Civility and The New Republic

I’ve written about the media’s internal civility standards twice before (I, II). The recent kerfuffle over The New Republic (TNR) has caused these points to be relevant once more.

The backstory is that the new owner of TNR wants to take the publication in a new direction. As a result, two big editors at the magazine departed. Subsequently, other editors and staffers departed. The consensus reaction of media watchers has been that the TNR was we know it is coming to an end.

Led by Jonathan Chait, one camp of media people were furious about this news. Those who reacted this way 1) knew the affected editors and other staffers interpersonally, 2) existed at some prior point in the TNR institutional orbit, and/or 3) exist presently in TNR-adjacent media niches. It is, of course, quite natural for those with interpersonal, fraternal, and industrial relationships with TNR to lament its shake up. It feels bad to see friends, communities, and professions you are close to under attack.

Led by Ta-Nehisi Coates, another camp of media people responded quite differently. They noted that the TNR was an odious magazines in many ways, publishing, among other things, Bell Curve essays arguing that Blacks where inherently stupid and this issue whose cover speaks for itself:

Those expressing these negative views about TNR were accused, in so many words, of being uncivil. Most significantly, Chait replied to Coates “If you ever suffer serious misfortune I am not going to use it as an occasion to revisit a beef.” (Edit: I don’t read this statement in its literal way, unlike some commenters, given the context and how little sense it makes read that way. It doesn’t seem to particularly affect the point in any case.)

Whose In-Group?
I found Chait’s response to Coates jaw-dropping, but not for the reasons others seem to have. Chait’s meaning here is very clear. He is interpersonally, fraternally, and industrially tied to TNR. To hear him talk about it, TNR is basically his distilled essence, soul, and family. He predictably doesn’t take kindly to someone who goes after TNR in its time of distress. Such a person becomes Chait’s enemy, and he promises to do them the same way they done him when the opportunity arises.

In this moment, Chait is evincing a very common human response to having your people and community attacked. In fact, it is so common a response that Coates is literally doing the exact same thing. For Coates, it was TNR who went after his people and community (see above) and he is now doing TNR the same way TNR done him. Coates has basically made the same bargain Chait has — you go after mine and I won’t grieve your pain — but happens to be one step ahead of him in actually delivering on it.

Comparing these two actions is somewhat misleading, of course. The magnitude of the transgressions against each person’s respective in-group are extremely unequal. TNR transgressed against Black people and poor people in the ugliest and most aggressive ways imaginable. That cover is the most shameful thing I’ve ever seen in big time “respectable” media. Coates’ transgression against TNR, however, was just to note he has mixed feelings about its purported demise given its track record.

The major question in all of this is: how does Chait manage to totally miss this? How can you feel the kind of deep painful feelings Chait feels when seeing Coates moderately transgress against his in-group, but not see how these exact same feelings must be present in those belonging to the in-groups the TNR has regularly savaged?

What Is Civility
What you are seeing in all of this is the same curious media civility that I’ve run up against before. Writing mean opinions about massive swaths of nameless, faceless populations (especially the poor) somehow passes as legitimate policy journalism. It’s not uncivil because those being talked about are so remote from any of those doing the talking that they are basically non-entities. The kind of person who staffs an elite publication — highly educated from a very high socioeconomic background — has absolutely no relationship to the poor people they write about. None. And when you aren’t connected to a group of people, trashing them without so much as wincing becomes a lot easier.

But you know who staffers do know a lot of? Other staffers. That is their community, their people, their fellow party-goers. They know their names and faces and even their work. When those people are under attack, it’s not hard for media people to appreciate their pain. They are fully humanized and within their purview. This is why my talking about David Brooks’ divorce can so scandalize the same people who barely register Brooks’ own columns about poor people’s marital troubles. They feel his pain. They know who he is. They can imagine themselves in the same place. None of this is true for the poor people Brooks’ regularly trashes.

And so it goes again with this latest TNR spat. Civility is reserved for those groups you are personally connected with. And the media’s personal connections only extend so far.