Monday, June 8, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, June 8, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Parable of the Revolution That Never Ends: New York Times Editor Out
Last Friday, we looked at the modern parable of the crisis at The New York Times. We saw that the paper earlier last week had run an opinion piece by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. The newspaper came under fire predominantly from its own staff members. And eventually, James Bennett, the opinion page editor, released a statement saying why the paper was right to have released the opinion piece and that was backed up by A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times. But within a matter of hours, the very same people basically apologized for ever having run the article in the first place saying that upon further review, given the revolt in their own ranks, the Tom Cotton article should never have been run.
The point we made on Friday is the big point that what we are witnessing is a civil war within America's most influential paper, a very liberal paper. But the point is, the liberals, who had been running the paper, are now facing a mutiny by those to their left, who they hired. Bari Weiss, an opinion writer for The New York Times, offered in a series of tweets a very fascinating indictment of exactly what has taken place. She pointed out that many of the editors and those in a position to hire for The New York Times had been hiring the best and the brightest from journalism schools and elsewhere, and they had been working at trying to move the paper somewhat left. But they didn't move the paper somewhat left, the young people they hired are basically radicals. They really even identify as such, and they see the current liberal leadership of The New York Times as woefully out of step. What we're looking at here is that The New York Times brought into its own ranks those who intend to march through the institutions, and they shouldn't be surprised that one of the main institutions through which they intend to march towards the left is The New York Times itself.
But that was Friday. Over the weekend, the other shoe fell, so to speak. Marc Tracy, reporting an article for the very same newspaper, the New York Times, on the seventh released this statement: "James Bennett resigned on Sunday from his job as the editorial page editor of The New York Times. Days after the newspaper's opinion section, which he oversaw, published a much criticized op-ed by a United States senator calling for a military response to civic unrest in American cities."
Now, this is a much bigger story than you might think. It's not just about one newspaper, The New York Times is not just a newspaper. The bigger issue here is that generational shift, a shift night a little bit to the left, but a radical leap to the left driven by all kinds of critical theory and of course the movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, you could go down the list, and those they have hired from this younger generation see the old liberals as now the problem. So you can tell where the argument's headed. They have to go, and they have to go in a hurry.
Now it's really interesting to note that James Bennet is himself quite liberal. He couldn't have gotten the job unless he was very much a part of the liberal establishment, but the increasingly influential left now sees old elite establishment liberals like James Bennett as the problem. And they seize any opportunity to try to get them out of the way and then to make demands, and you can expect those demands will be very clear, very quickly, making demands about the new kind of leadership that they will accept.
Now over the weekend, the situation blew up even from what we discussed on Friday, because this is the way revolutions work. Revolutions take on their own logic, and the problem is the revolutionaries aren't ever satisfied. That's exactly what we're looking at here. As the week began last week, James Bennett, the now resigned editorial page editor of The New York Times, was considered so much a part of the newspaper's future that A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher, now several generations of the Sulzberger paper as basically the owners and the publishers of the newspaper, had spoken of Bennett as the likely new executive editor of The New York Times itself. But by the time just a few days had passed, the revolutionaries had made certain that James Bennet not only will not be the new executive editor of The New York Times, he's out as the editorial page editor. Marc Tracy, writing for the newspaper said, "Mr. Bennet's swift fall from one of the most powerful positions in American journalism comes as hundreds of thousands of people have marched in recent weeks in protest of racism in law enforcement and society."
He goes on to tell us, "The foment has reached other newsrooms. On Saturday night, Stan Wischnowski resigned as top editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer days after an article in that newspaper about the effects of protests on the urban landscape carried the headline Buildings Matter Too." Tracy then reports, "The headline prompted an apology published in the Enquirer a heated staff meeting and a sick out by dozens of journalists at the paper.” Tracy's article then tells us that many of the young staffers that had led the revolt against Bennett said that if he were to stay or if he were to become the paper's executive editor, they would quit. Then we are told that after a brief conversation with A. G. Sulzberger, Bennet was out.
An interesting assessment from within the media class comes from Erik Wemple, the media critic for the Washington Post. After Bennet's ejection, he wrote, "The New York Times is experiencing a crisis of leadership and conviction. And just two days it has alienated staffers, readers, liberals, conservatives, free-expression absolutists of all political persuasions and Tom Cotton." He went on to say, "There's a saying in Washington that if you're angering both sides, you must be doing something right." Wemple then concluded that The Times recent actions prove that such so-called wisdom is nonsense. He used a different word for nonsense.
But as we try to understand this in worldview analysis, let's remember how often we have to come back to the fact that as you were looking at the political momentum in the United States, the cultural, moral worldview momentum, particularly on the left, it's not a little bit left, it's very far left, pushing far left very fast, making downright revolutionary demands. And we have seen that very evident in the Democratic Party. The general political pattern has been, for a matter of decades, that Democrats move to the left during the primary season, but then move to the right during the general election, because otherwise, they can't be elected.
