Opinion: Why Do New York Times Columnists Despise California?

With their Eurocentric leanings, writers like Stephens, Egan, Brooks, and Friedman entertain themselves by sneering at the Golden State’s progressive values.

new york times writers
Alta

Lately, the New York Times’ opinion pages seem to support Woody Allen’s contention that the only advantage to California is that you can turn right on a red light. Take these recent headlines:

    As someone who stayed inside during many harsh winters in Manhattan, I found the last headline to be particularly ironic—at any time of the year. Bad weather in California? On August 21, 2021, New York was under a hurricane watch. On September 1, the city experienced “unprecedented flooding” in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Global warming isn’t selective. It affects the planet, including New York.

    The glass houses of opinion writers for the Times writing, well, opinions about California aren’t constructed solely of snarky headlines. Columnist Bret Stephens pointed to a 51 percent increase in San Francisco burglaries and a 41 percent jump in arson as reasons that Californians are moving to places like Texas. Meanwhile, crime became such an issue in New York that people there elected a former policeman to be their mayor. Fortunately for Stephens, he’s able to split his time between New York and Hamburg, Germany.

    TRUMP APOLOGISTS

    In fact, Times columnists—who occupy the Olympus of punditry, from where they scold Blacks and issue moral pronouncements—have been on a binge of California hating. Some of them seem more concerned about a cultural war, which they view as having been launched by Blacks from their base in San Francisco—wokeness, critical theory, political correctness, and cancel culture are shorthand for Blacks—than the Trump followers who attempted a coup against the United States. Indeed, some even make excuses for these vandals.

    Timothy Egan, who is based in Seattle, weighed in last November: “I understand the tribalism, the urge to push back against condescending libs and the suffocating ubiquity of political correctness, the sense that only Trump can save a certain way of life.” Egan even blamed progressives for Trumpism. “The left shares the blame, with its cancel culture, groupthink stridency, and identity politics—tactics now picked up by the right.” Identity politics? The title of one of Egan’s books is The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero. Egan identifies as Irish! Sounding like comedian Bill Maher, Egan describes “political correctness” as ubiquitous, which sounds like the plot of the Netflix series The Chair, in which those who have academic power at fictional Pembroke University are seen as martyrs to political correctness. The martyrs get the best lines when confronted by students, who reply to their arguments with slogans and clichés. Among the students’ ringleaders are Black students. Ubiquitous? Black students are nearly invisible at Pembroke, yet they are supposed to have the power to fire faculty members like the one in Philip Roth’s silly novel The Human Stain, where Black students become offended by a professor’s use of the term “spooks.”

    Writing two months before the 2020 election, Thomas L. Friedman quoted Harvard’s Michael Sandel, who traced Trump’s appeal to a sense of humiliation felt by many working-class voters.

    Friedman isn’t the only writer to isolate Trump’s appeal to the white working class, a group where, for some Times columnists, all virtue resides, a twisted take on the noble savage type. Only the noble savage in this case is not a Native but a midwestern white person.

    A few years earlier, David Brooks romanticized Trump voters: “Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless. If a single slip could produce disaster, then discipline and self-reliance were essential. The basic pattern of life was an underlying condition of peril, warded off by an ethos of self-restraint, temperance, self-control and strictness of conscience.”

    These descriptions of Trump voters don’t square with the types who invaded the Capitol on January 6, according to a study of their demographics. Trump voters from the frontier? A fantasy. Most of the rioters came from urban areas and were older, employed white men who believed that the “rights of Hispanic people and Black people are outpacing those of white people,” explained Robert Pape, principal investigator of the report. Working class? The study challenged the media’s position that those who supported Trump did so because of their economic insecurity. Thirty percent of those who invaded the Capitol were white-collar workers, such as CEOs, doctors, attorneys, and architects.

    Yet even as Egan, Brooks, and Friedman were coddling insurrectionists, the reevaluation of American icons by the San Francisco Board of Education gave these columnists conniptions.

    PLAYGROUND RECESS

    Last February, Egan attacked the board of education’s plans to rename those schools whose namesakes had held objectionable views on race and women and had waged campaigns against Indigenous people. He wrote: “And then there’s the San Francisco school board, which can’t find a way to put children back at their desks but plans to wipe out a third of the city’s school names, including one named for Abraham Lincoln, because of character flaws of the honorees.” Egan is not the only Times columnist who condemned the board of education’s bid to stop honoring slave owners like George Washington and Indian fighters like Lincoln. For these writers, San Francisco, which has seen an exodus of Blacks who could no longer afford to live there, is a mecca for the woke.

