The Devil and Ross Douthat

A recent piece by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “The Covington Scissor," presents a dialogue between him and a mysterious Voice, which he finds “devilish,” though it claims to be his conscience, and which culminates in “dark laughter, echoing away into an abyss.”  The dialogue concerns the saga of the Covington High School boys, and it does illuminate what passes for conservative thought at the paper of record.

Before introducing the Voice, Douthat remembers a short story in which the term “Scissor” is defined.  It is “a statement, an idea or a scenario that’s somehow perfectly calibrated to tear people apart—not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.”

The nature of the Scissor issue then is such that both sides are equally irrational and dogmatic. They are each unwilling to see matters through the opponent’s eyes.  The Covington boys incident is an example.

Still in advance of the Voice’s intrusion, Douthat characterizes the recent event before the Lincoln Memorial.  He refers to “videos of Catholic high school boys from Kentucky, in Washington to attend the March for Life, some of them wearing Make America Great Again hats, in some sort of confrontation with a chanting, drumming Native American activist who was intervening in another confrontation between the teenagers and a group of black nationalists.”

Proceeding from that summary of the facts, Douthat observes that “what makes this incident so brilliant in its divisiveness” is the “tapestry in full,” the “tapestry” consisting of “abortion, race, MAGA, white boys, Catholicism, Native American ritual” and “automatically confirm[ing] priors on both sides of the divide.”  He calls the episode “brilliant” and a “tapestry,” but not in itself or its aftermath a tragedy for anyone concerned.

Furthermore, even though we have a film of the whole thing—sight and sound—that, it seems, resolves nothing.  Postmodernism intervenes: what is reality but one viewer’s narrative? And so, “the video itself, far from being a means to achieving consensus, is an amazing accelerant of controversy, because everyone who watches can pick up on a different detail and convince themselves [sic] that they’re [sic] seeing the whole tru[th].”

It is at this point that the Voice interrupts, claiming to be Douthat’s conscience.  It is really Douthat’s portrayal of a conservative’s response to his ultimately unsympathetic treatment of the boys and their ordeal. The Voice is made to sound angry and in due course irrational, so Douthat by comparison can appear the true voice of equanimity and moderation.  It also demonstrates the moral depth of Ross Douthat, who indeed has pondered and given due weight to the objections of his unseen interlocutor.

The Voice accuses him of attempting to “write one of [his] pretend-evenhanded, both-sides-do it, ‘let’s all get together and learn something’ columns about this incident.”  After the Voice introduces itself as Douthat’s conscience, it briefly summarizes the respects in which the initial press depiction of the incident was false and the ugly remarks about the boys, including the explicit wish by celebrities to do them harm, were foul. 

A summary of the other distortions pedaled by the media follows, as the Voice takes us through their failure for some time to disclose the anti-Semitism in the Women’s March, to present honestly the horrors exposed in the Planned Parenthood undercover video, to treat fairly the Vice-President’s wife, slammed by the Left for the crime of teaching in a Christian school (the kind that adheres to Christian precepts).

Douthat says that he is inclined to agree, but nonetheless pushes back.  The whole point, which the Voice is missing, is to see it from the other guy’s perspective.  “[Yo]u need to imagine how other people interpret the story,” he tells us.  But do we really have to imagine anything in this case? Did the “other people,” those who publicly reviled the boys, leave anything to the imagination?

Douthat evidently thinks that there was justification for the eruption of hatred against these teenage boys, one in which television “journalists,” Hollywood celebrities, and the preening pharisees of diminished conservative journals all partook.  “The kids were rowdy too,” Douthat says.

His only proof is that “a couple of them made tomahawk chops,” but he is “sure that some of them were being offensive in other ways.”  They must have been so, because to condemn them for making tomahawk chops would be to find guilty hundreds of thousands of Atlanta Braves fans and team officials, as well.

The basis on which Douthat criticizes these very young men becomes clearer when he observes, “Also, it’s dumb to wear MAGA caps to a march against abortion; to lots of people they’re a symbol of white-identity politics and a justifiably unpopular president.”  And so, the Covington lads are well rebuked—mustn’t do what makes the Left mad.

Can it be that Mr. Ross Douthat, who wishes us to be so open-minded that we “imagine how other people interpret the story” and who “like[s] writing for people who disagree with [him], which requires a little more charity than [the Voice] seem[s] capable of giving,” nonetheless is not himself so open-minded or charitable as to countenance freedom of speech for those who do not regard the President as “justifiably unpopular?”  May they not show themselves, those who believe Trump to be in the right, and not so unpopular, at any rate, as portrayed in Democrat newspapers? 

What, moreover, is the nature of the charity that Douthat claims to possess?  To whom is it directed?  He adduces no factual evidence to refute the impression of this writer, after viewing the entire tape, that the Covington boys did absolutely nothing wrong—youthful exuberance and good cheer in the face of unprovoked hostility, no more.  For this they were subjected to a journalistic lynching, which, as of this writing, appears not to have culminated in an actual one, despite death threats leveled at the young men and their families.

And yet Douthat shows little charity for these persecuted children, arguing to the Voice that “plenty of white preppies are bad people deserving of media scrutiny.”  One wonders if the evenhanded and magisterial Douthat realizes that this dreadful statement is itself racist, aspersing an entire category of young people, at least in part, on the basis of their skin color.  It places him momentarily in league with the bigoted vermin (the “Black-Hebrew-Israelites”) who first confronted the boys. Does Douthat have charity for them?

This was no “confrontation” between men hurling racial and religious epithets and their teenage targets, or between the latter and the man obnoxiously beating his drum in one of their faces. This was a nasty harassment, met substantially with passivity.  What Douthat presents as a middle ground between ignoble extremes is in fact one between right and wrong.  His answers to the Voice within his head are but excuses for resting on that ground.  

Let us be diverted by none of these sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored—contrivances such as groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong; vain as the search for a man who should be neither a living man nor a dead man.

Lincoln’s admonition was made in the momentous context of the slavery issue, greater in import, no doubt, than the plight of some high school boys.  But the inexorable devolution of our national affairs, occasioned by the Left’s taking control of the moral standards according to which we all are judged, will prove momentous in the end.  There is a present crisis, in which we perceive all that is lovely about our country indeed “echoing away into an abyss.” In such times, equivocation will not serve.