The Poleax
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The Poleax

Color Me Skeptical

Bret Stephens and the changing climate for conservative intellectuals

Photo by Andrew Leber

Will every conservative in the #NeverTrump movement please step forward to collect your participation trophy?

Don’t get me wrong — it is commendable that some members of the GOP cognoscenti were willing and able to dredge up some sense of principle underlying the wholesale pursuit of power, even at the risk of protracted social media harassment.

Yet, it is one thing to concede that resistance to the Trump administration’s haphazardly pursued agenda can take the form of a broad tent; it is another thing over the next four years to award an intellectual Get Out of Jail Free card to anybody and everybody whose ideas and discourse are currently doing slightly less damage than others to the country’s ravaged norms of civility and liberal democracy

Should we, for instance, forgive Eliot Cohen for his role in promoting the Iraq war as a near-effortless exercise in pro-American regime change just because he can wax poetic about the dangers Trump poses?

Should we listen to John Yoo — who literally wrote the Torture Memoson the dangers of executive overreach (which in any event reads like advice on wielding despotic power more effectively)?

Should we shed a tear that Elliott “Don’t ask me about Guatemala” Abrams missed out on a State Department gig because he complained about Trump in the National Interest last year?

Even President George W. Bush — he of the disastrous war in Iraq, he of the deficit-ballooning tax cuts, he of the failure to ward off the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — is starting to get a pass for 1) leveling some indirect criticisms at Trump, 2) struggling with a poncho at the Inauguration, and 3) getting slightly better at painting.

Former WSJ columnist Bret Stephens is the latest to bask in the glow of acting against type by putting principles above politics for a brief, shining moment. Having spent 2016 attacking Trump (and being attacked in kind by the yet-more-conservative press), Stephens subsequently found himself adrift in an op-ed pool steadily drifting ever-Trumpward — easy pickings for a New York Times editorial page that is (with few exceptions) slowly writing itself into irrelevance by mistaking 1) notoriety for incisiveness and 2) half-baked, center-right musings for inclusiveness and diversity of thought.

No doubt the Grey Lady’s pageviews and hate-shares will benefit from new perspectives on why climate change is an example of mass hysteria or why Palestinians are fueled by an implacable bloodlust, interspersed with yet more well-intentioned but toothless scrivenings on all the threats Donald Trump’s administration poses to American Democracy.

When I first heard about Stephens and the Times, I thought that perhaps it was worth giving him a chance. He could, after all, channel the contentions and critiques lurking deep within the political right for broader consumption, skewering the occasionally absurd attempts by the centerstream media to come to terms with the Trump-voting Other. Why add to the anti-Stephens thinkpiece pile when his first column hadn’t been filed?

But then right out of the starting gate we got a borderline climate change denial column dressed up with references to Polish poetry and the caveat that “none of this is to deny climate change.” This is the kind of insidious commentary masquerading as fair-mindedness that encourages us to be a “bit more skeptical” about climate science. But I’ll call it what it is: an invitation to ponder quietly the policy implications of confronting the greatest imaginable threat to humanity until a fair bit of the country — and almost certainly my hometown — is well and truly underwater.

(For an “alternative” rundown on climate change, check out Dana Nuccitelli’s response in the Guardian.)

Here’s the thing about The New York Times. This is the paper that helped start the Iraq War, and yet it’s still seen by the American right as a Bolshevik rag. Trotting out the doddering scold David Brooks to prove that he understands basically nothing about America in 2017 isn’t going to convince conservative readers otherwise. The lineup of Ross Douthat, Brooks, Stephens, et al. is a soft-boiled, disingenuous show of bipartisanship and does a disservice to representing the right-wing viewpoint (to either the right or the left).

I am not opposed to diversity of opinion in the Times op-ed pages. But if the paper wants to expose its readers to a wider array of ideological viewpoints, then hire somebody off Breitbart or the National Review’s fringe wing and let them have at it. Let the vitriol flow, unvarnished, to give the center and left a true sense of what it faces.

Otherwise, spare us the annoyance of offering yet another platform to the conservative intellectual class that is clearly out of sync with the far darker and more pervasive foundations of the American right. Of course, up-bidding may get us there anyway as Douthat and Brooks vie for attention. For example, Douthat wasted no time in seizing the spotlight by penning an essay in support of Le Pen’s odious nationalist populism.

All of this occurs while the paper continues to guilt-trip the center and left with its ad campaigns about how subscribing to the Times will save democracy or something. But that said, if you’re going to let your subscription run out, don’t let it be because of the op-ed section’s flaccid hot-takes. Despite the prominence of Opinion, there’s still the rest of the paper. Make up your own mind on the basis of the paper’s solid reporting, and leave the columnists to their echo chambers.

Oh, and maybe also skip the out-of-touch articles on what was cool in Brooklyn 18 months ago.

Andrew Leber is based in Boston.




Words have meaning

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Andrew Leber

Andrew Leber

Poli Sci grad student, in theory (though not a theorist)

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