    Three days later, Friedman penned a sarcastic column, “What Trump, San Francisco and the Deer in My Backyard Have in Common”: “Well, those deer are like the San Francisco Board of Education when it recently decided—in a self-parody of political correctness—to prioritize renaming 44 public schools that had been named for people who, it argued, had exhibited racist behaviors in their lifetimes, including Abraham Lincoln.”

    Do these men see California as one gigantic beach with a lot of hot babes in bikinis?

    It should come as no surprise that California bashers Stephens, Egan, and Friedman are white men. Charles Blow, a James Baldwin impersonator, is one of the Times’ only regular Black columnists. Occasionally Farhad Manjoo, a person of color, makes an appearance. (Remarkably, Manjoo and Ezra Klein, who both live in California, have joined the big dogs in their ridicule of the Golden State. Manjoo’s recent swipes include a column from mid-August depicting his home state as a dark, dystopian place. Discussing the upcoming gubernatorial recall election and the Larry Elder campaign, Manjoo wrote: “The stark upshot: Newsom’s recall is no longer a sideshow. With Elder as a front-runner, it’s one more looming disaster for our beleaguered state. On top of everything else—on top of the pandemic, droughts, the wildfires and unbreathable air—this state has a new emergency to worry about.” This column appeared during a week when massive floods threatened the Midwest, tornadoes pummeled the South, and the most powerful hurricane since the 1860s was approaching the Gulf Coast.)

    Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins are two token female columnists and do not appear as frequently as the men. In my opinion, they are better writers. Their columns are wittier and contain more humor.

    Could their male colleagues’ disparagement of California be a case of regional envy? Do these men see California as one gigantic Santa Monica beach with a lot of hot babes wandering around in bikinis made in France? For them, California is the headquarters of politically correct nonsense. A wacky, loony place. Their comments reflect the derision with which New Yorkers have regarded California historically. Michael Gold, a 1930s writer who lived in New York, famously described California as “a sanatorium.”

    EUROCENTRIC LEANINGS

    In fact, the antipathy of Messrs. Stephens, Egan, and Friedman toward California is further revealed by their hostility to the field of ethnic studies. In an almost comic instance of bullying—these columnists probably reach more people in two weeks than the number of enrollees in ethnic studies over the past 20 years—Stephens zeroed in on the subject last March. In a column titled “California’s Ethnic Studies Follies,” he wrote that “a proposed curriculum magnifies differences, encourages tribal loyalties and advances ideological group think.” This from the same columnist who was taken in by Attorney General William Barr’s spin on the Mueller report. On the basis of Barr’s declarations, Stephens said on CNN that Democrats should apologize to Donald Trump, who has been exposed as a Hitler admirer.

    The stances of Stephens and other Times columnists are the likely outcomes of Eurocentric education (which means an emphasis on England and France, not Finland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, Iceland, or Spain); they and their professors were not prepared for a time when Black, feminist, Latinx, and Indigenous historians would emerge to challenge their view of history as one involving a succession of “great white men.” And though they might consider South Dakota’s Kristi Noem a rube, they sound very similar to her.

    In a Fox News opinion piece coauthored with Dr. Ben Carson, Governor Noem expressed concerns about giving up and abandoning altogether “the teaching of our children the true and inspiring story of America,” saying that children should be taught about the country’s values, history, and heroes. Noem and Carson also wrote that it’s “alarming” that students are “being subjected to the radical concept known as critical race theory, which pits them against one another on the basis of race and gender under the guise of achieving ‘equity.’”

    Black historians are on solid footing when they challenge Lincoln as an emancipator.

    Such statements betray an ignorance that their perception of American icons might possibly be different from those of Indigenous and Black historians whom they, obviously, haven’t read. Captain Abraham Lincoln participated in the extermination of the Sioux in Illinois and, as president, had 38 Sioux resistance fighters hanged, the largest mass execution in American history. Lincoln’s siding with bloodthirsty white settlers and believing exaggerated tales of Indigenous people’s offenses contributed to their genocide. In a 1975 paper, “The Other Civil War: Lincoln and the Indians,” historian David A. Nichols explained that “Lincoln would have little choice but to acquiesce in punitive Indian campaigns in the area the next two years and in the forcible removal of the Indians from Minnesota—thus facilitating a sizable land-grab.”

