After the actual riots, the metaphorical ones. Reputations get burned down. Careers get their windows smashed in. Character gets assassinated.
Much of this has been nearly as senseless, emotion-driven, and inane as the actual burning, looting, and destroying of urban neighborhoods. Attacking Drew Brees for expressing widely held patriotic beliefs was about as rational as setting fire to a gas station. Brees should have realized this, taken a deep breath, and reacted in the following way: by doing nothing. Brees should have let his original statement stand. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” was what he said, adding that thinking about the flag and the national anthem “brings me to tears thinking about all that’s been sacrificed. Not just those in the military, but for that matter, those throughout the civil rights movements of the ’60s and all that has been endured by so many people up until this point.” Brees said paying respect to the flag “shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better, and that we are all part of the solution.”
Stirring words, and nothing inflammatory about them. Tony Dungy chimed in, “Drew Brees can’t be afraid to say that and we can’t be afraid to say ‘Okay, I don’t agree with you but let’s talk about this.’ We can’t just say anytime something happens we don’t agree with, ‘Hey I’m done with that and this person.’ That doesn’t make sense.”
Brees made his situation worse by apologizing for these remarks, which only turned up the outrage. The quarterback’s ritual groveling simply made his detractors more powerful. They demanded further groveling, and he complied. Now he has stamped himself forever as an antagonist to both sides of the culture war. The radical Left will never forgive him for his original statement for daring to question woke wisdom, while the majority who love this country and its symbols can never unsee his pathetic, craven cringing in the face of the mob.
Do not pour oil on troubled waters if, thanks to an oil spill, those waters are already on fire. Other public figures should take note: Begging the mob’s forgiveness doesn’t work. Brees could have simply remained silent after his original tribute to Old Glory, and tempers would have cooled. More and more people would have come to his defense. Those who were initially angry would have come to realize that Brees said nothing offensive.
When you apologize for stating the plain truth, you almost never succeed in appeasing the mob. Instead, you grant the mob’s premises. You take its side. You tell the roiling masses that it’s time to open fire on you, as you volunteer for your own firing squad. Brees is as unused to being a target of foam-flecked attacks as I am to throwing 50-yard touchdown passes in the Superdome, but as someone who has been targeted by social-media dudgeon many times and has never begged forgiveness in the 15 years my published thoughts have been making people furious, I could have told him: These things blow over in 48 hours. Nobody in the land of short attention spans can stay enraged about the same thing for very long. Fires burn out if you don’t keep refueling them.
All over the culture, that lesson is going unheeded. Americans who rush to prostrate themselves before the mob are finding that the mob never replies, “Oh, that’s fine, then. Go on about your life with our blessing.” Claudia Eller was the editor of Variety last week. Now she isn’t, because she decided to make gestures of woke obeisance in a lengthy, self-flagellating column about George Floyd, systemic racism, Donald Trump’s behavior, and police brutality, none of them obviously topics of much concern to a showbiz site. The column was full of long quotations from staffers of color and oozed with both compassion for their plight and vows to add more of them — “As editor-in-chief of Variety I have tried to diversify our newsroom over the past 7 years, but I HAVE NOT DONE ENOUGH,” she wrote. Naturally, some writers smelled blood and began berating her on social media for her insensitivity. Eller replied to one of them on Twitter, not unreasonably, “When someone cops to something why would you try to criticize them? You sound really bitter.” Eller was jobless the next day, issuing more apologies, decrying her own leadership, and saying she was ashamed on her way out the door. Variety says Eller is now on a two-month leave, but as the indispensable Hollywood columnist Richard Rushfield notes in his The Ankler newsletter, “I’m not sure how you walk back from an admission that you’re unprepared for a leadership role in a newsroom. You don’t just take two months off and then show up on the doorstep and say, I watched a MasterClass in leadership and now I’m ready.”
On the East Coast, nearly the same thing happened at nearly the same time: Bon Appétit editor Adam Rapoport hurled himself at the feet of the mob, begged its forgiveness, vowed to do better, and found himself joining the unemployment rolls. In a column entitled “Food Has Always Been Political: Bon Appétit’s editor in chief Adam Rapoport on how we’re covering the nationwide uprisings,” Rapaport repeated talking points from the woke catechism, inspiring a food writer with 8,000 Twitter followers to berate him for not doing enough. At some point in the pile-on, someone remembered that Rapaport had posed as a Puerto Rican at a Halloween party 16 years ago (the picture had been on Instagram), and his contract was terminated. Follow-up hysteria-reporting revealed that there had been a “culture of microaggression” at Bon Appétit. So, it’s a Condé Nast magazine, then.
Though few have the backbone to tell a howling mob to get stuffed, or even calmly to explain why it’s in the wrong, simply mustering the fortitude to ignore its cries is a perfectly workable option. Don’t want your food magazine to get fragged in the culture wars? Maybe don’t write a piece proclaiming, “Food has always been political.” Don’t think you’ve done anything wrong? Then don’t say, “I must do better.” Over in the U.K., a key adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, touched off a press freakout that was startling even by the ten-Red-Bulls-before-breakfast standards of the British media by supposedly breaking his own government’s social-distancing policies when he and his wife were battling coronavirus. Cummings levelly explained that he had broken no law, defended his actions, and declined to fit his neck into the guillotine. Johnson stood by him and the story was over. Courage, we seem to have forgotten, is not only virtuous, it can be useful.