In Defense of Speaking the Liberal We

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Here at The Pacific, we (speaking figuratively, for I am but one writer) want to make a statement in defense of liberal democracy, courageous journalism and freedom of speech or, more poetically, the Liberal We.

The Liberal We is currently under attack from various political and cultural entities: the Nationalistic Us, the Racist Us, the Theocratic Us, the Partisan Us, the Economic Us, all of which require an enemy designated as “Them”; and this “them” is often liberals or liberalism. There is also a political faction I’ll call the Populist/Progressive Us which is not quite liberal because it does not allow for enough dissent; it seeks to censor or silence whatever it deems to be politically/morally unacceptable; in short, it belittles First Amendment rights and fails to liberally tolerate the speech–however misguided and misanthropic– of a “them.”

Take, for instance, the recent controversial op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton published in the NY Times. I read the Cotton piece, and from its very first sentence, we know that overwrought nonsense is about to ensue: “This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s.” As if the large protests against the killing of George Floyd held around the nation were composed of nothing but “rioters” demanding nothing but “anarchy.” Cotton again: “the riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.” Such prose is ridiculous, easily-dismissed hallucination; it is what we expect from Trumpitarian conservatives like Cotton.

The Senator from Arkansas argues that U.S. military troops have been used in the past to quell rioting, which is true, but Cotton leaves out the crucial historical contexts, including state requests for such federal assistance. Cotton also accuses “elites” (read liberals) of doing what he is exactly doing in his op-ed piece:

“Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.”

True, protesters and miscreants should not be confused, but Cotton is suggesting a different “orgy of violence,” claiming that only the military (“an overwhelming show of force”) is capable of keeping order during a protest and preventing “anarchy.” Cotton’s op-ed is not about protecting public order; it is about protecting Trump and military might. What Cotton’s op-ed is really doing is preparing the ideological cover for President Trump to use the military as his personal protest-squelcher and defend Trump’s macho power play of “dominating” the streets.

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But the reaction by some to the Times’ decision to publish Cotton’s rotten op-ed is, well, also a bit overwrought, lending far more weight and importance to it than it deserves. NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg discusses the Cotton piece and the reaction to it, which includes many employees at the Times strongly objecting to its having been published. Goldberg does an admirable job, at first, defending the editors’ decision to run the Cotton op-ed based on liberal principles:

“So I can sort of appreciate my bosses’ decision on Wednesday to run Senator Tom Cotton’s screed arguing that the military should be sent to American cities to “restore order,” which has caused a rebellion inside The New York Times. The Times Opinion section wants to include the views of people who support Trump, and the very qualities that make Cotton’s Op-Ed revolting — his strongman pretensions, his sneering apocalypticism — make him an important figure in Trump’s Republican Party. (He might someday come to lead it.) . . .

. . . Thus when I first saw the Cotton Op-Ed I wasn’t as horrified as perhaps I should have been; I figured he’d helpfully revealed himself as a dangerous authoritarian. But as I’ve seen my colleagues’ anguished reaction, I’ve started to doubt my debating-club approach to the question of when to air proto-fascist opinions.”

Ms. Goldberg should trust her “debating-club approach” to liberal toleration, despite the objections involved in publishing Cotton’s cottoning to military might. There is a liberal/free speech principle to uphold. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine addressed the “anguished reaction” of those opposed to the publication of the op-ed:

“The most concerning thing about the Cotton episode is the logic that was given to pull the column in the first place: “Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger,” a phrase repeated thousands of times on social media.

The line of reasoning here is perfectly coherent. We can easily imagine a world where Cotton’s op-ed persuades Trump to deploy troops, who then kill protesters and reporters, many of them black. But we could envision a similar sequence resulting from any number of op-eds. Suppose the Times had given an op-ed to an advocate of repealing Obamacare at the crucial moment, persuading John McCain to supply the deciding vote to eliminate it. Millions of people would have lost insurance, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of them would have died.”

