On the Douthat Piece

I’m glad Ross Douthat is the new conservative on the NY Times op-ed page. I think he’s a tremendously interesting figure, and having a Christian Democrat who supports a robust welfare state at the Times is better for the country than if Andy Rosenthal hired a libertarian like Tyler Cowen or Megan McArdle who would use the post to bash Keynesian principles day in and day out. Hell, I even wrote up a short post for Ezra’s blog on Wednesday, which didn’t end up going up as Ezra was back by the time I finished it, praising the pick.

That’s the funny thing about the reaction to the piece Jesse and I put up on Campus Progress yesterday. While certainly meant to be critical of Douthat, the point of the piece wasn’t that he’s a bad person or shouldn’t get the job. Indeed, I don’t believe either of those things. The point was that Douthat wrote some silly bordering on offensive things in college.

That’s not disqualifying, but I do think it’s relevant, and I push back strongly at the suggestion – from Andy Sullivan and Ryan Avent, to pick two people I respect – that posting material from The Salient or The Crimson is somehow low or mean. Some of this material was written seven years ago. If you don’t see anything wrong with attacking, oh, Andy Sullivan for actions taken during his tenure as TNR editor over a decade ago – and lord knows I don’t – I don’t see how more recent comments from Ross are somehow off-limits. I think it’s interesting to know Ross wrote in reaction to 9/11. I think it’s interesting to see what he thought when the Hainan Island incident happened. Are Ross’ comments about Islam on his blog a better indicator of his current views than this piece? Obviously, but that doesn’t mean that 21-year-old Ross’ record should be disappeared.

Look, college students aren’t children. Teenagers aren’t children. I have been writing this blog since I was 14, with the full knowledge that the material here is pretty permanent. And even with some of the more ridiculous stuff I posted in past years, excuses like “I was just a high school sophomore” are stupid. Yes, I was a sophomore, but I was a sophomore who chose to keep a blog and publish my thoughts for the entire world to see. If I want to repudiate past writing, I should start with an acknowledgement that I am at any moment imperfect and can and do change my opinions on a number of things. My age, or current educational status, isn’t a balm that ought to protect me from criticism. I want to be engaged with as a writer, and that means accepting critiques rather than rejecting them sight-unseen as inappropriate.

Same goes for Ross. “He was 19” is a lame exculpatory argument, and “he was 21” is lamer still. College students are mature, intellectually capable humans whose viewpoints deserve to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as childish ramblings. And a switch doesn’t magically flip when you graduate college and magically make your opinions acceptable targets of criticism. If Ross today doesn’t think that it’s fair to compare bin Laden to Muhammed – and I sure hope he doesn’t – then he changed his mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, and given his initial opinion it’s a good thing too. But acting all offended that this is even being pointed out, or acting like what Ross wrote at 21 isn’t really part of his journalistic record, is pretty bizarre.

2 thoughts on “On the Douthat Piece

  1. “If I want to repudiate past writing, I should start with an acknowledgement that I am at any moment imperfect and can and do change my opinions on a number of things.”
    This is the key point, really. People need to be accountable for what they say (and do) regardless of their age and there is nothing so easy as for someone to acknowledge their position has evolved — when did learning become an enterprise of simply reaffirming everything you already knew and not an exercise in potentially seeing things differently? And when did seeing things differently become a bad thing? What fragile creatures feel they will be counted as lesser beings if someone digs up a silly or contradictory statement from their past? Opinion-makers need to worry less about the Tim Russert interview and worry more about the Jon Stewart interview. Be responsible and be honest.
    There are a lot of pre-baked cultural assumptions about childhood and innocence implicit in the criticism of your piece that are pure tripe, I agree with you, but at its heart it’s simply special pleading for people not to be held responsible for things they’ve said or done years earlier (it’s the all-purpose excuse of the Baby Boomers). I would be quite surprised and disappointed if Douthat felt as dismissively about his college writing as Sullivan and Avent seem to be.

  2. That posting material from The Salient or The Crimson is somehow low or mean.
    No, on the contrary, that material merits extra scrutiny, because Douthat has Ivy League loyalties. Anyone who reads his column should consider whether he really has in mind what’s best for all Americans, or whether he cares more about what’s best only for Harvard and its alumni.

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