I must apologize to Ted Cruz.
But it’s actually to the readers that I have to say: I’m sorry.
One day in 2015, I had to write a column for the New York Times in a few hours and I couldn’t make up my mind on a topic. So I chose the ease of unloading on Cruz, who was one of the many uninteresting names for the nomination of the Republican presidential candidate.
He was a big target for criticism, there was no doubt about it. But have I enhanced his dark personality, enlightened my readers, or promoted a worthy cause by comparing him – time and time again – to the unstoppable entity from the horror movie “Evil Current”?
No, I just swam in the wave of sarcasm. I have done this very often. Many columnists do. To begin with, I am no longer a columnist now. I took a job at a university and will split my time between teaching and writing.
Perhaps it is for the best: ten years is a long way to go for any mission, and although this one has been extremely stimulating and deeply rewarding, I have always had my doubts.
I have worried, and continue to worry, about the extent to which I and other journalists – especially editorial writers – have contributed to the dynamic we criticize: the toxic tenor of American discourse, the tone furious at American politics, the sheer volume and virulence of everything.
I’m also concerned about how often we set aside ambivalence and ambiguity. These are not necessarily signs of weakness or sins of indecision. They can be appropriate reactions to events we don’t yet understand, with outcomes we can’t predict.
But they are not a substitute for fearless sentences or tidy speech points. Therefore, we critics are traders of certainty in a world where there are so many questionable things and so many unanswered questions. If so, perhaps we are encouraging arrogance and inflexibility in our readers, viewers, and listeners. And these attributes do not need to be encouraged in the United States today.
I don’t want to diminish my extreme esteem for journalists. The fake news that Donald Trump was screaming so incessantly and so conveniently was not fake at all. It was enterprising and infinitely truer than Trump himself. I remain impressed not only by the reporting on his government, but by the ability of journalists to resist the violent attacks they have suffered.
And I feel no ambivalence about Trump and hardly regret my allegations against him. He is an immoral and dangerous man, unfit to be president. He had to say it, even if saying it had no effect on his supporters.
There aren’t two sides to what happened on January 6 or the efforts of Trump and Republican lawmakers to overthrow a Democratic election. Both were reprehensible.
But I qualified “no regrets” by “almost” because there is the problem of the tone. Trump’s penchant for mockery gave us the green light for those covering his cover to follow him, and I was one of the many who took advantage of that permission. There was no shame in it and it gave us bursts of verbal creativity that many readers enjoyed.
But there was no honor in that either. We fell to Trump’s level, and he cited that descent as validation of his hostility. The mutual ridicule continued.
Will his traces pollute post-Trump journalism? I think so. And that’s a shame.
I don’t miss the heavy-handedness that defined much of the news when I joined the company 35 years ago. It reflected an unnatural emotional distance and an emphasis on impartiality that produced a sort of moral robotization. But I miss the nuances, which were incinerated by today’s hot scenes. There aren’t as many clicks to calm things down and make people understand situations as there are to make them angry.
See the interwoven issues of the culture of cancellation and free speech. Much of what I’ve read is absolutist: The agonizing lamentations over the culture of cancellation are a cynically exaggerated distraction from the right by grave injustices.
Or the fanatics have woken up and are carrying out an almost religious purge.
I think both could be true – depending on the circumstances and the details, which vary from case to case and preclude summary judgment. That’s why I haven’t written about the culture of cancellation; not a lot. Yes, it is cowardice. But, to give me a break, it’s also a rational reaction to a market that is not the most rational.
I think campuses have gone too far in suppressing speeches they don’t like, but I also think some speeches are so intentionally insulting and cruelly elaborate that refusing to publish them is not a defeat of constitutional principles; it is the triumph of empathy. No decree can govern all the requirements. But it’s a shy column.
Who can really be sure that the abandonment of obstructionism is the gateway to government peace? Who can be sure not? I would like someone to write an excellent analysis of parliamentary filibustering that focuses on two undeniable truths: we have no idea what the ultimate impact of such a significant change is, and there are strong arguments for and against.
On these and other issues, option A over option B is just a flipped part. How many analysts say that? Few critics who have propagated the long-term wisdom of universal health insurance or the negligible impact of budget deficits have references for such prophecies. Few analysts who claim otherwise have clearer crystal balls.
What we often have are ideological cues we’re used to leading and a set of secondary political protections that shrink over the course of our careers. We realize that we are better received from certain points of view; maybe the television producers put us in front of the camera while waiting for certain clichés and pamphlets; we might get paid to speak at events with at least unspoken assumptions that we’re going to deliver the same content we’ve featured before.
So we continued to serve him until we stopped reviewing him and confirming his merit. It’s a profitable genre. But also a trap.
A lot of columnists generalize too much. I know I did when I wrote in August 2019 about Tenacity of Hate and said Americans Against Gay Marriage “can’t stand people like me” and other gay people. One reader caught my eye saying that there is a difference between disagreeing with a position and hating a person. He was right. But that distinction was lost in my excited prose.
Many columns are analyzes less sober than sarcastic numbers or primitive cries. The stand-up and the screams sell. My column on Cruz was a bit of both, and I wish I could go back. His helpful remarks – about his lack of crippling studies, his dangerous self-confidence – were overshadowed by my exaggeration. And I cannot criticize politicians for their rude manners and rude spirit if these shortcomings are mine too.
A month and a half after this harangue on Cruz, I attacked him again, and while citing new facts, I repeated old grievances. I later met CNN’s Dana Bash, and after we exchanged the usual banter, she said, “You and Ted Cruz!
I decided to take this as a compliment: she read and remembered my reviews. But would there be mixed friendly reviews? How automatic could my approach seem and how did this material wear out? I wish I had thought about it then as much as I think about it today.