A profile in Vanity Fair inquires into one of the most pressing political mysteries our time: Why do many members of the left despise New York Times editor and columnist Bari Weiss? Weiss, a “provocateur the left loves to hate,” is described as a lovely human being who simply cares a little too consistently about the values the left says it subscribes to, like tolerance and open discussion. The fact that she is so controversial, that she is called a fascist and a bigot online, must be a sign that certain sectors of the left have lost their minds.
The writer, Evgenia Peretz (the daughter of racist former New Republic editor Martin Peretz), says that it’s strange Weiss has become such a “social media lightning rod” given that, in person, she is “effusive and warm.” She may be “heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization,” but she is a “kind and lovely person,” according to her friend Dan Savage. Peretz quotes coworkers at the Times saying that “anybody who knows Bari realizes what a generous colleague she is…and what an openness she herself brings to these conversations.” The liberals who work with her say that when they met her, they did not find her to be a right-wing caricature:
She was so adorable! I wanted to wrap her up in tissue paper and take her home with me. She is the subject of more unexamined hatred in our profession than almost anyone I can think of. She’s the target of so much snark. The irony, and what almost breaks my heart, is that she has almost no snark in her. She’s super-generous and loving.
In the Vanity Fair portrayal, Weiss’s opinions are modest and, in a sane political climate, would be relatively uncontroversial. Yes, she is a staunch Zionist, but “her passion for Israel has not defined her overarching belief system.” Peretz concludes that anger at Weiss is the fault of an intolerant left that cannot stomach nuance and needs to divide the world into heroes and villains. Weiss is “maddening to her critics” because she is critical of the left but is a likable person, and has become “a favorite punching bag for lefties with itchy Twitter fingers.” Peretz’s theory is that there is:
… a non-negotiable doctrine, in which there’s only “good” opinion and “bad” opinion. Anyone who strays must be called out, but “called out” is too gentle a term. The targets must be taken down, not just hated but hated on. And the trolls aren’t random. Some have platforms beyond Twitter, including HuffPost, Esquire, and lefty news sites. For writers hoping to gain a following, slamming Bari Weiss has become an easy way to be seen. It wouldn’t matter if she were writing for The Wall Street Journal. The problem—or opportunity, really—is that she’s writing for The New York Times, which is supposed to be their paper, and that she’s getting famous for it.
Is any of this true? Perhaps. But as someone who operates a “lefty news site,” and has previously “slammed” Bari Weiss, I feel compelled to point out that there are significant missing pieces to this analysis. Peretz is correct that many of us “hate” Weiss, and are overcome with feelings of rage when we read her columns in the Paper of Record. But speaking for myself, I do not “love” to hate anyone. If I hate Bari Weiss, I only do so reluctantly. I would love to love her, to appreciate her personal charms and her generous, loving, un-snarky demeanor. I would love to share Peretz’s delight that when she met Weiss, Weiss was fretting about having “pen marks on my boob.” Alas, when I think about Weiss, and others who occupy similar institutional positions and hold similar political opinions, I cannot dwell on their personal traits. Instead, all I can think about is people like Adham Omara.
You can see Omara in the photo at the top of this article. (He is the dead one.) Omara was a 17-year-old Palestinian protester shot dead by an Israeli sniper on March 30th, one of four Palestinians murdered at the border that day. Over the last two years, as Palestinians living in abysmal conditions in Gaza have protested their conditions, and tried to call attention to the historic and ongoing theft of their land, they have been massacred by the hundreds by Israeli snipers. Thousands more have been permanently disabled after being shot. Members of Palestinian soccer and bicycling teams have had to have their legs amputated and will never compete again. Journalists, paramedics, children, and the disabled have all been shot dead by Israeli forces. The brutal crackdown should be an international scandal. It is a plain violation of people’s basic human rights, and arguments in defense of Israel’s actions have been pitifully weak. Crimes against the Palestinian people are serious and ongoing. Just this week, Israeli soldiers shot a blindfolded, handcuffed Palestinian teen who tried to escape from them. (Remember, a bullet wound, especially for someone who is poor and cannot afford medical treatment, will irreparably damage a life.) Israel is barreling ahead with plans for additional illegal land theft in the West Bank.
