From the New York Times news section:
He’s one of the most influential journalists of the last three decades, but he’s shadowed by a 1994 magazine cover story that claimed to show a link between race and I.Q.
By Ben Smith
Published Aug. 30, 2020
… I came to Provincetown to better understand why Mr. Sullivan, 57, one of the most influential journalists of his generation and an obvious influence in my own career, is not as welcome as he once was at many mainstream media outlets. But my visit helped me see something more: how Mr. Sullivan is really a fixed point by which we can measure how far American media has moved. He finds himself now on the outside, most of all, because he cannot be talked out of views on race that most of his peers find abhorrent. I know, because I tried.
He was a star in his 20s, when he ran The New Republic, so celebrated that he posed for Annie Leibovitz in a Gap ad in a white T-shirt and a memorably coy expression. He was a master of provocations there that included one that defined him, arguing long before it was part of mainstream political debate that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. But he also published a cover story, an excerpt from “The Bell Curve,” that claimed to show a link between race and I.Q., a decision that has increasingly consumed his legacy. …
Here’s Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 New Republic article, which the NYT does not link to.
By the way, I wonder how many times Ben Smith, the NYT’s media columnist, has read the 745 page The Bell Curve? Two? Three?
But Mr. Sullivan is, as his friend Johann Hari once wrote, “happiest at war with his own side,” and in the Trump era, he increasingly used the weekly column he began writing in New York magazine in 2016 to dial up criticism of the American left. When the magazine politely showed him the door last month, Mr. Sullivan left legacy media entirely and began charging his fans directly to read his column through the newsletter platform Substack, increasingly a home for star writers who strike out on their own.
He was not, he emphasizes, “canceled.” In fact, he said, his income has risen from less than $200,000 to around $500,000 as a result of the move.
That’s interesting …
Mr. Sullivan isn’t really vulnerable to cancellation. …
… When The Dish was moved behind a paywall in 2013, a White House aide passed on a complaint to Mr. Sullivan: Mr. Obama was locked out of a favorite blog. Mr. Sullivan scrambled to set up a special account for the president.
Evidently, however, Obama doesn’t find Sullivan permanently off limits due to his publishing an excerpt from The Bell Curve.
My theory is that Obama owes his entire career to making a high score on the LSAT in 1997, so he’s not quite as much of a science denialist as, say, Ben Smith. (Here’s Obama’s 1994 review of The Bell Curve for NPR. Since then, David Epstein’s 2012 book The Sports Gene has induced Obama to love to talk about the effect of genetic diversity on sports.)
… But as the American examination of racism has intensified, one of Mr. Sullivan’s convictions has grown further out of step and more unsettling even to those inclined to disagree agreeably with him.
… The flap reminded his colleagues and critics of Mr. Sullivan’s original sin, his decision to put on the cover of the Oct. 31, 1994, New Republic a package titled “Race and I.Q.” The package led with an excerpt from the book “The Bell Curve” by the political scientists Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. They claimed that I.Q. test results are in large part hereditary and reveal differences among races; it produced piles of scientific debunkings. Many — including contributors whom Mr. Sullivan invited to object
Here are the angry responses Sullivan published in the same issue.
— saw the piece as a thinly veiled successor to the junk science used to justify American and European racism for decades. Politically, it offered elites an explanation for racial inequality that wasn’t the legacy of slavery, or class, or racism, or even culture, and thus absolved them of the responsibility to fix it. The authors “found a way for racists to rationalize their racism without losing sleep over it,” the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in a response in The New Republic.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May, Mr. Sullivan said, his editors asked him to “be careful,” suspecting that his views on race in America would not be palatable to their audience in that moment, two senior New York employees told me. He decided instead to take the week off from column writing.
In the previous year, Mr. Sullivan had focused his ire on the politics of race and identity, seemingly relishing the chance to challenge what he saw as an increasingly “woke” mainstream media. But “The Bell Curve” excerpt — which Mr. Sullivan always says that he published but did not embrace — lingered over those pieces and framed criticism of him. One fellow writer, Sarah Jones, called him the ”office bigot” on Twitter. The new editor of New York, David Haskell, didn’t push him out because of any new controversy or organized staff revolt, the two New York employees said. Instead, the shift in culture had effectively made his publishing of “The Bell Curve” excerpt — and the fact that he never disavowed it — a firing offense, and Mr. Haskell showed Mr. Sullivan the door before the magazine experienced a blowup over race of the sort that have erupted at other publications.
