Politics & Policy

Honesty Is Not The Best Policy

The New York Times is at it again.

The New York Times has been running an endless series called “How Race is Lived in America.” It is clearly aimed at a Pulitzer Prize. And, like most Pulitzer-hunting, zillion-word, angst-ridden multi-article strolls through liberal guilt, it tends to extrapolate a great deal of meaning from some fairly discrete anecdotes. In other words, the New York Times went out to find racial problems in America and — surprise! — it found them.

The premise of the series is… well, the premise is largely lost on me. I often end up asking “Why am I reading this?” when I have to wade through tens of thousands of words about the racial anxieties of chicken pluckers and white suburban hip-hopsters. The Times claims to be interested in moving beyond political debates and getting to the heart of racial experiences, hence “how race is lived in America.”

The more fundamental premise, it seems to me — other than Pulitzer-craving — is that the Times fully subscribes to the prevailing hoohah about how America needs a more “honest dialogue” about race. Everyone who has stepped foot on a campus, or been forced into a fluorescent-lighted reprogramming chamber in a corporate conference room has heard about this much needed dialogue. The idea is that somehow Americans don’t know there are differences between the races. If only we could have a conversation where we spoke our minds, everything would be cleared up. This is hard work.

“Honest dialogue will not be easy at first. We will have to get past defensiveness and fear and political correctness and other barriers to honesty,” warned president Clinton in 1997 launching his year-long conversation about pigment differences. “Emotions may be rubbed raw, but we must begin” (presumably this is just one of the many things Bill Clinton desires to have rubbed raw). This seems to be the point of the Times series: to give air to continuing gripes. For example, yesterday’s (over 7,500 word) installment was titled, “Why Harlem Drug Cops Don’t Discuss Race.” About 600 words into the piece we get our answer. “Cops do not discuss race,” writes Michael Winerip of the Times, “It’s too risky. They need to get along.” Alas we get another 7,000 words anyway.

But guess what? Normal people everywhere tend not to discuss race, and I am not sure exactly why so many concerned liberals want to change that. After all, isn’t the mantra to “get past our differences”? Well how are we going to do that if we are constantly harping on them. Besides, the idea that we are waiting for, or even just beginning, a racial conversation is nuts. There is not a college course in the humanities which does not overly dwell on race. I doubt if there isn’t a grade or high-school American history or civics textbook which doesn’t concentrate on racial discussions. There are hundreds of black politicians who’ve made racial “conversations” their modus vivendi. There are many white politicians who’ve made their careers over their willingness to “discuss race frankly.” Indeed, that was the whole point of Bill Bradley’s presidential bid. And, if there is a network news show that goes a whole week without discussing race, I’d be shocked.

Meanwhile, Americans are dealing with racial tensions in an intelligent manner, which is to say ignoring them. There’s a reason why millions of families have a “no politics or religion at the dinner table” rule. Because people don’t want their emotions rubbed raw. The editors of the Times harp on racial considerations because it satisfies their own ivory tower guilt. But the average person realizes that if you want to get along with your fellow white or black man then you might want to discuss sports or the weather rather than longstanding racial grievances. For the Times, zeroing on what divides people seems like responsible journalism, for normal people it’s nuts.

For example, I get along profoundly well with my Catholic girlfriend (mostly because I’m very good at following orders). We agree on almost everything (Dershowitz bad, Jameson’s whiskey good, etc). What exactly is to be gained by an “honest dialogue” on religion? After an endless food-fight, screaming things like “Transubstantiate this!” and “Uh oh, you better duck! I don’t think this chewed its cud!” would we really be better off?

In America, most people have worked out a similar rule about racial conversations: Avoid them if you can, and keep them light and brief if you can’t. Any honest conversation about race would have to include a vast number of things neither side wants to bring up. Of course, the assumption from people like Clinton — despite all his talk about moving past political correctness — is that white people need to hear how racist they are. Actually, that’s not quite right. Clinton’s assumption is that he is brave for telling race peddlers what they want to hear (and therefore deserves all the raw-rubbing he can get). But the assumption from his amen choir is that whites still need a good talking to. And many whites probably do. But no conversation can be one-way. At some point the view that most of the problems with the African-American community are cultural and cannot be remedied by more legislation will have to be aired. Are African-American leaders willing to listen to a full-venting of that perspective without screaming “racism” and storming out? I sincerely doubt it.

