We interrupt the blogging holiday for this special occasion...
Y'know, Randy Cohen's (The NYT Magazine's "Ethicist" columnist) obituary for Ann Landers almost had me liking him, for a minute.
Then he pulled this:
"By presenting her views in the form of an innocuous advice column, not as politics but as common sense, she operated as a sort of stealth progressive.
"This is not an easy thing to do. Shortly after my own column began, it was denounced in several right-wing periodicals, in once case under the headline "'The Ethicist' Better Termed 'The Marxist.'" I may have suggested,,, in passing, that 'corporations donate to charity to buff their images' or 'clean air-- why not?' Apparently ideology-detecting radar has become more acute since Ann Landers began or perhaps, with the country veering so far to the right, qualifications for Marxism have been lowered substantially, like some sort of ideological grade inflation."
This isn't the first time that Cohen has feigned astonishment that the mean right-wingers picked on him and claimed that it was because of views like support for clean air. He milked this story in the introduction to his book, and then ran the relevant exerpt as an article in The Nation. It read in part:
"Virtue, it turns out, is the exclusive property of the right. This was brought to my attention just a few months after I began writing "The Ethicist," a weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, when it was denounced by four periodicals, each more right-wing than the last--the weekend Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator, Reason (the presumably ironically named magazine of the Libertarians) and the online version of National Review, where it was named the Outrage Du Jour, under the headline: "'The Ethicist' Better Termed 'The Marxist.'" I may have earned this encomium by suggesting that public education was worthwhile, or perhaps by favoring breathable air. Or air. (Admissions requirements for Marxism have apparently been lowered precipitately, like some kind of ideological grade inflation.)"
Cute. And, like the comedy writer he used to be, he doesn't let a good punchline go. (Cohen has no training in ethics or any related field; the title "The Ethicist" has always struck me as making an unwarranted claim to be offering expertise rather than Landers-style common sense.) The problem is that this punchline is a crock.
I wrote one of those alleged right-wing hit-pieces, for Reason. (You can read it here.) The views for which I criticized him included that it was unethical to fire a temp worker whose shoddy performance was reflecting poorly on everyone ["if anyone's acting unethically here, it's your boss; it is ignoble to force people into soul-deadening, pointless, poorly paid jobs....Organizing work into tedious, repetitive tasks, (that is, the division of labor-- JTL) while profitable for the few, makes life miserable for the many; some political economists have called it a crime against humanity." ] and that giving to charity was morally wrong because the more charitable activity there is, the more easily the state abandons public projects. That's not warm fluffy clean-air stuff. The division-of-labor-as-crime-against-humanity line is probably what led NRO to call him a Marxist.
My beef with him then was that he kept telling people that their individual choices (to defraud or not, to fire or not, to give or not) were morally irrelevant, because of the radical injustice of the economic system. This, I argued, took him out of the realm of being an ethicist-cum-advice-columnist and into the realm of being an op-ed columnist. My beef with him now is that he feels sorry for himself that the right-wingers were so mean to him, but he lies (and keeps telling the same lie) about why that happened. He doesn't stand up for, or modify, or mention, the views that were criticized.
Cohen, of course, has a much wider readership than I do. But as long as he keeps bringing up that he was attacked, I'll keep reminding whoever I can what he was attacked for; clean air it wasn't.