations’ that Smith would subsequently receive from God himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer goes on to note, so precisely specified were these revelations that they even took care of any resistance that Smith’s wife, Emma, might have had to her husband’s rather transparent philandering. As Verse 54 of Section 132–the one that sanctions so-called ‘plural marriage’– of the Mormon’s Doctrines and Covenants states:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

Other passages make it plain that casting one’s eyes about is quite all-right:

61 [I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

It all works out rather nicely. Take as many as you need; and woe betide any of your ‘brides’ if they seek similar sexual freedom for themselves. Indeed, threaten them with damnation and destruction in response.

The misogyny, mendaciousness,  and self-serving deceit on display is quite breathtaking. But it is not novel–as the histories of fundamentalist strains of the world’s major religions so depressingly reveal.

The new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.–are rightly pilloried for their intemperate and unsophisticated attacks on religion. Still, it is worth recalling, when one reads of the foundations of one of the world’s fastest growing faiths, that the reason they find such a sympathetic following is, all too often, because they have such glaring and easy targets to aim at.