Nicholas Kristof comes off as a decent man, self-effacing, earnest. But when he’s not engaging in high-brow poverty tourism, or calling for the US to bomb Libya and Syria in the name of saving lives, he’s browbeating the excesses of perceived liberal bias on college campuses, pushing back against what he views as “liberal intolerance” in academia.
His latest iteration, “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus” (New York Times, 12/10/16), dropped on Sunday and, like the version from last May (New York Times, 5/28/16), it evoked the specter of political correctness run amok:
I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals.
The premise here isn’t based on a specific phenomenon being observed or reported, but on a vague fear Kristof has. It’s a preemptive strike against a potential response to Trump that Kristof views as insular and ineffective. This in contrast to his 12-step plan to combat Trump (New York Times, 11/17/16) that made no mention of protesting or mass action, but instead suggests we donate blood and “eat Chobani yogurt.”
Kristof began with a straw man:
By all means, stand up to the bigots. But do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots? Maybe if we knew more Trump voters we’d be less inclined to stereotype them.
First, it’s important to note this follows a non sequitur about a misguided boycott at Oberlin College (that took place after the election but, by all accounts, had nothing to do with it), and Kristof provides no examples of anyone “stereotyping” Trump supporters. The entire piece is based on a mysterious mob mentality against campus Trump supporters whose existence Kristof never quite establishes. He does note an overall decline in self-identified Republicans in academia over the past decades. Alternative theories as to why that is are not entertained (leftists being crowded out of private-sector jobs, the rise of parallel right-wing think tanks, growing anti-intellectualism in conservative ideology, etc.); rather, this is presented as prima facie evidence of an increasing liberal prejudice that threatens the fabric of our democracy.
Kristof went on to highlight “good” conservatives to show that they’re not all bad:
One of America’s most eminent scientists is Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who is director of the National Institutes of Health. Few scholars had as much impact on modern thought as Gary Becker, the conservative University of Chicago economist. Condoleezza Rice, a secretary of state for George W. Bush, would add value to any campus.
Condoleezza Rice, despite her high standing among foreign policy elites, was a party to likely war crimes. Gary Becker is dead, and Francis Collins, while a devout evangelical, is an Obama appointee who mostly masks his political leanings. Indeed, Kristof routinely conflates protected classes (e.g., one’s religion) with one’s overt ideology (“conservative”):
First, stereotyping and discrimination are wrong, whether against gays or Muslims, or against conservatives and evangelicals. We shouldn’t define one as bigotry and the other as enlightenment.
But judging people based on their self-described political leanings isn’t “stereotyping”; for many, it’s self-preservation. Obviously, religious discrimination is bad, but those advocating an ideology that views Muslims and immigrants as threats to society pose a direct danger to these groups. And “viewpoints” that denies the humanity of others are not like a preference for another kind of ice cream. Kristof cleverly lumps evangelicals in with “conservatives” to avoid this counterargument.
From here, Kristof proceeds to join the long list of people blaming Trump’s support on whiny campus activists:
When universities are echo chambers, they become conservative punchlines, and liberal hand-wringing may be one reason Trump’s popularity has jumped since his election.
Huh? How would a series of relatively obscure campus actions result in Trump’s popularity ticking up slightly? (Trump’s popularity, though increased since the election, is quite low compared to other presidents-elect.) Like every other pundit who projects their anti-campus activism grievances unto the electorate, Kristof provides no evidence to support this claim. It’s true because it seems true.
Kristof’s argument is propped up throughout the piece by Harvard professor (and Obama aide) Cass Sunstein, presented as a liberal appealing to our better angels. It’s worth pointing out Sunstein’s long history of despotic opinions: In 2006, he unironically evoked 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein as a model for rallying people around combating climate change, and in 2008 authored a paper advocating the government employ teams of covert agents to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and activists. It should come as no surprise that a man who has previously advocated infiltrating activist spaces with government agents would take issue with “liberal bubbles,” but this piece of messy context is omitted.
Ultimately, it’s a question of editorial proportionality. In the face of one of the most conflicted, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant administrations in modern history—and a Republican Congress eager to gut the social safety net—why is the most influential column space in the English-speaking world being used time and again to go after relatively powerless college kids and PC professors?
And why are they doing so in the context of Trump? Without being able to show how this supposed “liberal intolerance” led to Trump, it’s simply evergreen PC-bashing, repackaged as a lofty appeal to tolerance in the face of a political foe that is anything but.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.
You can send a message to the New York Times at email@example.com, or write to public editor Liz Spayd at firstname.lastname@example.org (Twitter:@NYTimes or @SpaydL). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.