People line up for taxi across the street from the New York Times building in New York City in 2013. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The case for firing New York Times opinion editor James Bennet was the almost unrelieved mediocrity of his pages. Instead, they fired him for cooties.
The Times’s opinion pages have long been the worst thing in a very good (by no means perfect) newspaper, America’s RDA-exceeding daily dose of insipid liberal conventional wisdom. It is where you go to watch Charles Blow’s long, slow slide into a journalism of exclamation points (“Stop Airing Trump’s Briefings!” “No More Lynching!”), though the Times’s style guide presumably will prevent his descending into the all-caps Facebook Dad mode of very very angry typing. From the intellect of Paul Krugman, who is famously in possession of a Nobel prize in economics, the Times has managed to extract only the shallowest and lamest kind of barstool partisanship (“Republicans Don’t Want to Save Jobs,” “Good People Can’t Be Good Republicans”). Jamelle Bouie? Elizabeth Bruenig? I like avocado toast as much as the next guy, but that’s an awful lot of the stuff.
(There are a few bright spots and individual writers worthy of praise, but I don’t want to damage anybody’s career over there.)
The purported cause of Bennet’s forced resignation was his decision to publish a guest column by Senator Tom Cotton, in which the Arkansas Republican called for the use of federal troops to quell riots in U.S. cities under the terms of the Insurrection Act. To publish such a thing was to endanger the lives of black Times employees, according to staffers who came for Bennet’s scalp. That is, of course, preposterous.
Here’s the thing: There actually exists in our federal law something called the Insurrection Act, which really does empower the president to deploy federal troops in certain situations, and there really was a national debate about whether the recent riots originating roughly in Minneapolis provided a legitimate occasion for invoking the Insurrection Act, which has been relied upon in convulsions ranging from desegregation (President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to deal with violent defiance of Brown) to the Los Angeles riots that were under way back around the time Maureen Dowd wrote her last interesting column. Tom Cotton is a U.S. senator and a former infantry captain who sits on the Armed Services Committee. He is also a graduate of Harvard College, where he was on the editorial board of the Crimson, and a graduate of Harvard Law, so his spelling at least is probably pretty reliable.
I do not agree with Senator Cotton about the Insurrection Act; my belief is that the act is dangerously permissive and an invitation to abuse, and that it would be better to reform or repeal it than to invoke it at this time. Senator Cotton has a view that is different from mine and, presumably, different from those of most of the Times’s editors. But he is precisely the guy from whom you would commission a guest column on the Insurrection Act if you were interested in publishing an opinion section in which the relevant national issues of the day might be read about and debated, something that a newspaper with national aspirations would do — if it were in the journalism business.
But what appears in the Times opinion pages mostly is not journalism. It is half-assed political speechwriting with better pay and less accountability. The thing about good advocacy journalism is it’s still supposed to be journalism, intellectually honest and intelligently engaged with the events of the time and the arguments touching them. The Times opinion pages are full of advocacy but contain very little journalism. Most of the Times’s opinion writers seem to operate under the assumption that putting the word “opinion” at the top of a page is a license to abandon intellectual standards and honesty.
That is what was so maddening about watching Bennet attempt to grovel his way out of being fired by appending a groveling editors’ note to the Cotton column, denouncing its purported factual inaccuracies (none of any substance are cited) and its “needlessly harsh tone.” The Times’s editors do not give a fig about factual inaccuracies or needlessly harsh tones in the opinion pages; about this we can be fairly confident. Professor Krugman, for example, makes things up — specifically, he assumes the existence of facts that bolster his prejudices. When these fictions are shown to be fictions — for example, here — the Times makes no effort at all to correct the record or to acknowledge that the claims presented as fact are fabrication.
The intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and flaccidness of Times opinion writing on Bennet’s watch ought to have been addressed some time ago. (My own occasional offers to help the Times out with that problem have not been fruitful.) But the bosses at the Times were perfectly satisfied with that sad slop bucket of mediocrity — and why shouldn’t they be? In spite of the president’s wishful sneering about the “failing New York Times,” business has been pretty good over there. On the Times opinion pages, providing comforting constituent service is the business model. What got their attention was publishing a perfectly ordinary column on a live issue written by a sitting senator whose position and résumé put him at the center of the national debate — it was interesting and relevant, and, therefore, unbearable.
The basic problem was not what Senator Cotton wrote — the problem was Senator Cotton.
This only makes sense if you understand that the Times staffers who forced Bennet’s firing understand themselves to be a political operation rather than a journalistic operation. Senator Cotton is a Republican — you will not find the Times firing anybody over publishing a guest column by a Democratic senator. Senator Cotton is, like practically every Republican in the Senate save Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, a very enthusiastic supporter of President Trump and his policies. He is, therefore, The Enemy. And why would a partisan political operation give voice to The Enemy? The role of an opinion section is to foster debate; the role of a political operation is to win the debate, not on the merits but by simply excluding The Enemy from the debate in the first place. The strategy is to try to make certain ideas unspeakable and to make certain unwelcome speech into a “safety” issue. Of course, that forces one to defend such nonsensical propositions as the one that a senator from one of the two major political parties is somehow not only outside the mainstream (though what in hell is wrong with publishing something outside the mainstream from time to time?) but so far outside the mainstream that it cannot be published in the pages of the New York Times.
