Ross gets puffed
Sure, he's a theocrat, but his friends speak so highly of him!
I’m aware of Isaac Chotiner’s work for The New Yorker and have read some of it with pleasure, particularly when he feeds buffoons enough rope to hang themselves. So it may be that his profile of Ross Douthat is subtler, or meant to be subtler, than usual. This bit near the end, for example, where he asks the famously anti-“woke”-education writer’s wife, Abigail Tucker (what, she didn’t take his last name?) why they send their kids to a progressive school, may be meant to reveal something:
“The idea of fostering a creative thinker who’s constantly turning problems over in their mind—that’s the view a lot of progressive schools have,” she told me. “That’s kind of the goal.” I said I was a little surprised that this was their family’s outlook, because Douthat had written so many columns that were critical of progressive educational institutions.
She responded that, in fact, the school’s philosophy was very much congruent with how Douthat approaches life. “We’re reaching for ideas, and we’re making our ‘beautiful mistakes,’ as they call them, and we’re not constantly being bogged down by conventional thinking,” she said. “And I think that Ross defines that for me.”
Authentic Harvard gibberish! But who am I kidding? The clue to why this profile is such a damp squib comes from Chotiner’s and Tucker’s follow-on:
We began talking about the church they attended, which she characterized as being “on the conservative end of the spectrum” with “many families of large numbers of kids” and “people who get dressed up.” This sounded almost like a caricature of a conservative Catholic church, but Tucker saw it, like the school, as a place for her family. She told me, “Ross belongs in both those places.”
See? BothSides. Except these are just lifestyle choices, affecting only Douthat’s own family — when it comes to politics and policies that affect all of us, including those who can’t afford beautiful mistakes, there can only be one true path, and it hooks Right.
This is, after all, Ross Douthat we’re talking about, reliably extremely conservative on everything. He’s still writing stories like “How America Made James Bond ‘Woke’” – in which he says that in the U.K. “notional conservative rule has done nothing to halt the resilience of progressive biases in government and the advance of American-style wokeness in the culture,” not for one second considering that inept Tory rule may have actually advanced “wokeness.” He is also very much an abortion prohibitionist — a fact that is buried deep in the story — albeit one who wants to give forced broodsows free Pampers.
Nonetheless Douthat is pimped throughout the profile as the “Christian conservative who lives among liberals, writes for them, and… has their respectful attention” because he’s so reasonable-sounding. Offered in evidence is Douthat’s suggestion that scientists debate anti-vaxx nuts Joe Rogan and/or RFK Jr. — an obvious recipe for a bad-faith extravaganza, like having Vince McMahon run a presidential debate, but absurdly pitched by Douthat as a way for liberals to win back the affection of anti-vaxxers:
After a pause, he said, “Would I say that the New York Times should pluck someone from obscurity to write an op-ed saying that vaccines cause autism, because we find that five per cent of our readers think that, and they need to be represented? No, I would absolutely not say that. But the people who are making the argument already have a platform and an audience, so you need a way to engage it.”
Maybe the Times and any other allegedly liberal enterprise should “engage” the equally small percentage of believers in lizard people, Pizzagate, and the continued existence of JFK Jr. Or don’t they believe in outreach?
… “I think a lot of people in the world of The New Yorker and the New York Times decided in the Trump era that they didn’t even want to know where these ideas were coming from. It was just enough that they were bad. And I think you do have to figure out where those ideas were coming from.”
We know where they’re coming from, buddy.
The “New Yorker and the New York Times” bit, btw, refers, with obvious contempt, to Chotiner’s and to Douthat’s own employers; elsewhere in the conversation Douthat refers to his interlocutor and the person they’re sharing lunch with as “nice secular people,” which in context is clearly meant as a slur — they are, Douthat goes on, “blind to some obvious supernatural realities about the world,” presumably including the anti-vaxxer POV Douthat wishes to see “engaged” (and possibly UFOs, which are also mentioned here and, you may have noticed, have become a conservative cause, with the Republicans in Congress recently holding hearings on their alleged existence and the Deep State’s suppression of it.)
You read that and think: Maybe the reason why so many of the “liberals” and “progressives” Chotiner mentions find this appealing is because they’re not actually liberals or progressives, and thus turn into masochistic simps whenever a nicely-manicured conservative like Douthat — so unlike that awful Trump! — shows up to dress them down as blind to “obvious supernatural realities.”
Chotiner brings up Douthat’s Obama-era “Grand New Party” idea “that both parties had failed working-class voters, and that Republicans could win them over by focussing on tax cuts that were not aimed primarily at the wealthy and on support for working families.” Chotiner appears to believe this was prescient of the Trump phenomenon – ignoring completely that, number one, Trump delivered the opposite of “tax cuts that were not aimed primarily at the wealthy and on support for working families”; two, that Trump’s coalition was not unusually dependent on working-class voters; and three, Douthat actually wrote a column in 2015 about “How Trump Might Help Reform Conservatives,” which time has rendered a colossal joke.
Chotiner nonetheless enlists David Brooks [!] to observe, “What they got right was an emphasis on trying to be at least in part the party of the working class,” which is what you might say about a boss who loosens his tie and does karaoke at an office party.
Probably the most repulsive thing in the profile is the bit where Chotiner brings in Times podcaster Michael Barbaro, a longtime friend of Douthat’s, who was married to a man when Douthat, ever the gentleman, informed him he was about to tell the world that relationships such as his were (reading from the column) contributing to the “decline of straight marital norms” and “declining marriage rates and thinning family trees (plus legal pressure on religious communities that are exceptions to this rule),” which would inevitably lead to “greater loneliness for the majority, and stagnation overall.”
Barbaro said, “We hadn’t been in touch that much, but Ross reached out to me to say, ‘I’m about to publish a column in which I come out against same-sex marriage, and I want you to know that it didn’t come to me easily, and that it’s something I know may be sensitive to you. And, as somebody I care about, I want you to understand it, and I don’t want you to read about it in my column without us talking about it.’”
Barbaro told me that he appreciated the note, which surprised me. I said that some people might have been more, rather than less, angry that the friend taking such a position saw that the issue went beyond abstraction. “I was wounded by the position he took on a personal level. How could I not be?” Barbaro said. “But it was meaningfully tempered by the reality that I knew where he was coming from, and that he had gone to the trouble to reach out to me.”
One punchline for this is, Barbaro actually turned straight some years later and married a woman, over which he and Douthat then enjoyed a hearty laugh. Another, unspoken punchline is, they’re both credentialed intellectuals making lots of money; why should the right to love and be married to whomever you choose — a right, by the way, conservatives are now working to take away — matter to two old Timesman buds? It’s no skin off their noses.
So if this is a Chotiner depth charge meant to fool the subject’s toadies until the post-publication moment of truth, I must say I’m not seeing the explosion. Among the Douthat buddies Chotiner exclusively interviews, only one, Douthat’s Times colleague Michelle Goldberg, seems to have tumbled to his game and to possess the wit to put it over on a friendly interviewer:
[Douthat] will try to make fairly dispassionate arguments about abortion rather than arguing that abortion is morally monstrous—even though I think that is the belief motivating him. He’s developed a sly distance that has allowed him to make his genuinely reactionary sentiments seem slightly ironic when they are actually sincere.
I wonder if anyone else noticed.