When speech is violence and violence is speech

The New York Times has published op-ed pieces by Vladmir Putin and The Freaking Taliban. If staff members had a problem with that, they kept it to themselves.

But an editorial – admittedly, a really, really stupid one – by a sitting US Senator? That’s a bridge too far.

Staffers at The New York Times expressed dismay Wednesday over the newspaper’s decision to publish an op-ed written by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton that called for the U.S. military to be deployed in cities across the country to help restore order.

The op-ed was published in The Times opinion section, but staffers from both opinion and the newsroom — which operate separate from one another — publicly dissented.

A parade of Times journalists tweeted a screen shot showing the headline of Cotton’s piece, “Send In the Troops,” with the accompanying words: “Running this puts Black @NYTimes staff in danger.”

They all tweeted the same mantra. Just like a religious ritual. Matt Welch, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, despairs for the future of journalism and the liberal ideal itself:

Like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, I do not think the president should invoke the Insurrection Act, now or for whatever other hare-brained schemes he may have. And like the army of journalism professors and lefty media critics busy mashing the “like” button on every new anti-Cotton tweet, I am no fan of the senator. My first piece about him, five years ago, was headlined “GOP’s New Foreign Policy Hero Is a Surveillance-Loving Interventionist Nightmare.”

But Tom Cotton is, sadly, a senator. And one of the most longstanding traditions among journals of national aspiration—the TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesUSA Today, The Atlantic—is publishing advocacy essays by people in power.

For instance, then-Rep. Charlie Rangel (D–N.Y.) wrote a 2002 New York Times op-ed headlined “Bring Back the Draft” (talk about “invoking state violence” in a way that “disproportionately hurts Black and brown people”!) without stirring this sort of protest. More recently, Michael Bloomberg took to the Gray Lady to advocate banning flavored vapes. Ask the family of Eric Garner how they feel about the racial distribution of stepped-up anti-nicotine enforcement in New York. One begins to suspect that the objection to Cotton is not a principled observation that state power is disproportionately wielded against the less fortunate.

This publishing flap, which in comparative importance is a sputtering match next to the hell-inferno of spring 2020, is nonetheless symbolic of a shift bearing more tectonic heft. Our liberal institutions, not unlike our conservative intellectuals, are noisily abandoning liberalism.

While the Trump-era trolls on the right gleefully transgress the bounds of discourse (particularly concerning race, gender, and sexuality) to provoke the sensitivities of the forces they call “the Cathedral,” the solons of the institutional left expend a frightful amount of energy serving as intellectual bouncers—deciding, sometimes based on organization affiliation or even immutable characteristics, who is allowed to be in the club and dance on the “platform.” It is an ever-escalating slap-fight between two sides who have given up on the idea of don’t-categorize-me individualism.

“Should the Times publish op-eds by Hitler?” people are asking on social media, because of course Tom Cotton can’t just be an authoritarian idiot, he has to be Hitler. The answer is, they fucking did, back when it was assumed that it is not dangerous just to be exposed to what even awful people are thinking, and in fact it is inherently good to expose it.

The Times is sheepishly backing down, of course. They won’t make the mistake of challenging its readers again.

Sometimes it feels like we’re caught between left-wing ideologues who want to recreate China during the sixties and right-wing ideologues who want to recreate China in 1989, doesn’t it?

Update: This.

One thought on “When speech is violence and violence is speech

  1. M says:

    Being German-Slavic, I’m curious: does that 1941 article exist on the web in a readable format? It was a difficult time for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I’m always curious to fill in more pieces of the puzzle.
    I get that people are outraged about Cotton’s opinion, but isn’t it better to have it out in the open so that it *can* be scrutinized and debated? Ignoring him won’t make it go away. Debating it forces us to think and define our views. It prepares us to oppose him effectively (or it could, if we use the opportunity to get something useful out of the discussion). If I lived in the States, I’d rather know about this than be blindsided.

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