The New York Times needs to course-correct — now — before it further damages the liberal cause.
The Times bears the mantle of America’s “newspaper of record,” of recorded event. It also sets the standards for the politics, culture, and criticism pursued by the Left, its constituent audience.
So: What are we to make when the Times in its influential Sunday “Opinion” section, on August 27, devotes not one, not two, but three slots (as reinforcement?) to content truly meretricious.
Leading off, “The Virtues of Being Bad,” a multi-author section expounding on the joys of — wait for it — shoplifting(!), sleeping with friends(!), drugs(!), and other such ilk, all urging we get to that point where we “break the rules and don’t regret it.” Next, “I Don’t Need You to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You” (note the cynical scare-quotes around good person), an astonishingly irresponsible appeal by a clinician(!) touting the joys of “transgression,” teed up by the subhead: “Your secret desires can be a compass, leading you to freedom.” Finally, “Can Liberalism Save Itself?,” an analysis that endeavors to portray liberalism’s historic promise — freeing the individual from all oppression; that examines its present “error” (it’s now more fearful than hopeful); yet falls short by recommending only more emancipation, without calling for the responsible exercise of that emancipation. So much freedom, so little responsibility!
How can the Times not understand the incalculable damage it inflicts on liberalism’s historic cause — by continuing to push, so assiduously and faux-daringly, at gates once marked forbidden but now long since wide open: i.e., the irresponsible rule-breaking, the transgression, the hurtful impact of one’s secret desires on the commonweal, the empty freedom of emancipation without the responsible exercise of that freedom? In its cultural coverage and criticism, the Times as our preeminent gatekeeper has been key to unlocking those gates — and unleashing so much damage.
Time for mission-review at the Times — a sober, honest, responsible review. Because:
Somehow the Times has failed to see that a “Breaking Bad” culture — one the Times promotes, one that in truth has been breaking bad for decades — got precisely the President it deserved, in 2016, with the amoral, dangerous, anti-democratic Donald Trump. Does the Times really think there is no correlation at all between a culture breaking bad and an egregiously bad figure like Trump?
Further, the Times continues not to see how tattered and bereft is the landscape left by this puerile ethos of breaking bad: How it has deprived liberalism of the tools — vision, strategy, policy — needed to battle an increasingly powerful Far Right that purports to promote right-thinking but is itself wrapped around the axle of error. How a breaking bad culture has — tragically — robbed liberalism of the moral language and moral compass it needs to discriminate and make value judgments. For discrimination and value judgment are needed, despite a vehement bias against anything “moralistic” plaguing today’s liberalism, a bias reinforced by the Times.
Implications of liberalism’s weakened state could not be more foreboding. Projecting ahead given current dynamics — principally Trump’s amassing of support despite four (4) criminal indictments, heralding a second term devoted to the final disassembly of American democracy into lawlessness — nonetheless Donald Trump could very well be re-elected, principally because American liberalism, so weakened and devoid of moral force, simply could not mount the compelling argument against returning the multi-indicted, criminal insurrectionist, amoral Trump to the White House. Really? There is colossal and comprehensive wrong afoot in America in this moment — ideal for a fighting and sturdy liberalism to combat and correct. If such winning liberal argument exists, where is it? Let’s hear it — now.
And this is the feeble liberalism the Times urges indulge itself further on the wild side — go shoplifting, have sex with friends, do drugs, break rules without regret, transgress. Really?
Proof — anecdotal, to be sure — that the forces in play suddenly matter more recently manifested in a long conversation with a young medical tech doing a test on me. For years now I have been asking young people, Can America save itself from decline? For years now, the youth I queried always responded with “I don’t know”: While recognizing the signs of decline, they kept the door open for a can-do comeback, for possibility. Now, that door shuts — precisely because of the amassing power of Trump’s campaign for re-election. Citing the Trump “juggernaut,” my young medical tech, eyes brimming above her mask, wailed: “And nothing is happening to stop him — nothing!” (I’ll note she was pregnant.) Another young tech joined us; I asked the same question; she said, “Nope, not gonna happen.” When a nation’s vanguard sees no hope, then that nation’s decline can only accelerate. Pregnant-without-hope is an image that especially disturbs.
