Media

Jeffrey Toobin and Our Public-Hate Ritual

Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer at The New Yorker, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., September 26, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)
In the great junior-high cafeteria of the American public square, it’s Toobin’s turn to sit alone.

Oh, Jeffrey Toobin — let him among us with a free hand cast the first stone.

Toobin, a writer for The New Yorker and fixture on CNN, was participating in a role-playing exercise on a Zoom call with his magazine colleagues, wargaming election-night scenarios. Toobin was standing in for the courts when he suddenly felt compelled to badger the witness and accidentally caused his colleagues to witness the badger.

He believed — wrongly — that he had turned his camera off, and his private game of pickup five-on-one was broadcast, or Zoomcasted, or whatever, to his shocked and perplexed colleagues.

He’s been suspended by The New Yorker and is on leave indefinitely from CNN, taking the opportunity to spend more time with the people who’d probably prefer, at the moment, that he didn’t. The usual howler monkeys are calling for him to be fired, not because of his embarrassing breach of decency but because they hate him, and hate him not individually but categorically: He’s a Democrat-aligned media mouthhole, a fancy-pants writer for The New Yorker, etc., and certain people believe that it is their mission and duty in life to hate such people, to wish them harm and, if possible, to do them harm. There are people who hate Jeffrey Toobin today who got up on Monday morning and went about their day — drink the coffee, brush the teeth, snort a bump of rage on Twitter — blissfully unaware that such a thing as a Jeffrey Toobin exists.

Some enraged right-wing Toobin-haters feel compelled to write me because of my experiences with their counterparts across the aisle. (I am sure that there are people who hate Toobin from a left-wing perspective, too, but I do not usually hear from them.) The reason for this is the controversy surrounding my three days of employment at The Atlantic, which leads people to believe that I have more knowledge of and interest in intra-media squabbles and scandals and convulsions than I actually do. In reality, I pay relatively little attention to bylines, do not use social media, and, living far from the NYC–DC media heartland, do not spend very much time around media people. I am not of that world and probably could not be assimilated into it even if I were inclined to be. I like reading The New Yorker, but I am not a resident of that great Upper West Side of the mind and do not share its native fascinations, losing sleep if I feel like I don’t quite get the joke in a New Yorker cartoon. I’m tickled by National Review jokes in old Woody Allen movies and things like that, and I have an unfortunate nostalgia for the old print-journalism culture that was dying out just as I was starting to work. But, beyond that — I have work to do.

So, I could care less. But not much less.

I suspect Jeffrey Toobin will be just fine. He is “in the family.” Sure, somebody will bring up his one-man show every time he writes about Donald Trump’s “complete disregard for norms,” and the dim and the hate-addled will find it very amusing, and will add their $0.02 on the vast men’s-room wall of social media, and chuckle, and think themselves clever. He’ll keep hearing about it.

So will I, though I am very much looking forward to the moment — approximately the instant this column is completed — when I can go back to rarely if ever thinking about Jeffrey Toobin. And I don’t mean that to slight Toobin or his work — though I read a great deal, I can’t read everything, legal analysis rarely is of much interest to me, and Toobin’s work just isn’t at the top of my priority list.

But the controversy over Toobin has nothing to do with the quality of his work and relatively little to do with his having gone unintentionally public with his private weasel-management struggles. It has to do with the all-important ritual that is now at the center of our political discourse: hating together.

Toobin is today’s hate object because he presented himself and because the manner in which he presented himself offers an even-greater-than-usual opportunity for ritualized humiliation. Too good to pass up. I have sometimes written that our public life is dominated by junior-high-cafeteria pecking-order rites, but, upon reconsideration, this is a disservice to the people with whom I went to junior high, who may have been 14 years old and callow but were in the main free from the pettiness and cruelty that characterize public life in 2020. (I had an unusual education, especially for public schools.) In the great junior-high cafeteria of the American public square, Toobin is, for the moment, Waldo. And no matter how miserable Waldo is, there will always be those whose greatest pleasure is making him more miserable still.

Come hate with us!” comes the call. “He is the enemy! Don’t you want to hurt the enemy? Think of what they would do if it were you!” Hard pass. Toobin’s shenanigans were gross, but not as gross as our public-hate ritual. I’m not nearly as offended by clumsy pudwhackers as I am by people who savor the humiliation of others.

I don’t want to commune with them in hate, or in anything else — I’m embarrassed to be a member of the same species.

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