On June 3, the New York Times published a very bad op-ed. By itself, this is not breaking news. The Times opinion page has long been a kind of stagnant water cooler for conventional center-left opinion, a hospice care ward for America’s remaining pleats-panted, open-collar Blairites. Sure, they’ll occasionally publish something interesting — an essay by the deputy leader of the Taliban, for example, or an admission by David Brooks that he once tried the ganja. But generally the Gray Lady’s opiners tend to be tucked in bed by nine, dreaming of the things globalization might accomplish the next day.
This piece was not that. It was, first of all, written by a Republican, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and proposed what’s generally regarded as a Republican idea, deploying the military to stop the riots that broke out after the killing of George Floyd. And second of all, unlike that aforementioned dispatch from the Taliban, it touched off a backlash in the Times newsroom. Furious journalists claimed the piece had put the paper’s black staff in danger. It wasn’t entirely clear how — Cotton hadn’t exactly proposed running tanks through the Times building, which in any case Paul Krugman would have defended as a form of economic stimulus. But the damage was done. Four days after Cotton’s piece ran, the paper’s editorial page editor, James Bennet, resigned in disgrace.
Cotton’s plan for boots in the Bronx was daffy; it would have made an otherwise volatile situation even worse. But that doesn’t mean Bennet deserved to be cashiered for publishing it. That one can hold both of these opinions simultaneously is incomprehensible to the Twitter mob, which has taken to demanding heads over even the slightest deviations from left-wing catechism. The result has been to make conservatives an endangered species in the so-called mainstream media. It’s also served to make our literature more boring, as journalists and storytellers are forced to squeeze their thoughts through the ever-tightening parameters of identity politics.
The most frequent Twitterati target at the Times is Bret Stephens, who’s been under attack by the mob since the day he was hired. Stephens’s first column at the paper was a cheeky broadside against climate hysteria, which elicited a wave of subscription cancelation threats from fragile Times readers. And it isn’t just Stephens. More recently, according to reporting from the Daily Beast, Times executive editor Dean Baquet was pilloried in a staff meeting for running the unconscionable headline: ‘Trump Urges Unity Against Racism’. Of the writer who authored that poisonous indecency, Baquet said, ‘He’s sick. He feels terrible.’ Baquet then tried out a John Oliver witticism: ‘It was a fucking mess,’ he declared.
More infamous even than the Times’s censorious pandering was the plight of Kevin Williamson, a fierce critic of both Donald Trump and the left, who in 2018 was lured away from National Review by the Atlantic. He lasted two weeks. Progressives dug up a tweet and podcast in which he’d recommended the death penalty for women who had gotten abortions. It mattered not that Williamson had later clarified that he was ‘generally against capital punishment’ and ‘always against ex post facto punishment’. It mattered not that the one piece he’d written for his new employer had been an uncontroversial appraisal of libertarians. Atlantic staffers claimed to feel threatened; NARAL Pro-Choice America started a Twitter campaign, #FireKevin. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, promptly saluted and Williamson was sacked.
This kind of heretic hunting is terrible practice on the opinion page, where freedom of thought and freedom to diverge are essential. Without them, writers end up merely extolling the party line, leaving their readers to sink into a warm bath of unchallenged ideological prejudice. If free inquiry is critical in political thought, it’s arguably even more important in fiction, where stories must be told honestly and any hint of propaganda is lethal. Yet here too, the revolutionary committee is cracking down.
Their most prominent target of late is Jeanine Cummins, author of the novel American Dirt, which tells the story of a Mexican mother and son who flee north after the rest of their family is killed by a drug cartel. American Dirt quickly became a magnet for Latino criticism, and some of it is warranted. Cummins’s prose can be stilted and weird. Her reviewers were right to point this out.
The problem is that much of the criticism of Cummins was obsessed with a single fact: she’s white. Admittedly, Cummins herself seems confused on this score, having ‘identified’ — we ‘identify’ as skin colors now — as white for most of her life, only to level up to ‘Latinx’ when American Dirt was being released. Yet even if Cummins is a parody of a cape-wearing white liberal, her work still deserves to be judged independently of her race. Instead her book’s flaws became an excuse for the usual identity politics crusading. The implication from some of the harsher reviews was: whites shouldn’t write about Mexico; in fact, they should probably write less altogether.
Even worse is what’s happened to the Young Adult genre. When Amélie Wen Zhao’s debut novel Blood Heir was announced, it was pilloried on Twitter for alleged insensitivity towards African Americans. The reason? In its fictional world, slavery exists and is ‘blind to skin color.’ This drew a rebuke on (where else?) Twitter from the author L.L. McKinney, who demanded that Zhao ‘explain to me’ how such a thing could be possible. Zhao ended up apologizing and canceling the publication of her own book.
Thankfully she has since reconsidered and Blood Heir is now available for purchase. But the pressure she faced has become commonplace in the whiny environs of today’s literary salons. That this cancel culture is largely the doing of authors and editors should alarm us. When the Iranian regime issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death over his having allegedly insulted Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses, there were some in the West who nodded along. But less so in the arts and letters community, where most writers stood in solidarity with Rushdie. There were some exceptions, of course — the spy novelist John le Carré among them — but authors generally seemed to understand that free expression was worth the fight and that bowing to one threat would only enable others.
Today Rushdie’s fellow writers might very well do the ayatollahs’ work for them. A so-called ‘sensitivity reader’ at a publisher might flag a manuscript of The Satanic Verses as ‘problematic.’ A meeting might be called, in which Rushdie would be found guilty of attacking the lived experiences of disadvantaged Muslims. Word might leak onto Twitter, where half-witted aspiring acrostic poets who had never before read The Satanic Verses would demand that Rushdie ‘do better.’ The novel might be pulled entirely, with or without the consent of its author. And everyone might congratulate themselves, proud of this victory over injustice, liking and retweeting and following each other, before — hark! — word arrives that a new children’s book is rife with insensitivity towards talking otters, and so it’s on to the next fight, the next crusade, as everyone glows and swells with the heady enlightenment of a new progressive age.