The Battle of Woke Island

Column: The New York Times, Kevin Williamson, and the politics of the campus

April 6, 2018

Toward the end of Vanity Fair's story on the "woke civil war" at the New York Times came this revealing detail: To assuage employees concerned that the paper is not as progressive and socially conscious as it could or should be, publisher A.G. Sulzberger, opinion editor James Bennet, and others have been "holding office hours" where internal critics speak freely.

I cannot be the only reader for whom the mere mention of office hours evokes memories of college, of mid-afternoon visits to professors for inquiry, flattery, argument, and complaint. Professors and students, lecturers and auditors participate in "office hours." Editors, reporters, private and public sector workers—all adults outside academia, really—do not. Instead we have these things called "meetings." For the uninitiated, they are mandatory and take place at my convenience.

Here, then, is yet another example of how the politics and rhetoric of the university have slowly colonized America's economic, cultural, and political institutions, how recent graduates are carrying with them into the workforce all the bad ideas they learned from their humanities courses, independent research, and campus programming. I am talking about the modes and categories of identity politics, of viewing all human phenomena through the prism of race and gender (and sometimes, though rarely, of class), of robbing individual human beings of their moral agency and reducing them to membership in a group, and of organizing these groups into a hierarchy of victimization and grievance.

In the world of the campus, one's status and moral authority increases with the number of victim groups in which one claims membership. This is the postmodern dogma of "intersectionality" that promotes solipsism at the personal level and division at the social level, that forbids the "cultural appropriation" of one victim group's tastes, symbols, language, and commodities by another group, and requires members of the victimizer group—cis-gendered white males—to recognize, confess, and atone for their "privilege." (Full disclosure: This article is being written by an oppressor.)

Exactly how and when these ideas took over the campus, I cannot say. The form of postmodernism I encountered—and briefly indulged in—as an undergraduate at the turn of the century was, by contrast, relatively tame. We "deconstructed" texts in an attempt to identify the hidden power relations with them, for sure. We read books and historical documents in light of literary, gender, and queer "theory." We rejected "foundational" narratives and "essentialist" concepts. But these critical exercises seemed to be distinct from campus activism, which even during the launch of the second Iraq war was muted compared with the activism of today. Moreover, it was obvious to us that the universe of the campus was radically divorced from and irrelevant to the politics, economics, and daily experience of the larger world. You'd see Edward Said outside the Ollie's Noodle Shop on One Hundred and Sixteenth street, not in the situation room. The ghost of Michel Foucault stalked the steps of Low Library, not the halls of 620 Eighth Avenue.

No longer. To read the complaints of New York Times staffers as reported by Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair is to be transported into a senior seminar on "(Re) Thinking Identity: Transvestitism and Pickled Herring in the Eighteenth Century Women's Novel": "I know a lot of others at the paper with similar positions to mine, especially women and people of color, who feel that senior staff isn't receptive to their concerns," says one journalist. "Opinion writers get to represent the Times in a way that isn't right," says another.

The same source goes on, "The biggest thing people are talking about lately is the way the Times humanizes white men who commit violence versus men of color." And in an electronic message first reported by HuffPost, another Times-person wrote, "I don't think there's enough thought given to the way institutions/organizations/communities are structured to defacto [sic] silence people who are already most vulnerable to marginalization." But if it is that sort of thought zie is looking for, then maybe someone should get zim a job at the Modern Language Association?

"Journalism is not about creating safe spaces," the managing editor of the Times, Joseph Kahn, tells Pompeo. Damn straight. But something tells me Kahn belongs to the losing side in this conflict, that he is a partisan of the Lost Cause of objective journalism. For many of the young writers and editors entering the trade, journalism is exactly about creating the world idealized on college campuses, a world of radical egalitarianism, subjectivity, multiplicity, hybridity, and experimentation where "micro-aggressions" against victim groups are rigidly policed.

It cannot be an accident, for example, that the fiercest battles of the "woke civil war" have been waged over the center-right Times columnists Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss, who have voiced opinions contrary to the hegemonic discourses of the bien pensants relating to climate, Israel, and sex. Their heresies have made Stephens and Weiss the most controversial and criticized employees of the paper. The great desire of their most radical opponents is for them to lose their columns—to be "de-platformed" and therefore rendered politically harmless.

The "No Platform" movement is a recent strategy of the campus left. It aims to censor and remove from the public sphere figures and opinions that offend the sensibilities of intersectionality devotees. It conflates hate groups with mainstream conservatives, classical liberals, and religious traditionalists, is anti-pluralist in intent and in consequence, and has become a regular feature of arguments over "representation" in media.

The hiring of a conservative writer for the opinion pages of a liberal publication now occasions a ferocious debate over whether the cause of social justice is being served by implicitly legitimizing an "offensive" voice. Such a debate, of course, assumes that the object of a publication is not to inform or entertain readers, nor to provide them a range of views, but to advance a party line. That is the logic of the campus. And that logic prevailed in the case of Kevin Williamson—a pungent libertarian writer hired by The Atlantic only to be terminated a week later over his views on abortion. (Needless to say, those views are pro-life.) Indeed, even the language of the announcement of Williamson's firing, which accused him of "violent" speech, echoed the denunciations of student activists.

What I cannot predict are the ultimate consequences of the transformation of media, tech, and entertainment conglomerates into satellite campuses of Middlebury and Berkeley. It may well be the case that multiculturalism and intersectionality are good for Internet traffic and digital subscriptions, that to get woke is glorious for the bottom line. But these short-term profits come at the long-term cost of definitive, comprehensive, quality journalism. Nor should we forget the damage done to the livelihoods and futures of the people who run up against the intersectional vanguard. Violate the unwritten laws of micro-aggression in Silicon Valley, for instance, and you could be de-platformed from both the technological public squares of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and, in the case of James Damore, from within the companies themselves.

The potential for broader social harm is there as well. Take, for example, the growing desire of Google employees not to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Defense because "Google should not be in the business of war." And imagine the policies of a woke Democratic government: the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the end of tax exemptions for religious institutions, repeal of the Second Amendment, chaos in public bathrooms, and gender-neutral pre-K for theybies. Speaking as an angry white man, the mind reels.

So far, however, the fallout from the university has made radioactive not society at large but precisely those institutions that most fully embrace intersectionality. The NFL, ESPN, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, to name a few, have all lost money and credibility by embracing this radical worldview. To the degree that the Democratic Party has been identified with this agenda, it has suffered at the polls. In the end, it may be the left that feels the pain most dearly. Such a historical irony might surprise the junior staffers at the New York Times left shocked and aghast at the result of the 2016 election. If only they had spent less time in college reading about the gender binary—and more time studying the dialectic.

Published under: New York Times