The 1987 publication of The Closing of the American Mind, by philosopher Allan Bloom, marked a watershed moment in the culture wars in its description of the then-emerging climate on U.S. university campuses, where age-old methods of open-ended inquiry had fallen out of favour.
Instead of reading the classics in philosophy, literature and politics – which had for centuries been how universities formed critical thinkers – Prof. Bloom argued that liberal arts students were being encouraged to define truth as they saw it without adequate rigour for such a task.
The title of Prof. Bloom’s book was ironic. The abandoning of centuries-old texts, beyond summary descriptions, had led to a narrowing of viewpoints and a form of groupthink on campus. The world was defined in Manichean binaries – kind of like in the Middle Ages.
Prof. Bloom’s book was dismissed by many critics as a conservative diatribe, though it did become a bestseller and struck a chord with many in academia who identified with his diagnosis. The truth is that that Prof. Bloom, who died in 1992, was anything but a reactionary. His main point was simply that, to truly become a free thinker, you need to do your homework.
It is not hard to trace a straight line between the climate Prof. Bloom described in 1987 and the current crisis in higher education. Universities are now places where free thinking goes to die. Cancel culture has replaced open debate. Safe spaces and trigger warnings coddle young minds, sparing them from considering uncomfortable or opposing points of view or realities.
The intellectually claustrophobic environment on university campuses has for many years left newsrooms as the last bastion of open inquiry. I chose journalism as a career 30 years ago because it allowed me to indulge a curious mind and engage in lifelong learning without having to pay tuition fees. I did not know what “truth” I believed back then. But I did believe that an honest reporter did not begin his or her reporting by writing the headline first.
I also knew that the opinion pages of any newspaper played a critical role in advancing debates about what kind of society we wanted to live in. By necessity, the op-ed pages had to be forums where diverse and controversial opinions could be expressed without fear of censorship or reprisal against those who dared go against the groupthink du jour.
That is why recent developments at The New York Times have been so frightening for those of us who have long admired that newspaper as a beacon of free thought and open inquiry. Yes, its editorial page has mostly reflected the particular viewpoints of its owners or the U.S. liberal intellectual elite. But the paper’s embrace of cancel culture has left a once-model journalistic institution indulging in the same lazy righteousness it used to denounce.
This week, writer and editor Bari Weiss resigned from her job at the Times in the wake of what she claimed had been “constant bullying” by colleagues who did not like her views or those she sought to feature among the otherwise overwhelming woke voices that now dominate the paper’s news and editorial pages. “A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this newspaper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose jobs it is to inform everyone else.” She deplored that the Times’ news agenda is now dictated by debates on Twitter, where woke views run wild.
Ms. Weiss’s resignation followed that of opinion editor James Bennet, who left in June after a newsroom revolt over an op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton. The piece called for federal troops to be dispatched to U.S. cities to stop violence and looting that had erupted alongside peaceful protests denouncing the police killing of George Floyd. The Times later concluded that the op-ed “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”
Regardless of what you thought of Sen. Cotton’s piece – I thought it was needlessly confrontational and jumped to the wrong conclusions – it offered Times readers a perspective on the Black Lives Matter protests held by millions of Americans and one that any engaged citizen should know about and attempt to understand. Yes, it used a few loaded terms to convey a political message. But not any more so than the average Times op-ed, only from a different standpoint.
Many people cheered Mr. Bennet’s departure as a victory in a step toward the abandonment of “both sides” journalism in favour of an approach that proceeds from the basic premise that the United States is a racist country whose institutions exist only to perpetuate systemic racism.
Such an approach would not just stifle the truth, rather than reveal it. It would nail the American mind shut.
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