Gene Lyons

When it comes to self-promotion, you’ve got to hand it to Bari Weiss. Her trenchant resignation letter from The New York Times has generated a whole lot more attention than her columns ever did.

Or maybe that’s just me talking. I rarely, if ever, read her work. When it comes to Israeli apologists, I long ago concluded that regarding Israel and the Palestinians, both sides are right, both sides are wrong, and nobody ever changes their mind. I understand that Weiss wrote about other topics as well, but none that caught my attention.

My bad. Too many columnists, too little time. Laboring in relative obscurity far from New York, I just never caught on. The Times alone runs eight or nine opinion columns most days. Nobody can read them all.

Indeed, I was surprised to learn from Weiss’ personal website that “The Jerusalem Post just named Bari the seventh most influential Jew in the world. Her parents were disappointed she didn’t rank higher.”

Cute. Alas, she and Ivanka Trump have both disappeared from the Post’s 2020 lineup. But then the whole idea of such a list strikes me as silly.

But back to Weiss’ well-publicized resignation. Conservative outlets that allow no progressive opinions at all are having a big time calling the Times hypocritical. Indeed, Weiss’ open letter to publisher A.G. Sulzberger makes the Times newsroom sound like the world’s worst university English department, replete with rival cliques, gossip-mongering, back-stabbing and holier-than-thou posturing on all sides.

Been there, done that; escaped with my life and career intact. As any number of savants have observed, academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

It’s probably more accurate to say that the nastiness of feuding intellectuals derives from two factors: First, it’s all about status-anxiety, who’s smarter than whom; second, there’s no objective way to keep score, so the contest never ends. 

I used to say that I’d spent my youth among two groups: athletes and literary intellectuals. On balance, I’d take the jocks every time. When the rules are agreed upon, the score is openly posted and the contest yields a decisive result, people have to come to terms with their own egos. That’s also why the nastiest disputes among athletes are about cheating.

In his Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column, Philip Martin made a related point about the newspaper business: “Newspapers have always harbored bullies, and sometimes we venerate them and tell cocktail party stories about the atrocities they commit. Newspapers are no different than any other workplace; sometimes there is cronyism, sometimes there are nattering cliques, always there is gossip. There is no perfect meritocracy.”

Alas, to hear Bari Weiss tell it, she was subjected to brutal online bullying for being a self-described “centrist” among legions of “woke” young journalists. “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist ... (O)ther New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. ...

“If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy,” she continued, “they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome.”

Now, “digital thunderdome” is an arresting phrase, and I’ve no doubt things have gotten ugly. Puritans are always merciless, crusading young adepts of social justice particularly so. 

Jonathan Chait reports about a data analyst at a “progressive” think tank who got fired for citing a Princeton professor’s paper suggesting that civil rights protests damaged Democratic hopes during the 1968 presidential election. Of course they did. Read Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” for details. Yet citing this self-evident fact was deemed “racist,” and the fellow lost his job.

If Democrats find a way to blow the 2020 election, such follies will have played a considerable part.

For that matter, I also agree with Weiss that the Times op-ed pages too often read like epistles from persons “living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people.” One columnist recently expressed shame and sorrow that his own children chose “boy toys and girl toys, boy colors and girl colors, boy TV shows and girl TV shows.”

Poor kids. 

That said, my advice to Bari Weiss would be this: If you’re that thin-skinned, my dear, you’re in the wrong line of work. Personal abuse comes with the territory. One reason I think Trump will lose in November, for example, is that I haven’t had a death threat in weeks.

Reading what people say about you on Twitter is like reading the comment lines to your columns: ill-advised for anybody not equipped with alligator hide.

Grow one, or choose a different career.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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