The Waste Of Now
I reacted much more strongly to President Trump’s idiotic insult to our NATO ally Denmark yesterday than I normally do to whatever embarrassing thing Trump has done. There aren’t negative superlatives strong enough to capture the childishness and stupidity of an American president cancelling a meeting with another head of state — especially a military ally! — because she wouldn’t let him buy something that belongs to her country. This is how a bad king in a fairy tale behaves. But that’s our president.
I had a long drive last night, and was thinking about why this, of all things Trump does and says, got to me so much. The answer, I think, is that it came on the same day I decided to finally cancel my subscription to The New York Times (which is not easy — they make you chat online to someone who tries to talk you out of it by offering you a cut rate; I explained that this was a matter of principle, thanks, goodnight.) Let me explain.
I cancelled over the “1619” project, for reasons I brought up here, and for reasons Damon Linker explains in his column. It’s not that the Times devoted a lot of resources to a project about slavery and the American experience. That would have been a public service. It’s that the Times made the editorial decision that … well, here, let them tell it:
The Times says that the “true founding” of America was slavery. We got more context for newspaper’s decision to “reframe the country’s history” when someone leaked a transcript of a town hall meeting inside the newspaper. What you see in that transcript is the leading news organization in America surrendering itself to wokeness — that is, to the ideological priorities of left-wing activism.
Executive editor Dean Baquet said to his staff:
But I also want to [inaudible] this as a forum to say something about who we are and what we stand for. We are an independent news organization, one of the few remaining. And that means there will be stories and journalism of all kinds that will upset our readers and even some of you. I’m not talking about true errors. In those cases, we should listen, own up to them, admit them, show some humility—but not wallow in them—and move on. What I’m saying is that our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden. They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president. And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do. The same newspaper that this week will publish the 1619 Project, the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken in [inaudible] newspaper, to try to understand the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump. And that means trying to understand the segment of America that probably does not read us. The same newspaper that can publish a major story on Fox News, and how some of its commentators purvey anti-immigrant conspiracies, also has to talk to people who think immigration may cost them jobs and who oppose abortion on religious grounds. Being independent also means not editing the New York Times for Twitter, which can be unforgiving and toxic. And actually, as Amanda Cox reminds me, doesn’t really represent the left or the right. [inaudible] who care deeply about the Times and who want us to do better, we should listen to those people. But it is also filled with people who flat out don’t like us or who, as Jack Shafer put it, want us to be something we are not going to be.
Well, I care deeply about the Times, and want it to do better. I have subscribed for the better part of 30 years. Arguing with the Times, if only in my own head, has become a familiar exercise. Of course it’s liberal. It’s not just liberal, it’s New York liberal. It’s also a damn good newspaper, probably the best we have.
Its coverage of social controversies, especially when religion is involved, is where the most left-wing bias presents itself — but then, former executive editor Bill Keller once said that culture is the one area where the Times doesn’t feel any obligation to play it straight. Because the intersection of religion and cultural politics matters more to me than just about anything else the paper covers, this has driven me to the brink of cancelling my subscription on a number of occasions in the past few years, but in my charity, I thought about the little Douthat children and their college fund, and held back. More seriously, I developed a routine of letting it sit for a day or so, during which time I thought about all the good things I get as a Times subscriber. Usually the anger subsided.
This time, though, the newspaper crossed an important line. The faith I’ve kept with the paper all these years — stretched nearly to the breaking point by its left-liberal bias at times — finally broke over the 1619 Project and the internal meeting transcript.
It’s not a matter of race; it’s about journalistic integrity. If the Times had decided to pour its formidable resources into a story to “reframe the country’s history” to put “the evil of capitalism” at America’s founding, I would have been gone. Or to put “the patriarchy” there. Or for that matter, had the Times devoted itself similarly to reframing the country’s history by celebrating the glorious dynamism of the free market, or the Gospel of Our Lord And Savior Jesus Christ, as the foundation of America — it would have lost me. Such a project would have been tainted by ideology from the beginning.
I have spent this summer researching life under Communist totalitarianism for my next book. One of the basic features, I found, is that all of life was to be interpreted through the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Anybody who knows anything about Soviet and Eastern European Communism knows this is true, but when you get into the weeds, you see how this played out. It was an ideological black hole that warped all the light that passed around it. Every bit of data had to be conformed to fit Marxist dogma, to show how reality bears witness to the truth of Marx’s genius. Eventually reality exposes the lies … but it can take a long time, and incredible damage can be done.
