There were many absurd things about working at Gawker, where I was an editor a very long time ago, but perhaps what most sticks out in my mind were our discussions about diversity. In a January 2014 email to founder Nick Denton, Jason Parham, then a senior editor at the site, wrote he was “disheartened” that, in one of Denton’s mammoth company-wide memos that he would personally leak to reporters thus ensuring maximum media coverage, “there was no mention of the company’s plan for diversity hiring and sustainability.” Parham bluntly summed up his concerns: “Though Gawker Media has grown immensely during the last decade, it remains a product of early web publishing in many regards: a world largely accessible to, and engaged by, white men.”
Denton’s response to Parham was “classic Nick” — infuriatingly daft and politically incorrect. He told Parham that he agreed with his assessment; Gawker did need more diversity. For example, most everyone who worked there — besides being white — was a young liberal with a college degree. Why did it just have to be about racial, ethnic, and gender diversity? Why didn’t Gawker have more age or political diversity? Denton wrote: “Let’s welcome, if not out-and-out racists, then at least the wide array of people with whom a conversation is possible: “national greatness” conservatives, Burkean Tories and business pragmatists, for instance; Christians and other spiritual people; economic liberals, libertarians and techno-utopians; and black and other social conservatives.” Unfortunately for everyone, Gawker died before it could hire a Burkean Tory.
I take this stroll down memory lane not because I like memory lane but because the New York Times announced a new op-ed columnist last week: Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal and an “anti-Trump conservative,” aka the fatted goose of a catch for a paper that is accused of having a liberal bias and also cares about such a thing. Stephens’ appointment angered obsessive followers of the Times’ opinion page, like my dad, Gawker-cum-Fusion blogger Hamilton Nolan, and me, some of whom wondered, “It’s 2017. Can the Times hire a black woman opinion columnist already?”
Speaking to the Huffington Post on Friday, James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, took a Dentonian stance on his department’s newest employee, saying the Stephens hire was “part of a larger effort to ‘further widen’ the range of views the paper presents to readers.” It’s interesting that arguments against and/or around good hiring practices and diversity tend to come from the most highly educated white media men — not just Denton and Bennet but Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Chait, Ross Douthat, and basically anyone who has written about affirmative action for the New York Review of Books in the last thirty years — who have never known a world in which they haven’t flourished fairly easily, and for whom the prospect of such a world is quite frightening. The main argument against diversity from these dudes seems to be that hiring people of color for positions that white people may appear to be “more qualified” for due to hundreds of years of systemic racism baked into the core of our country is not “fair,” but, as my therapist says whenever I complain something is unfair, “Leah, since when has life been fair?” And he’s right.
Thinking Stephens is brave for speaking out against Trump is delusional.
Bennet told HuffPost that if the Times was “serious about not cocooning ourselves, and our readers are, then we have to hear points of view that sometimes make us uncomfortable.” As longtime readers of Leah Letter know, I love to be in uncomfortable mind-spaces, but what if the points of view to which Bennet is referring are not merely discomfort-inducing but… wrong?
I direct you to one whopper of a column Stephens wrote in 2015, which ticks through what he calls “liberalism’s imaginary enemies.” Stephens fancies himself a logical man, a realist, and a recurring theme in his work is that anything he disagrees with constitutes a “panic.” Climate change is a panic: “What is the central liberal project of the 21st century, if not to persuade people that climate change represents an infinitely greater threat to human civilization than the barbarians — sorry, violent extremists — of Mosul and Molenbeek?” Campus rape is a panic: “If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation — Congo on the quad — why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school? They do because there is no epidemic.” Institutionalized racism is an “imaginary enemy": “Somehow we’re supposed to believe that twice electing a black president is evidence of our racial incorrigibility. We’re supposed to believe this anyway because the future of liberal racialism—from affirmative action to diversity quotas to slavery reparations—requires periodic sightings of the ghosts of a racist past.” Anything you think is happening is not actually happening. And for Stephens, the only thing worth panicking over are barbarians — sorry — violent extremists. (For other instances of Stephens’s wrong and bad opinions, see here and here. Also for some fun reading, see here about how Stephens has been defending his wrong and bad opinions to his new colleagues.)
In further defending Stephens, Bennet said that “millions of people” agreed with the columnist’s blather, and that ignoring things those millions of people agree with is “a dangerous form of delusion.” Another dangerous form of delusion is thinking that a conservative is “brave” for speaking out against Trump and maybe not getting invited to as many chamber music concerts or blood brother oaths or whatever it is that conservatives do in their free time. Bennet’s comments serve to confirm the myopia that dogs the paper when it comes to elevating voices that deserve elevation. Political diversity, in 2017, unfortunately means ensuring that bad opinions proliferate despite overwhelming facts that they are wrong. Political diversity is not hiring a white male conservative to your roster of op-ed columnists that already includes two to three white male conservatives depending on if David Brooks has taken any allergy medication that day. I get it: hiring is hard. That’s why it is work, and work is called work because it is work. Stephens, who loves to niggle over the literal definitions of words like most horrible men I have ever known, should be able to appreciate that.
I might recommend you write to the Times’public editor about this, but we all know how that would go.
Get Leah Letter in your inbox.