As an aide in the Nixon administration, Pat Moynihan proposed that the federal government should adopt a policy of “benign neglect” when it came to race. His alternative was to concentrate on poverty of all races, which would disproportionately help blacks. Moynihan was denounced as a racist by civil-rights leaders and demagogues alike. The funny thing is that this is precisely the policy that pretty much everyone has in their everyday lives.

This exposes the dark side of things like “How Race is Lived in America.” Race and racism is not central to the lives of most Americans, contrary to what the racialists claim. And it shouldn’t be. But, if you want to find it in every aspect of American life, you’re going to be successful. If a doctor keeps asking you questions, eventually he’s going to find something wrong. If you keep asking someone “what’s wrong?” they’re going to dredge up an answer. While race is certainly more serious than height, the New York Times could just as easily have gone around America and found instances where tall people do better than short people. So what? Or more precisely, therefore what?

No, the only really revealing expose about race I’d like to see from the Times is “How Race is Lived at the New York Times.” Let’s find out how a rich, white newspaper deals with what it considers the North Star of American life.


1. Many of you might have seen Howard Kurtz’ profile of National Review Online in today’s Washington Post. Kurtz, who is not only a powerful man but a handsome one, has written a dispassionate piece about the crazy-wacky-fun world of National Review Online, where the paper shredders hum and the interns are nervous. No wait, that’s the White House.

Anyway, Kurtz’ piece is a welcome and appreciated nod to the hard work of the NRO staff. There are at least four people, not mentioned in the piece, deserving of great praise: NRO’s managing editor Chris McEvoy, roving free-safety Kathryn Lopez, webmaster Jessica Kelsey and, of course, Mike Potemra, the man who — among other things — changes my column from a rambling living-will of grammatical horrors and malapropisms into the clean-reading train wreck it is. They work tirelessly (okay, they do get tired but they work hard anyway) for the greater glory of NRO and in a just world they would each get: “one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings.” (What’s that from?).

2. Many readers have requested that we run a link to NRO Weekend (the brainchild of Chris McEvoy) a little earlier on Fridays and a little later on Mondays so those of you who only have internet access in your veal-pen cubicles at work can see what’s going on. So, that is exactly what we are going to do. You can find a link on the homepage, or if your hands are so unbelievably crippled from playing Minesweeper all day that you can’t muster the strength of two clicks, you can just click here.

3. And just before you think the praise couldn’t get any better, this is what the Christian Science Monitor has to say about us today, “[National Review Online] tries to be the Internet’s smart, hip, conservative voice, and it often pulls off this complicated task with great verve.” Not too shabby for a Monday.

4. Now, for the terrible news. Jeff Jacoby, one of the best columnists of any ideological stripe is under attack at the Boston Globe. Jacoby, a much-valued conservative, has been suspended for four months without pay and invited to resign. The reason is ostensibly that he ran a flawed column about the signers of the Declaration of Independence, in much the way I did — though there are some important differences, most notably that Jacoby works for a liberal newspaper that seems to be gunning for him by blowing the situation out of all proportion.

As I mentioned on Friday, I made an error and I have apologized for it. Still, as it might seem a bit too self-serving for me to come too strongly to Jacoby’s defense, I will leave the heavy-lifting on that front to others (see Binyamin Jolkovsky’s letter to readers in today’s Jewish World Review, for example). Nevertheless, I think Jacoby’s error was clearly minor and made in good faith and anybody who can should let the Boston Globe know what they think. The Globe’s phone number is 617.929.2000. The fax is: 617.929.2098, Letters to the Ombudsman can be sent via email to ombud@globe.com. Unlike in prison, good manners will probably take you further than expletives.


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