Thanks for sending in your latest column. I’ll do my best to address its contents, but frankly I think it’s about time I addressed a larger issue I’ve had with the whole gang at 41st Street. You begin this column with one of your favorite habits: the citation of an unknown source. This has become a classic New York Times op-ed maneuver, whether it’s a gripe from a parent with a kid at the same school, or the musings of a philosophical cab driver, or the existential crisis of an acquaintance uneducated in the nomenclature of European cured meats. I’m surprised you haven’t started a column with a rabbi and a priest walking into a bar.
This time, you allude to multiple sources who share the same concern. There is a “generation gap,” they say, affecting any generic “organization in a blue state.” According to your sources, this gap is “massive.”
The managers at these places, who are generally 35 and above, are liberals. They vote Democratic and cheer on all the proper causes of the left. But some of the people under 35 are not liberals, but rather are militant progressives. The older people in the organization often have nicknames for the younger set: the Resistance, Al Jazeera, the revolutionaries. The young militants are the ones who stage the protests if someone does something deemed wrong.
No disrespect to these sources, which I’ll assume are real—a courtesy readers are under no obligation to extend. I have my doubts they call the kids at the office “Al-Jazeera,” but it’s possible that just comes down to you and me running in different circles. In any case, regardless of how you accessed these testimonies, whether by whispers on street corners or unmarked manilla envelopes left mysteriously on your desk, this practice is not a good one for an institution of journalism. The standards editor at the New York Times, Philip B. Corbett, has explained that “under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way.”
That just isn’t true here. Your sources haven’t been designated with any specific credentials, and they’re only cited as having opinions, not contributing information that the public would otherwise not be privy to. Not only does this practice lack rigor, I’m afraid it has led you to some faulty conclusions.
I realize I’m getting above my station as a lowly fact checker by giving this kind of advice to a nationally syndicated columnist, but I think Mr. Corbett will appreciate my recommendation of stricter standards. If you can’t find primary sources, I would advise the use of secondary sources from a credible journalistic or scholarly outlet. To make it as easy as possible to get used to this new approach, I’d like to suggest using the New York Times. If you don’t have a subscription, it’s accessible online or at your local library.
Let’s take a look at how you could use that source to evaluate the claims in your column. For example, this paragraph:
If a company fires an employee for writing an inappropriate memo or uttering an inappropriate phrase, it’s usually because there’s been a youth revolt. If a speaker is disinvited from a festival or from campus, it’s often because of a youth revolt. If a writer is fired for a tweet, or an editor has to resign from a literary review because of an unacceptable article, it’s often because of a youth revolt.
It’s no surprise that you think this is true. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor addressed this apparent asymmetry in a New York Times column, written after she was subject to widespread attack for describing Donald Trump as a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.” She was forced to cancel public appearances, but her silencing doesn’t fit the narrative you’re trying to chart here. As she wrote (again, in the New York Times, available at many local businesses):
The right-wing media is obsessed with the supposed stifling of “free speech” on college campuses, but it seems to care only about protecting speech it likes. When progressives make provocative statements, conservative pundits react with wounded outrage. This double standard is especially striking in the internet era, as the negative coverage of progressives leads to unbelievable harassment of both professors and students.
Taylor, along with Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams, and Tommy Curry, whom she cites as having been attacked for making similar critiques, was “intimidated into silence.” It is not your “youth revolts” that hold the power to restrict speech, but institutions. As Taylor adds, “when it comes to protecting the speech of people who are most vulnerable to being intimidated into silence — like people of color and gay people — conservatives either are suspiciously quiet or drive further intimidation with wildly negative news coverage.” I should think your position as a newspaper columnist makes you all the more obliged to get this right. But you take a different approach.
Two great belief systems are clashing here. The older liberals tend to be individualistic and meritocratic. A citizen’s job is to be activist, compassionate and egalitarian. Boomers generally think they earned their success through effort and talent.
This may well be a fair characterization of what boomers think. But as a journalist, you should ask another question: is it true? Did boomers come of age in a meritocracy? Is that meritocracy still in effect? Is the increasing lack of faith in its fairness a result of the entitlement and resentment of a generation of spoiled brats, or because the meritocracy itself has declined over the years? You may even have to ask if it ever existed at all.
