Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Thoughts on the Weiss Resignation

You may have heard that Bari Weiss has not-so-quietly resigned from her position at the New York Times. Her publicly-posted resignation letter is a wide-spanning critique of the culture at the Times and what she takes to be a narrowing of the bounds of acceptable opinion and intellectual curiosity.

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • I have never been particularly impressed with the bulk of Bari Weiss' work, or her general "cancel culture/fearlessly asking the questions" oeuvre. I've often found it to be lazy, self-satisfied, and/or hypocritical. I don't think she has a coherent theory distinguishing "criticism" (good) from "cancellation" (bad), and most damningly, I don't think she seems to even recognize that there's a tension here that appears to be resolved in a partisan way (my retort is criticism, yours is cancellation).
  • That said, Weiss is not even close to the only major political pundit who embodies these vices. The degree to which she nonetheless became, for many, the public avatar of those sins always made me uncomfortable, because it always felt like it was tied up to her identity as a prominent Jewish woman. Call it misojewny, call it antisemisogyny, but it stunk.
  • The eagerness with which people bring up Weiss' college escapades (she participated in projects which exposed the allegedly anti-Israel/antisemitic practices of several professors at Columbia, where she was a student) is a bit to gloating in nature for my tastes (again, many public figures have done things while in college that are not fully thought out or perfectly-tailored to keep a pristine PR file). However, consistent with my above sense that Weiss lacks a theory distinguishing "good" versus "bad" critical counterspeech, she isn't helped by the fact that she hasn't to my knowledge even seriously grappled with the tension in this issue close to her heart. A more thoughtful participant in these debates might have drawn upon her experience seeking to "cancel" figures for alleged antisemitism to be more sympathetic to other actors who seek to "cancel" figures for alleged racism. Weiss did not usually extend that sympathy, and so the juxtaposition is going to reflect poorly on her.
  • In her letter, Weiss claims that the terms which describe what happened to her are "unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong." She is, indeed, no legal expert. The conduct she describes in the letter -- whether it is "wrong" or not -- would be very unlikely to sustain a legal complaint for unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, or constructive discharge. 
  • Weiss' confusion is in line with something I've noticed from many conservative observers of anti-discrimination law. They wildly underestimate how high the barriers are to winning a discrimination claim -- probably because they're ideologically committed to the notion that minorities get their discrimination claims rubber-stamped (when the reality is such claims are overwhelmingly rejected by the courts, often before reaching a jury). So when they experience something that is in the family of discrimination, they assume that (a) it must be illegal ("if these whiny minorities are winning, surely my very real pain and trauma must present a winning case too!") and (b) if it isn't treated as illegal, that must be because of some latent anti-conservative(/white/male/whatever) bias, rather than the normal functioning of a legal system they generally endorse.
  • On the other hand, if we step away from the legal aspect of it all I think few of the people mocking Weiss' contention that the environment at the Times had gotten so toxic that she had to resign take the same view when members of other minority groups write of toxic environments in their workplaces that end up driving them out of prestigious jobs. Surely, we on the left are familiar enough with, and historically expressed enough sympathy towards, this style of claim such that the current sneering mockery -- LOL, someone claims that coworkers being mean to them made working at their job impossible -- rings hollow. Of course, many of those sympathetic to Weiss would be derisive of claims of this sort when made by members of other minority groups. Hypocrisy, as always, is a double-edged sword.
  • Weiss situates her initial hiring as an effort by the Times to understand Trump voters, and I've seen several writers lamenting her departure defending her presence along that line -- that it's important to have voices like her available to liberals because, after all, almost half the country backs Donald Trump. This argument is a bit odd, though, since Weiss was not herself a Trump-backer either. I've alluded to this problem before in relation to how one justifies hiring "conservative" voices at mainstream newspapers -- is the goal to reflect the views that are held by a large portion of the populace, or is the goal to legitimate certain views which are thought to present genuinely important and worthy contributions to public debate? Weiss' defenders effectively are claiming the former as a defense against the latter -- even if Weiss' opinions aren't objectively all that worthwhile, it's important to hear them lest liberal NYT readers silo themselves off from views which carry support in a considerable swath of the country. But the issue with Weiss is that she doesn't actually reflect the modal example of a pro-Trump opinion in American politics -- the modal pro-Trump perspective would level opinions far more grotesque than anything Weiss ever produced. Ironically, Weiss was hired by the Times because she misrepresents the average content of contemporary conservative viewpoints by giving them a patina of liberal plausibility that makes them more palatable to a liberal audience. Actual conservatives right now scarcely bother with the patina.


Good Work said...

Well written.

I think your last point has more to do with the fire she was under as well as her quick rising star, than an antisemitic misogyny. You are known by your enemies in most businesses and it feels like her enemies were as likely to be jewish women as anyone else.

The 3rd points asks us to accept that the scholars she targeted at Columbia were/are antisemites. I don’t know that would be universally accepted as fact as your essay states.

long time reader said...

I generally agree with all of your points. I'm especially baffled as to why she, a writer who specialized in covering campus culture, open debate, and its enemies, never seemed to grapple with her own undergraduate activities. In the hands of a skilled and thoughtful essayist, that could make for very interesting reading.

Batocchio said...

Your last point is particularly important and those dynamics apply to so many conservative columnists (David Brooks, etc.). They don't honestly express the movement's positions, but they do plenty of PR for conservatism all the same.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The NY Times Op Ed page has Douthat, Brooks, and Stephens as conservative voices already. Who do they have to the left of Paul Krugman? If there are viewpoints that need to be exposed to the patrons of the Times, I would argue they need exposure to Progressive/Leftist views more than still more Conservative columnists.