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Reflections of an Affirmative-Action Baby

Linked by Paul Ciano on December 30, 2017

Peter Beinart, The Atlantic:

I considered myself qualified. Because I’d spent years mimicking TNR’s writing style, I had the right sort of clips. But as a white man graduating from an Ivy League school, I also had the right sort of identity. It was difficult to disentangle the two. And I didn’t really try.

I didn’t try because the magazine afforded me extraordinary opportunity. Soon, I was not only working alongside people I revered, I was being given the chance to ascend to their level. Asking how much of their success was due to race, gender, and class—as opposed to merit—would have meant asking the same of myself.

White men from fancy schools advanced quickly at the New Republic because that’s who the owner and editor in chief, Marty Peretz, liked surrounding himself with. He ignored women almost entirely. There were barely any African Americans on staff, which is hardly surprising given that in 1994—after my internship and before I returned to the magazine as managing editor—TNR published an excerpt of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book, The Bell Curve (along with a series of critical responses).

The irony—which I didn’t dwell on at the time—was that the magazine was itself a hothouse of racial and sexual preference. Those racial and sexual preferences were never stated formally. But to a significant degree, they determined who felt comfortable at TNR and who won the favor of the people who ran it.

The New Republic’s affirmative action enabled Leon Wieseltier’s sexual harassment, and Leon’s sexual harassment reinforced the magazine’s affirmative action. Men ran the magazine, and Leon’s behavior helped keep it that way. To ascend at TNR, you had to be a protégé of either Marty’s or Leon’s, or, at the very least, you had to be on decent terms with them. For men, that meant writing things they considered smart. For women, by contrast, mentorship was far trickier. Marty wasn’t an option. Leon was, but his mentorship often involved sexualization. If you accepted it, you gained a supporter but compromised yourself. If you spurned it, you became invisible to the magazine’s two most powerful men.

The absence of women and people of color in senior editorial jobs was intertwined with the magazine’s long-standing, jaundiced view of the African American and feminist left. Had I challenged that culture more emphatically, I would probably not have become editor in the first place.

From my time as a junior editor, I was handed pieces to edit—generally written or commissioned by Marty—that made sweeping, hostile generalizations about Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims. I would cut as much as I felt I could get away with and soften or nuance the rest. But I didn’t refuse to edit the pieces at all, since that would have imperiled my relationship with my mentors.

I don’t know whether my experience is typical of men who are complicit in institutions that tolerate sexual harassment. What I do know is that the affirmative action I enjoyed, and the sexual harassment Sarah suffered, were connected. I was given extraordinary opportunity at TNR, in large measure, because talented women like Sarah Wildman were not.

Paul Ciano

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