In his January 29, 2020 New York Times opinion column, Charlie Warzel warned us to consider what to “. . . Do When The Culture War Comes For You?” Charlie said no one would be spared by the inquisition but some were more able to survive. “[F]oot soldiers” in America’s newsrooms needed and deserved protection by the owners, management and editors of news media outlets.
Warzel’s admonition apparently resonated at home, because by July 23, 2020 in his column “They Want Your Attention. Don’t Give It to Them” he trivialized the concerns of the now famous July 7, 2020 “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. The so-called “Open Letter” was signed by 150 people, including Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Wynton Marsalis, Letty Pogrebin, Salmon Rushdie, Tony Kronman, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Haidt, Noam Chomsky, and seven current and former colleagues of Warzel at the Times. Most notably Bari Weiss, who resigned from the Times one week later, after detailing for its publisher the “bullying” “illiberal” environment at the paper, an atmosphere streaked with notes of casual anti-Semitism. Weiss told “AG” Sulzberger that “intellectual curiosity” had become a liability at the paper and “Twitter had become its ultimate editor.”
Not Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, who recently was forced to resign because he had allowed publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton endorsing a military response to civic unrest in American cities. After the fact and after a protest by more than 1000 Times staffers, Bennet was extracted and an editor’s note was added to Cotton’s op-ed saying it “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”
Warzel’s transparently contrite “pay them no attention” partially equated the Open Letter’s concerns about an “illiberal” attack on free speech with Trumpism’s “cancel culture” distraction and suggested that the Open Letter’s signers wanted to draw attention to themselves. Warzel said that these free speech defenders are “extremely effective attention hijackers” trying to shift the spotlight from “protest” “racial justice” and “frequently marginalized voices” – issues the signers “were largely on the outskirts of.” Steinem and Chomsky – really?
Warzel’s advice to pay those 150 not much mind even juxtaposed their adeptness at attracting clicks and eyeballs to Kanye West’s, concluding that “we have every possible reason to withdraw our attention from those who greedily seek it and invest it somewhere else.”
It’s (still) a “free country” as the Times once reported HL stating as his credo – albeit without the now necessary parenthetical. And we are free to wonder what happened to Warzel between January 29 and July 7. Did he forget that the culture war is not merely about the country’s newsrooms and about who will sit next to him in the Times cafeterias, physical and virtual.
The war, as Warzel once understood, involves all of us, as HL found out on a college campus 79.6 miles northwest of 620 Eighth Avenue. In 2017 HL was trolled and disinvited to continue teaching First Amendment Law and Policy at the uber progressive New Paltz campus of the State University of New York. The faculty and dean there were incensed that we defended their Political Science Departments’ speaking invitations to professors Jonathan Haidt and Donald Downs, well known advocates of free speech on American campuses, including speech advocating uncomfortable and extreme right wing positions. The campus president was sad and empathic but unwilling to resist the will of his own private mob – albeit at a public college where free speech has greater constitutional protection.
At campuses throughout the nation the assault of cultural warriors has thousands of distinguished scholars holding on tight to their tenure and concern for their millions of students who increasingly are deprived of unfettered intellectual debate. That clash of ideas would provide them with the antibodies needed to fight wars bigger than the culture conflict. SUNY New Paltz no longer offers a First Amendment course, with its focus on free speech and the wall between church and state that is being destroyed by Trump and a majority of SCOTUS justices.
Mr. Warzel, wethinks you are the would be attention hijacker. Trying to shift the spotlight currently focused on the serious and worsening problem at The New York Times.