Tribalism, Trump and Claudine Gay
... moreover, the inability to hold two uncomfortable truths
Regular readers of this newsletter might recall that I wrote last month about the feeble congressional testimony of three high-profile university presidents concerning anti-Semitism on their campuses. That piece was entitled Why do we think academic achievement makes for good leaders?
All three presidents got in trouble for their waffling and legalistic responses to questions from right-wing Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik concerning what kind of anti-Semitic words would run afoul of their universities’ rules. After donors threatened to withdraw from their institutions, Penn President Liz Magill wound up resigning over it, while Harvard President Claudine Gay looked like she was going to survive until it was revealed that she had plagiarized some of her scholarly writings in a matter that would have gotten any Harvard freshman in trouble.
Harvard’s top board of trustees, known as The Corporation, accepted Gay’s resignation last week. But here’s the thing: we know that her weak anti-Semitism comments were elicited from Stefanik, who is a staunchly MAGA Republican, though ironically a Harvard graduate herself. But the plagiarism revelations came from conservative writer Christopher Rufo, who ironically has a master’s degree from the Harvard Extension School, and the right-wing Washington Free Beacon online newspaper.
So Gay’s troubles were revealed to the world as a result of what Rufo himself acknowledged in an interview with Politico was “a coordinated and highly organized conservative campaign.” Unless you saw it with your own eyes, you could not have imagined the outrage Gay’s ouster provoked among progressives and members of the academy, with some of them calling the attacks on the Harvard president “racist” and “vicious.”
As an observer who doesn’t reflexively defend either the left or the right, I was struck by the reaction of Gay’s apologists, including Harvard officials themselves, who turned into human euphemism machines to make light of her plagiarism, using such terms as “inadequate citation” and “duplicative language.” A friend used the term “sloppy attribution” — to which I replied that there was no NO attribution, which was precisely the problem.
After Gay’s resignation, progressives simply did not want to give the right a victory, perhaps for fear it would embolden the attackers into exposing more fraud in the academy. Maybe they didn’t want to give comfort to the assassins who succeeded in ousting Harvard’s first Black woman president. After all, these conservatives might use that success as a springboard to attack diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
But why isn’t it possible to allow that the attack on Gay sprung from a coordinated effort by right-wing actors to discredit and humiliate the academy, while also acknowledging that Gay’s offenses were serious and that she deserved to be shown the door?
To his credit, Rufo himself did just that (see above), though I have not seen any other conservatives do so in such frank terms. But most of Gay’s defenders seem incapable of holding those two thoughts at the same time.
Note: Gay will remain a tenured professor of government and African and African American studies at Harvard, so she’s not being thrown out on the street, or to the wolves, for that matter.
This brings us to a column in the Washington Post a few days ago by Megan McArdle, a libertarian-leaning blogger and former columnist at The Atlantic. Headlined, What happens when Harvard supporters act like Trump supporters (free link), McArdle’s piece argues that there are similarities — in their unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious — between Trump supporters tolerating the ex-president’s insistence that the election of 2020 was stolen from him, and progressives who look the other way when Gay commits academic fraud.
Obviously, on the misconduct scale, Trump’s offenses are far worse. And she acknowledges as much. But I think McArdle’s comparison holds, as does her observation that, “There is no longer any area of American life that is above blind partisanship, no principle so fundamental it will not be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.”
Or, as Charlie Sykes of the Bulwark put it (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Sometimes even the worst person in the world is capable of telling the truth.”
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Speaking of Stefanik, if you feel so inclined and haven’t seen it already, check out this interview of the New York congresswoman by Kristen Welker on yesterday’s edition of Meet The Press. Stefanik presents as an utterly shameless Trump sycophant, calling the Jan. 6 insurrectionists “hostages” and refusing to pledge to honor the results of this year’s presidential election. If ever there was any doubt, it is now clear that she is auditioning to be Trump’s running mate.
Welker has received extensive blowback from Democrats and progressives for not pushing back harder, but every time Stefanik opened her mouth, she unleashed a firehose of disinformation, leaving Welker to pick her battles and counterpunch whenever Stefanik took a rare breath.
Stefanik is clearly one of those Trump backers McArdle referenced who cannot admit the man has ever done anything wrong because it might give comfort to “the libs.” The congresswoman from Saratoga Springs, however, carries the stereotype to a ridiculous extreme.
For more on Stefanik, see the Substack account my colleague Ken Tingely, the former editor of the Post Star in Glens Falls, New York. The Front Page, as Tingley and his colleague Will Doolittle call their fine publication, has developed into something of a clearinghouse for Stefanik criticism. They know her better than anyone and they mince no words.