Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 13 June 2020

Ross Douthat: The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution
How liberalism, and the liberal media, are changing before our eyes.

By Ross Douthat
Opinion Columnist
June 12, 2020.

The force transforming Western liberalism has many hashtags, many slogans, many admiring and pejorative descriptions, but no single name that everyone can recognize as a singular description of the thing itself. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, social justice and intersectionality, anti-racism and the “great awokening.” “Cultural Marxism” and “SJWs” and “identity politics.” Political correctness, of course, and more obscurely “left modernism” and “hyper-liberalism.” Like the blind men feeling different portions of the elephant, the words all capture something, but the form of the animal remains a bit fuzzy, with a generally familiar shape but tusks and trunks where you don’t necessarily expect them.

One particularly useful phrase belongs to the cultural critic Wesley Yang, who calls the transformational force “the successor ideology” — meaning that it represents a possible successor to liberalism, like Marxism in the last century, but also that it’s inchoate and half-formed and sometimes internally contradictory, defined more by its departures from older liberal ideas than by a unified worldview.

If you want to see the successor ideology at work, this implies, don’t look for a definitive program. Look for places where progressive movements cease working toward some long-sought liberal goal and start to argue in terms that leave liberalism behind.

Thinking this way is useful because so many prominent left-of-center causes today contain within themselves both reformist and revolutionary tendencies, and progressives regularly move back and forth between the two — between familiar liberal goals and the successor ideology — depending on the context, the challenges, the enemy, the opportunity.
The surge of feminist and #MeToo activism in the last decade, for instance, has advanced a longstanding and admirable liberal goal — the right of the individual to be free from rape, assault and unwanted sexual aggression. But at the same time it has generated new disciplinary structures, primarily on college campuses, that point us toward a post-liberal system of sexual regulation — a bureaucratic supervision of intimate life, often built on the presumption of male guilt rather than due process.

But part of the anti-racism movement is seeking much more than just changes to policing. It’s interested in spiritual renewal and consciousness raising — something evident from the revivalism of so many protests in the last week — and its capacious definitions of racism imply, in the end, not reform but re-education, not interracial dialogue but strict white deference, not a liberal society groping toward equality but a corrupt society being re-engineered.

As I write this column, the No. 1 best seller on Amazon is “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, a white anti-bias educator for corporate America and the public sector who has spent decades trying to eliminate bigotries and microaggressions and “implicit bias” among white employees. The No. 2 and 5 best sellers are works by Ibram X. Kendi, an African-American theorist of anti-racism who urges his readers to reject not only bigotry but what he calls the racism of “assimilationism” — meaning any strong emphasis on minority self-improvement or self-sufficiency, any strong hope in education and upward mobility as a salve for racial ills.
DiAngelo represents the revivalist aspect of anti-racism: The anti-bias workshops she runs have uncertain efficacy, but their real purpose is to offer a spiritual ladder to their white participants, with people of color on hand (as Kelefa Sanneh noted in The New Yorker) “as sages, speaking truths that white people must cherish, and not challenge.”

Kendi, meanwhile, represents the revolutionary aspect: In Politico last year he imagined a constitutional amendment establishing a “Department of Anti-Racism … comprised of formally trained experts on racism,” that would be “responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity,” for monitoring public officials who express ideas the experts consider racist and for using “disciplinary tools” when “policymakers and public officials” remain recalcitrant in what the department labels bigotry.
Whatever this is, it is not Barack Obama-era liberalism — indeed, under Kendi’s definitions, some of Obama’s views might merit disciplinary action — but a much more revolutionary successor.
Kendi’s books are popular, but his Department of Anti-Racism isn’t likely to appear in the Democratic Party’s platform, and generally the successor ideology has flopped on the campaign trail. Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, while candidates like Juli├ín Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren found the voters cool to their jargon and appeals. And the inchoate shape of the new movement, the way the locus of power and authority keeps shifting between different groups — the fierce lean-in feminist is suddenly recast as the despised Karen, Jews and Asians are welcomed as allies one moment and regarded as suspiciously “white-adjacent” the next — may make it especially hard to translate into normal party politics.

But in professional-class institutions the successor ideology has made tremendous headway — especially among younger white people, interestingly, for whom it seems to supply a substitute for the structures of civic and religious meaning that their baby boomer parents overthrew. The dynamic in which the pursuit of liberal goals blurs into successor-ideology ambitions is now visible everywhere in upper-middle-class America, from the Ivy League to the young-adult fiction industry, from public school systems in liberal cities to H.R. departments all over corporate America. Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

And of course, the influence of the successor ideology is palpable in the media as well, where as closures and consolidation have made the profession more upper middle class and metropolitan, the old biases of the liberal media have given way to a more crusading spirit.

Again, this shift is happening on a continuum with the pursuit of old-fashioned and laudable liberal goals — more diversity in hiring, equal opportunity instead of old boys networks, newsrooms that more adequately represent the communities they cover. But bound up with these goals is a growing newsroom assumption that greater diversity should actually lead to a more singular perspective on the news, a journalism of “truth” rather than “objectivity,” in which issues that involve black — or gay or female or transgender or immigrant — interests are covered less as complex debates and more as stories of good versus evil. (Obviously, having Donald Trump as president, with his birtherism, bluster and Twitter-feed authoritarianism, has made this transformation seem more urgent and essential.)

