As you may already be aware, the NY Times just published an Maggie Haberman essay on Hope Hicks’ most recent dilemma: should she break the law (again) or should she obey the requirements of a congressional subpoena?
The NY Times and Haberman advertised the article on twitter this way:
Hope Hicks, one of the best-known but least visible former members of President Trump’s White House staff, is facing an existential question: whether to comply with a congressional subpoena https://t.co/8NXpfQvxQL pic.twitter.com/L7aWVMsIdq
— NYT Politics (@nytpolitics) May 24, 2019
Now, some took issue with the glamour photo shoot that the Times commissioned for this piece. To the extent that criticism has any validity, it’s not about merely displaying a photo of Hope Hicks, it’s about the fact that they clearly spent significant resources in order to craft an artificial image that comports with Haberman’s editorial depiction of this former Trump aide (and those critiques that mentioned the photo without including this more detailed objection run the risk of communicating an anti-feminist message that what is important in media coverage of women is the photo shot editors choose to run). The lavishing of resources emphasizes the PR function of this effort; it is, in short, not a news story.
And yet, this wasn’t featured in the Times’ lifestyle section. It was featured in “Politics” which, when it is not overt opinion (which should be confined to the OP/ED pages anyway), is supposed to be news. So what is the news story here?
That leads us to the other criticism that many have already made: choosing to comply or not comply with a legal order is not an existential question any more than choosing to print up a few million dollars’ worth of counterfeit bills. Both lawyers and philosophers (mainly ethicists) took issue with this ridiculous and inaccurate description, so it’s not surprise that I, too, found it risible. The philosophers mainly focussed on the misuse of “existential questions” in a way that Sartre would have found condemnably ignorant even if it did tend to validate his assertion, “Hell is other people.” The lawyers had a different take, not so much emphasizing the “existential” part, but focussing rather more on the “question” part. One lawyer, Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly), put it this way:
Most existential questions have no clear answer. What is my purpose in life? What happens after I die? Is there a higher power guiding my destiny? Does my dog have a soul?
Other “existential questions,” however, are answered by 2 U.S.C. §§ 192 & 194. Compliance is mandatory.
Yet, despite my laughter when I read that and my sympathy to those who would call out the Times for bad philosophy and bad law, my most significant problem with this story and the promotional tweet is neither of those. Instead, read this tweet from Sam Wang @SamWangPhd:
“Should a federal employee obey a lawful order, or stay loyal to an individual? Here at @nytpolitics, we can’t say. It’s just all a partisan game! We’re not going to make a value judgment! We have great portrait photographers though.”
The NY Times isn’t doing something new in this story. They are treating compliance with the law as entirely optional for the rich and well connected even as other stories, say, stories about a famous woman who went to jail for defying a subpoena, don’t include the same PR efforts or gosh, who can say whether it’s fair that someone obey a subpoena support for lawlessness as the Hope Hicks profile.
The Times is doing what the times always does: it’s opposing accountability for the rich and powerful who have the most motive and opportunity to destroy US democracy, while insisting on strict accountability for those who break the law in a principled stand on behalf of what they believe to be a necessary resistance to the subversion or destruction of democracy. Thoreau-like, I can believe that Manning subscribes to the maxim
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
But the proper response for those of us on the outside is not to scream, “Yeah, lock her up!” at democracy’s defenders and, “Let’s all sympathize with the lawless,” as they attack that democracy. Believing that we have reached the point where the true place for a just trans person is in prison is not to believe we have accomplished something wonderful that must be perpetuated.
The anti-democratic limits on acceptable discourse accepted and propounded by the Times must be opposed. The Times and Haberman and her editors are not worthless and thus irrelevant. The magnitude of this mess is only appreciated by accepting that the Times has an impact on the policies and practices of justice (and other things) and have great value to those that benefit from advancing the Times’ skewed view of proper accountability. Ignoring the Times is not a principled and logical and effective way to deal with their anti-democratic trolling. Instead, the Times must be countered each and every time they embrace the ideology of an accountability-free elite. We must never forget that the Times isn’t portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers because they are working honestly or even diligently to divine the best possible response to problems of Gordian convolution and unsolvability. The upper ranks of the Times (including Haberman and her editors) are portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers because they, too, believe themselves better off in a world without accountability for the US elite.
This ideology must be opposed wherever it presents itself.
Although I originally titled this “Hell is Hope Hicks” I later thought that perhaps it would be better titled, “Hell is the New York Times”. Ultimately I decided not to change it, though there are certainly reasonable critiques of making Hicks the focus of the title when the main critique is not of Hicks’ disdain for the law (which exists and is critiqued in passing), but instead the NY Times advocacy of disdain for the law – or at least advocacy for the idea that we must consider disdain for the law to be a reasonable position which might be reasonably held by reasonable people in a democracy.