Welcome back to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, culture, and language that has returned from a vacation that was if not necessarily much-deserved then at least much-needed.
Ritual Politics and Ceremonial Journalism
Ritual denunciations are a necessary part of ritualized politics. And so Ben Smith has written a ritual denunciation of Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times, a column that contains an extraordinary bit of moral reasoning that a cynic might take as an exercise in self-interested journalistic ass-covering.
Sullivan was the editor of The New Republic in the 1990s, and probably the most famous American political magazine editor since William F. Buckley Jr. As Smith’s article notes, Sullivan was so celebrated a figure that he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a Gap advertisement — a pretty big deal for a print journalist in the 1990s. (The musician Henry Rollins appeared in a Gap ad, too. It was a weird time.) As editor of The New Republic, Sullivan published an excerpt from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, a book about the social functions of intelligence. It was a book more written about than read, because one of its chapters discussed differences among the median IQ scores of different racial groups. The Bell Curve may have been the last American non-fiction book to provoke a genuinely national intellectual controversy, coming, as it did, just before the emergence of our new post-literate mass culture.
Sullivan published that excerpt in 1994. He joined New York magazine as a contributing editor in 2016 — 22 years later. In 2020, four years after hiring him, New York magazine fired him for the editorial decision he made decades before in 1994. Smith writes:
The new editor of New York, David Haskell, didn’t push him out because of any new controversy or organized staff revolt, the two New York employees said. Instead, the shift in culture had effectively made his publishing of “The Bell Curve” excerpt — and the fact that he never disavowed it — a firing offense, and Mr. Haskell showed Mr. Sullivan the door before the magazine experienced a blowup over race of the sort that have erupted at other publications.
(The most relevant part of that paragraph are the words that follow “before,” i.e., the statement of institutional cowardice.)
Smith is writing here in the contemporary moral-confessional mode. His article is headlined, “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” And that is, of course, to the point. A great many prominent American journalists and cultural leaders with impeccably progressive credentials have praised Sullivan to the heavens over the years and welcomed him into the inner circle. The denunciations are necessary for them for an obvious reason: If an editorial decision in the 1990s can become a “firing offense” ex post facto owing to a “shift in culture,” then it would not be outrageous to suggest that all those nice progressives who did so much to advance the career of Andrew Sullivan, pariah, are eligible for professional sanction as well. Surely their hands are not clean.
Here, for example, is what New York’s editor at the time, Adam Moss, said upon hiring Sullivan:
I have had the privilege of working with Andrew from the beginning of his career (mine too). He is a major (deep and elegant) thinker and writer whose work has had tangible consequence, and he has written some of the more influential essays I have ever had the honor to publish. He also happens to be a true innovator ― one of the first and best political writers online. . . . Since he stepped away from his blog in 2015, his voice has been greatly missed in our national dialogue. I’m grateful that he will return to writing at New York.
Moss hired Sullivan and said those things knowing that Sullivan had in 1994 published an excerpt from a controversial book. It is, of course, too late to treat hiring the moral monster Andrew Sullivan as a “firing offense” for Moss, who announced his departure from New York last year and became a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. But why should the transitive property of moral monstrosity stop there? Charles Murray is a mild-mannered sociologist, but if we imagined him to be the white-supremacist villain of the Left’s imagination, a figure whose villainy is sufficient to reach over the decades and justify firing Andrew Sullivan in 2020, then why should the publishers of New York magazine escape punishment for having platformed the naughty platformer? Why should the people and institutions who advanced Adam Moss’s career — the New York Times, Esquire, etc. — get off the hook, having platformed the platformer of the naughty platformer?
Sullivan’s problem, in Smith’s judgment, is that he “never disavowed” publishing a controversial book excerpt. And so Smith is here to disavow Sullivan, and to offer a little bit of self-justification as well:
I came to Provincetown to better understand why Mr. Sullivan, 57, one of the most influential journalists of his generation and an obvious influence in my own career, is not as welcome as he once was at many mainstream media outlets. But my visit helped me see something more: how Mr. Sullivan is really a fixed point by which we can measure how far American media has moved. He finds himself now on the outside, most of all, because he cannot be talked out of views on race that most of his peers find abhorrent. I know, because I tried.