But as you look at Joe Biden, who, by the way, gained the necessary majority of Democratic delegates to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, the situation with Joe Biden is that he ran progressively further left during the primaries and is now redefining himself far to the left of where he was at the end of the primaries. The big issue we're told over and over again for Joe Biden is whether or not the young activists who preferred Bernie Sanders, at least at one point, far to Joe Biden's left will now turn out to vote for Biden in the general election. But there's actually more than that. We're seeing a realignment of the intellectual class of the Democratic Party. We're seeing a fundamental shift in ideology. And one of the things we need to note is that this ideology increasingly sees the entire American experiment as fatally flawed.
Generational Revolt: What’s Happening in the Nation’s Most Significant Institutions of Cultural Influence
We'll be paying a lot of attention to this in further detail as the election cycle unfolds, but looking at this parable of The New York Times with the editorial page editor controversial at the end of last week out at the beginning of this week, we need to understand that there are historical parallels, and this has to do with how revolutions work. In order to understand this, I want to use a word that many Americans might understand as a word, but not understand in its context and meaning. That word is Trotskyite. What in the world does it mean to say that someone is a Trotskyite? It means a radical revolutionary who is committed to permanent revolution. Where does this come from? Well, Leon Trotsky was a part of a small cadre of senior leaders in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia beginning in 1917. And of course the most famous of those leaders was Vladimir Illych Lenin. Lenin became the leader of the communist party. Lenin became the defining leader of the Revolution.
But Lenin, though he was an absolute revolutionary, faced, as revolutionaries often face, a challenge from his left. And Leon Trotsky was that challenge. Trotsky was more ideological as a Marxist. Lenin, like most of those who claimed to be Marxist or communist in the 20th century, actually were absolute totalitarians. They claimed to be communist, they claimed to have a commitment to Marxism, but as it turned out, when they had to choose between Marxism or power, they chose power. They contorted Marxism or communism to their own model. We see the same thing going on right now in North Korea and in China with the Chinese Communist Party. But as the Russian revolution continued, there was tension between Lenin and Trotsky that could not be accommodated. One of them would have to go. And since Lenin was in power, it was Trotsky who had to go.
As I said, Trotsky was a more classical Marxist. Trotsky was in the position of saying that Lenin was effectively a compromiser, but Lenin had to get rid of Trotsky. He was expelled from leadership in 1927 and eventually exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. By 1940, he had been assassinated in Mexico, of all places, where he had fled and it was eventually uncovered that he was assassinated on the orders of the Soviet leadership, and by an agent of the NKVD. That's a Soviet intelligence service much like the far more well-known KGB. The NKVD was far more a secret police serving the totalitarian regime inside the Soviet Union. Lenin, and eventually Stalin, could not abide Trotsky living. Lenin died before Trotsky could be assassinated, but the same cause was taken up by his successor, Joseph Stalin, and Stalin's NKVD agent was able to be successful, whereas Lenin was unsuccessful in silencing Trotsky.
The important thing to recognize here is that the main issue of Trotsky's critique is that you had Lenin, and eventually Stalin, argue for what Stalin called communism in one country. Trotsky wanted a right now, permanent international communist revolution and he did his best to shame both Lenin and Stalin for being more preoccupied with protecting their absolute power in Russia. So a Trotskyist or a Trotskyite has gone down in the political lectionary as someone who is committed to revolution, more revolution, permanent revolution, international revolution, revolution followed by revolution followed by revolution in a never ending revolutionary pattern. That's exactly why Trotskyite is applicable to the parable going on at The New York Times right now.
Now, Even Public Health Has Become an Arena for Political Ideology
But secondly, we have to understand that one of Trotsky's principles was that ideology, political ideology, must trump everything else. Keep that in mind when you consider the headline that ran at CNN over the weekend, "Over 1,000 health professionals sign a letter saying, Don't shut down protests using coronavirus concerns as an excuse."
Now we can take a few minutes just to look at that headline, but for the sake of time, let's look to the article itself. "A group of health and medical colleagues has penned an open letter to express their concern that protests around the United States could be shut down under the guise of coronavirus health concerns.” The letter, which went on to draw, we're told, more than 1200 signatures, focuses on techniques to reduce harm to people protesting racial injustice. One of the letter writers said, "We created the letter in response to emerging narratives that seem to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of COVID-19. Instead," this writer said, "we wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health, but to respond to protestors demands in the name of public health, thereby addressing multiple public health crises."
Now, as we're talking about narratives here, you'll notice that the letter writer used that word over and over again. We all find ourselves in the public square using those words, but in this case, narrative means argument. When this writer says that the statement is in response to a narrative and they're going to present a counter narrative, just get rid of the word “narrative” for a moment and realize he's saying that their particular statement was in response to an argument and they're issuing another argument.