Some of us, then, find it difficult not to think about these facts when we read things like Bari Weiss’s column accusing Ilhan Omar of trafficking in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Weiss wrote that:
During one of Israel’s periodic wars with Hamas in Gaza, Ilhan Omar, at the time a 32-year-old nutrition coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Education, tweeted the following: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel. #Gaza #Palestine #Israel”… [S]entiments like these, once beyond the pale of our public discourse, are being heard with greater frequency and volume these days, allow me to explain why this Jewish American, and almost every Jewish American I know, found her words so offensive… The biggest “Jew” today in the demonology of modern anti-Semitism is the Jewish state, Israel. While there are perfectly legitimate criticisms that one can make of Israel or the actions of its government — and I have never been shy about making them — those criticisms cross the line into anti-Semitism when they ascribe evil, almost supernatural powers to Israel in a manner that replicates classic anti-Semitic slanders… During the weeklong November 2012 war, which began when Hamas fired roughly 100 rockets at civilian targets, Israel “hypnotized” nobody. It was subject to the usual barrage of intense criticism in the news media and at the United Nations, and from the leaders of other nations, not to mention protesters across the world. That Israel continues to retain support in the United States among mainstream Democrats and Republicans is because — contrary to Ms. Omar’s tweet — the Jewish state is not engaged in “evil doings,” but defending itself against the enemies pressing on all of its borders, including Hamas, which has genocide of the Jews, and a belief in Jewish manipulative power, at the heart of its ideology.
Let me once again mention a name that repeats over and over in my mind when I read this: the al-Dalu family, five children and an elderly woman, plus neighbors, who were obliterated in an Israeli air strike during the war Weiss and Omar were referring to. For Weiss, what matters is that Ilhan Omar used the word “hypnotized” in describing the extent to which Israel has managed to get away with what should be considered serious international crimes. The actual deaths of Palestinians are irrelevant. Rockets from Hamas are worthy of note, the Palestinian children who die in Israeli air strikes are not. This is common practice among pro-Israel New York Times columnists; Bret Stephens does it, too, referring solely to Israeli casualties and ignoring Palestinian casualties to avoid confronting the uncomfortable fact that many, many more Palestinians die violently at the hands of Israel than vice versa.
To Weiss, like so many of Omar’s critics, Palestinians do not have the same humanity that Israelis do. Ilhan Omar’s word choices matter much more than the actual facts that led her to make them. Parsing a freshman congresswoman’s tweets is more important than discussing the murdered and maimed children who litter the Israel-Gaza border. Perhaps it is sentimental weakness on my part, perhaps I shouldn’t feel feelings of “hate” toward those whose moral priorities are so skewed, but I can’t help it. I get enraged at those who live comfortable lives and see the alleged anti-Semitism of Israel’s critics as a more pressing issue than snipers shooting journalists, and those who think attributing “evil doings” to Israel must be a function of deep unacknowledged prejudice rather than basic familiarity with the latest human rights reports. Weiss insists that she does not think “legitimate criticism of Israel” is anti-Semitic, but her column says that Israel is itself a “Jew” of the world, meaning that any incautious language about the Netanyahu government’s crimes can be taken as attacking Jews as a whole.
To the extent that I “hate” Bari Weiss, then, it is because I am an incorrigible bleeding-heart who gets pissed off when people are glib and dismissive after teenagers bleed to death in the arms of their parents. But there are other, more minor, reasons, to find Weiss a deeply annoying and toxic presence in American political discourse. When she is not whitewashing Israeli government crimes, Weiss’s regular beat is criticism of the alleged excesses of the left, on campus and elsewhere. She wrote an adoring essay about the “intellectual dark web,” repeating the myth that “renegade” right-wing intellectuals are being hounded out of the public conversation and treating people like Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, and Charles Murray as persecuted dissidents without diving into their histories of bigoted ignorance. Weiss ignores the range of opinions that are actually excluded from mainstream discourse, and instead treats the spouters of commonplace right-wing talking points as if they are marginal and persecuted (when they are, in fact, heard nightly on America’s largest cable news channel, and one of them occupies the White House). Weiss is irritating because she portrays herself, and those like her, as martyrs who are “purged” for their opinions, when instead they all receive book deals and profiles in liberal newspapers and magazine. (We at Current Affairs are still waiting for our editorial board’s glossy Vanity Fair photoshoot. If the Weiss theory of discourse is accurate, Annie Leibovitz should be on her way to New Orleans at this very moment.)
As I document in The Current Affairs Rules for Life, critics of the left are often exasperating in their inconsistency. They rail against the failure of “intolerant” leftists to engage with their critics, and yet they themselves refuse to engage with the most substantive and thoughtful left thinkers. My colleague Aisling McCrea has shown how this works in practice, analyzing the way the Rubin Report narrows the scope of political discourse so that economic and human rights issues are excluded from discussion, while the absurdities of left activists on campus are treated as the most important issue of our time. They talk about how much they love free speech, and yet are silent in the face of serious threats to it. As Glenn Greenwald documented extensively, Bari Weiss is an enthusiastic exponent of academic freedom, but spent her college years campaigning to punish professors who spoke out about the rights of Palestinians.