Which is another reason why I call the Times’ input to this perilous moment “meretricious.”
Not only does American liberalism need to recover its moral force. America as a nation-state needs to grow up! It needs desperately and at long last to mature: politically, culturally, socially, morally. Which is to say: America needs to go in the exact opposite direction the Times points to: away from the irresponsible indulgence of our historic rights and freedoms — and instead go forward, with all due deliberate and nation-saving speed, to the mature and responsible handling of these, our oh-so-precious rights and freedoms.
Since 9/11, when for a few weeks America united in deep philosophic communion, when we really did glimpse our better selves, we have known that, with the world at last crashed in upon this continental nation in such horrific way, the American experiment could go forward only if it shucked the anything-goes ethos of the preceding decade whooping up our Cold War “win” and advanced to the sober and mature conduct of ourselves and our nation in a much-altered world.
Yet, too soon, America shucked that golden potential and mounted unnecessary wars, shamefully tortured enemy detainees thus trashing the Geneva Conventions — the list of misdeeds is long, we know it well. The only counter to our falling-off is: to grow up. It is especially imperative, if America is to remain Leader of the Free World, that we model that freedom more responsibly. And certainly we must tutor ourselves, both as nation and as individuals, in the responsible exercise of America’s immense power. To paraphrase W.H. Auden’s “We must love one another or die”: “We must grow up or die.” We know this truth, so why do we keep postponing adulthood?
Finally, to these cultural notes, this political one: By floating another wacko notion of liberalism, the Times serves up — no: it express-delivers — more ammo to the Far Right in its inane mission to “own the libs.” Must the Times make us so ownable? Urging shoplifting, sex with friends, drug use, etc., just feeds the Far Right’s conviction of liberals’ depravity, meanwhile giving a pass to its own depraved support of a depraved Trump. I say all this as a liberal, a center-left one, who has long protested liberalism’s present-day tendency to licentiousness, its allergy to all boundaries, its refusal to address the moral point.
Is this protest too much to lay on a mere Opinion section of one Sunday edition? I think not. Surely we see by now, in this late post-9/11 moment so volatile and febrile, that any focus on the serious and sober — over and over and over again — gets swamped by the crackpot, the clown, the loud and stupid, the meretricious. Which is why it was so disappointing our paper of record yet again gave its platform and mic to such voices, such vices. The following weekend it doubled down, with an encore presentation of the very same material(?). Recently Opinion touted the joys of porn, the filthy joke, Shakespeare’s “naughty bits.” It is one of democracy’s discontents: the instability of its public arena. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1844 essay “Politics,” speaking of “our methods,” asked, “Could not a nation….devise better ways?” Yes, we could.
For beyond this cacophony of American Democracy, beyond these Dark Ages, there looms an American Renaissance. Underneath this sad moment lies such magnificence, such depths, such richness of thought and feeling, borne of the suffering — yes, suffering — of the “conscientious public” (a term I coined in 2007). These are the good souls, far larger in number than given credit, who “get” and truly love, in a purer way than the corrupted Far Right or the irresponsible Far Left, the American idea and ideal in all its yet-undiscovered potential. Yet these souls, so heartsick, are becoming bodily sick at America’s extended self-immolation. If the Times truly understood this heartsickness, it would cease the swill and serve up only sustenance.
The Roman poet Virgil, observing the Roman empire at its height, when it no longer suffered external enemies, understood it was at that point Rome was most vulnerable, as is America now: that internal corruption was now the Nemesis. Thus he wrote: “Easy is the descent to the lower depths; but to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air — this is the task, this is the toil.”
To the upper air! But: Does the Times know the way?