I have no doubt that he did indeed try his best. All decent people are in his debt.
And perhaps he even heard a quiet voice whispering, Ego te absolvo.
Words About Words
A legendary jurist said: “No one has ever been able to explain to me the difference between social justice and justice.” The term often is assumed to be a crypto-Marxist neologism, but it has been around for a while. Federalist No. 7 speaks of it: “We have observed the disposition to retaliation excited in Connecticut in consequence of the enormities perpetrated by the Legislature of Rhode Island; and we reasonably infer that, in similar cases, under other circumstances, a war, not of parchment, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.” (That’s how you use enormity, too; it doesn’t mean enormousness.) And T. S. Eliot, who was careful with his words and concepts, gave the topic some thought back in 1939, in his The Idea of a Christian Society. The enduringly relevant passage is worth quoting at length:
It ought not to be necessary for me to insist that the final aims of the churchman, and the aims of the secular reformer, are very different. So far as the aims of the latter are for true social justice, they ought to be comprehended in those of the former. But one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people — a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth — never in oneself. There are individual exceptions: but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad aftereffects. It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom. For only in humility, charity and purity — and most of all perhaps humility — can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.
We might understand social justice as meaning general justice, making a distinction between those situations in which questions of justice are raised explicitly (criminal proceedings, lawsuits) and the situations that prevail in ordinary social life. Conservatives who take a narrow view of government action tend to look at a particular situation in terms of actionable procedural justice: If someone is poor, but not poor because someone stole his property, not poor because someone defrauded him, not poor because he was injured by a careless driver and cannot work, then, from the narrow point of view, there is no question of justice raised by his poverty. There is some wisdom in that view, too, at least as a generally applicable guide to government action. The partisan of social justice, on the other hand, declared that poverty is itself by definition unjust, or that poverty existing in proximity to property sufficient to alleviate that poverty is by definition unjust. Perhaps that point of view indicates a generous spirit (a spirit especially generous with other people’s property!), and it may be that advertising a generous spirit is nine-tenths of what such statements are meant to accomplish. But, in any case, simply declaring every undesirable situation unjust does nothing to mitigate suffering, and it does nothing to provide an intellectual or political framework for addressing community problems.
We have to be careful about our language, because we are in many cases its prisoners. For example, we might also write that procedural justice is a question of how the courts and police departments are organized while social justice is a question of how the community is organized, but that would be an error to the extent that healthy and productive communities are not organized at all in the sense of having an organizational scheme imposed on them in the interest of justice, efficiency, or anything else. Healthy communities are examples of spontaneous order, emergent self-organized systems exhibiting fluidity and complexity.
Social justice is vague and infinitely plastic, which is, of course, the point. A nebulous moral mandate in the hands of people with armies and police forces at their disposal is one of the most dangerous things in the world.
A reader sends in the following sentence: “If your traumatic experience is seen as something thrust upon you unfairly and the world should reconfigure itself to resolve it, then you’re essentially dooming yourself from ever overcoming that pain.”
Doomed from? Doomed to? Either? Both?
Doom as a noun is old — older than modern English, in fact. It comes from the Old English dom, meaning a decree or judgment. The Old English word derives from earlier Norse and Germanic words, possibly being derived from the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word for “law.” To send someone to his doom was to send him to his judgment, either in the secular sense or in the Last Judgment sense.
Doom as a verb dates from the 14th century and originally meant “judge” or “condemn,” which is pretty close to the modern (generally passive) usage meaning “fate” or “consign.”
All of those argue for a to rather than a from. This is similar to the forbidden to and prohibited from problem that comes up from time to time.
Incidentally, the verb version of doom developed along parallel tracks, with the one that kept more of its sense of “judge” or “rule” in the modern English word deem.
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If you look at New York magazine’s Wikipedia page, the photograph currently illustrating it is a New York cover advertising a very controversial article, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” that became part of a controversial book routinely denounced as racist: Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers. Tom Wolfe died in 2018, but surely there is somebody who can be fired for this.
Here is a question for New York editor David Haskell: Would you publish Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” today? Why or why not?
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