Well, here we are again. A crisis of free speech. Journalism and the commentariat at odds. Some people are basically fascists, and others their oppressed victims. It is impossible to have any “constructive debate” or “exchange of ideas” in the current media climate. That is to say, a couple of high-profile columnists paid handsomely to opine on the state of the world — with a focus on U.S. politics, culture and ideologies — are quitting their jobs at elite New York publications amid a destabilizing pandemic and disaster economy that have left many in the industry out of work. Must be nice.
Both individuals are known for myopic arguments that go over poorly on Twitter, a fact cited by New York Times editor and writer Bari Weiss in her lengthy letter of resignation. Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine’s resident racist-myth defender, appears to have been similarly motivated in his decision to step away. The synchronicity of their announcements and the likeness of their reputations hint at a potential new project in the works: an outlet where center-right concern trolling is the point, not a sideshow.
Being a public intellectual ain’t easy. (That’s why I choose to blissfully remain a himbo.) First, it requires actual work. Second, it calls for genuine engagement; poor Noam Chomsky, 91 years old, still dutifully replies to every email, no matter how inane. Third, and perhaps most important, it takes the strength to weather critique, live by your stated principles and, ideally, improve your thinking over time. It is one thing for Weiss and Sullivan to dump out take after take on the dangers of college campus orthodoxy — how interesting that they’re both moving on as the traditional campus ceases to exist! — and quite another to complain that the people who make fun of them for this are a radical “mob” that wields the power to silence them.
With remarkable gall, Weiss in her letter even condemned Twitter users and Times colleagues for policing her views and shutting down discourse. In the past, she attempted to get a freelance science writer fired from various gigs for swearing online, and just last month, she was busted for misrepresenting a “civil war” within the newsroom over a contentious op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, with co-workers pushing back to say it was a vital editorial discussion about core values.
You know, the sort of intellectual back-and-forth she pretends to want.
Of course, participating seriously in that conversation — in the space where it’s actually fucking happening — takes more pluck and rigor than falsely dramatizing it in a way that conforms to your most persistent narrative. By the same token, although Weiss talks a big game about “curiosity” and “challenging” the paper’s readers, she couldn’t seem to find room in the opinion section for anti-Zionist thought, only multiple pieces that defended Israel’s right to kill scores of Gaza demonstrators.
“Gotta hear both sides” really means “Let’s hear the tired, conservative, disconnected-from-reality angle again, and anyone who disputes it is pro-censorship.” Then, when the natural objections arise, it’s time to play the martyr, burnt at the stake for speaking your mind. Witness the publication, on July 7, of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s magazine, signed by at least 150 self-appointed saviors of tolerance, Weiss included. It bemoans a “stifling atmosphere” that prevents talk of… um, weird, they never say which beliefs are under attack. Anyway, getting in some undefined trouble for expressing these hypothetical notions is, according to the signatories, a major problem at the moment. And just by affixing their names to this document, understand, these luminaries put livelihoods at risk. The bravery. Please clap.
This is where the grift reaches the end of a cycle and the beginning of another, for it is when you signal to the right wing that, contrary to your official role as a liberal cutting against the grain, you’ve been in their camp all along. Well-versed in the persecution complex, stooges like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. devour this crap with gusto, recognizing someone like Weiss as a Republican deep in enemy territory. Her resignation was, predictably, music to their ears.
No doubt Weiss’ self-pitying maneuver would have played even better with this crowd if she’d been fired, but it appears voluntary exile is enough to impress the president’s first-born failson.
Amusingly, the same scenario recently played out with… beans. A few days ago, Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue, a third-generation immigrant who inherited the business, drew flak for praising President Trump in a White House appearance. As consumers vowed to boycott the company, Unanue decried the backlash as “suppression of speech.” (Note: It is the opposite of that, and, again, Unanue spoke standing next to the president.)
Simple as that, conservatives rallied around Goya’s products as they have around Weiss. All it takes to earn their frothing praise is the impression that you’ve upset and triggered the left, which is counterintuitively achieved by acting as if the left has muzzled you, thereby posing a threat to our beloved democracy.
Is there any bottom to this con?
Probably not, unless you can think of some reason Ted Cruz would ever stop debasing himself. Several allegedly “canceled” public figures — including transphobic author J.K. Rowling — are imploding to no evident purpose, garnering sympathy from other bigots but unable to capitalize on it. Weiss, in contrast, has slowly accumulated disdain from the left over three years at the New York Times and is ready to cash in her mountain of chips at last. Whatever comes next for her, Andrew Sullivan or anyone joining some calipers-equipped Intellectual Dark Web Voltron, they won’t be the lazy contrarians of outlets incorrectly perceived to be liberal institutions. They’ll be the standard-bearers of a brand that exists to promote their specific kind of horse shit.
Still, they may have miscalculated how eager the right is to consistently support this preening middle-way stuff, not to mention how much it benefits, click-wise, when positioned as dissent from within a legacy magazine. By striking out to find their own audience, they could lose the mainstream, passive subscribers and be stuck with the most committed hate-readers. Either way, it’s doubtful that Weiss or Sullivan circumvent Twitter judgment by writing elsewhere. The bylines attract notice. It’s the endless posturing that merits contempt.
Editor’s note: The original art on this piece had some dollar signs, which a few readers flagged as potentially anti-Semitic. Thank you — the art’s been updated. We stand by the article.