Bari Weiss’ rise to the top of The New York Times has been a mixed bag for the Paper of Record. Weiss, who was lured from her previous home alongside with Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, often finds herself pushing the hot buttons of culture. From the #MeToo movement, the Intellectual Dark Web, and Israel, Weiss is certain to receive a wave of backlash in the always chaotic Twitter-sphere. Just this week her new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, received a scathing review by Slate, in which Jordan Weissmann argued that, off the back of the horrendous synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, which took the lives of several of Weiss’ family members,
[Weiss] used the attack as a launch pad for a bizarre and undercooked exercise in rhetorical bothsidesism, in which she argues that American Jews should be just as worried about college students who overzealously criticize Israel as they are about the aspiring Einsatzgruppen who shoot up shuls.
The review followed a tactical shred of the arguments in Weiss’debut book, finally finishing with a similar blare that other writers and journalist have pointed out about her: “The fact that so much of Weiss’ conception of who is and who isn’t anti-Semitic comes down to how supportive they are of Israel could, ironically, end up fueling an emerging thread of anti-Semitic thought.” Social media was already feeling the previous shots from Weiss’ appearance in HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, in which she argued against Medicare for All, Elizabeth Warren and the left in general. With the review in place, the familiar fuel that has represented Weiss’ career since entering the Times quickly made its expeditious emergence. But, does Weiss deserve it? Is this an overreaction? Does the left needs to concentrate on “more dangerous figures”?
These seem to be questions that are always kept out of sight when talking about Bari Weiss. Social media might not put great pressure on the polemic figure, but legitimate arguments by other writers do. Just take the example of the Slate review that I just alluded to. This same week, in the midst of her book debuting in bookstores worldwide, The New York Magazine published a benevolent piece to scared away the accumulation of arguments the might reduce Weiss’ work to “shallow, provisional, and under argued” (this is, in fact, the words of one of the recent reviews on her book in Amazon).
The lifesaver by NY Magazine showcases the expected conundrum in which the media defends Weiss. As some of the guests at Weiss’ book launch party acknowledges, Weiss is “the perfect example of someone who gets unwarranted flak for her thoughtfulness.” The Intelligencer piece quotes A. G. Sulzberger, a publisher at the Times, exclaiming that her op-ed writer was “a terrific and really brave voice”.They, the majority of the guests at such a party, think of her as the omen of frank truths. But when asked to go deeper in other issues where Weiss clearly fouls excessively, the all-mighty undisputed media giants at her gathering decide to go off the record.
The tactic, using Weiss as a harbinger of “truth” while other media outlets are willing to throw the salvage is not new or by any standard, eye-opening. Just when Weiss comments on Supreme Justice Bret Kavanaugh and Palestine was reaching high temperatures, Vanity Fair (in their lost quest of giving sound, political commentary since the death of Christopher Hitchens) released a profile piece on how Bari Weiss was not the monster that social media portrays her to be:
That’s the word, anyway, about the 35-year-old star opinion writer for The New York Times, from a very loud and increasingly influential corner of social media. Her newfound fame has transcended her platform. She’s become a somewhat unwitting avatar for the knee-jerk flash-bang of social media, a poster child for the polarization of the chattering classes.
Therefore it’s disorienting to meet Weiss and discover that she’s neither an aspiring sex symbol/bomb thrower, à la Ann Coulter, nor a defensive Ivy League know-it-all. When she walks into Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, blocks from her fifth-floor walk-up, you might peg her as a kindergarten teacher — she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face. She’s effusive and warm, immediately popping out with one eager question after another before I can successfully steer the conversation around to her. Her minor insecurities are blurted fodder for making a connection.
After some commentary from Weiss, on how she has pen mark all over her boob, Evgenia Perez (the interviewer and writer of the article) concludes: “This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm. Weiss seems genuinely fueled by curiosity, the desire to connect, to cross boundaries and try out new things.” You may go and read the whole piece, although, what you will find is a valley of apologetic “facts” about the 35-year-old that ignores the hypocrisy in which Weiss sometimes denounces the left. That’s not to say that Weiss is a full-blown right-wing extremist who uses her platform to support the current president. As the Vanity Fair piece states, after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, she called out the silence of right-wing Jews and their compliance with Donald Trump. But, it does say a lot from Weiss when most of her attacks, rhetoric, and latest book equates the left’s criticism of Israel with the blatant hatred of Jew by Neo-Nazis.
