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May 20, 2014

In print but out of touch

New York Times op-ed predictably mishandles commencement controversy.

Many were disappointed to hear last week that The New York Times’ removal of executive editor Jill Abramson alledgedly involved gender discrimination. Many others greeted the news with the pathetic sort of delight that often rears its salivating head when sleek progressivism becomes momentarily clunky and pants-less on the national stage. The “war on women is alive[…]at The New York Times,” one especially tumescent partisan hack exclaimed on Fox News. Some people find the mere fact of hypocrisy very exciting indeed.

It’s hypocrisy that I’d like to talk about as I explain why I’m as disappointed as I am unsurprised that the Times fired Abramson. I’m disappointed that an absolute force of nature in journalism has reportedly been dismissed, at least partly, because of the friction that resulted from her inquiry into why she was being paid less than she merits. As for why I’m completely unsurprised, I’ll proceed to take us on a brief, unpleasant journey to the op-ed pages of what was until very recently Abramson’s very own newspaper—a section whose stench of Rotting Establishment is, as it were, overpowering.

Here’s a paradigmatic example, provided to us with sublime timing by Times op-ed correspondent Timothy Egan. With college commencements now happening across the country, Egan’s latest effort—subversively titled “The Commencement Bigots”—takes aim at the trend of student groups protesting their respective administrations’ choices of commencement speaker. He specifies a few of the most alarming instances: Among them are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recently cancelled her commencement address at Rutgers after student protests, and Christine Lagarde, the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who withdrew from Smith College following pressure from the school’s all-female student population.

By taking action, these dissenting students (“censors,” in Egan’s view) have shown that, unlike Egan, they are capable of recognizing that Rice and Lagarde are two staggeringly accomplished and influential—in short, remarkable—public figures while also recognizing that they are, respectively, a war criminal and an imperialist. These moments of recognition are fundamentally inseparable.

Let me explain: It is, strictly speaking, up for debate whether Rice is guilty of starting an illegal war or Lagarde is in fact guilty of finding new and more insidious ways of enforcing Western hegemony. But that’s precisely the point: Students at Rutgers and Smith have now taken specific stands in these supposed debates, and they have done so in the only way they possibly can. They have done so by rightly identifying Rice and Lagarde not only as individuals, but also as figurative of violent, morally bankrupt ideologies. That is the sole way for people who are in any sense on the margins (i.e. those who lack ruling power) to begin to empower themselves in confrontations with figures of systemic violence and oppression. If the likes of Rice and Lagarde are allowed to freely slip from forming and figuring into an oppressive structure to somehow existing outside of it as “remarkable individuals,” they are, in short, let off easily. Allowed to seem artificially benevolent whenever they appear in public, they are allowed to momentarily escape the structure they control, and thus flee accountability when very briefly exposed.

To silence them, then, is not “pointless” as Egan wrongly suggests; it expresses frustration that can only be expressed in the rare moments when the figures and terms of oppression exceed their usual protected status as the default frame of societal reference. They become vulnerable when presented as objects deserving of special praise. With that in mind, I’ll reverse one of Egan’s rhetorical questions: What, exactly, is “the point” of actively giving voice to people who have ascended to positions of systemic power that are predicated on suffering and destruction? It certainly can’t be to confront, skeptically and with frustration, a specific ideology we disagree with—because a lot of people already have no choice but to do that every day, right? Or does a relatively affluent, white newspaper columnist somehow not realize that?

And while we’re at it with the questions, what does Egan find so unbelievable about the fact that Lagarde, an immensely powerful woman, might in fact be strengthening imperialist and patriarchal systems? Here, by the way, I’ve just concluded a sentence with the Smith College protestors’ own words, and I did so without putting those words in cheap scare quotes, as Egan predictably does—why should he bother arguing when the system that favors him entitles him to patronize and easily delegitimize the concerns of everyone whom it doesn’t favor?

So of course the thrust of Egan’s argument is an “anti-PC” appeal for both lefties and righties, whatever those words mean, to embrace a diversity of ideas and not be so “afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out” (complete with scare quotes, which I rarely have the privilege of using). It’s typical that he attributes these students’ laudable self-awareness to the kind of entitled arrogance that, in reality, only the most privileged are free to spend their lives cultivating. They certainly seem to have figured out for themselves that those whom they were told to honor at their own graduation have made careers out of being high-class bullies—can we get in touch with Egan to find out whether that counts as knowledge?

This, for me, is the essence of hypocrisy today. This is the precise kind of hypocrisy that matters—the kind that uncovers not only simple contradiction, but also moments in which insane and total oppression becomes obvious. It reveals ways in which the misapplied label of free thinking sanitizes the suppression of marginalized thought, brashly and unfairly dismissing the very possibility of systemic injustice. Stuff like this—that merely pretends to laud actual difference of opinion, which I suppose we all ought to value—positively litters the op-eds in the Times and other mainstream publications every single day. And it’s the reason why, in addition to being disappointed at Abramson’s discriminatory firing, I’m unsurprised that the Times would stoop to it. They show time and again that their opinion pages are a haven for voices that thoughtlessly support an insistently self-unaware and oppressive establishment, to the extent that I no longer read it looking for anything other than disappointment.

Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English.

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