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The Defenestration of Bari Weiss

In London’s Hyde Park, the famous Speakers’ Corner stands as a tribute to the victory of John Stuart Mill, the most prominent thinker in the liberal tradition. In the occasionally stultifying intellectual climate of Victorian England, Mill led a successful campaign for the right to protest in London’s public parks. His main concern was not government censorship but the chilling effect of social conformity. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill advocated for a culture that offered a rich diversity of viewpoints that would enable the pursuit of truth.

“Society can and does execute its own mandates,” he wrote, “and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

Mill recognized that the tyranny of groupthink posed lethal dangers to individual behavior in an ostensibly free society. “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any effort at their diffusion.” The indirect force of orthodoxy and peer pressure fashions “the mind-forg’d manacles” (in William Blake’s phrase) that render society mute on questions of vital public importance just as surely as official censorship. The ultimate objective of cancel culture seems less to cancel the actual target of abuse than it is pour encourager les autres. Mill believed fiercely in the virtues of free inquiry and open debate, and he wanted to uphold the kind of society that gave a podium to those virtues.

That is the podium that is being pulled down across the United States today, from academia to the basketball court to the boardroom. Bari Weiss has become something of an expert witness on the illiberal urge to haul down the podium of free and rational thought. Weiss, a former editor with the New York Times opinion page, has resigned from her position after being the target of an extraordinary campaign of bullying and intimidation on account of her political views—only yesterday considered within the broad liberal mainstream but now, in the current environment of radical identity politics, unforgivably heterodox.

The level of vitriol directed at this self-described “left-leaning centrist” has been incredible to behold, and it has not been restricted to the readership of the erstwhile paper of record. Weiss’s own colleagues at the Times openly joined the left-wing chorus calling for her ouster or worse.

Last year I wrote a not-uncritical review of her book on the disturbing trend of resurgent anti-Semitism. There are differences of principle and differences of emphasis that inhere in our political worldviews. The same could be said of Weiss’s former boss, James Bennet, and Senator Tom Cotton, who had been commissioned to write an op-ed proposing a federal military response to rioting in certain American cities. For the indignity of furnishing a sitting US senator with space in the New York Times, Bennet was forced to resign.

None of the critics calling for Bennet’s scalp in that case suspected that he endorsed the views of the junior senator from Arkansas, any more than he was presumed to have endorsed the views of Vladimir Putin or Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, who also appeared on the New York Times op-ed page. It was enough for Bennet to have challenged the readers of the Times with evidence and argument that did not confirm their existing beliefs and prejudices.

The principle of free speech is not quite at issue here. Rather, it is the dignity and necessity of intellectual engagement. That’s the tradition Weiss’s colleagues at the Times have failed to uphold. It would be a mistake to single out the Times, however. Its trembling attitude toward the “woke” mob is sadly more typical of elite organs and institutions than it is exceptional. On the same day that Weiss tendered her resignation, for instance, Andrew Sullivan announced he was leaving New York Magazine.

In her public resignation letter, Weiss nails her theses to the door of liberalism’s old cathedral. She advocates a classical liberalism that takes to heart “the lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society.”

These are no longer the hallmarks of the ascendant progressivism that seeks to impose a “new McCarthyism” in American life. Its adherents have no wish to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They just want to root out “privilege,” end “micro-aggressions,” and create “safe spaces” for the elect.

The curtailed and inhibited exchange of ideas today is occurring thanks in good measure both to those who know better and those who don’t. Those who know better are those weak-kneed liberals who agree with Mill’s contention that the pursuit of truth requires the combination and sometimes the collision of discrete and sometimes discrepant ideas and propositions, but who refuse—as Robert Frost mordantly said of liberals—to take their own side in a fight. This ilk has mastered the act of lying supine before those who don’t know better: the aggressive authoritarians who, in their ignorance-induced rage, are convinced they possess the one true faith and are duty-bound to inflict it on everyone else by means fair or foul. Until there is nothing left but the echo of the chamber.

Nowadays the institutions of American life—the durable forms of society, as Yuval Levin has defined the concept—that have traditionally instilled respect and a degree of reverence for Mill’s virtues are being hollowed out by forces across the political spectrum. More and more, the prevailing forces on the Left and Right have jettisoned any attachment to the social structures responsible for fashioning individuals into citizens. This crisis of dissolution can be seen across the range of society, from schools and churches to political parties and business enterprises. It can fairly be said that we are living in an era marked by what the American sociologist Robert Nisbet called “a vacuum of allegiance.” But that is more descriptive of today’s feeble political center than it is of the radical forces that are righteously assaulting the country’s symbols and institutions.

This all makes for a precarious state of affairs. “At all times friends of freedom have been rare,” said Lord Acton. That is evidently true today. Those who are friends of freedom, whatever their partisan stripe, embrace a philosophy grounded in recognition of the pitfalls of groupthink and the rigors involved in the pursuit of truth. They should not let Weiss and others like her fall unwept, unhonored, or unsung.

