The resignations of New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss and New York Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan effectively punctuated a week in which the center-left press went to war with itself over the notion that the atmosphere they’d cultivated might not be the most conducive to free and open debate.
Both writers—centrist but heterodox insofar as they wrote for liberal publications while being sharply critical of the identitarian excesses and groupthink to which the left has succumbed—are frequent objects of abuse. Their views, which remain well represented within the Democratic coalition, are regularly anathematized by their “very online” colleagues in opinion journalism as “controversial,” “bigoted,” “racist” “reactionary”—even targets of the left’s “hate.” As Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo revealingly wrote, Weiss’s conventionally liberal “commentary often appeals to conservatives”—an unforgivable sin.
Criticism of their work bordered on (and regularly veered into) ad hominem. The suppression of their work within their institutions and the internal harassment to which they were subjected simply became too much. So, they will be taking their considerable talents elsewhere.
This mounting pile of dead canaries within the liberal coal mine has inspired not introspection but withering mockery and derision. You see, goes this response, there really is no such thing as “cancel culture.” These voices are free to go wherever they want, just so long as it’s somewhere they can be easily ignored.
There is a sickness settling over the center-left intellectual landscape. It is one the left could recognize when its symptoms were observed in their political rivals: the plague of “epistemic closure.” Bruce Bartlett described it as the condition in which an intellectual movement abstains from the necessary work of questioning itself. Rachel Maddow blamed the Republican Party’s 2012 losses on the “factual bubble” in which the conservative movement was cocooned. As the right’s more self-critical voices became “marginalized, even self-marginalizing,” Marc Armbinder observed, it would only settle deeper into a self-reinforcing feedback loop that would foreclose on the prospect of representing a majority constituency.
A funny thing has happened as the right has progressed down this intellectual cul-de-sac. Even in the age of Trump, amid the standard pressures on the White House’s allies to comport with the party line compounded by this president’s unique insecurities, it’s been the right that has nurtured an environment of wildly dynamic discourse and philosophical exploration.
When the Atlantic hired and summarily fired National Review’s Kevin Williamson amid a now commonplace revolt of mid-level Millennials, Times columnist Paul Krugman faulted the institution for “looking for unicorns.” The pursuit of “serious, honest conservative intellectuals with real influence” is a snipe hunt, he insisted. Williamson’s crime was florid writing and cutting narrative techniques that offended liberal sensibilities—not intellectual dishonesty. The new Red Guards appear unwilling to make the distinction. But the idea that the intellectual environment on the right is bereft of honest and serious voices can only be maintained by someone who is committed to cerebral sensory deprivation.
In the Trump era, the right’s opinion landscape has bloomed with raucous, compelling, and fantastically edifying debates over first principles and essential philosophies. Center-right opinion journals routinely publish symposia on the efficacy, morality, and legitimacy of the fundaments of American political theory.
Can racial and economic justice be sought through policy, or are these social constructs that belong to the private sphere? What is the nature of nationalism? Are its virtues separable from its excesses? Is American patriotism creedal or tribal? Have the universal liberal values of the Enlightenment outlived their usefulness? The right is engaged in an often hostile and emotionally taxing battle over the compatibility of competing philosophies that are centuries old. In these debates, classical liberals—even those of a center-left variety—are welcome and frequent participants. So, yes, ideological outlooks like Weiss’s “appeal to conservatives.” Imagine that.
By contrast, it’s rare to see such elemental principles dissected in center-left forums where these debates are, by and large, closed and a preferred consensus reached. It’s difficult to have a fruitful debate over the values of the Enlightenment when your philosophy is dedicated to dismantling the “structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism,” and when the philosophy of the Founders is rendered suspect by their “whiteness.” When philosophies are subordinated to the identity of the individual exploring them, the compelling power of ideas takes a back seat to the raw power of political coalitions.
This racial essentialism—genetic determinism, of a sort—is hardly conducive to free-flowing debate, which is perhaps why writers such as Sullivan and Weiss reject it and are rejected themselves by this ideology’s adherents.
One Times staffer succinctly described the myopia afflicting the left during a portentous 2019 all-hands meeting: “I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.” Forcing our impossibly complicated world to comport with one all-encompassing theory of everything is not an intellectual exercise. But perhaps, for so much of the left, the time for thinking is over.