Part of Bari Weiss’ appeal comes at a time that colleges across the country have to sustain harsh criticism for their student body in the process of silencing speakers and canceling invitations. Weiss, as her colleagues from the IDW, proud herself for putting thinking over feelings (as a famous cool kid’s philosopher once said). Weiss feels under threat by the left, with her voice being silenced in the current atmosphere. In an opinion column in 2018, blushingly titled “We’re All Fascists Now”, Weiss, in the tired effort of once again criticizing college students, argued:
We live in a world in which politically fascistic behavior, if not the actual philosophy, is unquestionably on the rise. Italy just gave the plurality of its vote to a party that is highly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin. The Philippines is in the grip of a homicidal maniac who is allying himself with Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi just anointed himself president for life and has banned the words “Animal Farm” and “disagree” from Chinese internet searches. Bashar al-Assad is winning in Syria, where half a million people have so far been slaughtered. Dictatorship and starvation have descended on Venezuela. At its annual conference in Washington last month, the Conservative Political Action Committee gave its stage, and its enthusiastic applause, to a member of France’s National Front. That’s just a short list.
Yet these are generally not the extremists that leftists focus on. Instead, they seem to believe that the real cause for concern are the secret authoritarians passing as liberals and conservatives in our midst.
Of course, what Weiss wants to equate here or argue, is the irrationality of college students and how even feminists or “liberal” voices are being oppressed in the current climate, painting a hysterical crowd in the main paper of the country. But as Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson attest: Are they’re really being silenced? Are figures like Weiss or even the psychologist Jordan Peterson being oppressed by the current climate? In his famous essay about Weiss and the IDW, titled “Pretty Loud For Being So Silenced”, Robinson argues the following:
Well, are they right? Are they being “purged” as part of a “siege” on free speech by the illiberal left? It’s interesting that Weiss chooses to use the formulation “feeling locked out of legacy outlets,” since I seem to remember a great philosopher once saying that Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings. These people may feel as if they are persecuted renegades, suppressed at every turn by Postmodern Neo-Marxists. But there are a lot of facts to say otherwise.
First, even from the evidence in Weiss’ article, we can see that freely speaking about the “siege on free speech” is impressively lucrative. Dave Rubin’s show “makes at least $30,000 a month on Patreon” while Jordan Peterson “pulls in some $80,000 in fan donations each month” and recently released a bestseller. Ben Shapiro gets 15 million downloads a month and has published five books, Sam Harris gets a million listeners per episode and has published seven books. Though Joe Rogan insists “he’s not an interviewer or a journalist” (I wouldn’t disagree) his three-hour podcast conversations are among the most downloaded in the world. These dissident “intellectuals” each seem to make about as much money in a month, with far larger audiences, than is made annually by the critical race theorists and gender studies professors they think are keeping them from being heard.
The irony is so aptly painted that one feels that one more argument would be unnecessary. But that’s the brilliance of Weiss, she never stops “improving” herself. She puts her mighty fingers on the pulse of college students and their “derangement”, but tends to forget her own old steps in her own college campus. Weiss wanted the firing of a professor at Columbia University who sympathized with the Palestinian cause, accusing him of intimidating Zionists students and being an antisemite. Weiss, who fills her arguments with academic freedom and tolerance, wanted to silence (and still does) those who criticize Israel or even their practices against the Palestinians. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept can summarize it better than yours truly:
That’s what makes this whole spectacle so amazing: The New York Times is allowing one of its columnists to masquerade as a stalwart defender of campus free speech and academic pluralism while utterly ignoring, and allowing her to falsely deny, her own long history in trying to stigmatize and punish professors who criticized Israel, to the point where the NYCLU stepped in and denounced her campaign as a dangerous threat to academic freedom.
Weiss once tried to deny her role and reframed it, knowing quite well that this was highly publicized conflict. Should we accuse Weiss on equating the college professor with fascism? This is the “brave” voice that many of the media establishment defend. Bill Maher once recommended Weiss to teach the new generation (hers), to not be the lunatics that go after those who err in comments about the #MeToo movement and win them to sanity. But the reality is that Weiss can’t even keep a straight vision of reality. Behind that charming personality that Vanity Fair or the New Tork Magazine wants to present, seats an apologetic of Israel, who ignores the atrocity of the apartheid state and who’s rhetoric could be confused by those of right-wing extremists. As long as Weiss goes after those who point out those fallacies in her arguments and in current mainstream media, expect to see these paladins of the Paper of Record defend the “voice of frank truths” in their opinion section.
Emmanuel Figueroa Rosado lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He’s a Ph.D. student in History of the Americas from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. He also holds a M.A. in Educational Neuroscience from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico and a B.A. in Pedagogy from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamón.