By Gene Lyons
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Everybody’s favorite logical fallacy these days seems to be the argumentum ad hominem. That’s where you make a personal attack on somebody’s presumed motives instead of engaging the substance of what they’ve said. Sad to say, it’s as prevalent on the political left as the right.
Maybe more so.
In advanced circles, it’s now seen as legitimate to attack the gender, nationality or race of anybody you disagree with – so long as that person doesn’t belong to a protected class of person, that is – a complicated topic. Now The New York Times has hired a young journalist who appears to have made a career of the practice, sparking intense debate among journalists.
To me, the Times somewhat resembles the Catholic Church – deeply flawed, frequently violating its own most critical values, but nevertheless important. Even Donald Trump appears to agree. But if harboring crackpot ideas and venting personal grudges disqualified one from working there, at least a couple of longstanding Times columnists would have to go. So it’s best to keep things in perspective.
Sarah Jeong is her name, a 30-year-old Korean-American Harvard Law graduate who’s allegedly a whiz writing about “tech” subjects. She wrote a 2016 Washington Post column about “Pizzagate” and online harassment of women that made sense, although too many sentences like the following badly needed editing: “The World Wide Web’s hyperlinking protocol becomes a superpowered version of the conspiracy theorist’s corkboard, stringing together articles, posts, pictures without context or explanation, supplying the paranoid mind with its bespoke Wikipedia of horrors.”
Even so, Jeong’s right: The internet makes crazy people crazier. Like anybody who gets online threats, I sometimes wish the authorities could do something. But then, back in the bad old days, hate messages came via telephone and mail, which was worse.
What’s made Jeong’s appointment controversial is her penchant for nasty tweets about white people. Fellow Times columnist Bret Stephens compiled a few: “‘White men are bull--’; ‘#CancelWhitePeople’; ‘oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men’ and ‘f-- white women lol.’”
Me, I’d sack her for the “lol.”
Stephens defends her hiring, but says, “We should call many of these tweets for what they are: racist.” Jeong alibies that she was fighting fire with fire. “While it was intended as satire,” she writes, “I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers. These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns.”
Racist or not, here’s something else they are: deeply stupid. Not because I’m offended – for an old white man, I’ve got thick skin – but because of what they tell me about Jeong’s bad judgment. They’re also a gift to her putative enemies.
Very little makes the Fox News/Trumpist crowd happier than a whine-fest about “reverse racism.” As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb observes, what makes Jeong’s comments “reckless, inflammatory, (and) potentially hurtful” isn’t that they hurt her antagonists. They do not. Rather, “the idea of reverse racism serves as a blunt instrument to facilitate the actual kind.”
Exactly. See, because if everybody’s a bigot, then nobody’s really at fault. People who complain about racial injustice are crybabies who should just shut up.
But back to Jeong’s awful judgment. What should really have given her new employers pause is a deeply confused piece she wrote in 2014 about Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia gang-rape hoax. In it, she made light of all normal journalistic standards – you know, boring stuff like who, what, where, when and how – to express the passionate belief that something terrible happened to “Jackie,” the magazine’s only source for the discredited story.
Never mind that virtually every checkable fact in the article proved elusive. Writing after Rolling Stone had already withdrawn its story (but before they paid out multimillion-dollar lawsuit settlements), Jeong expressed impatience for the very idea of fact-checking such an emotionally satisfying tale.
“The party that wasn’t on the fraternity calendar,” she complains. “The date that wasn’t a fraternity brother. The wrong time of year for pledging. The more I see these ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘discrepancies’ touted as evidence of falsehood, the more convinced I am that Jackie is not lying.”
Ah, but if there was no pledge party, how could Jackie have been gang-raped as an initiation rite? If nobody named “Haven Monahan” existed, how could he have been Jackie’s date?
Instead, Jeong based her passionate belief upon a former suite-mate’s description of “funny, outgoing, friendly” Jackie’s growing withdrawal and isolation during her freshman year. Read today, it’s a classic portrait of a young woman falling into mental illness, far more common on college campuses than gang rape.
Something terrible happened to Jackie, all right, but the worst thing was Rolling Stone. If I were hiring Sarah Jeong, I’d want to be sure she understands that.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”