Fundamentally, what many of us object to about Bari Weiss is that she embodies a kind of elite obliviousness to the actual facts of the world, and demonstrates a total lack of interest in understanding what her critics are actually saying. She doesn’t care to understand why Linda Sarsour would so strongly dislike Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or why many Black people are uncomfortable fully disowning Louis Farrakhan, or why Ilhan Omar would say intemperate things about Israel, or why many of us are so unimpressed by the “free speech” crusades of the intellectual dark web. For all her alleged bubbliness and loveliness, she is quick to mock and dismiss leftists without paying any serious attention to their arguments.
Bari Weiss lives in a kind of bubble, and is totally unaware of it. You can see this, actually, in Peretz’s profile. Numerous liberal people report meeting Weiss and finding her to be very nice, and then realizing that they could “set aside their differences” and be friends with her. Peretz relates the story of left-ish writer Eve Peyser, who was “genuinely terrified” to disclose publicly that she had enjoyed the time she spent with Weiss, and indeed “got a beating” after writing an article with Weiss about how they learned to overcome their political differences through cooking and discovered how much they had in common.
This kind of “setting aside” of politics is only possible for those to whom the stakes of politics do not mean very much personally. I am sure it is possible for wealthy New York City writers to get along with Bari Weiss. Their lives and interests are fundamentally similar. But if you can’t stop thinking about the murdered bodies of Palestinian children, if this is impossible for you to “set aside” in order to enjoy brunch, then it becomes inconceivable to praise Bari Weiss’s personal warmth and kindness. Consider Michelle Obama’s friendship with George W. Bush, whom she calls her “partner in crime.” It might seem strange for Obama and Bush to be friends, given that Bush is responsible for the violent deaths of half a million people. But it isn’t. Those deaths do not intrude on Obama and Bush’s relationship. They inhabit a cozy bubble in which the reality of the lives of Iraqi people is distant and abstract.
You can tell what politics means in this rarefied world by reading the article Peyser and Weiss wrote together. Peyser says that she thought she would dislike Weiss because “I’m a social democrat who eagerly voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries and has contemplated purchasing a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt.” She may think she’s joking about that last part, but it nicely captures how superficial politics is in these circles: limited to voting and symbols. When they went swimming together, Peyser and Weiss “talked almost nothing about politics, but about relationships and love and how we grew up.” Peyser concluded that “having an ideologically diverse group of friends helps you better understand your own convictions” and lamented that “the increasingly moralistic left has adopted this idea that those who don’t agree with you politically are the enemy.”
Personally, I do not think you need “ideological diversity” in your friendships in order to be open-minded. It is worthy trying to understand and empathize as widely as possible, but this does not mean you need to go to the theater with Scalia or bowling with Bolsonaro. But if there is a kind of diversity that Peretz, Weiss, Stephens, and Peyser should strive for, it’s that they should perhaps surround themselves with fewer people to whom Palestinian lives are of negligible value. Perhaps they could even try befriending some of the Gazan athletes who have lost their legs to snipers’ bullets.
I have written before about that peculiar phrase “people who disagree with you.” It’s used to reduce the depth of political conflicts: They are mere “disagreements,” things we shouldn’t get too upset over. And it’s true that it would be silly to get “moralistic” over things we simply “disagree” about. But when we actually remember the human stakes of politics, something seems strange about using the term “disagreement” to describe these differences. I have a “disagreement” with Bari Weiss, it’s true. I believe that the mass murder of unarmed protesters is something that must be loudly condemned. She disagrees with me. I disagree with George W. Bush over whether half a million Iraqis should be dead who would otherwise have been alive.
If politics are just a hobby, then it does indeed seems strange to hate Bari Weiss. After all, she’s apparently a very nice person. But if politics are about the lives of people affected by power, then it doesn’t matter at all that she’s nice. It’s not cute that she chatters about the pen marks on her boob. It is, in fact, rather disturbing, because it shows that she, like so many of her Times colleagues, is able to be completely detached from the reality of the subjects she is writing about. You have the luxury of obsessing over trivia when things that truly matter are invisible to you.
As I say, I do not become consumed by hatred casually. I am a reluctant hater. Nevertheless, when I see photos of Palestinian teenagers with blood gushing from what is left of their faces, I cannot feel anything but rage at those who can use their prominent media platforms to dismiss pain of victims and confidently hold forth with their opinions on a world they know nothing about.
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