So this is a bit outside my bailiwick, but it’s been on my mind for a while. Besides, I am pseudonymous precisely because I fear the woke world, and was wise enough to do so long before it blossomed into full power. Prescience has to count for something.
One attractive aspect of the new media cancel culture, in which lightweight crossword puzzle columnists and the most tedious of the people with three names (as John McWhorter refers to various black progressives) demand their betters be fired, is that at least they’re not obliterating ordinary folk any more.
Anyway, whether it be James Bennet or Donald McNeil or any of the other recent absurd terminations, I read responses that are heavy on two questions that don’t really matter, and light on the one that does.
Who the hell do these employees think they are, making demands? Why are they so unreasonable?
This is a boring question. An irrelevant question. A question asked by those who don’t understand how employment works. Which is why it was odd to hear Rob Long shrug this off in a recent GLOP podcast as Circle of Life cut-throat culture, the younger employees using the threat of bad publicity to cull their seniors from the herd. Odd because Rob Long definitely understands how employment works, so he should be focused on the correct question (see below).
He’s not wrong, of course. Media jobs are hard to come by. If a few complaints can force your manager to fire a worker above you in the food chain, why not?
But that’s not the question.
How can we move out of this cycle? What can we do to raise the next generation to be less horrifyingly fascist?
First question is interesting, but at this point, as indicated by the followup, is focused on the wrong subject. We don’t care about the next generation. They aren’t the problem and so aren’t the question.
Why are the media management folks acquiescing and firing on demand?
Ah. That’s definitely the question.
I was never a big Cheers fan. Carla was mean, Diane was cringy awful, Cliff was fardo personified. The memes were fun, individual moments were classic but I couldn’t usually tell you which episode it was from. For example, for 30 years I’ve remembered the nut job who said “No, I’m the vice president of the Eastern Seaboard! [pause] Now I’m the Eastern Seaboard! [pause] What a view!” but couldn’t have told you anything else about the episode until I googled it for this piece. I only remember two episodes vividly: the highly ranked “The Heart is a Lonely Snipe Hunter” and the one on point here, “The Executive’s Executioner.”
The storyline: Norm Peterson, high status within Cheers, a chubby loser schlub elsewhere in life, is promoted to “corporate killer”. Research has shown that people feel worse if they are fired by someone they can look up to and admire. So Norm gets a huge salary boost and fires people all day. Eventually, he realizes he’s lost all his humanity and really is the “killer” he was hired to be. So he decides to quit. He calls his boss to resign, but the minute the boss hears Norm’s voice, he screams and hangs up. Puzzled, Norm tries again, getting his boss’s secretary…who screams and hangs up. That’s all the denouement that matters for my purposes, but go watch the last scene.
For a plot a decade older than Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, it’s all quite insightful and very funny, particularly the denouement. White collar layoffs were a new thing in the 80s, as America’s corporate titans began worrying about Japan and profitability, to say nothing of the equity compensation that made high stock prices tremendously attractive. Blue collar workers were, at that time, unionized so their mass firings were based on seniority. But middle management, accountants, computer programmers and secretaries had no protection and as someone who lived through that time, I can tell you that the selection process for the chopping block seemed an awful lot like voodoo.
So when Norm’s manager thought that he, too, had been targeted for extinction, the humor derives from the boss’s entirely credible fear that his superiors had targeted him for the same random execution. No one scoffed and said how silly, why wouldn’t the boss know better? Why wouldn’t they know that Norm wouldn’t be firing them if they hadn’t heard first?
And hey, that’s the same question as the one heading this section. Why would the boss think Norm would be firing him? Why didn’t Dean Bacquet tell his staff to go find another job if they didn’t like the way he was running his newspaper? Better yet, why didn’t he just fire them for their arrogant hubris? It’s not as if he couldn’t find other hypersensitive Ivy League prima donnas.
This is the question I don’t see many people asking seriously, as opposed to a rhetorical flourish.
Jonathan Chait wrote a whole article assessing the management decision without ever asking why, which was also the topic of Bret Stephens’ spiked column. Ann Coulter wrote a very funny piece without ever mentioning management. Others provided AP Lang & Comp students excellent examples in synecdoche by referring to “the paper” and its decisions. But no one ever really engages with the question, as opposed to deride NYT management.
The real answer, the one that links this back to Norm, is mentioned almost casually, as Rod Dreher does: “After a meeting in which
Madame Defarge Nikole Hannah-Jones was present, and reportedly threatened Baquet by proposing to undertake her own investigation of what happened on that 2019 field trip”
You need leverage to threaten. What does Hannah-Jones have? Why is Baquet afraid of her and his underlings?
When Norm’s boss shrieked, we laughed. No one’s laughing any more. But that’s the answer. Baquet is afraid. He can’t ever be certain that someone, somewhere, might send Norm to call on him.
