Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Why Is Tablet Digging In?

The post I wrote the other day, debunking some claims in a widely-shared Tablet Magazine article about the latest draft of California's Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, went pretty viral. Several readers were surprised that Tablet and the author have completely dug in their heels. They haven't admitted any wrongdoing, are defending the piece to the hilt, and have not even retracted the most obvious falsehood: the allegation that there is an antisemitic quote contained in the curriculum that is not, in fact, present. Their efforts at defense have gotten increasingly ludicrous, turning off even some readers who were broadly skeptical of Ethnic Studies in general but didn't support flatly lying about the curricular content. Why wouldn't they just confess error on that issue and move forward?

I admit I was a bit surprised too, and when someone asked me why Tablet was digging in I leveled two hypotheses. The first was professional vanity. It's hard for anybody to admit a mistake, and it's easier to go into denial mode and kick up a lot of dust. The second was that the article was so thin with respect to problems with the current curricular draft that if they conceded error on this quote, they really were left with virtually nothing. The entire edifice collapses without it, so they were forced to defend it lest they abandon the article entirely.

Both of those hypotheses I think remain plausible. But on reflection, I think there's a third possibility, and it relates to "cancel culture". In quotes, because I'm not referring to any actual cancellation, but rather the idea of "cancel culture", political correctness, and other such concepts that provoke so much ire in segments of the right-leaning media (Jewish media very much included). Persons who have drank of these waters believe we are overwhelmed with attempts at censorship, sugar-coating, and kowtowing to online gangs. For such persons, then, there is no greater betrayal, no greater cowardice, than acceded to the demand for a retraction. It doesn't really even matter if the claim under attack was justified or not; it ceases to be about defending the claim on its merits. The "principle", such as it is, is to stand up to the mob. Anyone who fails to do that is weak.

I started thinking about this when I called on Bari Weiss -- surely one of the doyens of this approach -- to retract the allegations she had made regarding the Ethnic Studies course that, it turns out, were objectively false. Weiss had just written a column where she said that "Being popular is not essential ... Telling the truth is essential." The truest test of character, she continued, is whether someone is "willing to tell the truth even if it hurts their own side." This would be a good place, I thought, for Weiss to practice what she preaches. To tell her readers that the claims about the Ethnic Studies curriculum she had amplified were false would not be popular with the readership she cultivated. But popularity isn't essential. Truth is. Or so she said.

Alas, Weiss has not seen fit to tell her readers the truth. But the issue about it being "unpopular", I think, is one that goes beyond an uncomfortable truth. If Tablet retracted the article, or even if they publicly admitted that there were flaws in it that shouldn't have been published, they would face a different sort of backlash from readers who thought they had prostrated themselves before the politically correct mob. It wouldn't matter that the claims in question fail basic journalistic standards. The fact that there was so much outrage (even justified outrage) on its own makes it imperative that Tablet stand its ground.

We cannot disconnect this from the sense of grievance which inspired some, albeit not all, of the popularity of the initial article. There is a segment of the Jewish community (and other communities) which views Ethnic Studies as so much PC claptrap, a sop to loud and angry minorities who want to silence anything and everything that doesn't present America as a bigoted hell-hole. They read the Tablet article and understood this curriculum as reflecting the ambitions of this cohort, they view the critiques of the article as Tablet being besieged by this cohort, and if the article was retracted they'd view Tablet as having been captured by this cohort. Ironically, Tablet's credibility with its readership (or at least large chunks of it), depends on them not correcting even obvious mistakes. Many of the folks who couldn't care less about the realities of the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (the author of the article now forthrightly admits that it doesn't matter what's in the curriculum; she thinks its a poisonous idea no matter what it teaches) would never forgive Tablet if seemed to be giving in to "the left" (whatever that means).

Telling the truth does indeed, take courage. But telling this particular kind of truth -- that you made a mistake, that you have to retract -- perhaps takes even more courage than normal. And that's especially so when you're part of a social current which values above all else standing firm in the face of challenge.

It takes real backbone, and real commitment to the internal norms of journalistic integrity, to tell the truth in that case. I hope that Tablet can one day find those virtues in itself.