Most of all, the partisans of freedom must not abandon the battered and infiltrated institutions that are subject to open and covert attack. The most that should be permitted is de Gaulle’s preferred military option—to retrench in a strategic manner. These institutions’ continued existence and proper function are vital to a free society. They must not be allowed to remain, as they are at this hour, in the wrong hands.

 

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.

Comments

  1. Aside from the news of progressive mobs who shouted down unpopular (read, conservative) speakers on their university campus, my first significant engagement with this topic was when I read this article:

    If you haven’t read this article, and if you find this topic interesting, I suggest you read it. It gave me a lot of food for thought, and a lot of reason for worry, as well. We are now at least 4 years into progressive nonsense about safe spaces, trigger warnings on books, etc., and I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    As for this article, I can’t say I fundamentally disagree with Brian Stewart’s reasoning. That said, I’m not entirely clear on what he expects “partisans of freedom” and the “political center” to do to counter the nonsense that comes from both the far-left and the far-right (and it’s he who also refers to those on the Right who have jettisoned attachment to etc.). It’s one thing to write this for Quillette, while it’s entirely another if you occupy any prominent position in the media, academia, or in any of the other institutions to which he explicitly and implicitly refers.

    So.

    “Mill recognized that the tyranny of groupthink posed lethal dangers to individual behavior in an ostensibly free society.”

    I see this across the spectrum, but most floridly these days among my progressive friends. When we discuss political and cultural issues, I am often the object of their ire because they know that although I identify as center-left, I refuse on principle to participate in the shouting-down of speakers with whom I disagree. Several of my friends have taken to the tact of “his/her words do violence to me and therefore I feel unsafe”. I remind them that going to college is not about being afforded safe spaces; that they are there to be challenged, provoked, and mentally stimulated in general; that said, I see more and more evidence that many progressive-minded people these days prefer the shout-downs to actually examining their thinking. In particular, I hear a lot of “I feel this way, so it must be true” coming from those progressive friends, and so we have the issue of feeling qua thinking, too, to deal with.

    “The principle of free speech is not quite at issue here. Rather, it is the dignity and necessity of intellectual engagement.”

    Entirely.

    "She advocates a classical liberalism that takes to heart “the lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society.” "

    While I agree with this as well, I would question just exactly how many people on the far-right are actually interested in understanding Americans who don’t think like them. From much of right-wing media, and from some right-wing peeps I know, I’ve heard all kinds of knee-jerk condemnations about Americans who don’t think like them (for example, regarding the taking down of Confederate statues and renaming of military bases so these honorable institutions don’t bear the name of traitorous secessionists like John Bell Hood) on diverse issues, and I don’t often get the sensation that many of these far-right folks have actually taken the time to understand the arguments put forward by their ideological “enemies” on the left. This phenomenon also takes place on the far-left, of course. The problem across the spectrum is that more than anything, what many of us really have for each other is contempt. I sense that contempt for those who don’t think like them from people across the spectrum, and we can’t really attempt to address issues of incivility and the unhearing of others’ opinions when we actually hold contempt for those people.

    (On a quick Google search I found and read this article, which I feel hits the nail on the head: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/opinion/sunday/political-polarization.html )

    “More and more, the prevailing forces on the Left and Right have jettisoned any attachment to the social structures responsible for fashioning individuals into citizens.”

    I’d have liked to have seen more examples on both Left and Right than those that he listed.

    “But that is more descriptive of today’s feeble political center than it is of the radical forces that are righteously assaulting the country’s symbols and institutions.”

    If this isn’t a clarion call to those who occupy the political center, as well as those who identify as center-left and center-right, I don’t know what is. I do wonder, though: does our author really expect what remains of these groups will be able to withstand the influence of the vast, basically illiberal majority which is composed of the far-left and the far-right? It sounds like a suicide mission. It’s one thing for me to take some friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) verbal abuse from those who are farther left than I because my views don’t always accord with progressive orthodoxy; it’s entirely another when your career in the media, academia, politics, what-have-you is threatened because you take a principled stance against the reigning orthodoxy. To be more clear: it’s one thing to write this piece and publish it on Quillette; it’s quite another to try to publish it in The New York Times (and this is not a veiled attack on our author; I’m just pointing out the difference). A stand has to be taken, of course, but some people are going to pay a heavier price than others…

  2. What I find absolutely appalling is the silence of Bari’s former colleagues at the NYT op-ed page.
    This is one of those rare moments when you get a clear view of someone’s character.
    It’s easy to put the line “the conscience of a liberal” under your name, but will the likes of Paul Krugman speak out against this outrage ?
    This week will tell us, but I’m not optimistic.
    What a bunch of sniffling, hypocritical cowards!