And because the media is more consolidated than in the past, its talent concentrated in a few cities with a few papers (like this one) bestriding the landscape and smaller outlets fading every day, it’s a mistake to see this change as just a return of the partisan journalism that dominated 19th-century America. We don’t suddenly have a Democratic and a Republican newspaper battling in every city once again. Instead we have a national media (with Fox News as the exception that helps solidify the rule) that moves as a herd but doesn’t think of itself as partisan — because partisans are partial and biased, and the assumption is that in rejecting neutrality we’re just moving toward the truth.

The results of this shift have been particularly apparent lately at this newspaper, especially in the transformed relationship between our news and opinion pages. The Times of my youth and adolescence aspired to be nonpartisan in its news gathering, while the editorial page was frankly liberal and the Op-Ed page mostly (William Safire excepted) left-of-center. But as our news pages have become more ideological, oriented toward the perceived truths of the successor ideology — a shift documented last year by Zach Goldberg, a Ph.D student at Georgia State, in a series of striking charts showing how the shifting vocabulary of activists has taken off in Times stories — the Op-Ed page has gone from being to the left of the news pages to being, strangely, somewhat to their right.

This is not because the Op-Ed department is no longer mostly left-of-center; indeed, we have added many talented left-wing columnists and contributors, and (as my friends on the right never fail to point out) we do not have a single columnist who supported Donald Trump. But by publishing several right-of-center columnists, and running both regular Op-Eds by pro-Trump contributors and a wider range of heterodox opinion, we have maintained a commitment, liberal-minded in the old sense, to capturing the range of American debate — and earned an odd sort of intramural hostility from some of our news colleagues in the process.
Now that hostility, which flared up in response to an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for using federal troops to suppress riots, has helped end the tenure of my boss, James Bennet, as the editor of these pages. There were many reasonable grounds to criticize Cotton’s Op-Ed: His argument that the president has the power to order the military into American cities was correct, but his suggestion that it would be wise or justified to do this over the objections of local officials after a few days of rioting was — especially on the evidence of the calmer week that followed — wildly premature.

But that judgment is not a reason for an Op-Ed page to repent for publishing the views of a prominent senator engaged in a pressing policy debate; indeed, if a prominent person’s argument looks wrong within a few days of its publication, that is precisely the kind of thing that a diverse Op-Ed page exists to help expose. And neither of the two internal Times arguments for why we were wrong to publish Cotton are persuasive — not the official ruling that the piece did not meet our standards of accuracy or rigor, nor the social media arguments from colleagues suggesting that Cotton’s proposal put the lives of our black staffers at risk.

To the first point, Cotton’s Op-Ed did include one botched paraphrase. But otherwise the piece, like many that we run, made contestable claims in a climate of uncertainty, not provably false claims that a fact checker should have rejected. Its provocative headline and confrontational tone have many equivalents in left-leaning pieces that we publish. If it failed a test, that test is being extremely selectively applied.

The second argument, meanwhile, reflects a sincere concern for colleagues who accept great risk — certainly greater risk than most Op-Ed columnists — to report on protests, and a fear that Cotton’s category of rioters would sweep in more than just the vandals. But Cotton explicitly defended “a majority who seek to protest peacefully” and argued only that the military could help deter “rioters and looters.” His op-ed repeatedly distinguished between “lawbreakers” and “law-abiding protesters” and never suggested using force against the latter.

My colleagues may find it implausible to imagine military units managing to make this kind of distinction, or deal with the gray areas that the real world inevitably presents. But it’s exactly what was asked of the military forces that were sent into cities — the National Guard units mobilized to Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington. And despite the Trumpian chaos around the National Guard’s deployment in the nation’s capital, mostly those units seem to have acquitted themselves well, helping to restore order without instigating a blood bath against protesters.
To believe that Cotton’s proposal was inherently dangerous, then, you have to believe one of two premises not in evidence: First, that local law enforcement will always do a better job balancing public safety and free assembly than a military presence (even though cops can obviously be brutal or incompetent or overwhelmed; it was Park Police, not soldiers, who were responsible for the debacle in Lafayette Park), or second, that shows of force always backfire and only de-escalation works once rioting begins (even though some forms of de-escalation, like the police withdrawal in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray riots, clearly can make a bad situation even worse).

Again, I think Cotton was plainly premature to call for active-duty troops. But that’s also easy to say now that riots have diminished: Sometimes they don’t, and there have been times in the past, and might be times in the future, when even National Guard units aren’t enough. So the wrongness of his case is contingent, the articulation of his case was not somehow too dangerous to publish, and the newsroom revolt over its publication suggests that when journalism decides that it can simply serve truth, not mere objectivity, it may actually serve neither.

I am not myself an old-fashioned liberal, so in certain ways I’m the wrong person to write a stentorian defense of the marketplace of ideas, the old Op-Ed page ideal. In the conflicts between liberalism and its would-be inheritor I have generally taken a detached approach, recognizing — as someone with non-liberal commitments of my own — all the reasons people might be drawn to the successor ideology, all the things it offers that a somewhat exhausted liberalism does not: a clear sense of moral purpose, a thrill of solidarity, a spiritual horizon for ordinary human life.
But in the end it was the liberal New York Times that hired me and supported me, the liberal New York Times that encouraged James Bennet to build a genuinely diverse and fractious Op-Ed page, and it was the successor ideology’s advance inside this paper that incited the controversy that unjustly cost my friend and former boss his job. So now, in whatever struggle looms for the future of this institution, it’s this conservative’s hope that the liberal New York Times will win.

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