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When Cruelty Wins
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When Cruelty Wins

Thoughts on Bari Weiss’s resignation from the New York Times.

It’s not often that a journalist’s letter of resignation stops the online news cycle in its tracks. But that’s exactly what happened Tuesday when Bari Weiss published her letter of resignation from the New York Times. It’s an astonishing document. It’s a cri de couer not just against the editorial intolerance of the newspaper and its narrow focus, it’s a heartfelt lament for the outright cruelty and malice she experienced from her colleagues.

Did this mean Bari was “canceled”? In one sense, no she was not. She left on her own accord and no doubt she’ll find a place to write, and countless Americans will read her words. At the same time, her most vicious critics got exactly what they wanted—Bari removed from “their” turf, and they accomplished that goal by using cruelty, the classic tool of the cancel culture trade. 

For those unfamiliar with Bari, here’s how I described her in a National Review article two years ago, when Times employees first trained their fire on her:

If you follow at all the ideological war that’s erupted around the New York Times editorial page, then you know Bari Weiss. It’s too much to call Bari conservative. A better description might be heterodox. On some issues, particularly social issues and immigration, she’s a woman of the Left. On others — regarding, for example, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, she’s on the right. She’s a also stalwart in the defense of civil liberties and has written powerfully against the excesses of the #MeToo movement, the embrace of the terrorist Assata Shakur by the leaders of the Women’s March, and has most recently decried the shout-downs and intolerance of the “woke” campus Left.

Bari’s an independent thinker. She has her own mind. But there’s another word to describe her. Bari Weiss is kind. Spend any time talking to her, and you’ll be impressed by her warmth. In short, it’s very strange that she should be subject to a campaign of harassment and hate. 

For example, in 2018 multiple New York Times staffers (and parts of Twitter) erupted in fury when Bari tweeted “Immigrants: They get the job done” after the American daughter of Japanese immigrants won an Olympic medal. Even though she was paraphrasing Hamilton, she had committed  “othering,” the online mobs claimed, and internally at the New York Times, at least one colleague compared her tweet to Japanese internment. Yes, to Japanese internment

In the midst of the abuse, Bari tweeted this:

And this:

Critics went all the way back to her college days at Columbia to lie about her campus activism, calling her a free speech hypocrite and falsely claiming she sought to silence and intimidate pro-Palestinian professors. 

In a strange twist of fate, I was able to defend Bari from that charge through my first-hand knowledge of the controversy. When I was president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I defended Bari from efforts to silence her. She was critiquing shocking anti-Semitism directed at Jewish students from professors in what was then the university’s department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures. 

How bad was the anti-Semitism? Its former department chair, Hamid Dabashi, once wrote these words:

Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people [Israeli Jews]. . . . The way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.

Bari did not call for terminations, but for free speech and intellectual diversity, the same values she defends today. 

Honestly, I could spend the entire newsletter unwinding and explaining the various bad faith and bizarre attacks against Weiss. And as her star rose at the Times, the attacks escalated. Vanity Fair profiled her as the “New York Times provocateur the left loves to hate.” And that of course led to responses such as this, from the left-wing Current Affairs, called “Why we all hate Bari Weiss so much.”

In hindsight, it seems clear that Bari’s position at the Times was unsustainable. During the civil war at the Times over Tom Cotton’s op-ed Bari tweeted a thread that began with the tweet below, arguing that there is a generational divide at the Times, between younger, woker journalists and older, more liberal, leaders:

Yet another firestorm erupted, including an absurd tweet from Daily Beast editor-at-large Goldie Taylor that asked, “Why she still got her teeth?”

Bari’s resignation letter makes two main points. First, the New York Times is losing its editorial way:

Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.

And second, Times employees have become vicious and cruel:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.

There are terms for all of this: unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong. 

I want to circle back to the subject of one of last week’s newsletters, the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that Bari Weiss and dozens of other journalists and intellectuals signed. In response to their declaration of support for free speech and open inquiry, critics not only condemned the letter, they denied even the existence of “cancel culture.” 

After all, don’t boycotts, calls for terminations, firings, and insults represent the exercise of free speech? No one has a right to a position at the Times. If the government isn’t censoring speakers, then “cancel culture” is just the name that powerful people give to vigorous criticism by the previously-powerless. In fact, look at Bari—she got a Vanity Fair profile. How “canceled” is that? 

Yet are the practitioners of cancel culture using their free speech to attempt to engage in discussion or to limit discussion? Are they trying to debate or intimidate? I liked Nicholas Christakis’s definition of cancel culture:

I’d add an addendum—that each step Christakis outlines above is typically accompanied by overt cruelty and malice, including a desire to inflict pain on their targets. To quote The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer’s description of the angry right, “The cruelty is the point.” 

Cruelty bullies employers into firing employees. Cruelty bullies employees into leaving even when they’re not fired. Cruelty raises the cost of speaking the truth as best you see it—until you find yourself choosing silence, mainly as a pain-avoidance mechanism. 

There is not a magical suit of psychological armor that accompanies public prominence. Thick skin is formed the way calluses are often formed, through a repeated cycle of wounding and healing. But each new layer of protection is built only after yet another fresh wound. These wounds are inflicted intentionally. They’re inflicted gleefully. 

And as Christakis writes above, those wounds are wildly disproportionate to the alleged “offense.” Here are Bari’s last five columns:

Read them. They’re representative of her work. Her pieces are interesting, thought-provoking, and written with warmth and compassion. In what decent workspace does work like this merit personal abuse and invective? 

I often write about the necessity of personal courage in overcoming cancel culture and defending free speech. There are times when you have to stand up to the mob. You have to resist the cruelty. Bari stood and stood and stood. Who stood with her? This part of her letter is poignant. Speaking to her bosses she says:

I do not understand how you have allowed this kind of behavior to go on inside your company in full view of the paper’s entire staff and the public. And I certainly can’t square how you and other Times leaders have stood by while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage. Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.

Bari’s right. The cancellations will continue so long as good men and women continue to praise courage in private and maintain silence in public. America’s liberal institutions can survive many things. They will struggle to survive the combination of cowardice and cruelty. Malicious men and women cannot be permitted to define the terms of America’s public debates.

One last thing … 

We’re just over two weeks from the restart of the NBA season. You know what that means? More of me preaching the gospel of the Grizzlies. Do you want to know why I’m excited by this team? Look at the athleticism of this young core. Come quickly NBA, our nation turns its sports-starved eyes to you:

Photograph of Bari Weiss from her appearance on Amanpour & Company on PBS.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.