Just three days before the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century, one of the world’s top newspapers published a column by one if its full-time opinion contributors arguing that one ethnic group is inherently more intelligent than others. In this case, the superior ethnic group in question was, unsurprisingly, that to which the writer belongs.
I wish I were making this up. I can’t believe I had to type those words.
As the novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote on Twitter: “Woke up to a New York Times op-ed about one group being intellectually superior to others and citing a paper co-authored by a white supremacist as evidence.”
The op-ed in question, by columnist Bret Stephens, was called “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” and the white supremacist Stephens invoked – from ignorance, one hopes, rather than malice – was the late anthropologist Henry Harpending. Harpending’s work has been repeatedly and spectacularly debunked by far better scientists, and most recently rejected as unfounded in March 2018 on the pages of the New York Times itself. It’s too much to expect Stephens to read the newspaper for which he works, I suppose.
Within a day, the Times appended an editors’ note to Stephens’ piece, explaining that it removed the reference to Harpending’s paper and to Ashkenazi Jews in general. The bizarre note also denied the column said what it said: that Ashkenazi Jews are inherently superior to others, including Sephardic Jews.
Sadly, the morning the column debuted, Twitter commentary lurched from biting and witty takedowns of Stephens to calls to “boycott” the New York Times over the foolishness of one of dozens of contributors to but one section of a massive multimedia news and entertainment company. (Disclosure: I occasionally write op-eds for the Times.)
Although the harsh criticism of Stephens and the Times was completely warranted, in other respects the response – especially the calls for boycott – was misguided. Such posing not only simulates real political action, it displaces it, satiating one’s need to feel like one has done something. This is an example of a non-boycott boycott, narcissistic stunts we have seen emerge with targets like Starbucks and Facebook in recent years.
Before anyone says “What about South Africa?” or “What the lunch counters during the civil rights movement?”, yes, specific, targeted, organized boycotts that generate real financial harm and demand serious sacrifice or risk by participants can effect change. But none of that is happening with these hashtag eruptions.
Potentially effective boycotts are focused, local, disciplined, and have specific, articulated goals and demands. They must bring public shame and measurable financial harm to a firm. A few people tweeting “I’m going to stop subscribing to the Times because of Bret Stephens” does not rise to the level of successful social movements or tactics.
If one believes, in the absence of evidence, that a few dozen Twitter users canceling subscriptions to the New York Times would affect decisions at the Times, one does not understand the incentives embedded in the attention economy. The Times, like most other globally available web publications (including Breitbart and any number of white supremacist sites), benefits from umbrage as much as applause.
Futility aside, to threaten to withhold revenue to any respectable news publication at this moment in history is hard to justify. We need quality journalism, expensive investigations, and bright commentary more than ever. The Times, for all its flaws, overwhelmingly delivers all of these things. The Times has serious lapses in judgment and reporting – like any publication, including The Guardian – but we should not wish for a day when The New York Times does not exist.
A fake boycott of the Times would be meaningless at best, counterproductive at worst. What can we do about the Bret Stephens problem, then? The only reasonable and potentially effective response is to push at what the leaders of the Times care about as much as their revenue: their reputation for seriousness and responsibility. Shaming the Times works better than threatening the Times.
“You can’t put essential history like the #1619Project and bullshit race science under the same masthead without giving credibility to the lie,” entrepreneur and critic Anil Dash wrote on Twitter. “The stakes are higher than ever with daily concerted attacks on the idea of accurate information itself, and the NYT is failing at this.”
James Bennet, the editor of the opinion pages of the Times, does not have to invoke Bret Stephens’ promotion of eugenicist garbage to fire him, as moral a decision as that might be. Bennet could just fire Stephens for being a weak thinker and a weaker writer. Bennet could hire so much better – and has. There is a vast surplus of underemployed smart and talented writers in the world. Bennet has managed to hire some of the best of them, along with some remarkably shallow and lazy writers, like Stephens.
In an attention economy, we should promote and publicize work that undermines racism rather than promotes it. This is one of the few decent ways to respond to any publication that publishes mostly essential work along with occasional horrifying content. Every publication tracks its reader engagement. Signalling that quality work can generate attention is our only reasonable response to a perverse media economy and poor editorial judgement.
Shteyngart concluded his tweet about Stephens with a sentiment we should all hold close to our consciousness. “The 2020s will be the most difficult decade in modern history. I hope we can face it with laughter and love.”