This summer, I interviewed a Soviet-born physician, who told me:
The life that I remember was right before the Soviet Union collapsed. I can only speak about what happened right before it collapsed. At that time, most people realized that the official system that exists was rather fake. Nobody took the party line seriously. There was obviously a big disconnect between what people talked about at home, and discussed with friends, and what was presented on state run television. Everybody knew how to operate at home, and how to operate in the public sphere. In this aspect, there was a clear understanding that there are two different worlds. As long as you realized there were two different worlds, you could get by.
This was after decades of Party propaganda. Even then, with the system in shambles, people still had to pretend publicly that what they read in Pravda and Izvestia was true. They had cultivated “doublethink” (George Orwell’s term) as a way to deal with the official lies without losing their minds. Doublethink is not the ordinary skill of learning how to interpret the world critically, recognizing, for example, that the information you get from the media is incomplete, and should be read with a critical eye. It is about creating total cognitive dissonance as a survival strategy.
Now, The New York Times has institutionally accepted that the “true founding” of the United States was in slavery. Understand that the paper is not merely claiming that the institution of slavery was present from the beginning of what would become the US, and that it was an important factor in the development of American history. The paper is claiming that slavery was the point of it all. In no way does it diminish the significance of slavery to say that placing it “at the very center” of our collective self-understanding as Americans is an extraordinary act of ideological audacity.
The quest for religious liberty was a key factor in the founding of the United States. If the Times decided to “reframe” our understanding of history for the sake of teaching all of us that religious liberty is not just a, but the, founding phenomenon of this country — I would reject it as the basis for propaganda. And I care very much about religious liberty! In 2011, the Times reported on the prominent role the self-taught Evangelical historian David Barton has in conservative circles, including among GOP leaders, who accept his highly ideological, Christianized interpretation of the American founding. This piece published by the Gospel Coalition — conservative Evangelicals, please note — quotes a historian calling Barton out for distorting facts for ideological ends. Given how influential Barton has been in, for example, textbook debates in Texas, the Times is right to pay critical attention to him.
Well, the Times is now committing itself to a left-wing version of what David Barton does for the Religious Right. The Times’s religion, like that of many other elite cultural institutions, is Anti-Racism (read the black linguist John McWhorter’s take on “Anti-Racism, Our Flawed New Religion”). All the facts will henceforth be fit around the 1619 narrative. The Times actually published on Sunday, as part of the 1619 Project, an essay by a Princeton historian claiming that traffic jams in Atlanta today are the fault of slavery. See how this works?
You might be thinking: Why not just dismiss the 1619 Project as ideological nonsense, and read other things in the Times?
Because of the transcript of that town hall meeting, that’s why. Notice this exchange:
Staffer: Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
Baquet: You know, it’s interesting, the argument you just made, to go back to the use of the word racist. I didn’t agree with all of this from Keith Woods, who I know from New Orleans and who’s the ombudsman for NPR. He wrote a piece about why he wouldn’t have used the word racist, and his argument, which is pretty provocative, boils down to this: Pretty much everything is racist. His view is that a huge percentage of American conversation is racist, so why isolate this one comment from Donald Trump? His argument is that he could cite things that people say in their everyday lives that we don’t characterize that way, which is always interesting. You know, I don’t know how to answer that, other than I do think that that race has always played a huge part in the American story.
And I do think that race and understanding of race should be a part of how we cover the American story. Sometimes news organizations sort of forget that in the moment. But of course it should be. I mean, one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that. Race in the next year—and I think this is, to be frank, what I would hope you come away from this discussion with—race in the next year is going to be a huge part of the American story. And I mean, race in terms of not only African Americans and their relationship with Donald Trump, but Latinos and immigration. And I think that one of the things I would love to come out of this with is for people to feel very comfortable coming to me and saying, here’s how I would like you to consider telling that story. Because the reason you have a diverse newsroom, to be frank, is so that you can have people pull together to try to tell that story. I think that’s the closest answer I can come.
The staffer said something that could have come out of the mouth of a Pravda reporter: that “racism is in everything” and is “the foundation of all the systems in this country.” If I were the executive editor of The New York Times, I would have met that statement with a strong, clear statement that no newspaper should approach its work so ideologically. If you believe that racism, or class conflict, or the advancing kingdom of Christ, or anything else, is “in everything … and should be considered in [all] our reporting” because it is “the foundation of all of the systems in the country” — well, if I’m your editor, I’m going to have to think hard about whether you are fit for purpose as a professional journalist. Maybe this unidentified staffer was just a clerk in the paper’s library, and has no responsibility for news decisions. Even if that’s the case, if that kind of statement is made in a meeting of the entire staff of the newspaper, you as executive editor have a responsibility to lay down the law by reaffirming the standards of professional journalism.