At the New York Times, Willy Staley did just that, in a column on the word “millennial.” He offers some context: “Structural shifts in the economy — stagnant wages, the skyrocketing cost of housing, colossal student debt — have put millennials on the path to a lower quality of life than their parents.” Their parents, of course, were entering the workforce in an era following the New Deal; for millennials, it was the financial crisis. Did boomers earn their success through effort and talent, or were they provided a social safety net that no longer exists after decades of austerity, embodied by Reaganomics and welfare reform? You may not be able to answer this question, but surely, as a journalist, you should be asking it.
You then move on to your most questionable reference. Frankly, if I was your employer, I would consider an allusion to a discredited conspiracy theory to be a fireable offense. It’s a good thing I’m seeing it before your editor gets it, or, heaven forbid, it makes its way to print.
The younger militants tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy. Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.
The historian Samuel Moyn, in the New York Times, wrote a column thoroughly debunking the canard of “cultural Marxism.” “The legend of cultural Marxism recycles old anti-Semitic tropes to give those who feel threatened a scapegoat,” he wrote.
According to their delirious foes, “cultural Marxists” are an unholy alliance of abortionists, feminists, globalists, homosexuals, intellectuals and socialists who have translated the far left’s old campaign to take away people’s privileges from “class struggle” into “identity politics” and multiculturalism.
This conspiracy theory hinges on the Frankfurt School, a group of mostly Jewish philosophers at the University of Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Some of them, most notably Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, escaped Nazi Germany and became professors in the United States. Moyn eleaborates:
Some Marxists, like the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and his intellectual heirs, tried to understand how the class rule they criticized worked through cultural domination. And today, it’s true that on campus and off, many people are directing their ire at the advantages that white males have historically enjoyed. But neither the defense of the workers nor of other disempowered groups was a conspiracy on its own, and never was there a malignant plot to convert the first into the second — which is what “cultural Marxism” implies.
For Christ’s sake, David, this was two weeks ago! Do you read the New York Times? Sometimes people leave copies in the subway and you can read it there. Anyway, it’s a good thing we caught this. Back to you:
The big generational clashes generally occur over definitions of professional excellence. The older liberals generally believe that the open exchange of ideas is an intrinsic good. Older liberal journalists generally believe that objectivity is an important ideal. But for many of the militants, these restraints are merely masks for the preservation of the existing power structures. They offer legitimacy to people and structures that are illegitimate.
I’m not going to dictate a theory of journalism to you, but suffice it to say that what you see as a generation gap is a longstanding debate in the profession. Margaret Sullivan, formerly the public editor of the New York Times, wrote about this in a column at the New York Times, regarding what media theorist Jay Rosen has called “The View from Nowhere,” in reference to philosopher Thomas Nagel. As Sullivan explains:
In his view, objectivity is problematic when it involves “taking the midpoint between opposing sides and calling that neither/nor position ‘impartial.’ ” He’s dead right about that.
I realize that Sullivan no longer works at the New York Times, but her work during her tenure there could be a helpful reference for you. Returning to your column:
Whether on left or right, younger people have emerged in an era of lower social trust, less faith in institutions, a greater awareness of group identity. They live with the reality of tribal political warfare and are more formed by that warfare.
This is such a patently false statement that I have to believe it was made in error. There must be a mistake in the syntax or something. It makes it seem as though you’re saying that in the country of Jim Crow, Japanese internment, McCarthyism, and so on—just to limit ourselves to the lifetimes of boomers—it’s millenials who are at fault for a so-called “greater awareness of group identity.” I’m sure one of your editors will catch this. No reasonable, intelligent person would let it stand. So I’m sure I don’t need to bother.
But since we’re talking, let me call it to your attention anyway. In the New York Times, Emily Bazelon pointed out that if white people think there is now a “greater awareness of group identity,” it’s only because there is now a greater awareness of white identity. For centuries, “white” was rendered neutral, simply human, with other ethnicities construed as deviations from the norm. Bazelon argues that this has been thrown into question recently, and rightly so. When a white woman called the cops on a black family’s barbecue—and it provoked an immediate backlash—Bazelon observed that “white people didn’t get the usual benefit of assumed normalcy. They were portrayed, instead, as a distinct subculture with bizarre and threatening habits.”
This brings us back to your bizarre habit. Who is the neutral, anonymous source? Again, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, and assuming it isn’t just David Brooks. But if it isn’t, I have a feeling it’s supposed to be someone who looks a lot like him.
Department of Corrections
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