This is only partly a question about “platforming” and “deplatforming.” It is not the case that Senator Cotton’s purportedly dangerous words would not be able to infect the mind of the public without the cooperation of the New York Times. He is a senator, and so he has a pretty big bullhorn when he wants one. The ritual denunciations of Joe Rogan and J. K. Rowling are not limiting their reach. At a much less rarefied level, when The Atlantic fired me for what currently passes for moral turpitude, I wrote about the experience in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, considerably larger forums than The Atlantic, and then published a book about contemporary ochlocracy. There are more people paying attention to Senator Cotton today than there were a month ago. This is not about reach: This is about who sits at what table in the great junior-high cafeteria of American public life. Senator Cotton has cooties, and the idiot children of all ages at the New York Times live in terror of such cooties.
James Bennet published great heaps of pap in his days at the Times. He lost his job for publishing something moderately interesting and potentially useful. That is the sort of thing that happens when an institution such as the Times abandons self-respect in favor of self-importance — a lamentably common avenue of degradation in contemporary American life that diminishes everything from the newspapers to the universities to Congress.
You know who could probably write a really good column on that? Tom Cotton.
Words About Words
Here is one that is new to me: Apparently, there is some controversy about whether golf can be used as a verb. On this question, the blood is running hot and the dudgeon is high, with one correspondent insisting that the expression “going golfing” is illiterate, that the only permissible form is “playing golf” rather than “golfing.” A little snooping around suggests that this is, dictionaries be damned, a live dispute among golfers, who are an odd bunch.
A little grammar review.
There are three “verbal” forms in English: participles, gerunds, and infinitives.
Participles, which are verbs that sometimes act like adjectives, come in two flavors: the present participle and the past participle. The present participle usually ends in -ing: Burning Man, the woman riding the bicycle, “The Vanishing Pavilions.” The past participle usually ends in -ed or -en: Broken Spoke, beaten path, forgotten realm, debased currency, mashed potatoes, Burnt Norton.
The -ing present participle form is the same in the gerund, which is a verb used as a noun: Texting in a theater is bad manners; Walking is good for you; I am bored by talking to lawyers.
The infinitive form in English consists of the word to and the base form of the verb. It is used as a noun (To be or not to be; To err is human), an adjective (not a man to be trifled with; “A Time To Kill”) or an adverb (To win, he needs 270 electoral votes).
So golfing looks like a pretty straightforward gerund: Golfing is something Republicans used to do. But that begs the question. (To beg the question is to assume facts not in evidence; it does not mean to raise the question, although someone who points out that you are begging the question may be raising the very question that is begged.) If golfing is a legit gerund, then golf must be a legit verb, which is the proposition some golfers deny: They insist that you do not golf but play golf. The answer to the question of whether golf is a bona fide verb of respectable vintage is not straightforward, because the etymology of golf is uncertain. The etymologists say that golf probably is related to the Dutch kolf, meaning club or bat, which is used as a verb (kolf, kolfen), though the oldest English uses of golf is recorded in Middle English, before the existence of the game of kolf. What we do know is that the use of golf as a verb goes back centuries, whereas the objections to its use as a verb seem to be relatively new, and the kolf/kolfen pattern suggests a parallel in golf, golfing. And we use similar words similarly: club/clubbing, bat/batting, etc.
One interesting read on this is that in English we use -ing forms with going to describe experiences, often recreational activities, that are to be comprehended as a whole. For example, going shopping doesn’t just mean the transaction that happens at the register, going hunting doesn’t just mean the shot, and, presumably, going golfing refers to more than whacking little white balls — the whole experience of getting dressed up in ridiculous clothes, the social aspect of the game, etc. So we do not go pokering (even if “This Is How We Vegas”) or backgammoning, but we do go golfing and balling, except that we usually pronounce the sport of balling Romantically rather than Germanically and go bowling (from the Old French boule).
A much more straightforward issue is the rampant abuse of apostrophes, which properly are used to form possessives and contractions, not plurals or present-tense forms. The formulation “Love Trump’s hate,” for example, does not mean what the sloganeer meant it to mean.
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Home and Away
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It is interesting that, in our time, the self-proclaimed partisans of diversity and inclusion are those who practice the most ruthless politics of conformism and exclusion, in much the same way that the cretins in Portland who claim to be worried about “fascism” feel compelled to . . . dress up in black uniforms and boots and roam the streets committing acts of violence against members of political minorities and, occasionally, members of racial minorities. Because we are in the thick of it, it is sometimes difficult to remember that hatred and pettiness will only carry these miscreants and grifters so far, because going farther requires something more than hatred and pettiness — and they don’t have it.
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