Ordinarily when war breaks out between the activist Left and the New York Times, the conservative impulse is not to delve too deeply into the substance of the dispute but rather to inquire about the availability of refreshments: When the Ayatollah and Saddam go to war, what is there to do but put one’s feet up and enjoy the carnage?
I invoke Islamism advisedly. After Bret Stephens, the Times’ new conservative op-ed columnist, made the mild-mannered and more or less inarguable point that there are details unsettled within the topic of climate change, his many ideological opponents reacted with a mindless fury characteristic of religious zealotry. Someone tweeted at Stephens that he should share the fate of Daniel Pearl, like Stephens a longtime Wall Street Journal writer, who was denounced for being Jewish and beheaded by men acting in Allah’s name. The web of ties between ordinary global-minded progressives and jihadists grows ever more dense: For both groups, American conservatives pose the principal threat to their goals.
Let’s give credit, though, to the Times’ op-ed editor James Bennet, both for hiring Stephens in the first place — the Times now boasts three right-of-center op-ed columnists, which is more than tokenism — and for standing by his new hire while abuse rained down and some progressives claimed to have canceled their subscriptions. Non-partisan institutions (are you listening, university presidents?) and even the Right should learn this lesson from Bennet’s bracing example: Ignore hecklers. They enjoy veto power only if a cowardly decision-maker grants them that power. After a few days, Stephens’s attackers will move on and find something else to be outraged about.
Stephens’s column arrives at a moment when, culturally speaking, the fulminating Left is feeling pretty upbeat. Its core stratagem of demanding that conservatives either shut up or be shut down is working frighteningly well. Universities from coast to coast are either allowing leftist groups to cancel conservative speech before it occurs or providing such weak and ambivalent protections for speakers that right-wing ideas are effectively squelched. Using Bill O’Reilly’s alleged sexual misconduct as a pretext, Media Matters managed to get him booted off the air. If Bill Clinton had a political talk show, I think we all know the answer to whether leftist pressure groups would publicly denounce any advertisers that sponsored it.
Stephens’s perfectly reasonable column amounted to friendly strategic advice for the climate alarmists: “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts,” he noted, and he was immediately treated as a deplorable imbecile. Think Progress compared him to a Holocaust denier and a KKK official. Nate Silver, whose reputation for being a dispassionate data nerd increasingly seems endangered, denounced the column with a barnyard epithet and posted a tweet in which a Times billboard advertising “Truth” was (sarcastically) juxtaposed with a quotation of Stephens’s unassailable point that “claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science.” “Classic climate change denialism,” thundered Slate. “Climate denial wouldn’t get past my desk,” a New Yorker fact-checker tweeted, as if Stephens denied there is a climate. (Stephens also said human influence on global warming was “indisputable.”) The Guardian, as ever the most grievously wounded of them all, called Stephens a “hippie puncher.”
The near-lunatic disapproval of Stephens’s first Times column indicates more than just fierce disagreement with the tenor of his remarks, or surprise that an institution that barely bothers to disguise its political inclinations would allow someone like Stephens to make his case. The degree of shrieking, world-coming-to-an-end hysteria Stephens unleashed (from the moment he was hired, even before he had published a word with the Times, social-media users were trying to shame Bennet into reversing the decision) reveals a deep-seated worry within the Left. What if “Shut up” isn’t such a persuasive argument to everyone? If it doesn’t work on fellow liberals today, there is significant danger that it might not work, in future, on university presidents or Fox News Channel. If someone with as much clout as Bennet thinks conservative viewpoints are within “the bounds of reasonable discussion,” the idea could catch on. When two parties are welcome at the debate, winning becomes more challenging.
To the Left (as to the Islamists), there is little substantive difference between a moral failing and a simple difference of opinion on matters of regnant orthodoxy.
To the Left (as to the Islamists), there is little substantive difference between a moral failing and a simple difference of opinion on matters of regnant orthodoxy. Disgusting actions indicating gross moral turpitude on the part of a news anchor are indistinguishable from impure thoughts from a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist. Liberals don’t see the distinction because they genuinely think holding conservative views makes you a bad person. They think Bennet has invited a blasphemer into their ranks.
As the media columnist Jack Shafer points out, progressives have a history of going berserk when the Times brings aboard a conservative. Longtime Timesman David Halberstam, apoplectic about the 1973 hiring of former Nixon speechwriter William Safire as a columnist, insisted that Safire’s arguments were out of bounds because he was “a paid manipulator . . . not a man of ideas or politics but rather a man of tricks.” The word “tricks” tells us much; for Halberstam, as with today’s liberals, conservative arguments are so self-evidently lacking in merit that some kind of dark magic must explain their persistence. In Bret Stephens they see a bogeyman. They can’t hear what he’s saying over the sound of their own shrieks.