Just as generals are sometimes guilty of fighting the last war, pundits frequently fight the last culture war. The world is on fire with global protests over police violence, the continued spread of Covid-19, and the ripple effects of the most severe economic crisis in nearly a century. But to judge by some of America’s best-known political columnists, the true danger is still political correctness destroying free speech, especially in the media.
The immediate occasion for these complaints was the resignation of James Bennet as New York Times opinion editor after a newsroom uprising against an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton published on June 3, which called for the use of military force to suppress “looters and rioters.” But the broader context for the renewed debate over political correctness is a series of newsroom revolts in many media outlets, ranging from The Intercept to Vogue to The Philadelphia Inquirer, all involving vocal complaints about racism leveled against either staff or (more commonly) management.
Ross Douthat in The New York Times complained about a “successor ideology” that threatens to bring about a “cultural revolution” and replace traditional liberal ideas of free speech. Douthat’s colleague Bret Stephens argued that “last week’s decision by this newspaper to disavow an Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton is a gift to the enemies of a free press—free in the sense of one that doesn’t quiver and cave in the face of an outrage mob.”
Bemoaning PC is, of course, old hat for Douthat and Stephens. They’ve both been doing it for decades. What is notable is that they were echoed at length by Matt Taibbi, a talented leftist journalist who is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. Taibbi wrote a long essay arguing that “the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.”
One might question the characterization “upper-class social media addicts.” In general, the newsroom revolt is coming from working reporters, who are distinctly not upper class. Conversely, those resisting the uprising—notably, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who was reluctant to accept the need for Bennet to leave—are definitely in the plutocratic class.
Taibbi added, “The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation.”
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Taibbi made many of the same arguments about the Cotton op-ed that Douthat and Stephens did, but in a more forceful manner. So his essay can stand as representative. Remarkably for someone who has written well in the past about the dangers of police violence, Taibbi contended that Cotton’s plan was being misrepresented and that it was a reasonable proposal that deserved to be debated.
According to Taibbi,
Cotton did not call for “military force against protesters in American cities.” He spoke of a “show of force,” to rectify a situation a significant portion of the country saw as spiraling out of control. It’s an important distinction. Cotton was presenting one side of the most important question on the most important issue of a critically important day in American history.
Like Douthat and Stephens, Taibbi is presenting a debate club theory of public discourse. The goal is to let all sides present their arguments in the marketplace of ideas and let the best argument win.
The premise is that life can work like a debate club. In real life, as we’ve seen in recent decades, bad actors committed to lying can manipulate the rules of free debate. Climate denial is one obvious example, a wholly manufactured body of thought that used the vulnerability of the media rules of balance to present itself as legitimate.
Donald Trump himself is a colorful example of how shameless lying can easily overwhelm the marketplace of ideas. The public lacks the time, energy, and patience to even keep track of untruths that are diligently fact-checked by the media. And of course not all the public even objects to being lied to.
Cotton’s dishonesty is slyer than Trump’s—but all the more dangerous for that reason. In his op-ed, Cotton put in enough provisos that even Taibbi was convinced the senator didn’t want to harm peaceful protesters. But those provisos were only in the argument Cotton presented for Times readers.
On Twitter, two days before the Times piece ran, Cotton responded to an earlier tweet in which he had suggested calling in the 101st Airborne Division, “And, if necessary, the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry—whatever it takes to restore order. No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”
The phrase “no quarter” is a military term of art. On a literal level, it means that no prisoners are to be taken and all enemy combatants are to be killed. Even on a more metaphorical level, it still means enemy combatants are to be treated with utmost harshness. The use of the phrase “no quarter” is especially ominous since it was preceded by “whatever it takes to restore order.”
Even in the most generous interpretation, Cotton is calling for American troops on American soil to use rules of engagement against American citizens that would permit massive causalities. And if we take Cotton literally (as perhaps we should given his military background and familiarity with technical terminology), then he was calling for war crimes.
Nor is it clear what Cotton means by “insurrectionists.” The phrase implies that the army would go after not just lawbreakers but also those guilty of ideological offenses. In his op-ed, Cotton conjures up the dangers of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa.” There is no evidence of any antifa involvement in violence during the protests.
Cotton is presenting a two-faced argument. On Twitter, we see the full violence of his proposal laid out. In his Times op-ed, a more restrained version of his argument is presented, one that effectively helps whitewash Cotton. In other words, publishing Cotton’s op-ed doesn’t help create a marketplace of ideas where issues are debated. Instead, it helps a dishonest political figure sell himself to a broader public. A far better procedure would have been for the Times to have published news articles examining Cotton’s ideas. In that format, his dishonesty would have been easier to grasp.
Stephens, Douthat, and Taibbi were all taken in by Cotton’s deception. They all treated the op-ed as if it summed up Cotton’s viewpoint, utterly ignoring the much more incendiary tweets. They were so obsessed with fighting a culture war that they let themselves become de facto apologists for a reactionary politician who used eliminationist rhetoric in advocating a military response to a political problem.
As with so many other arguments over political correctness, the controversy over Cotton’s op-ed involves treating ideas as if they exist only in the abstract and don’t have real-world consequences. That’s a beguiling conceit for a certain type of pundit, who can enjoy the play of ideas as a form of entertainment. In a debate club, it might be possible as a forensic exercise to argue over the merits of Cotton’s op-ed in its own terms, while ignoring his other political activities. But life is not a debate club.