There is no rational, acceptable reason to run an opinion column, nine days after the Supreme Court’s devastating repeal of reproductive rights, arguing that the “far left” is denying women their humanity as much as the “far right” – based on the fact that a handful of people are trying to use more inclusive language to acknowledge that trans men can get pregnant, too.
But that, of course, is exactly what the editors of the New York Times opinion section chose to do on Saturday, running a piece headlined “The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count,” by their newly-minted columnist Pamela Paul, the former Book Review editor who apparently was brought over to opinion primarily to troll the libs.
Both-sidesing would have been a step up for this column, which devoted only 52 words out of 1,300 to the right’s decades-long campaign to strip women of their rights. The rest was about how “the fringe left” is “jumping in with its own perhaps unintentionally but effectively misogynist agenda.”
The central thesis of Paul’s argument was an exaggerated summary of a scaremongering news article from last month by Michael Powell, one of the two star reporters the Times has assigned to the woke-panic/cancel-culture beat –the other being Anemona Hartocollis, who just a few days ago gave us this already infamous piece of soft-focus cancel porn.
Powell, Paul wrote, had concluded that “the word ‘women’ has become verboten.”
In reality, some groups, sometimes, use gender-neutral language because, as NARAL explained (in a tweet over a year ago) “it’s not just cis-gender women that can get pregnant and give birth… We’re being inclusive. It’s that simple.”
But nobody is eliminating the word woman. That is incontrovertibly bullshit.
So why write such a thing? Why publish it?
As it happens, I ask myself those questions a lot these days. Our most elite media outlets – the Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, among others – seem to be constantly running articles that cast wokeism and cancel culture as threats to society equal or greater than an extremist political party that is quickly and effectively eroding American human rights, free speech, and democracy.
Well, I’ve seen enough. I have answers.
What all these articles reflect is an intense, disproportionate hostility toward inclusiveness. So the answer is right there: The purveyors of this garbage are defending exclusivity.
They are, or they identify with, rich white cis people who want to maintain their position of control and power and superiority over others. They hate uppity minorities and sanctimonious hippies who would upset the proper order of things.*
There’s currently no acceptable way of openly expressing that view in polite, elite society. So all the emotional intensity – and money – behind it gets poured into this insane bucket of anti-wokeism.
That’s why, for instance, you have people like Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos reportedly bringing up in conversations with executive-editor job candidates “his distaste for cancel culture.” It’s an acceptable way of saying “Don’t fuck with the status quo.”
People obsessed with the dangers of wokeism are, in a word, assholes. They are oppressors who want to come off as martyrs. They are the leaders who want to shut up the rabble. Many are racists, misogynists and/or homophobes who want to make themselves sound noble.
And casting wokeism as a malevolent force has a particular appeal for political journalists, for at least two reasons.
One is that they are pathologically committed to remaining “above the fray” even as one political party traffics primarily in lies, resentment, and hostility to democratic institutions. This way, they can leave the false impression “that the radicalization happening in the American right has some kind of corollary in the left,” as columnist Moira Donegan expressed it. It’s a way of assuaging the right.
The other is that it’s a great way of marginalizing critical readers: “Oh, that’s just the woke mob.” Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., declared in 2017 that the paper didn’t need a “public editor” anymore because social media now served “as a modern watchdog,” and that it was the organization’s “responsibility.. to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them.” Whining about omnipresent wokeism effectively belayed that order.
It’s also a scam: a great way to get attention and money. Top cancel-culture warriors have found a way to get paid by other assholes while still smirking at themselves in the mirror every morning. Whether it’s Bari Weiss or FIRE, they’ve found that exaggerating the threat of inclusiveness is a cash cow. Anti-wokeism is a safe harbor among intellectuals for those who have rebranded their desire to discriminate as religious liberty.
Sure, there are occasional excesses of woke fervor on the left. But does any rational person actually believe that wokeism is anywhere near as significant a force in our society as racism, misogyny and homophobia? I don’t think so. I think it’s all about signaling and trolling and negating.
It’s not vaguely sincere, it’s the contrived response to a perceived threat. And journalists who play along are blowing a right-wing dog whistle, just like they did before with “critical race theory,” “migrant caravans,” and “death panels.”
Casting wokeism – literally, the awakening to social problems – as malevolent also does exactly what its critics accuse it of doing: It shuts down criticism, debate, and even basic self-awareness. Did no one in the New York Times opinion section raise a concern that Paul’s column might be atrociously wrong and inappropriate?
Or were they scared to?
Or do the folks in the opinion section express a “distaste for cancel culture” because their owner – like the guy at the Washington Post – wants them to and rewards them for it?
I suspect there’s at least some of the latter going on, because some of what goes on over there is too stupid to explain in any other way than that they are flailing around, with no actual moral compass, without their brains really engaged, trying to do what they think the owner wants them to.
What else besides a powerful directive to present “both sides” so completely overcomes intellectual rigor? The controversy over the publication of an inaccurate, unhinged and inflammatory op-ed by Tom Cotton during the Black Lives Matter summer showed how rightist opinion had a fast-track to publishing under then-editorial page editor James Bennet.
But it may be even worse under his successor, Kathleen Kingsbury. She actually published a blitheringly stupid lead editorial just four months ago bemoaning cancel culture and asserting that “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”
There is no such right. She had it exactly wrong. As I wrote at the time, the fundamental right is to be able to engage in spirited debate without government intervention — which often includes shaming, if not shunning. There is no right not to be ratioed on Twitter.
Apparently, in Kingsbury’s mind, holding the powerful accountable is cancel culture.
Just the day after Kingsbury published Paul, she published a guest essay by Leah Libresco Sargeant that included discussion about “delivering a baby who is ectopic.” But there is no such thing. An ectopic pregnancy is always fatal to the fetus. It’s an outrageous lie. Even a cursory edit would have caught that.
And while Times columnists and guest essayists from the right evidently get little to no scrutiny from the editors, I’m increasingly hearing that essays from the left are subject to endless back-and-forths between their authors and the editors trying to denature them.
You go down that path and you end up publishing idiot arguments like that no one is allowed to say “woman” anymore.
And Paul’s essay was dangerous as well as dumb. It’s not just that she equated a real threat to women with a bunch of tweets. She also attacked people and groups for acknowledging the existence of trans men.
Paul’s imagined indignities to women from the left are actually being suffered by trans people, and not just from the right. As Medill journalism professor Steven Thrasher wrote in a tweet, Paul’s column has “opened the Overton window and given permission to respectable white liberals to be openly transphobic.”
There is an actual movement that would deny trans people their humanity. It is not cis women who are being “told we couldn’t call ourselves women anymore.”
Here’s my take on what’s happening in a lot of elite journalism: When everything you do is performative rather than sincere, you are bound to do some profoundly stupid things because it’s much harder to keep track of what you’re supposed to believe than what you believe.
So write what you believe is true, not what you think will please your bosses, or an imaginary white male reader, or the right, which will never be happy as long as you write the truth. Punch up, not down. And embrace inclusivity.
* OK there’s one possible exception: People who are doing it just to get attention. Go back
Special thanks to the folks who shared their thoughts on Twitter.