Cancellation is an asymmetrical threat. Baquet probably wants to write a book someday. All powerful within the NYT structure, sure, but it’s not entirely unrealistic to think Hannah-Jones could “raise questions” after Baquet retired. You can see the headlines now. “Journalist wonders why Baquet is getting millions in book deal when he continued to employ racists after their behavior came to light.” (leaving aside the joke of calling the Nikole Hannah-Jones a journalist.)
Who, after all, is going to buy Baquet’s eventual memoir? Or give him a talking head job at MSNBC? Who would those decisionmakers see as the natural Baquet audience, the people who’d be impressed and read reviews of his autobiography or celebrate his appearances on Maddow? If that audience is willing to reject him, given the right people pushing the rght outrage, what objective value does Baquet have to any organization outside the Times looking for pricey talent?
Understand that Baquet only rules one tiny portion of the work universe and his decision becomes obvious. No, he won’t get fired for laughing at the idiots demanding McNeil’s ouster. But he might not get a book deal. Or a TV gig. Or whatever else he wants a few years from now. Because the people who work for him in his NYTimes silo have more influence in another.
The answer to the question is: the bosses are complying because they fear negative blowback in an entirely unanticipated direction, not just now but forever.
Which leads me to the skipped question.
How can we move out of this cycle?
Once it’s clear that the real question is the acquiescent management teams, the solution is clearer, if not simpler. We need more Hyatts and fewer Deltas. Dean Baquet has to start caring about the quality of his paper more than he does his book deal or Davos panels.
That’s a big ask.
On the other hand, Justine Sacco is working at the same company that caved in and fired her. David Shor survived an attempt to end his career.
But is that enough?
Once I had this explanation worked out, back in February, my first thought was well, good. Instead of ordinary folk being random victims of a progressive PR onslaught, the problem has narrowed its focus and victims to elites and their management, the people who have book deals and Davos panels and so on. That’s not good, but a big step up from the Smith cafeteria worker who can’t find a job. These are mostly rich people, or at least rich adjacent. Or at least journalists who talk a lot to rich people.
Now, I’m not so sure. Recently, there’s been a spate of articles about critical race theory infiltrating public schools and lots of reaction pieces hyperventilating about thought control. My own take has traditionally been far less hysterical. Communities have always exercised tremendous influence over public and private school curriculum, unless federal or state law mandates override their preferences (and sometimes not even then). Teachers have near total control over what they teach in their classroom. No one can make me teach critical race theory or woke math. Some teachers have been using critical race theory for decades or more. Others will never use it. In both cases, these decisions are policed by the community preference. That is, after all, how these stories all come to light: a parent gets annoyed, contacts a journalist, a big hooha is made, some kid has recorded incendiary comments on her cellphone or a parent has saved a ridiculous work sheet, the offending party (which is often the principal but sometimes the teacher) is taken to task and put on paid leave and even, on occasion, fired. (Ironically, these efforts are often by woke teachers trying to raise their white students’ consciousness but forgetting they have black students.)
In the past six months, private schools have been in the news because the staff–non-unionized, often poorly paid, no tenure–is making outrageous demands for a more diverse teaching staff and population and a critical race curriculum, while rich and powerful parents are silent and acquiescent despite privately opposing these idiotic demands.
Why are they silent? Why pay thousands of dollars a year for a bad education? The journalists think the parents are silent because they want their kids to get into elite universities. Maybe. I myself think that loudly resisting critical race theory could prove risky. Parents protesting their private school insanity might think they are acting in a single silo of their lives. Then, suddenly, an angry brainwashed young teacher has contacted an ambitious media twenty-something who transforms the tale of liberal parents upholding educational values into a David and Goliath story of racist white parents objecting to progressive teachers bent on telling the truth about America. Then suddenly parent employers enter into the story, customers email outrage, and Norm calls.
Unlikely? The parents themselves make it clear they fear cancellation. The more interesting question here is who is the “boss” equivalent tolerating the demands? The parents, quietly going along with critical race theory, or the parents’ bosses who’ll get hit with demands to fire any parent who puts up a fight? It’s both. In all directions.
Even more terrifying is the story out of Virginia, in which public school employees angry at parental recalcitrant to their progressive agenda are trying to hack private Facebook groups opposing their efforts and doxxing the parents. Look. I know it’s received conservative wisdom that public schools indoctrinate children. English and history teachers are indeed quite left of center. But as I keep on saying on Twitter, if we can’t teach them reading, why the hell are you worried we’ll teach them to hate America? In reality the far more progressive agendas are found in charter schools and privates (see above).
And then I read that public school teachers are seeking out names to feed the media and ruin lives by putting jobs at risk, and my god. That’s simply appalling.
Maybe anyone who has a life to ruin will need to fear asymmetric execution by waiting, watchful zealots and a helpful, compliant media.
Or maybe not. American social excesses have always been far more pendulum than progression. I am, after all, the person who predicted that cops would eventually take teachers’ place in the hot seat because “acceptable targets change over time”. If nothing else, rest assured that American history shows people don’t take kindly to whackos messing with their schools.
But sometimes “over time” is a long time, so beware. Above all, know this: right at this moment in time, Norm can come calling for all of us.