Excuse Me, Mr Coates

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 22 2014 @ 2:30pm

Some apologies for getting around to this so late. The torture report came out shortly after Ta-Nehisi’s excoriation of TNR as some kind of “neo-Dixiecrat” rag which had the equivalent of a “Whites Only” sign on it, and, well, first things first. Then I wasn’t blogging last week. So please don’t consider my recent silence some kind of tacit concession to TNC’s incendiary and hurtful critique. Au contraire.

A few brief points about his general argument. From the intensity of his rhetoric, you might infer that Ta-Nehisi was writing about National Review, an opponent of civil rights laws, or even about a neo-Confederate rag, as opposed to The New Republic, a longtime champion of the civil rights movement. But it appears he sees no difference. You’d think he were writing about a magazine filled with bigoted white Southerners, as opposed to an overwhelmingly Jewish set of writers and editors engaged in a long and internecine debate about what it means to be liberal. And the racial politics of TNR from the 1970s through the 1990s cannot be understood without grappling with the bitter and intense struggle between Jewish and African-American civil rights activists in the late 1960s and beyond. Surely Ta-Nehisi knows this. Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 1.29.49 PMHe grew up in this atmosphere. Maybe he believes TNR’s deviations from the Black Power party line were even worse because of its proclaimed liberalism. But he should at least diagnose it with a modicum of the sophistication he usually applies to American racial history.

As for the case that there was a “Whites Only” sign on the door: Has Ta-Nehisi really never read the extraordinary coverage of black history, literature, intellectual life, and poetry that TNR routinely published? Leon’s back-of-the-book was filled with such essays and reviews. Has it even occurred to him either that the campaign for welfare reform in the front of the book, for example, was conceived by liberals who believed the existing system was hurting black America? That it was a good faith effort precisely to care about an underclass “beyond the barrier”? You can debate its effectiveness and rationale. (President Obama, for the record, has said it was one subject on which he had changed his mind. Is he a neo-Dixiecrat as well?) But to assume that it was not done in good faith – or fueled by cheap racism – is not an argument. It’s just a smear.

Did we fail to find and nurture and promote African-American staffers? We did – along with almost every other magazine and newspaper at the time. I regret this. I tried – but obviously not hard enough. I’m no believer in affirmative action, but I’m a deep believer in the importance of differing life experiences to inform a magazine’s coverage of the world. And I tried mightily hard to find young black writers to contribute to the magazine. Did we fail because we were racists? I’ll leave that up to others to judge. But did we try to include black writers and intellectuals in the magazine’s discourse? Of course we did.

Which brings me to the issue we published on Race & IQ, of which I remain deeply proud and which has been distorted over time to appear as something I don’t recognize at all. Some of this may simply be bad memory or insufficient research (the issue is not online). Ta-Nehisi, for example, hasn’t actually read the issue he excoriates in the two decades since it was published. He is writing about his “feelings” about his memories, which he is perfectly entitled to do. But allow me to explain, with the full issue in my hands, why I think his account is flawed.

The current story-line would lead you to believe that TNR published “The Bell Curve.” But of course we didn’t. It was published by the Free Press, with a huge publicity and marketing budget. TNR wasn’t even the first magazine to weigh in on the controversy. The New York Times Screen Shot 2014-12-22 at 1.47.24 PMMagazine had Charles Murray on its front cover before our issue came out – “The Most Dangerous Intellectual In America” – making the book even more of a hot topic. Every editor of every paper and magazine had to make a call about how to deal with the book. And as the editor of one of the country’s primary journals of opinion, which had already published Murray many times, I decided we should tackle it head on. We should air its most controversial argument and expose it to scrutiny and criticism. These were not, after all, marginal authors. One was a celebrated Harvard professor; the other was, at the time, the most influential social scientist in America. In my view, ducking this issue was not an option and even seemed cowardly. And I had read the entire book in great detail in manuscript to determine if there was a smidgen of eugenics in it, something that I, as a Catholic, find repellent in every way. This was my job as an editor. It passed my own test. Maybe I was wrong. But it was an honest call and one with which (unlike some others) I remain comfortable with today.

And look: I completely respect those who believed that the right approach was to ignore the book entirely and treat it as a pariah text; or to publish only definitive, devastating take-downs. But I hope that an issue-long, 28-page debate on the subject can also be seen as a legitimate alternative option, especially if you’re on the liberal part of the left. Several quick books were published on exactly that model – and no one is accusing those editors of favoring white supremacy. TNR, moreover, had a long history of this kind of diversity. It published, for example, Robert Bork’s early and famous critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, while simultaneously supporting its passage.