Baquet did not do that. He didn’t clearly affirm what this staffer said, but he didn’t deny it either. He hemmed and hawed, and seemed to come down more on the staffer’s side than not. Nobody is better placed than the African-American executive editor of The New York Times to affirm to his staff that the Times will not allow its professional approach to covering and interpreting the news to be shaped by the radical ideological conviction that white supremacy is at the foundation of all systems in the United States, and that racism is “in everything.”
Again, Dean Baquet did not do that. Whether it’s because he shares the staffer’s conviction, or because he is afraid to stand up to the racialist Jacobins in his own newsroom, he failed to lead. To be precise: he surrendered his newsroom to the radical left.
We can see what’s going to happen now. The New York Times is going to devote itself to radicalizing the United States along racial lines. It will propagate the narrative that the engine driving American life is the efforts of white people to maintain supremacy, and the resistance of People of Color, and their allies, to white supremacy. Everything the paper reports will theoretically be filtered through that distorting lens, because the leadership of The New York Times believes it to be true. I don’t know this for a fact, but knowing newspapers as I do, I’d bet that there are professional journalists within that news organization who do not share these beliefs, and who in fact are worried about the direction of the newspaper. Not conservatives, but old-school liberals. And I bet they are now afraid to speak out, afraid that they will be denounced as fellow travelers of white supremacy if they do.
This isn’t, ultimately, about slavery. Not at all. This is about a great and vital American journalism institution surrendering its integrity and its reputation to the radical left. What has started at the Times will not remain at the Times. You need to understand that. Within the relatively small world of American journalism, senior newsroom leaders, in print and broadcast, are looking at what the Times is doing with this project with admiration, even envy. As usual in American journalism, where the Times leads, its acolytes around the country will follow.
I do not want to pay for propaganda. The Times has made it impossible to give it the benefit of the doubt on the question. Beyond not paying for propaganda, I do not want to subsidize with my subscription money an effort by the most powerful news media organization in the world to demonize people like me — today and throughout history — on the basis of our race, and to turn the United States of America into a neo-Balkan cesspit of racial hatred and animus.
I hated it when Donald Trump called the media the “Enemy Of The People.” It’s a totalitarian phrase. I would not call The New York Times, or any media organization, the Enemy Of The People. But it’s hard to conclude anything other than that The New York Times has at least become the enemy of people like me — and the enemy of what every professional journalist should be committed to doing: telling the truth without fear or favor.
Last night, I cancelled my subscription. I didn’t do it with pleasure, but with sorrow. I really like the Times, overall. It has been a part of my life for many years, when I lived in south Florida in the 1990s, then for five years in NYC, then in Dallas in the 2000s, then in Philadelphia, and now here in south Louisiana. But this is too much.
So what does this have to do with Trump and his Greenland tweet?
We are in a dangerous time in American history. Leaving aside the economic and geopolitical challenges of our time, from a socially conservative perspective, the nation is disintegrating, and the religion that has been the source of our common values is evaporating. We are sliding into a “soft totalitarianism,” one that is going to be particularly hard on social and religious conservatives, who are going to face marginalization and perhaps even persecution. The radical identity-politics left has captured the most powerful media organization in the nation, and holds the high ground in the top academic outposts, and in cultural institutions. We are at an acute hinge point in history. The days are grave. The need for serious, focused, wise, creative conservative leadership is something close to an emergency.
And who, in this time of peril, is the champion of the Right? A clown who refuses to meet with the prime minister of Denmark because she won’t sell him Greenland. What a waste.
UPDATE: This happened today. This was tweeted by the
King of the Jews POTUS:
You know what? This GIF below pretty much captures the way I write this blog, and the way I live my life. If you don’t know who the hot dog vendor is, you lack proper theology and geometry:
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) August 21, 2019
UPDATE.2: A friend who is a Washington Post reporter tweets:
I spent the wkend with two other journalists who work in mainstream media who spent the bulk of our time complaining about how liberal the media is. I personally worry industry leaders are tuning out some legitimate concerns because many hear them alongside “fake news” claims. https://t.co/Ln0d5giegJ
— Sarah Pulliam Bailey (@spulliam) August 20, 2019