Chait’s point is that any op-ed may potentially have dangerous consequences. How is any writer or editor to be held accountable for what might happen from publication?

Former Times Editorial Page Editor, James Bennet, wrote a convincing, to my mind, explanation of the decision to publish the Cotton piece. Here’s a part of it:

“Cotton and others in power are advocating the use of the military, and I believe the public would be better equipped to push back if it heard the argument and had the chance to respond to the reasoning. Readers who might be inclined to oppose Cotton’s position need to be fully aware of it, and reckon with it, if they hope to defeat it. To me, debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.”

The last sentence of Bennet’s paragraph is a clear statement of liberal and journalistic faith.

We have since learned that Editor Bennet had not, he admits, read the Cotton op-ed, allowing other editors to look it over, a clearly irresponsible lapse, especially since it was Bennet, he admits, who invited Sen. Cotton to submit the op-ed in the first place. The NY Times subsequently ran a piece on “newsroom revolts” which included this reporting about a statement Bennet made at a meeting to discuss the publication of the op-ed:

“He [Bennet] said in a virtual meeting with nearly 4,000 Times staff members on Friday that he had long believed that for “ideas and even dangerous ideas, that the right thing to do is expose them on our platform to public scrutiny and debate, and that’s the best way, that even dangerous ideas can be discarded.” But, he said, he was now asking himself, “Is that right?” 

I think Bennet’s approach to editing is essentially right; it depends on an intellectually sophisticated, liberal understanding of free speech and journalism which we seem to be losing grasp of. Cotton’s piece may have fascist undertones, but Cotton is a U.S. Senator espousing an anti-democratic idea that the president himself has been publicly tempted by, which makes exposing Cotton’s thinking more crucial. The NY Times has made clear in editorials and other opinion pieces and in its reporting that it does not support what Trump and Cotton are advocating. And not everyone employed at the NY Times believes that Bennet’s decision to publish the op-ed was the wrong one:

“And while those angered by Mr. Cotton’s piece dominated the Twitter and Slack conversations and won the day, some staff members disagreed in private and public with the decision.

“A strong paper and strong democracy does not shy from many voices. And this one had clear news value,” Michael Powell, a longtime reporter and sports columnist at The Times, wrote on Twitter. He also called the editor’s note an “embarrassing retreat from principle.” “

Editor James Bennet was ultimately forced to resign. You may strongly disagree with Bennet’s decision to publish the Cotton op-ed, but no editor should be forced out for doing his or her job in a faithful, conscientious way. (Yes, not reading the op-ed was a lapse in judgement, but a firing offense?) The NY Times should have stood by Bennet on principle, for all editors have difficult decisions to make and “The Gray Lady” should appreciate the rather gray area of knowing when to publish an extremely unpopular opinion and when to not. Are major newspapers, magazines and media outlets to censor and silence all unpopular opinions? Let’s not give democracy and free speech short shrift. Will the new Editorial Page Editor at the NY Times be willing to take a risk with an op-ed given what happened to Bennet?

The Liberal We is always in need of defense from both reactionary, fascist forces and freedom-fighting revolutionaries who seek control to make heads roll. Authoritarianism is a bipartisan temptation, though we have more to fear from Trumpitarian “conservatives” these days than from “socialists.” Journalists in a democracy–be they reporters, opinion writers or editors–must be free to practice their craft within the reasonable constraints of verifiable truth and basic good taste. (It seems that columnist Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine was not allowed to publish a column last week, which Cockburn claims had to do with its subject: the violence at protests.)

Do journalists make mistakes? Of course. Are newspapers/magazines under economic pressure to conform to popular opinion? Yes. But the Liberal We requires an obligation not to threaten speech by threatening journalists and commentators, either by directly threatening their lives and physical freedom as in authoritarian regimes, or by threatening their jobs via ideological pressure as is happening with increasing frequency in the United States. Whether in schools or in the pages of newspapers and media sites, the liberal value of listening bravely and speaking boldly must be practiced and protected.