Now just consider the fact that over the course of the last several weeks, the main fact in the United States since about early March has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which after all, shut down most of the American economy and has transformed the way most of us live everyday life, and all of this has come as the public health profession has said that this is absolutely necessary because of the mandate of preserving human life and trying to, you recall this language, flatten the curve of the pandemic. The shutdowns, the lockdowns, the stay at home orders and all of this, and of course we've been in all kinds of controversies as a society about, for instance, whether or not people should be allowed to go to church.
Now in this country right now, there is nothing that is non-political. And so there has been a red-blue divide on many of these issues. You've had the blue states, which have had the most intensive concentrations of the virus, you have also had the red states that have been most resistant to the lockdowns, which many governors for instance of red state said made more sense in a state like Massachusetts than in a state like Montana. Concerns have been raised about targeted limitations on religious liberty and the assembly of Christians together. I, along with several others, have been arguing that churches and Christians should obey generally applicable principles, even in the context of the pandemic. And that means that even as we now understand the society is opening up, churches should be allowed to open up, but there should be due regard to public health, due regard to social distancing, due regard to trying to limit the transmission of the disease. Churches that have violated those principles have come under very understandable criticism. But the point of this article is that an exception is now being made if there is a violation of these principles for the cause of social protests on the streets of America.
The entire document is available online and the statement says, "Infectious disease and public health narratives adjacent to demonstrations against racism must be consciously anti-racist, and infectious disease experts must be clear and consistent in prioritizing an anti-racist message." In the third paragraph, the statement says, "Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However," says the statement, "as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission."
Let's just think for a minute. They just said that they're for these principles. After all, they've been arguing for them for weeks, but they are not for them if this will mean any kind of suppression of the protests now breaking out on the streets of America. They go on to speak of the protests writing, "We support them,” meaning the protests, “as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of black people in the United States. We can show that support," say the signees, "by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators ability to gather and demand change."
Now, I've tried to be clear as we talk about these things on The Briefing, American citizens have the right to peaceful protests. That's a fundamental constitutional right. The right of peaceful assembly, the right for redress of grievances, that is right there in the Bill of Rights, but so is religious liberty. In worldview analysis, we need to understand that not only do we have here a very ideological position being brought to what's defined as public health, we have the redefinition of public health as a part of a cultural revolution. And that's not name calling here, those who are behind this statement see themselves as wanting to be part of encouraging, supporting, and even being actively involved as agents in a massive revolution.
Intellectual and moral clarity on the issue appeared in the form of an editorial published in Sunday's edition of The New York Times by Ross Douthat, columnist for the paper. His column was entitled “Why the Coronavirus Is Winning.” He begins his article by citing Adam Elkus, a PhD candidate in computer science at George Mason University, who wrote, "The only thing it wants is targets," speaking of COVID-19. "It does not think, it does not feel, and it lies totally outside the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation, and discourse, and this, above all else, makes it a lethal adversary for the West. It has exposed," said Elkus, "how much of Western society is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images, and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself."
Ross Douthat points out that there are some on the right, on the conservative side in the United States, who have spoken about COVID-19 in those terms as if we can just talk the virus away or will it away. But now he says we're seeing the same thing in a radical ideological form coming from the left. And that comes down to, for example, the very statement we've been discussing on The Briefing. Douthat writes, "Now finally, amid the wave of protest against police brutality, the baton of words against reality has been passed back to the public health establishment, many of whose leaders are tying themselves in ideological knots, arguing that it is not only acceptable, but essential, after months circumscribing every sort of basic liberty to encourage mass gatherings to support one particular just cause."
Douthat then writes, "With this last turn, we've reached the end of the progression because it means the original theory behind a stern public health response that the danger to life and help justify suspending even the most righteous pursuits, including not just normal economic life, but practices and institutions that protect children, comfort the dying, serve the poor has been abandoned or subverted by every faction in our national debate."
Douthat, by the way, and I join him in this, writes respectfully about the efforts to try to stop the spread or to limit the spread of the pandemic. He writes, "That the rules are now dissolving amid ideological doubletalk from health authorities says something important about the American capacity for political delusion. But," he says, "it doesn't prove that we were wrong to implement them. Not when there are thousands of people who are still alive and whose lives emphatically matter because we sustained restrictions for a time."
And this brings me back to Trotsky and his call for permanent revolution and his argument that political ideology matters above everything else. Now we're being told by those who are recognized public health professionals that we should put a pause on everything they had been saying for weeks and months because they have found a higher cause. And this is not to take away for a moment the fact that there are very real moral concerns that are now being presented to America in the form of these protests, but that's very different than surrendering everything to ideology in the name of revolution.
But it's very important that thinking Christians think very seriously about the tenor of our moment and understand what is going on. There is this drive for feeling over fact, theory over reality, for ideology over everything in the cause of a revolution that will never end. It's not just a generation of young revolutionaries at The New York Times. They are produced by revolutionaries often in tenured positions in America's most prestigious and influential universities. This is evidence of the reign of theory and ideology throughout much of the cultural system of the United States. It didn't happen by accident. It's going to take a lot of work to think about these things clearly, but let's be committed to do that together carefully, honestly, respectfully, but genuinely.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
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