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Well, well, well. It was probably inevitable that, at some point, the New York Times would become engulfed in the national controversy over racism and everything else about America that liberals find dismaying. The proximate cause of the uproar at the Times is an op-ed called “Send In the Troops” by Senator Tom Cotton. In it Cotton announced—what else?—that it’s time to send in the military to clean out America’s cities of “nihilist protesters.”
Controversial? Sure. Illegitimate? No.
Any op-ed page worth its salt seeks to run pieces that will disturb and perturb its readers. As the Times knows full well, it’s also about attracting attention or, to use modern parlance, clicks. In that regard, the brouhaha over publishing the piece—as opposed to debating what’s actually in it—is benefitting all parties, from Cotton to the Times. Cotton got his piece published and now gets to watch as the liberals lash themselves into a frenzy. The Times gets huge readership. A suspicious mind might think that the entire episode was staged by all parties to the original op-ed.
The truth, of course, is more mundane. As Jack Shafer notes in Slate, when the Times started the op-ed page in the early 1970s, “the section was conceived as a forum for extreme ideas that did not fit elsewhere in the paper.” It’s consistently been trying to cause a flap. It’s the model for much of the industry.
So what’s changed? The change is that liberalism itself has become steadily less liberal over the years. The literary critic Lionel Trilling diagnosed the rise of an “adversary culture” in America that reflexively assails it as benighted and retrograde. Over the decades, the adversary culture has become increasingly adversarial. It isn’t about airing views. It’s about policing them. The protesters say they want free speech. But what the sans-culotte faction at the Times is calling for is the reverse. If it’s so confident that Cotton’s arguments are outlandish, then why is it afraid of exposing their readers to them? It’s not exactly news, either, that Cotton, an inveterate neocon, will turn to the military to solve any problem, at home or abroad. Destroying the village to save it is his credo. His hardline bona fides have never been in doubt: while serving in Iraq, he sent a letter to none other than the Times denouncing the editors for disclosing a government anti-terrorism financing campaign: “I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.” Since then, he’s steadily ascended. Like it or not, he’s an important public figure who will probably run for president. Exactly the kind of person, mind you, that the Times should be publishing.
Now the Times itself is embroiled in what staff writer Bari Weiss is calling a “civil war.” Others at the paper contest that description. But it’s clear that more than a few staffers at the paper want to enforce a kind of ideological purge of views on the op-ed page. In this regard, Times op-ed editor James Bennet was hardly a profile in courage in issuing an equivocal statement in which he said that he had not read Cotton’s original piece. He also made the obvious point that “To me, debating influential ideas openly, rather than letting them go unchallenged, is far more likely to help society reach the right answers.” But he added, “I know that my own view might be wrong.” The paper itself, in a corporate statement, indicated that the editing process was “rushed” and that the op-ed did not “meet our standards.”
This is unpersuasive. Standards is, more often than not, an elastic term. The paper is retroactively trying to disqualify Cotton’s op-ed and trying to take refuge in quibbling about the veracity of Cotton’s statements. But the real issue is his belief that the military holds the key to solving America’s woes and that his detractors don’t like the fact that he was allowed to express it. The problem here, in other words, is Cotton’s views. As he himself told Fox News, liberals are prone to going “into meltdown” when they face conservative arguments. There’s nothing particularly novel about Cotton’s argument. Trump has the right, based on the 1807 Insurrection Act, to send in troops. You can argue about whether he’s right or wrong, about whether he’s trying to protect America or is an incipient tyrant. But there’s nothing illegitimate about Cotton making a case that a good chunk of the American public likely supports.
In their hostility to Donald Trump, whom they see as an authoritarian, Cotton’s foes are themselves embracing authoritarianism.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.