About a year ago, I went to see my friend John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s magazine, in his office in New York. When I reached him, he was in a state. One of his authors had used the word ‘tartly’ — the adverb, meaning sharply or sourly — and one of his junior editors had ruled that the word was problematic. The junior editor thought it might be connected to the word ‘tart’ — the noun, meaning prostitute — and therefore misogynistic. ‘See what I have to put up with?’ he asked.
Rick was laughing but it wasn’t altogether a joke. In 2018, he had to face down a staff insurrection over a Harper’s piece which dared to suggest that the ‘Shitty Media Men list’ — an anonymous Google spreadsheet that collected accusations of sexual harassment — was not necessarily a great vehicle for sexual justice.
Not many publishers are as brave as Rick. Just look at the nervous somersaults that the New York Times is performing this weekend following the paper’s publication of an op-ed which members of staff found offensive. See also what happened to Ian Buruma, whose editorship of the New York Review of Books was terminated after he published a piece by Jian Ghomeshi, who had been accused of various heinous sexual crimes and then acquitted. Or former Spectator contributor Daniella Greenbaum Davis, who quit Business Insider after they pulled her column which argued that the actress Scarlett Johansson should be allowed to play the part of a trans man.
There are far too many other examples. The New York liberal press, once home to the most exciting journalism in the world, is being ruined — not from without but within. Its institutions are being taken over and dominated by a new-media generation who don’t care about free speech; who accept only a very narrow idea of progress, and who see heterodoxy as dangerous.
For about a decade, conservatives and sane liberals have laughed at the demented ‘snowflakes’ coming out of America’s higher-education system — those perpetually offended, aggrieved, triggered children of privilege who have never been told that they are wrong. Laughter was a cathartic response. When people tell you that you can’t say or even think something, the free mind delights in defiance. But the whole ‘campus craziness’ theme soon descended into right-wing cliché — a meme for baby boomers who don’t know what memes are.
Perhaps the grown-up world was too busy mocking the young to realize that the hyper-woke generation grew up. But they weren’t like other grown-ups.
They were getting jobs in corporations and media companies. Far from putting aside their childish and over-sensitive worldview, they were becoming more determined to impose it on everyone. The snowflakes weren’t melting, in other words. They were turning to ice.
We had assumed that when confronted with real work and responsibilities, these coddled adult children would be obliged to get real. We didn’t appreciate that, even in the adult world, there aren’t enough adults left. In so many workplaces now, if somebody feels triggered, that in itself will trigger an office crisis and the resignation of somebody senior.
This process already happens in the corporate world, where you can’t hear the middle management screams. Now it’s happening, more noisily, in the American media. The spirit of dissent, that vital ingredient in good journalism, is being lost. It must be brought back. You can help by subscribing to The Spectator.