E pluribus unum

Media reactions to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen focus on him, not his audience.

By Ajay Batra

I think Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen sucks. I think he is a whack hack of the highest order who churns out controversial schlock to compensate for a style so tired it’s been wearing a nightie for the past 20 years.

When he wrote in the November 12 edition of his column that Americans “with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York [Bill de Blasio]—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children,” my eyes rolled so hard they went clubbing later.

And he’s been pulling this madcap sad crap for decades: In 1986, he argued that jewelry store owners were justified in refusing young black men entry into their stores for fear of crime, and just a few months ago, he defended the act of racial profiling that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. Typical—a scared, old, racist man spewing stupidity because his beloved country isn’t what it used to be, when really he’s just angry about the gout he now has from years of reckless tuna casserole consumption. Simply put, Cohen is the white devil incarnate.

Just kidding. Sort of. If what you just finished reading—that is, my exaggerated impression of the way objectionable things tend to be treated in the media these days—upset or unsettled you, then you either are an apologist for racism, in which case I pity you, or you agree with me. Read on, in any case, after taking note of this disclaimer: I sincerely dislike Richard Cohen as a columnist. His opinions tend to resemble those of an alcoholic uncle, and aesthetically, to me, he’s the Pauly Shore of columnists who think they’re David Brooks, where David Brooks is to writing what porridge is to your daily breakfast experience.

Let’s take a look at the most typical and essential example I could find of the outrage that followed the publication of Richard Cohen’s latest bowel movement. On the morning the article was published, Salon’s Twitter feed referred to “old racists like Richard Cohen.” Thirty minutes later, it called his column “disgustingly racist,” and an hour after that, it linked to a piece that suggested Cohen and his editor must be conspiring for him to be bought out of his remaining contract.

The problem with this sort of rapid, reactionary feedback, whose critiques vilify the opinion and its owner, is that its authors think they’re probing far enough behind the words they’re analyzing, when in fact they’re stopping well short of where they should. Yes, Salon, maybe there really is a prejudiced and unduly scared old man behind these opinions. But why worry so much about one old fool when you can worry instead about the foolish world from which he emerged whose appalling conditions still exist in his voice? To any reasonably intelligent person, Cohen’s words should be just as nauseating as the reality they reflect.

Allow me to break it down. Here’s the paragraph containing the controversial lines (emphasis mine):

“Today’s GOP is not racist[…] but it is deeply troubled—about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts—but not all—of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

If we look at this passage closely—and maybe a little charitably, I’ll admit—what jumps out is that Cohen’s language clearly implies his belief that people who identify as “cultural conservatives” with “conventional views,” and who view the United States as “their country,” do in fact exist. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t endorse their existence, or claim he is one of them: He merely acknowledges that there are undoubtedly people who identify themselves this way—who use this stilted (and, to be clear in my viewpoint, perverse and dishonest) language of “conservation” and “convention” in order to sanctify their (again, in my view, completely baseless) hostility.

Viewed as an argument of identity, what Cohen says is positive rather than normative. The most you can honestly allege of him is that his subordination to that language amounts to an endorsement of the rhetorical manipulation it institutionalizes. That’s pretty indicting in itself, to be fair. But—and I guess this is the premise that separates me from many readers of Cohen’s column—I’m not as bothered by being reminded of the existence of one single, quite possibly racist white man, even if that man has a megaphone, as much as I am by the reminder that there are still a lot of Americans (and remember, a small minority of white Americans is still a lot of people) who not only hold the abhorrent views he’s discussing, but do so invisibly, insidiously, and far away from guilt and criticism.

To its credit, Salon did publish a piece that came sort of close to making this point. In it, Alex Pareene writes, “The trouble with this paragraph is the use of the word ‘conventional’ instead of, say ‘retrograde’ or ‘archaic’ or ‘racist.’ What kind of mind, and person, says ‘conventional’ there?” Pareene’s answer to this question was, in effect, “Cohen, the racist.” My answer is “a terrifyingly large swathe of people that may or may not include Cohen.” The trouble, then, with the paragraph is not the mere use of “conventional.” The trouble is the fact that, in using that word positively, Cohen—in effect—isn’t wrong.

In a way, then, it’s good to see the way that Cohen was so rapidly shouted down by so many other purveyors of opinion. There’s vocal, highly articulate opposition to racism in this country, and I love that. (Though there has been a relative, disappointing lack of outrage in response to the way that Cohen casually treats McCray’s sexual identity as though it’s a condition, and in doing so brings before us another form of hatred that’s widely born of ignorance.)

But what happens when your first impulse is always to shout? Your voice grows hoarse: The naysayer’s grasp is tenuous.

Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English.