And Dish readers know how comfortable I found myself in that liberal tradition. Airing taboo stuff and examining and critiquing it has been a running feature of this blog from its beginnings. It is an axiom of mine that anything can be examined and debated – and that the role of journalism is not to police the culture but to engage in it forthrightly and honestly. Again: I respect those who believe the role of a magazine is to bless certain opinions and to stigmatize others, to indicate what is a socially acceptable opinion and what is not. It’s just not the way I have ever rolled on anything. So I responded to the race and IQ controversy exactly as I would any other: put it all on the table and let the facts and arguments take us where they may. In fact, I couldn’t understand why those who loathed the book didn’t leap at the chance to debunk it. If it were so transparently dreck, why not go in for the kill?

As it was, several leading black writers and intellectuals, with ties to the magazine, were eager to. Among them: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Glenn Loury, and Randy Kennedy. They were among the finest African-American minds of the era; and they did not hold back. Henry Louis Gates Jr analogized Murray to a slavery-defender:

By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery, they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a free man.

Hugh Pearson wrote:

Murray and Herrnstein sound like two people who have found a way for racists to rationalize their racism without losing sleep over it. One could call what they are facilitating Racist Chic.

Glenn Loury wrote:

Murray and Herrnstein’s declarations of intent notwithstanding, the fact is one cannot engage in such a discourse without simultaneously signaling other political and moral messages. These other messages bear on the worth of the disadvantaged “clans” and the legitimacy of collective ameliorative efforts undertaken on their behalf. … I would have thought, and have always supposed, that the inherent equality of human beings was an ethical axiom and not a psychologically contingent fact.

The white contributors were just as caustic. Andrew Hacker, whose racial politics echoes TNC’s and who wrote another cover-story on racial justice under my editorship, deconstructed the IQ argument by applying it to ethnic sub-populations among whites:

Yet no one really wants to discuss the question of inherited intelligence as it might apply, say, to individuals of Irish and Italian stock. And when Americans of Russian origins (who are predominantly Jewish) place a premium on higher education, it is attributed to cultural roots rather than an inborn aptitude for this kind of endeavor. Better, for white sensibilities. to focus on presumed black deficiencies. But this is neither surprising nor new.

Legendary psychologist Richard Nisbett wrote:

This is not dispassionate scholarship. It is advocacy of views that are not well supported by the evidence, that do not represent the consensus of scholars and that are likely to do substantial harm to individuals and the social fabric.

Here is a passage from Randy Kennedy’s piece in the same issue:

Those who strongly disagree, as I do, with [Murray’s] analysis and prescriptions should not attempt to prevent Murray from stating his and his late collaborator’s, views. Attempting to muzzle him will only give the book additional, bankable publicity. Nor should critics feel that they must disagree with everything the authors say. Sometimes the authors make good points, as when they discuss anxieties surrounding the question of environmental versus genetic determinants of alleged racial differences in intelligence. Readers interested in evaluating the Murray-Herrnstein enterprise should show patience by engaging in and waiting for careful siftings of its intellectual merits and demerits. They should resist having their agendas set and their minds made up on terms prescribed by cultural entrepreneurs who exploit controversiality for the purpose of financial and political profit.

Is that erudite neo-Dixiecratism? I simply refuse to feel ashamed for publishing this debate, for showing that liberals need not be afraid of any set of ideas or empirical claims, and for believing that the best response is to air all of it, confident that the truth will ultimately win. That, in my view, is the essence of liberalism and I make absolutely no apologies for it. And the space granted to the critiques of the book was almost twice the space given to Murray and Herrnstein, and laid out at the beginning of the magazine, with the extract at the very end. It doesn’t get any fairer than that, which was why it was no surprise that this electric, passion-filled issue sold more copies than any in the magazine’s history.

For Ta-Nehisi, none of this mattered or matters:

I knew that TNR’s much celebrated “heterodoxy” was built on a strain of erudite neo-Dixiecratism. When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.

Kennedy and Loury and Gates were the enemy? Open, spirited debate was the enemy? That, it seems to me, tells you a lot more about Ta-Nehisi than them or me.

(For an update on this post, see here.)