Many people collect stamps or like to swing dance. I've dipped into philately, but like millions of others, my main hobby is criticizing The New York Times. Just a couple of weeks ago I basically accused the whole operation of anti-Semitism, which really would be surprising. But I couldn't resist, because I—like you I'm sure—find screeching about the Times diverting and relaxing. And I always thought of attacking the Times as harmless. It's the kind of target at which one can feel comfortable lobbing artillery shells, because it seems so big and fortified. It's hard to miss, but hard to make a dent.
But I’m beginning to feel sorry for the Times. Its unparalleled resources and cultural prestige makes it a target and makes the target glow and pulse. Everyone launches all the time. At any given moment there are 20 critical petitions circulating, some of them signed by people in the newsroom (or, more likely, the opinion room, if there's such a thing). No matter what you do at the Times, someone is currently demanding your resignation. I have a feeling there have been layers of sensitivity training and struggle sessions occupying everyone for hours. I don't know whether people start yelling at each other and quitting or firing each other in outrage, or whether they swallow their tongues on the job and just look daggers at the monster in the next cubicle.
Because there’s a monster in the next cubicle. The anti-transphobia open letter that got attention last week, signed by a number of people who work or have worked or at least have written for the Times, describes "a workplace made hostile by bias." That is the language of a nascent lawsuit. One thing we can conclude from way outside is that workplace must be very hostile. For everyone concerned, it appears to be "full of anguish and pain". Each person is apparently sitting there suspecting each other person of violent racism and transphobia, or else they’re under suspicion. Both, I assume, with regard to everyone.
It must be really intense. They need a Fentanyl dispenser next to the water cooler.
The last straw on trans issues was probably former books editor Pamela Paul's foursquare defense of J.K. Rowling. And it's true that the Times opinion page has shown a notable tendency toward balance lately, as in the addition of columnists like Paul and anti-Trump conservative David French.
The response to the trans petition was notably firm, though it had the wrong emphasis, if you ask me. Executive editor Joseph Kahn and opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury said, "We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
But that only addresses the few petitioners who are Times staffers. And it's an odd place to drive one's wedge, as the Newspaper Guild union and others immediately raised concerns about the free speech rights of Times staffers. If I were editing the Times opinion page, columnists would be explicitly attacking one another, or I might hire a freelancer to reply to a column I just ran. I think the Times is probably going to have to tolerate public criticism even from its own people.
There should be more stuff like this, in short. The petitioners are using that Bret Stephens column to argue that public criticism of the Times by its employees ought not to be a firing offense. I don't see how it can be if the Times is also going to defend the range of views it represents on free speech grounds. Its own employees need to have the same right, presumptively.
The passion that many, even me, bring to attacking the Times shows how lots of people, including lots of people I know, think about it, which is a problem. It’s a total source; people take it as a guide to truth; "in the Times" = real. The Times in some sense becomes people's world, a status thrown into question only by The New Yorker, which of course sketches the same reality.
If the Times is the Real itself, then it can't possibly present incompatible views on trans identity or anything else, because reality can't contain contradictions. And if the Times is reality itself, then what it says is what happens: that someone in the Times is worried about gender-affirming medical treatments is outrageous and incomprehensible, or it's a physical assault, since the physical world, if any, consists of the Times' words. When a certain sort of person disagrees with something they read in the Times, it amounts to a personal and cultural crisis.
And yet, the Times is written and edited by humans. These humans are liable to disagree with each other on almost everything, including questions about "gender-affirming medical treatments." That "the science is settled" is a ridiculous approach: first, all science is subject to revision. And I thinkwe're just getting started as a society or as a gaggle of scientists on gender fluidity and identity. Definitely not settled. And even if it was, there are many dimensions of possible and important disagreement.
The open letter says that "15,000 words of front-page Times coverage debating the propriety of medical care for trans children published in the last eight months alone." My children are grown, but if they weren’t, then I’d be very hesitant to start feeding them puberty blockers and sex hormones except as a treatment for cancer, let's say. Do you think that’s something that I shouldn’t be permitted to say? Okay, now we're in a war, and I'm going to say it again louder. Meanwhile, I'd prefer to listen and reflect a bit, but that's evidently not one of the options.
If I were trying to decide whether my child should enter into a hormone regimen, I'd need to hear the reasons on both sides. And if you think this isn't a political as well as a medical issue (like so many others), you're confused. Or if you think that only "scientists" and people who agree with you should be permitted to express their views on this, we can have a contest to see who can silence whom. The saddest scene for that gag show would be a newsroom, though.
I think American society as a whole is in a gender transition, rethinking the basic possibilities and reconstruing the history of the binary. But the only way to do that responsibly is to hear all the positions and attitudes and try to grapple with them. "J.K. Rowling is not a transphobe" might be false. But saying it definitely isn’t any sort of violence, and it's exactly the sort of thing the opinion page is for.
It must be tense over there, and it’s become impossible to know what anyone at the Times may think about trans issues, or anything else, in their heart of hearts. At that point, you can't really have an opinion page. But today I come to express pity, not rage, for the people who work for The New York Times.
—Follow on Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell