There’s a new worst columnist at the New York Times, and her name is Pamela Paul.
In 2014, I wrote for this website that technology writer Nick Bilton was the new worst columnist at the New York Times. Pamela Paul, however, makes me cry out in the night for Nick Bilton. She has me rereading his column on how he couldn’t find a pen and saying “damn, this guy is a genius.” She has me longing for the paradisal days of him waxing over whether to delete his Facebook account. She has me enthusiastically writing him a Guggenheim recommendation letter.
Paul was the editor of the Times’s book review section from 2013 until this year, and is also the author of a book of rejected Shouts & Murmurs called 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. Usually it takes a columnist a few years to get to a certain level of asininity; Paul, who started at the opinion desk in April, has summited the highest peak on column five.
In her first column, “The Limits of ‘Lived Experience,’” Paul dredges up a series of minor culture-war clashes of the last few years before asking: “Let’s make it personal: 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?” This might be an interesting question (it’s not) if it was novel or if she had something new to say about it, but she doesn’t. And Lionel Shriver already wore this sombrero in 2016. Pass.
Paul’s second column was about quitting Twitter. Oh, no. She starts off by saying she knows she shouldn’t be writing a column about quitting Twitter — and yet. Here we are in the most powerful Wordlepaper in the world, talking about quitting Twitter. She offers a story about a terrible tweet she made in which she corrected a service worker’s grammar, and how the unseen mob came after her for being, well, classist and unthinking and rude.
When I awoke the next day, Twitter was lying in wait. “Who are you to make fun of how restaurant workers speak?” Twitter snarled. “Bet you’ve never worked in a restaurant in your life.” “Choose your words carefully when you speak about the ‘servants,’” one stranger cautioned. When someone dared point out, “But she said ‘service,’” the original poster retorted, “You can tell what she meant.”
Is it possible that on Twitter we all become the absolute worst versions of ourselves?
While she admits Twitter made her a bad person and that she didn’t like herself on it, she does so without contrition or introspection. Instead, she asserts that the people who responded to her negatively for sending a rude tweet about service workers were just as rude as she was to people who were serving her. Not exactly a great takeaway. Still, pretty harmless stuff, but we get more of a sense of Paul’s blossoming M.O.: she’s a cheerfully dense writer, uninterested in interrogating topics beyond the groupthink of her milieu.
In her next column we’re back to identity politics, but this time we’re taking it to the theatre, and yes, we’re wearing Lionel Shriver’s sombrero again. The discussion topic here: What roles can actors play? Can a non-Jew play a Jew? Can a gay guy play a straight guy? Can a founding father who actually was president play Hamilton? According to unnamed culture warriors, no. But Paul is here to give voice to the voiceless oppressed class of actors:
What we are effectively saying here — without ever, heaven forbid, saying it out loud — is that it’s OK for actors from groups considered to be marginalized — whether gay, Indigenous, Latino or any other number of identities — to play straight white characters. But it’s not OK for the reverse.
Unfortunately, she misidentifies one of her examples; an actor she said was bi and playing a straight part is actually gay. You see, identity is a slippery thing. It’s difficult to write about precisely, and Paul has not proved herself as a precise writer, but a sloppy one, lobbing stale ideas around into the ether, earnestly trying to get something to cohere.
In her latest column, she wades into #MeToo. Although the movement has been a “huge net positive,” well, what about the men?
Part of the complicated fallout from #MeToo seems to be a lack of due process in responding to accusations. We’ve all heard stories of #MeToo overreach and backlash. Many people who work in the media or academia or entertainment, like me, have witnessed at least one person who has gone through some version of this. There are cases in which, whatever the accusers’ motivations, their claims are not found to be true or the punishment is out of proportion to the offense. Often the accused are convicted in the court of Twitter or ushered out by human resources and left to suffer the material and psychic losses. Public condemnation, even in the absence of evidence, can be enough to damage a life.
Not the very real court of Twitter, with Justices such as @BongwaterJoe, @PussyHatMarla, and Brooklyn Dad Defiant. Again, Paul elides reality here. Instead of engaging with the very real meat of this issue — due process for the accused and the complicated and fraught legal steps that go into it — she latches onto strawmen like Frank Langella and Junot Diaz, who were “canceled” in the court of public opinion basically for being assholes to women. She writes: “True, women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and misconduct. But nearly every woman has a father, brother, husband or son. Any one of the men in our lives could wind up on the wrong end of an accusation, perhaps for good reason but perhaps for no good reason at all.”
Sure, but to throw Paul’s rudimentary logic back at her, nearly every man has a mother, sister, wife, or daughter. We’re all passengers on this crazy boat called life, and unfortunately many of our malefolk have the privilege of doing weird sex things without consequences, and those who do face consequences become enmeshed in a system that is at once fascinating, frustrating, and full of tangible examples (my friend Alexandra Brodsky has written an excellent book on the topic). Anyway, Frank Langella will be fine.
We must applaud Paul for hitting the ground running like no other columnist of her time, except maybe her ex-husband and fellow Times opinioneer Bret Stephens. I’m beginning to wonder if her early question was right: As a new columnist of the Times, should she only be allowed to weigh in on a narrow sliver of Gen X white-woman concerns? I kneel at my Nick Bilton shrine (a bunch of pens in a pile on the floor) and pray: yes!