    Black historians are on solid footing when they challenge Lincoln as an emancipator. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that Blacks freed themselves by participating in a general strike and work slowdown, and letters written by slaveholders at the time vouch for this argument. They complain about Blacks running away and refusing to work, actions that crippled the economy of the South. In his classic, Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, the distinguished Black historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes Lincoln’s racism and argues that events, not Lincoln’s intervention, led to the emancipation. Lincoln “freed” the slaves in territories over which he had no control, and when Major General John C. Frémont emancipated slaves in Missouri, on August 30, 1861, Lincoln had a fit. Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, said that when she visited Lincoln in the White House, the president was so angry that he wouldn’t offer her a seat. Lincoln told her, “The General should never have dragged the Negro into this war. It is a war for a great National project and the Negro has nothing to do with it.” Bennett is right when he writes that Lincoln’s plan for Blacks was deportation.

    George Washington was cruel to slaves and signed the Fugitive Slave Act (1793). He was an avid hunter of fugitive slaves. He was no “merciful slave master,” either. According to Encyclopedia Virginia:

    He fed, clothed, and housed his slaves poorly, candidly admitting that some of the dwellings he provided were so miserable that a white person would never consent to live in them. As a matter of routine, Washington separated husbands and wives, housing male artisans close to the mansion, where their skills were needed, while keeping their wives and children on his outlying farms, miles away.

    Washington’s solution for the Indigenous problem was extirpation. So was Alexander Hamilton’s. In the course of my research for my play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I discovered that Hamilton, who is still depicted as an ardent abolitionist on Broadway, and at the Orpheum in San Francisco, celebrated the massacre of Native people by vigilantes.

    Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, the California-bashing Times columnists are victims of a curriculum that emphasized European studies and neglected American studies. We all are.

    It was only recently that I learned about an antislavery meeting that occurred in my hometown in 1843. It was attended by heavy hitters like Frederick Douglass and novelist William Wells Brown. Buffalo was the last stop for fugitive slaves en route to Canada. It was the key city of the antislavery movement. Not once was this mentioned during my education. Indeed, in a history class in which I was enrolled at the University of Buffalo, we were told that the underground railroad was a myth. There was little attention paid to this local history. We were taught instead to admire London and Paris.

    The influence of Black American poets on the world is pervasive.

    So how do real Europeans, not pretend ones—those who are products of a Eurocentric learning—feel about ethnic studies? Over the past 40 years, I have been a guest speaker and participant at conferences in France and Germany attended by Americans as well as scholars from Ghana, Senegal, Algeria, Jamaica, Russia, and numerous European countries.

    During these travels, I’ve encountered white Americans who were shocked to learn that foreign scholars had a broader notion of the scope of American writing than they. Sometimes they became so irate that they dismissed writings by Native, Latinx, Asian, and Black Americans without having read them. When I cited such titles during a conference in Freiberg, an American dismissed the German interest in these volumes as a craving for exotica. The Germans, serious scholars, were stunned by her appraisal. When I mentioned Latinx writers living in the Southwest during a conference held in Reykjavík, a white American became so angry that I thought he was going to punch me.

    I found a similar situation with scholars in Japan in 1993, when the Langston Hughes Club in Kyoto invited me to come and discuss my novel Japanese by Spring. The poet had visited Japan in 1933 and was an inspiration to Black poets globally. When visiting the Kennedy White House, Senegal president and Negritude poet Léopold Sédar Senghor pointed to Hughes, a luncheon guest, as one of his influences. (Hughes was responsible for my first novel being published in 1967.)

    The influence of Black American poets on the world is pervasive. South Africa’s poet laureate, Mongane Wally Serote, was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement, and the writings of Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and me.

    In 2012, Japanese by Spring was selected as a national project by Chinese universities through the efforts of Professor Yuqing Lin, who was sponsored by UC Berkeley to visit the Golden State for one year to study my work. As a result, I was twice invited to China, where I visited universities in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Xiangtan. Hangzhou Dianzi University’s Professor Huijuan Tan recently told me that she is “heading a project to publish ten volumes of an anthology of African American literature, including poetry, drama, essays and novels.”

    WISDOM OF OTHERS

    Recalling the open-mindedness of these scholars, I asked some of those who teach ethnic studies abroad to respond to Stephens’s March column in which he wrote, “Ethnic studies is less an academic discipline than it is the recruiting arm of a radical ideological movement masquerading as mainstream pedagogy. From the opening pages of the model curriculum, students are expected not just to ‘challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonial beliefs,’ but to ‘critique empire-building in history’ and ‘connect ourselves to past and contemporary social movements that struggle for social justice.’” (I asked Stephens via email whether he’d ever had a class in ethnic studies. He didn’t answer. An example of how elitist Times columnists can lob offensive comments at ethnic groups and institutions without fear of rebuttal.)

