Current Affairs is pleased to publish this guest op-ed from New York Times columnist Milton Wallace.
If you’re anything like me—and, let’s face it, you are—you sense that something’s up with this country. Things you used to be able to say and do with impunity are now being criticized. Your rights, as a 45- year-old white man in America, are under attack. People are reading your column and saying things like, “This opinion piece disregards all of history and power dynamics, not to mention it’s badly written.” Everyone carries a tiny supercomputer in their pockets, and yet no one can Google the fact that, hello, I went to Harvard.
On the one hand, conservatives in America advocate putting children in concentration camps. On the other, a twitter account with 234 followers named “Judith Butt-Lord” committed a vicious ad hominem upon me for my essay entitled “The Whites-Only Club: Joyous and Not Necessarily Racist.” Judith Butt-Lord, in claiming that my article was racist, also slandered you, dear reader, (that is to say, me) as a racist. When I countered: “Why don’t you engage in a constructive debate about whose rights and comforts should be protected and whose should be ignored?” Ms. Butt-Lord responded with an altered photograph of my face on a piece of corn. The artistic extremism in this country is deeply disturbing. At this time, I fear the only reasonable position to occupy in this country is exactly in between the two equally depraved poles of right and left.
So why do you—that is to say, I—feel so lonely here?
Millions of Americans have been left behind by our polarized discourse. Where’s the representation for the constituency of op-ed writers who just want to make a down payment on their third summer home without reporting any income tax? The more our politicians refuse to acknowledge this constituency, the more we shall bravely speak out in our weekly op-ed columns. The right to free speech is a heavy burden, but we mustn’t fear to exercise it.
While at this point you are likely thinking, ah, Milton, you have made an utterly ironclad argument, what more proof could be needed!–nonetheless, I will gift you with an anecdote from a friend of mine. This friend, whose name I will not disclose for fear of mob retaliation against him, is a 53-year-old white male with a PhD who writes for a respected conservative publication. It may not be “woke” to say so, but I deeply value our friendship, and the fiery congeniality of our arguments. He and I fall very far apart on the spectrum of intellectual diversity: His publication is funded by dark money, while mine is funded by respectable corporate sponsorship at our biannual Capital One Heroes Gala. Anyway, this man—my friend and ideological opposite—has also had a negative interaction with the self-same Judith Butt-Lord! It’s been four years since my own encounter with her—an interaction I’m certain she remembers daily, as I do—and yet Ms. Butt-Lord (obviously a millennial) has not grown up in the interim, but continues to employ the same obscene photo-manipulative tactics and withering scorn against all members of the political spectrum. If Ms. Butt-Lord hadn’t been so sensitive about the dangerous free-thinking represented by myself and my friend, we could have had a robust, spirited debate. It could have been civil, dammit. Robust debates are the only way that intellectual improvement, ideological continence, budget-balancing, and civil rights have ever been achieved in America. Everybody knows that.
Reader, you may feel alone out there. You may feel that even with the difficult mental task of painstakingly crafting one op-ed column every two weeks, something unpleasant has found time to grow inside your mind. A nasty voice is telling you that you’re not doing enough to further the cause of civilization; that you don’t know enough, you should be reading more, exploring other schools of thought (even the silly fake majors at safe-space universities, the ones that study the works of men who are not white and canonized, and in some cases not even men!) This same ugly voice says that it may have been wrong to attend Henry Kissinger’s birthday party, and that he liked the drone you bought him a little too much. This voice says—I hesitate to even write this—“you are a mediocrity, you are a morally vacuous grifter writing polysyllabic thinly-veiled white supremacist tracts for boomers to e-mail to their niece with the subject line, ‘See?’ And this is why you’ll never get Judith Butt-Lord’s respect, because she knows you better than you know yourself, and even though her profile picture remains quite tantalizingly attractive she’ll never have sex with you, and although you are happily married to your fourth wife this, for some reason, breaks your heart.”
Maybe, you’ve begun to worry, there’s good reason not to respect your work. Maybe all your honorary degrees and birthday Lexuses and invitations to Davos’ special Mindfulness Over Mass Murder Seminars are, somehow, unearned.
No, dear, reader. You have done nothing wrong. The problem is, in fact, Ms. Butt-Lord and everyone like her. The trouble is that young people these days are sensitive, too much so for the stern strength of your intellect. Your ideas are marvelous, and dangerous, and the Ms. Butt-Lords of the world find that frightening, and perhaps a bit titillating. That’s the true reason they’re mocking you and your friends: fear. They’re the ones who are afraid that you might be right all along. That’s why they try to drown you out with pictures of your face on a corncob and screenshots of that unfortunate column your sadly damaged second wife wrote in Harper’s. You’re not afraid of them—no, no. They’re afraid of you. And you can tell yourself this, every night, until you’re able to sleep.
Reader, I’m a little bit like you, truth be told. I hope this column makes you feel like your voice has finally been heard. I hear it, and it’s telling me your ideas are smart, strong, dangerous, valuable, moral, and highly potent. Dear reader: you, like me, are capable of withstanding any criticism, no matter how cruel the memes.
Text and illustration by Jason Adam Katzenstein.
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