Tod Kelly’s second of two posts against the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, written on the occasion of Cohen’s controversial column on Republicans in Iowa, follows the pattern of numerous other commentators in discovering opportunities to join harshly personal and calculatedly excessive invective to their prosecutions of the veteran pundit before a public court. Kelly’s main purpose seems to be to deny that “retroactive editing, context, and thoughtful reading” can rescue Cohen from widely offered charges against him. The idea for Kelly, as for others, would be that in key instances, even if someone else having written the same words might be seen merely to have expressed himself poorly, prior bad writerly acts should lead us to assume the worst about Cohen, not just as a columnist, but as a fellow citizen and human being.1
While pursuing a depiction of Cohen as a loosely defined “cultural conservative,” Kelly claims that Cohen “blame[d] the Steubenville football team’s rape of an unconscious minor on Miley Cyrus and that noise kids call music these days.” In the piece in question, however – a “Post-Partisan” blog post entitled “Miley Cyrus, Steubenville and teen culture run amok” – Cohen makes no claim or any observation at all about causes of the Steubenville crimes. Kelly next accuses Cohen of “having a tendency to describe men caught sexually harassing employees or raping minors as merely being guilty of ‘being a man.'” To suggest or to have a tendency to suggest that someone “caught engaging in sexual harrasment” or “raping minors” is merely “being a man” would be monstrous, but it turns out that Kelly has applied a comment regarding a re-airing of charges against Clarence Thomas to a separate column concerning Roman Polanski’s 1977 rape of Samantha Geimer and evasion of prosecution. The Thomas article, in which the phrase “being a man” does appear, disputes whether particular behaviors attributed to Thomas deserve first to be considered sexual harassment and second to be made the subject of public discussion twenty years later. However we feel about Cohen’s judgment on these questions, “men being caught sexually harassing employees” is an invention. The one man under discussion, Thomas, was not “caught” in the act: He has been subjected to unverifiable accusations. Regarding Polanski – not “men raping minors,” but one man accused and guilty by confession of rape in a notorious and exhaustively discussed case – Cohen supports a decision by Swiss authorities not to extradite Polanski on three-decade-old charges. Contrary to Kelly’s depiction, Cohen bases his argument on a detailed history of Polanski’s trial and flight, and he directly criticizes those who seek to excuse Polanski by referring to the film maker’s artistic accomplishments: “They thought of his films,” writes Cohen. “They should have thought of their own daughters.” Kelly also adds, via parentheses, a highly personalized observation: “Though in fairness, the harassment bit might have something to do with the fact that he’s been there and done that.” “Fairness” for Kelly apparently includes equating never adjudicated or settled, strongly denied accusations by a female intern against Cohen during the late ’90s, with acts taken to have been confirmed and to lie beyond dispute.
After an interlude – during which Kelly resumes efforts to re-write Cohen’s Iowa column along theoretically more acceptable lines – Kelly returns to false attribution of opinions. “[E]ven though [Cohen] claims America no longer has race issues when arguing for white rights on the affirmative action front, he’s pretty concerned about the inherent danger black men pose to a civilized society.” “Inherent danger black men pose to a civilized society” is purely Kelly’s own exaggerated language, of course, offered in place of any evidenced argument or any specific reference at all. The introductory clause refers to a 2009 Cohen column about the firefighter Frank Ricci’s having been denied promotion because his ethnicity failed to satisfy a fire department’s diversity goals – a matter then before the U.S. Supreme Court in “Ricci v. DeStefano.” In that column, Cohen argues that, since race-based employment discrimination is much less of a problem today than it was when Affirmative Action was born, it is no longer possible to justify the disadvantaging of individuals like Mr. Ricci. Cohen argues for an end to Affirmative Action, alongside a strengthening of anti-discrimination laws, but he makes no argument for “white rights.” To accept that his argument as actually stated can have no other implication would constitute a claim against any possible place for individual rights in the law. I doubt that Tod Kelly holds such a radical view.
Next in the brief comes Cohen’s column, published this July, on the case of George Zimmerman. I was the one to whom Kelly refers, in a footnoted “update,” when he describes someone accusing him of bad faith on this matter. To be clear, I did in fact use the words “bad faith” to describe Kelly’s general approach, and I stand by that description.2 To provide a Twitter-suitable example, I noted the difference between calling someone’s actions “heroic,” the statement attributed to Cohen by Kelly, and saying that someone acted “in quest of heroism,” the latter phrase consisting of the words Cohen actually used. Though one concept of authentic heroism might exclude any “quest for heroism,” a phrase that implies a selfish undertaking, under other concepts conduct “in quest of heroism” and conduct deemed truly “heroic” might be seen as possibly independent, but not mutually exclusive. Alternatively, even under the selfless concept, conduct in “quest of heroism” might still be seen as somewhat admirable, if not truly heroic, but the column begins with Cohen asserting his dislike for “what George Zimmerman did.” A few sentences later, Cohen also writes that “[w]hat Zimmerman did was wrong.” In other words, Cohen makes it quite clear that he does not consider Zimmerman’s conduct admirable at all, much less heroic. I had also mentioned to Kelly that his further description of Cohen’s portrayal of Zimmerman, in which Kelly puts the word “brave” in quotes, gives the same misleading impression as putting “heroic” in quotes. The words are Kelly’s, not Cohen’s.
