What’s Wrong with the New York Times? (2)


“Obambi”.  That’s Maureen Dowd‘s nickname for Obama which she employed right through the primaries until his nomination in 2008.  The problem with it?  Well, it of course has nothing to do with anyone recognizable as Barack Obama, a remarkably capable politician who, by the time he’d announced his candidacy, had already made a career of overseeing the self-destruction of his opponents.  But Dowd pushed the “Obambi” conceit for almost two years because she could.  As is regularly the case, she lacked the discipline to weigh whether or not she should.  This, remember, is the same person who during the 2000 election gleefully perpetuated the fiction that Al Gore claimed to have “invented the internet”, and suggested that he is “so feminized” that he is “practically lactating”.

And that’s a pattern of behavior with Dowd which is disturbing for at least a couple of reasons.  The first is that she never lets a fact get in the way of a low blow she regards as clever, and the second is that she has an unmistakable tendency to feminize males in order to dismiss them — and moreover does so almost exclusively with Democrats, calling them “the mommy party” (you can guess who “the daddy party” is).  She likewise occasionally masculinizes women for much the same purpose, most especially Hillary Clinton — or “Hillzilla”, as Dowd dubbed her during the primaries.  Gender stereotyping is one of a number of strategies that Dowd regularly resorts to in place of anything that might be characterized as responsible criticism.

Here are some notable examples of Dowd’s effort to emasculate Obama — because girly-men are, you know, self-evidently a joke that everybody gets: “diffident debutante“, “America’s pretty boy“,  “effete“, “emotionally delicate“, “weak sister“, “legally blonde“.  Ask yourself: Does any of this even remotely coincide with your estimation of the man, however you feel about his politics?  And why diminish him with feminine comparisons?  What is going on here?

This is just one thread in a whole skein of such behavior.  Media Matters for America has a more complete catalogue of Dowd’s persistent use of gender stereotypes here.  Allegedly feminized men are not fit to govern according to Dowd, and most certainly not when they are Democrats.  But “tough guys” like John McCain (who once publicly called his wife a cunt) can, when the mood is upon her, set Dowd’s atavistic heart aflutter.  It is so persistent a pattern that it’s difficult not to wonder what lies behind it.

This matters because the Times is the flagship of a supposedly “liberal media”, and its opinion makers still draw a lot of water.  Dowd in particular plays the celebrity circuit with personal profiles in mass circulation magazines and appearances on television whenever she has a book to sell, such as the widely panned Are Men Necessary? We live in a world where we’re apparently required to put up with the lies that Fox News manufactures on an hourly basis in the name of “balance”.  So it’d be nice if the paper of record didn’t propagate twice a week the neurotic, unfunny, unclever babble of Maureen Dowd, which gets said not because it necessarily has anything to do with anything that is actually happening, but because it is formulated by someone who isn’t responsible enough not to say it.

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7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with the New York Times? (2)

  1. Jonathan Allan

    A professor two years ago asked us, his students, who the public intellectuals were? We stumbled, we didn’t really have an answer: Camille Paglia? Naomi Klein? Naomi Wolf? Noam Chomsky? We knew the sorts of people who play the “celebrity circuit” as Michael writes, but we couldn’t pin-point a “public intellectual.” Two years later, I often think about that question and often ask my own students the very same question. So, perhaps here is yet another good spot for the question: who are today’s public intellectuals?

  2. Michael Happy Post author

    When I read that Christopher Hitchens is regarded as one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals, I cringe. At best, he’s a good journalist who went morally insane after 9/11 — allying himself without apology to the incompetent crypto-fascists of the Bush administration, and then simply walking away without explanation from the mess he helped create. You can read Hitchens on any number of topics these days — except “the war on terror”. That he’s simply stopped talking about.

    Klein, Wolf, and Chomsky have too ideologically narrow a view of the world for my taste, and Paglia — dear God. Have you read her recently? She’s a global warming denier and an avid promoter of Sarah Palin’s volkish appeal, calling it “a new kind of feminism.” Kooky talk.

  3. Jonathan Allan

    Of course, none of them function as “public intellectuals” for the very reason you note, “too ideologically narrow a view of the world” — even if they were to be our tastes, we would have to recognise their various ideologies. Paglia, of course, the same problem. But, I guess the question remains as to who our public intellectuals might be? Harold Bloom and Allan Bloom (1930-1992) come to mind but they have both been accused of conservatism and they certainly were important in the Culture Wars of the late 80s, and the 90s. Richard Florida, the University of Toronto’s star hire, is another who has tried to fashion himself as a public intellectual, but, suddenly one must realise that selling creativity during a global recession is no easy task. Maybe, the public intellectual is an icon of a past age.

  4. Michael Happy Post author

    The age of celebrity seems to have pushed everything else out of its path, so that we have celebrity scholars too, like Stanley Fish and Stephen Greenblatt (although I trust nothing either of them has to say because their popularity seems just to mean shoddy work). If the “public intellectual” is a thing of the past, then that’s more or less a sign of the times. We prefer the celebrity over the intellectual.

    But every once in a while you find someone worthy of the name toiling away in relative obscurity, but still practicing a public role. Louis Menand of Harvard, for example, who writes for the New Yorker.

  5. Carmelo Tropiano

    Hmm, it’s hard to tell who would classify as public intellectuals these days — I do think that ideological rigidity has made it that there really aren’t any thinkers who are not indisposed to a particular perspective (political etc).

    I do think what Michael says has a lot of merit — we are in the age of celebrity; think of it, we have radio hosts calling on Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian for their views on women.

  6. Jonathan Allan

    I know that I am almost always pronouncing Harold Bloom here, but I can’t help but note that he has written several interesting op-ed pieces or reviews in the New York Times lately. His most recent column, “The Jewish Question: British Anti-Semitism,” seems to say as much about Bloom as it does the book being reviewed, _Trials of Diaspora_ by Anthony Julius.

    Stanley Fish is another interesting one, thanks for pointing him out Michael. But, he is as much a “celebrity” as an “academic.”

    I’m thinking that perhaps J. Edward Chamberlin might fit the role of public intellectual. His most recent book _Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization_ (a National Best-Seller) is a must read for literary scholars, especially Frye scholars; his book, _If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?: Finding Common Ground_ is really a masterpiece. A small book, recently published, _Living Language and Dead Reckoning: Navigating Oral and Written Traditions_ (The 2005 Garnett Sedgewick Memorial Lecture) is another beautiful, poetic piece of writing. All of these books are the work of an academic and yet they are remarkably accessible, lucid, and supremely intelligent.

  7. Michael Happy Post author

    It may just be my bias, but there don’t seem to be many “public intellectuals” who have much direct influence upon the way that literature is read by the wider reading public. Frye seems to have been the last of them. Who speaks for literature as literature these days? And, sure, my bias is certainly in play if that’s the standard, because there’s no one, as far as I can see. Literature as an autonomous authority, which is how Frye wrote about it, has no outstanding advocates. The irony is that so much of our culture is made up of literary phenomena, but no one can make a case for its significance as being primarily literary. This website is called The Educated Imagination after Frye’s wonderful little book (essentially a transcript of a series of public lectures Frye delivered on CBC radio). I’ve noticed that this book, which can be read in one patient sitting, still has the power to surprise and delight and liberate readers because it awakens their sense of literature’s value in its own right without subordinating it to some other verbal structure that is somehow presumed to be more “real”. Not even literary scholars seem to be able to do that anymore.


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