Indignity Vol. 2, No. 56: Who cares what Pamela Paul thinks?
THE WORST THING WE READ THIS WEEK™
The Making of a Times Columnist
RECENTLY INSTALLED NEW York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul finally succeeded in getting people's attention over the weekend. "The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count," the headline on her column declared, but Paul dispensed with the far right, and with the fact that Roe v. Wade had been "ruthlessly overturned," in two sentences before getting to what she was really mad about: the use (or purported use) by "the fringe left" of words other than "women" to describe people who can become pregnant—and, by extension, the incursion of trans people on the "specific needs and prerogatives" of women, like Pamela Paul, who were assigned the female gender at birth, and by further extension, the real complaint, the fact that people who publicly oppose trans rights get criticized for doing it.
It was a bad column, and people who are concerned about bad columns, or about trans rights, promptly and accurately broke down how misleading and noxious it was. It was also popular; Bette Midler apparently loved it so much she faithfully retyped Paul's list of grievances on Twitter as her own. Claiming to be victimized by trans rights has become a way for a certain class of women, who socially and culturally tend to move in liberal circles, to cope or bargain with the right-wing misogynists who are currently consolidating political power. These women are known, as Paul explained, as terfs: "a pejorative that may be unfamiliar to those who don’t step onto this particular Twitter battlefield....[o]stensibly shorthand for 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist' which originally referred to a subgroup of the British feminist movement."
But there's nothing new about being a terf—or, more circumspectly, defending the people who are being called terfs—anymore. Paul's column was so easy to rebut, or so easy to share, because its contents were so remarkably stale. Her claim that "the word 'women' has become verboten" was a rehash of a mini-controversy from two months before, when the draft of the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe originally leaked. The source Paul cited about it was an article that the Times' designated culture-war reporter, Michael Powell, had scraped together on the topic in June, when the controversy was already a month gone by.
By Paul's standards, though, a column pegged to a month-old story about a two-month-old minor commotion was relatively urgent. Her debut column in April was a lament about how the concept of "lived experience" is being wielded as a weapon to silence members of the "dominant culture (white, male, Western, straight)," by "docents of academia, school curriculum dictators, aspiring Gen Z storytellers and, increasingly, establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts." ("Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?" she asked, too prophetically.)
The lived-experience column was, as anyone unfortunate enough to have marinated in the discourse for long enough could recognize, indistinguishable from the novelist Lionel Shriver's complaints about other people's complaints about cultural appropriation, delivered in a speech back in 2016—except that Paul, being confined to the page, could not duplicate Shriver's stunt of wearing a sombrero to emphasize her dissent.
Who needed a new columnist to write about old complaints? It is true that the Times, as an institution, has a reactionary streak in this area. That's what accounts for Powell, whose beat is less a matter of covering the culture wars than of instantiating them, by reassuring the readers that the young people or minorities have indeed gone too far in this or that controversy—without, in the case of the story about trans activists purging the word "women" from the language, quoting even one member of the minority group in question.
With Paul, however, a different institutional habit seems to be at work. The readers of the Times naturally assume that the reason the paper gives someone an opinion column is that it thinks their opinions are worth publishing—that someone in charge of the section believes they are a stylish and talented writer, or that they have some valuable expertise, or that their ideology will interestingly expand the range of ideas expressed in the section. Many of these decisions are debatable, or plainly wrong, on the merits, but they do seem to have been made on those merits.
Yet internally, the opinion page also occasionally serves a completely different, and essentially opposite, purpose: not as a showcase for writers, but as a sort of rubber room, where the Times may stash formerly important figures who have nothing else to do, to keep them from bothering the masthead. The titanic original case of this was the former executive editor A.M. Rosenthal and the inexhaustible fulminations of his "On My Mind" column, but the subsequent examples have generally been dull ones. Bill Keller accepted a columnist's slot as a refuge after losing out to Howell Raines for the executive editor job, emerged to take over the paper after Raines' downfall, then returned to a second stint as a columnist when he was done, never publishing a memorable column along the way. Frank Bruni, after giving up his powerful post as the Times' restaurant critic, took a seat on the op-ed page and did absolutely nothing with it.
Pamela Paul descended to her column from the commanding, or by some accounts tyrannical, heights of running the Times Book Review, where she spent nine years holding the fates of authors and publishers in the palm of her hand. Now she is left to stand on her own, largely unsupervised and out of practice at writing regularly. The public, rather than receiving her distant editorial judgments about what is worth reading and discussing, is right there in her face, on Twitter and the rest of the internet, telling her she stinks. (Her second column was about quitting Twitter.)
So we get her repeating complaints she read somewhere else, a while ago, to vent her feelings at an unappreciative world:
If only women’s voices were routinely welcomed and respected on these issues. But whether Trumpist or traditionalist, fringe left activist or academic ideologue, misogynists from both extremes of the political spectrum relish equally the power to shut women up.
Like everything else Paul had to say, the idea had already been expressed by another writer—by dril, specifically, four years ago: "go ahead. keep screaming ‘Shut The Fuck Up’ at me. it only makes my opinions Worse." It was a great tweet. For a columnist less than three months into the job, though, it makes a bleak mission statement.
INDIGNITY is a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. It could be YOU.
Once the NYT finishes scraping the bottom of the pundit barrel for worthless opinions , what do they imagine they’ll do with that shiny clean barrel? Rent it out to advice and astrology columnists?
"The readers of the Times naturally assume that the reason the paper gives someone an opinion column is that it thinks ... they are a stylish and talented writer, or that they have some valuable expertise, or that their ideology will interestingly expand the range of ideas expressed in the section."
I don't assume that, and neither should anyone else, although I suspect you're correct that most Times readers do. The definitive treatment of the question "Why does the NYT do what the NYT does?" was written years ago by Alex Pareene:
"The company's media kit - the PR materials designed to convince brands to purchase ads in the paper or on their website ... reports a median household income of $191,000 for readers of the paper and $96,000 for the website ... Take a surgeon, making $400,000. That is, more or less, the intended reader of the Times ..."
As Pareene explained, all manner of otherwise bewildering behavior by the NYT becomes intelligible when this fact is taken into account. In the present case, it seems to me reasonable to suppose that TERFs and their sympathizers are considerably more abundant than trans women among the NYT's intended readers. More generally, the reason why the NYT "has a reactionary streak" and dispatches "a new columnist to write about old complaints" is that most of its intended readers, however liberal they may style themselves, are old, rich, and hence tend to be reactionary, albeit in a conventionally respectable manner, not the now-mainstream "conservative" manner.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting the NYT editorial staff willfully conspire, with Snidely Whiplash-like glee, to cater to the worst tendencies of their intended readers. It's just that one doesn't become or remain a member of something like the NYT editorial staff without intuitively, almost instinctively, understanding what keeps the customers satisfied.