Earlier this week the Washinton Post published a piece which falsely claimed that author JD Vance was publicly promoting white supremacy. The Post eventually removed the offending lines and added a correction to that piece, but it doesn’t seem as if they learned much from the experience. Today the Post published a piece by another author whose thesis is that “reasonable conservatives” (she offers a whole list) sound like racists from the 19th century.
I grew up in a conservative family. The people I talk to most frequently, the people I call when I need help, are conservative. I’m not inclined to paint conservatives as thoughtless bigots. But a few years ago, listening to the voices and arguments of commentators like Shapiro, I began to feel a very specific deja vu I couldn’t initially identify. It felt as if the arguments I was reading were eerily familiar. I found myself Googling lines from articles, especially when I read the rhetoric of a group of people we could call the “reasonable right.”…
The reasonable right includes people like Shapiro and the radio commentator Dave Rubin; legal scholar Amy Wax and Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic who warns about identity politics; the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt; the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and the American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, self-described feminists who decry excesses in the feminist movement; the novelist Bret Easton Ellis and the podcaster Sam Harris, who believe that important subjects have needlessly been excluded from political discussions. They present their concerns as, principally, freedom of speech and diversity of thought. Weiss has called them “renegade” ideological explorers who venture into “dangerous” territory despite the “outrage and derision” directed their way by haughty social gatekeepers.
So it felt frustrating: When I read Weiss, when I listened to Shapiro, when I watched Peterson or read the supposedly heterodox online magazine Quillette, what was I reminded of?
The answer according to the author is racists. But at this point, it should be obvious the game we’re playing here. It’s like the old joke about Hitler comparison, i.e. you know who else was a vegetarian? Some samples:
In Bari Weiss — who asserts that “the boundaries of public discourse have become so proscribed as to make impossible frank discussions of anything remotely controversial” and that “perfectly reasonable intellectuals [are] being regularly mislabeled … with every career-ending epithet” — I hear Josiah Nott: “Scientific men who have been bold enough to speak truth … have been persecuted.”
In Ben Shapiro — who ascribes right-wing anger to unwise left-wing provocation (“How do you think people are going to react?”) — I hear a letter printed in the Charleston Mercury, which warned that “if the mad career of the hot headed abolitionists should lead to acts of violence on the part of those whom they so vindictively assail, who shall be accountable? … Not the South.”
By her own admission, all the author is doing here is cherry-picking quotes from a few conservatives and then also cherry-picking quotes from 19th-century racists to try to create some kind of guilt by rhetorical association. This doesn’t work for the same reason that comparing vegetarians to Hitler doesn’t really shame vegetarians. Simply put, vegetarians aren’t responsible for the systematic murder of millions of Jews, regardless of what Hitler ate. Also, and this is important, vegetarianism doesn’t make people into murdering psychopaths.
The same applies to this silly effort to smear conservatives. The reason we dislike 19th-century racists isn’t because of their rhetoric, it’s because they were slave owners and defenders of slavery. Unless Weiss and Shapiro are also slave owners or defenders of slavery then the comparison doesn’t hold.
As for the specifics, believing that public discourse is proscribed doesn’t make you a racist. There are many on the far left who believe “corporate media” limits the acceptance and discussion of socialism and other progressive ideas.
The old business model of commercial television, radio, and newspapers called for appealing to the largest audience, which dictated offering news and commentary that spoke to as broad a spectrum as possible. Thus, mainstream news outlets developed a habit of hewing close to the ideological center—or, more precisely, what they perceived as the ideological center. Like Goldilocks’s porridge, their coverage would be not too liberal, not too conservative, but just right.
That’s from the Nation. As much as I may disagree with them, those people aren’t racists for making a claim about the limits of public discourse. But I guess if you cherry-pick carefully enough, you might be able to write a piece for the Post claiming they are.
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