By the end of the paragraph, Kelly leaves Zimmerman behind, and turns to a piece written nearly 30 years ago, in the Washington Post Magazine’s inaugural issue. The article does not seem to be readily accessible on-line, and I have not seen anyone re-produce it. Its theme appears to be questionable or potentially controversial, and was taken as such at the time, since Cohen seems to have mounted a defense of Washington DC jewelry store owners who denied service to young African American men during a supposed crime wave. Though I do not know what Cohen wrote, it seems safe to assume that he was addressing particular circumstances, not arguing in favor of racial discrimination in general (or, absurdly, just for jewelry store owners, indefinitely). The article very likely followed an argument similar to the one Cohen offers on the Ricci case, also in keeping with expressions of “understanding” regarding Zimmerman’s “wrong” motivations or regarding the racist reflexes of supposed Tea Party social-conventionalists. In such pieces, Cohen plays a traditional role of teller of uncomfortable truths, the man unafraid to confess a thought-crime in favor of the individual or “real world” exception to the general rule.3
In a widely cited paragraph from a post entitled “Richard Cohen in Context,” Ta-Nehisi Coates duplicates Kelly’s logic and methods in a condensed format:
Context can not improve this. “Context” is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to “a hostile work environment.” It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The Pianist. And it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post‘s publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.
Some of Coates’s summaries refer to columns discussed above. The claim about store-owners refers to that apparently unavailable 1986 article: Coates links to a second article containing a cursory description. The second link refers to the Zimmerman column, in which, near the beginning, Cohen did not assert that Trayvon Martin “was” wearing a uniform, but rather that Zimmerman “thought” he was. Cohen’s phraseology does, however, remain questionable or somewhat ambiguous in relation to the notorious “hoodie” as part or principal part of a “uniform.” The third link refers to the disputed incident or set of incidents involving an intern in the late ’90s, the occasion for Kelly’s observation on fairness. The fourth link refers us to an article in which a writer seeks to ridicule Cohen’s musings in relation to male sex symbols. Coates’s summary uncritically adopts the other writer’s position, and exaggerates it in a way that might seem more distasteful if not overshadowed by Coates’s “horse-shit” anaphora. The fifth link is to the Polanski article, whose argument Coates gets backwards in the same way that Kelly does. As already observed, Cohen attacks any notion of an artist’s exemption to rape laws. Rather than excusing Polanski’s crime for the sake of The Pianist, the position falsely attributed to Cohen by Coates, or, as others have attempted, excusing Polanski by reference to his status as Holocaust survivor, or by reference to his status as survivor of a recently murdered spouse, or on any other basis, Cohen makes the following categorical statement (emphasis added): “The only argument in favor of Polanski’s continued freedom is that he is the victim of judicial misconduct.”
The sixth link finally returns us to the central argument against Cohen’s Republicans-in-Iowa column. On the specific claim against Katharine Weymouth, Coates interprets Cohen’s clumsy word choice as a simple and obvious, and therefore embarrassing error, but his own interpretation relies on faulty assumptions, among them that an analytical conclusion based on opinion polling (on “conventional” views on “interracial marriage”) can be taken as simply “factual.”
We are therefore left, as ever, to determine from context, because there is no other way to make sense of verbal expressions, what Cohen meant for his readers to understand. A man who believed all of the things that Kelly, Coates, and others seem to believe Cohen believes, or seem to want us to believe he believes, might conceivably also believe, or prefer to believe and prefer that others believe, that “suppress[-ing] a gag reflex” regarding a couple like the mayor-elect of New York City and his wife reflects a “conventional view” on “interracial marriage” in the sense of a view widely held and generally accepted and acceptable, a view reasonably considered normal not just for a segment of unreconstructed reactionaries, but for all of us. Of course, a reflex does not result from a “view”4, conventional or otherwise. It occurs automatically and irrepressibly, presumably on the basis of deep-seated habit, instinct, or simple physical necessity: Cohen’s original locution, interpreted strictly, was nonsensical. More to the point, however, Cohen has not been demonstrated to believe all, if any, of those things that Kelly, Coates, and others claim that he believes. There is no reason not to consider contradictory as well as more sensible expressions offered in the immediate context – referring, for example, to the “mainstreaming” of the views in question, just before the sentence that seems to describe their opposite as “conventional” – or Cohen’s own assertion, in response to critics, that he was referring to views among the faction of Iowa Republicans upon whom he was focusing.5
A serious discussion on the main underlying question – on the roles and uses of the concept of “race” in American politics and culture – might be worth having, but not according to the the kind of license to mislead, to testify for immediate effect rather than for accuracy, that Kelly, Coates, and their peers grant to themselves and in effect to each other. If a discussion under such terms somehow qualified as serious, it would likely be so in only the worst ways.
- See, for example, the Huffington Post editors and Change.org petitioners demanding that the Post fire Cohen. [↩]
- Rather than amend his piece or pursue the criticism consequentially, Kelly responded defensively, in part by publishing his misleading update. [↩]
- Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall derides Cohen’s tendencies as “Chronic Racial Grandpa-ism,” but the form of the argument is much older than Grandpa: It is precisely as old as justice, just as condemnations of it have also resounded with the same righteous fervency precisely since the dawn of history. The origin of politics is the origin of prohibited sympathies. For us, today, sympathizing with racially discriminatory shopkeepers or Tea Party racists, or sympathizing at secondhand with others who offer such sympathies, will be to invite censure. To condemn such sympathies and those who hold them will be to invite praise. [↩]
- as notion or opinion [↩]
“I didn’t write one line, I wrote a column,” Cohen said. “The column is about Tea Party extremism and I was not expressing my views, I was expressing the views of what I think some people in the Tea Party held.”