    Swiss scholar Sämi Ludwig, who in 2015 held a conference in Mulhouse, France, on American multicultural literature, responded to Stephens’s outburst:

    When I look at Mr. Stephens’ quotations, I am reminded, first, that he is railing against the very values of the American Dream, which should not be seen as “radically ideological” in the United States. The American Revolution was, after all, an anti-colonization struggle. The problem is, of course, that it was promoted by colonial settlers who became imperialists themselves and based their own new nation on slavery and conquest. Thus rather than extreme or far-out, the values of ethnic studies mentioned by Bret Stephens contribute a perspective that mainstream America has not owned up to for a long time. But after the demise of Trump and after BLM and the George Floyd protests, “ethnic studies” values are finally widely accepted by Americans of all colors of skin and can no longer be considered radical.

    Ugo Rubeo, a professor at the University of Rome, whose class I visited in 2016, replied:

    Back in 1975, as an Italian Fulbright graduate student from the University of Rome, I was asked by a senior professor of the English Department of the University of Houston how I could not possibly feel ashamed in doing research in African American poetry—a subject, he added, that does not exist. And I am proud to add that I did publish a book on that non-existent subject. Unfortunately, reading Mr. Bret Stephens’ comments, I have to admit that not much has changed—his words are embarrassingly similar to that question of forty-five years ago.

    Yanyu Zeng, a professor and dean of the Foreign Studies College at Hunan Normal University in Changsha, wrote:

    The history of translation and study of African American literature in China can be traced back to about 100 years ago.… The study of African American literature in Chinese academia has very important practical significance. African American literature records the difficult experiences of African Americans in the United States and the difficult journey of fighting for equal rights, reflects the development of American society from a unique perspective, shows the history and culture of African Americans, which have resonated with the Chinese people in its history of being colonized.… Facing the increasingly rampant hegemonic policies and double standards on human rights in the world, the study of African American literature can help people better understand the complexity of American culture, especially in issues such as human rights, equality, democracy and freedom.

    Compared with these points of view about American history and culture, which mainstream California thinking is aligned with, the attacks on ethnic studies by Times writers are crude and provincial. California remains the most experimental of American states, and in some of its experiments, mistakes are made. I had reservations about some of those condemned by the San Francisco Board of Education. But the debate ended in April when the board, in order to avoid “frivolous litigation,” overturned its January decision to rename 44 schools—a victory for slaveholders and those who committed genocide against Indigenous people, figures whose cruel practices were attributed to character flaws by their admirers. Native and Black historians who challenge the reputations of Washington and Lincoln are on firm ground, and if Klein believes that their evidence is “dodgy,” he should debate them instead of employing the immunity accorded to him by the Times. Maybe the Commonwealth Club could sponsor a debate between him and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Not a Nation of Immigrants: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion. Another word used by the Times in describing the evidence offered by the board as a reason for renaming the buildings was “sloppy.” I’ve never seen this word used to describe the works of established historians who have been accused of plagiarism. Indeed, some of these historians continued to receive praise in the New York Times Book Review.

    Isn’t it better to take risks than to suffer from the intellectual agoraphobia of Eurocentric columnists who are afraid to experience new light? As new historians emerge, these Times writers are falling behind. Their professors as well.

    A narrow Eurocentric education, no matter how expensive, is no longer—if it ever was—an adequate guide to understanding the complex multiracial history of the United States. Jerome Weeks, when writing for Arts Journal about historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s myopic disregard for the role of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people in American history, could have had Times columnists in mind. Regarding Schlesinger’s omission of the Trail of Tears—the forcible removal of the Cherokee from their southeastern homelands—Weeks quoted historian Michael Phillips:

    Even if we accept the right-wing argument that concern over “minority” history is only a symptom of modern-day political correctness, the political world thought [Andrew] Jackson’s Indian policies were important in Jackson’s time, so Schlesinger’s disinterest in an American act of genocide 100 years later is hard to excuse. Unfortunately, in the Schlesinger era of scholarship, people of color functioned as the exception that proved the rule. The suffering of Indians, African American slaves, etc, only highlighted how free the rest of us were. Any achievement of the civil rights movement was taken not as a sign of how courageous or determined blacks, browns and others were, but of the greatness and generosity of this country. But Schlesinger couldn’t reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn’t happen.

    We need fewer Schlesingers and more teachers like the late UC Berkeley professor Leon Litwack, who presented his students with a view of American history that disturbed them. That made them uncomfortable. He tried to rescue them from what the historian James W. Loewen called “lies my teachers told me,” which he turned into a book.

    California-bashing Times columnists would do well to read it.•

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