    And if you think that the blind hatred for Bari has nothing to do with her being a Jew who defends the right of Israel to exist, (and is hence about as low on the victim-hood hierarchy as I am) you have not been paying attention,

    VV

  3. Yeah, I’ve often felt that too. The woke scream Nazi, but wow do the woke hate Jews, and Israel. It’s like screaming KKK and then targeting blacks.

  4. Did you read the articles you linked? There were a number of factual errors in addition to the disingenuous framing.

    The evidence was pretty clear that Bret Kavanaugh did not assault Christina Blasey Ford as a teenager- she was unable to remember the time and the place, several witnesses contradicted her testimony, the FBI vetted him thoroughly and if anyone were able to convincingly fake the reactions of an assault survivor it would be a psychology professor at an institution dedicated to Social Justice, rather than truth.

    On the subject of Joseph Massad, I am not familiar with the case but the ADL had this to say:

    A recent article by Columbia Professor Joseph Massad claims that describing Israel as a Jewish state is itself anti-Semitic, and that a method for preventing anti-Semitism is to sever the association between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. In response to the article, ADL New York / New Jersey Regional Director Evan Bernstein issued the following statement:

    ADL considers denying the Jewish character of the State of Israel to be anti-Semitic, as it undermines the right to self-determination to the Jewish people.

    Linda Sarsour has a long history of flirting with anti-Semitism, stating “nothing is creepier than Zionism” in 2012, as well as associations with Louis Farrakhan, whom she has refused to condemn for his vitriolic and overt anti-Semitism.

    But what really takes the cake is describing Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a ‘notorious Islamophobe’.

    On a broader note, while it may be possible to dismiss grass roots activists of the BDS movement as largely ignorant of the pathological anti-Semitism at the top of the BDS leadership in the Palestinian territories, a university should know better.

  5. Jack is wasting your time with empty “rest of the story” bait. This first piece of the whole story is snark and innuendo by a blogger. There’s absolutely nothing to see. No rest of the story, no other side of it. I didn’t read the other piece because of the first.

  6. Yes, they’re entitled to jump off the cliff if they want to. But they’re not entitled to drag others down with them.

    But the real problem is they’re not jumping off the cliff — they’re throwing others off it.

  7. But it is the Jewish people who have been consistent in offering a peaceful two-state solution to the problem. It’s the Palestinians who will not even consider a solution which acknowledges Israel’s right to exist. What is Israel supposed to do when they are continuously attacked by those intent on “pushing the Jews into the sea.”

  8. This is an article and a comment thread about cancel culture in America and you’ve deflected onto the Palestinians.

    Very deft.

  9. Those killed by BLM rioters and their families are not comforted by your assurance that wokeness will peter out eventually.

    Even the venerable Thomas Sowell is warning of a point of no return.

  10. Was thinking along the same lines. The Israel/Palestine conflict is really not the issue here, but it can easily be used to completely derail any conversation regarding a Jewish supporter of Israel it seems. Weiss’ views on this one issue do not change the fact that the NYT is openly politically biased and actively suppressing alternative perspectives.

  11. I vividly remember the old Soviet Union responding to any criticism from the US with: “What about the Indians?”

    Today it’s: “What about the Palestinians?”

    The Left’s favorite whataboutery.

  12. I’d agree with that but I don’t see evidence that this is currently happening to a significant extent in the US today. I think it’s been steadily decreasing since the mid 20th century and has probably not been a significant factor holding black people back for about 30 years or so.

  13. You miss the point. I don’t give a shit about the NYT either. They are the modern day Pravda.

    But in order to defeat the radical left we need allies. This is not about progressive vs conservative anymore. This is about survival of our democratic government. A tiny minority of radicals dominates culture, media, big tech, academic and many government bureaucracies. They rule over their moderate brethren through fear.

    We can’t change institutions like the press and academia because we are not a part of those institutions. We have to foment a counter-insurgency. We do that by supporting people like Bari Weiss and lauding her courage.We embraced Bret Weinstein when he was kicked out of Evergreen College. and we should do the same for Bari Weiss.

  14. It always comes down to us pesky Jews for people like Jack

    The far right hates us because we are communists
    The far left hates us because we are greedy capitalists

    The far right hates us because we are Asiatic cross-breeds
    The far left hates us because we are hyper-white.

    Jack has never been to Israel. He has never been to the West Bank. He knows absolutely nothing about what’s going on there. All he knows is that whatever is going on- it is the Jews’ fault.

    Alan Dershowitz once said. “The only thing the far left and the far right have in common is that they both hate the Jews.”

  15. I have noticed the same thing. I actually thought people would be upset at the devastation of businesses in black neighborhoods by rioters. Apparently not. But the people running this show are not, by their own admission, oppressed. They are instead wracked by with guilt because they are both white and privileged. This is all about virtue signalling. Since they can’t be real victims, they have to align themselves with those they imagine to be victims.

    So you end up with dominantly white protesters in New York screaming at a police force that is majority non-white.

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