So Sullivan was fired by New York for an article he okayed publishing 26 years before. That’s pretty wild and says a lot about the madness of our day.
So what does Mr. Sullivan believe about race? On his back porch looking over the bay, Mr. Sullivan said he was frustrated by the most extreme claims that biology has no connection to our lives. He believes, for instance, that Freudian theories that early childhood may push people toward homosexuality could have some merit, combined with genetics.
“Everything is environmental for the left except gays, where it’s totally genetic; and everything is genetic for the right, except for gays,” he said sarcastically.
I tried out my most charitable interpretation of his view on race and I.Q. (though I question the underpinnings of the whole intellectual project): that he is most frustrated by the notion that you can’t talk about the influence of biology and genetics on humanity. But that he’s not actually saying he thinks Black people as a group are less intelligent.
But, on average, black people are less intelligent. That’s perhaps the single most documented finding in the history of the social sciences.
The scientific questions remaining include:
- Is the current gap permanent?
- Why does the current gap exist?
- How much of this gap is due to nature and how much to nurture?
- What, if anything, can be done to narrow this gap?
Back to the NYT:
He’d be equally open to the view, I suggested, that data exploring genetics and its connection to intelligence would find that Black people are on average smarter than other groups.
“It could be, although the evidence is not trending in that direction as far as I pay attention to it. But I don’t much,” he said. (He later told me he’s “open-minded” on the issue and thinks it’s “premature” to weigh the data.)
“I barely write about this,” he went on. “It’s not something I’m obsessed with.”
But he also can’t quite stop himself, even as I sat there wishing he would. “Let’s say Jews. I mean, just look at the Nobel Prize. I’m just saying — there’s something there, I think. And I’m not sure what it is, but I’m just not prepared to accept the whole thing is over.”
… I wish Mr. Sullivan would accept that the project of trying to link the biological fiction of race with the science of genetics ought, in fact, to be over.
Race is a biological fiction! When Harvard geneticist David Reich wrote in the New York Times in 2018 “How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’” there are quotes around “Race” so that must mean it’s a biological fiction, right? That’s what everybody at Buzzfeed always said. Was I misinformed by Buzzfeed? I don’t think so!
When I said some of this to Mr. Sullivan, he noted that he had been born and raised in England, and he hasn’t always had perfect footing on American questions of race — though he has seemingly absorbed and mastered so much about American politics.
But his exit out of big media is a very American story. His career, with all its sweep and innovation, can’t ever quite escape that 1994 magazine cover.
Ben Smith is the media columnist. He joined The Times in 2020 after eight years as founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. Before that, he covered politics for Politico, The New York Daily News, The New York Observer and The New York Sun. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org @benyt
Seriously, it should be obvious by 8/31/2020 that excluding The Bell Curve from the Overton Window of ideas that you are allowed to discuss out loud without getting cancelled has turned out to be a massive disaster for the country. Today, you aren’t supposed to mention fundamental facts about the realities of life in the United States, such as that blacks average lower in intelligence and higher in crime, and that probably explains racial “inequity” better than vaporing about Systemic Racism.
Because nobody is permitted to be anybody if they point out the possibility that blacks might not be solely victims of whites, but might also have their own tendencies that have evolved over the last 70,000 years of relative continental isolation, the far left keeps winning public arguments.
Say we had public discourse in which on the question of why do blacks get hassled by the cops, the permissible views were:
- The Left: White people are evil.
- The Center: Culture matters.
- The Right: Culture and evolution matter.
The Center view would be better at resisting the racist hate rhetoric of the Left. But without the Right view that evolution matters, the Center is now the Far Right, and therefore is losing badly to the Left.
And that’s why our cities are burning.
Ideas have consequences.
Cancelling ideas has worse consequences.