The old saying goes that everything comes in threes, and it looks like the New York Times is following that rule this week—with disastrous results. First, columnist Bret Stephens tried (terribly) to defend filmmaker Woody Allen, whose daughter Dylan Farrow has accused him of childhood sexual abuse. Then opinion staff editor and writer Bari Weiss found herself in a number of controversies surrounding her comments about #MeToo and calling Mirai Nagasu, an Olympic figure skater born and raised in California, an immigrant. And now, just days later, the Times is taking much deserved heat around the hours-long tenure of writer Quinn Norton.
The latest kerfuffle amongst the Times’ opinion-writing crew came on Tuesday afternoon when the publication announced that it had tapped Norton as lead technology writer for its editorial board, saying that she would be covering the “power, culture, and consequences of technology.”
In a twist of movie-like irony, Twitter users soon uncovered a number of past tweets from Norton using several offensive slurs, including the n-word. They also found many posts referencing a “friendship” with Andrew Auernheimer, webmaster of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. By the late evening, Norton had been fired from her Times position, and she posted a long, self-aggrandising Twitter thread justifying her relationship with Auernheimer and telling people to “choose the targets of your power wisely.” She ended with some quote about how “history is watching you,” which, again, is ironic given how often the phrase is used to describe not repeating past horrific events, like, uh, the Holocaust.
Before we get to Norton and her role in all of this, we need to talk about how, despite the Times’ apparent ongoing determination to turn its Opinion page into a sewage pile, there’s still the mind-boggling aspect in Norton’s case that the Times team didn’t seem to dig deep into the social media of someone they wanted to hire for their editorial board. Unlike Stephens or Weiss who are writing specifically for the Opinion section (and therefore the Times can distance itself from its writers’ views), Norton is someone the newspaper wanted to lend a hand in steering its editorial direction as a publication. That’s beyond troubling.
Now onto Norton and that mess. Apparently I need to make this abundantly clear: Hanging out with neo-Nazis (and other white supremacists and anyone else involved with the alt-right) isn’t “edgy.” It isn’t “alt” or “hip,” nor is it thought-provoking. The number of times Quinn Norton mentioned how “weird” and unconventional she thinks she is in her Patreon post announcing her Times position had me thinking of that viral Riverdale meme of the show’s resident “artsy” white boy Jughead Jones. If uniqueness is what Norton (or anyone, for that matter) is after, there are plenty of other ways to do it besides becoming buddies with Nazis. Jughead wears a bizarre crown beanie all the time, and that seems to get the message across just fine.
And for everyone (not just Norton): Hanging out with people like Auernheimer doesn’t make you some sort of superior social justice messenger. That isn’t you “putting in the work.” Instead, to build on what Zoé Samudzi tweeted after photos surfaced last month of Chelsea Manning hanging out with white supremacists, it means you’re ignoring people from the communities targeted by these awful human beings who’ve said, “Trust us, they’re bad and they’re not changing. Focus on us and our needs.”
Some of the support I’ve seen for Norton has come from the “hey, we all say and do ignorant stuff!” crowd. Sure, we all do. But there’s a difference between ignorance coupled with a sincere apology, an understanding of what was bad, and ongoing growth versus someone with knowledge of these spaces intentionally using offensive slurs, befriending these horrible people and defending those relationships, and not flat-out apologising. If anything, Norton doubled down on her strawman philosophical arguments about how “all people” are redeemable. It’s a pretty privileged claim coming from someone who apparently doesn’t belong to several of the marginalised communities her words and behaviours are targeting, but Slate’s Osita Nwanevu does a better job explaining those issues.
So, here it is: Quinn Norton isn’t a victim of the fabled crusade to quash free speech. After all, she’s published those opinions in numerous spaces (not to mention, mainstream ones) for years. Receiving valid criticisms of those opinions that had real-life consequences seems to be at the heart of the issue, not to mention the entire ordeal taking place in a matter of hours.
The Times isn’t a victim here, either; they’re enablers pretending that both sides-ism exists and that we really, really need to hear about technology and morality from someone who justifies ongoing close contact with Nazis. Plus, Norton made it clear in her own announcement about the position that the Times continued to seek her out even after she was honest about her views. They want this and often encourage it. Keep in mind, Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss haven’t been fired for any of the stuff they’ve said or done in the past; this pseudo-intellectual provocateur crap is part of why the newspaper hired them. Think of it this way: Would Norton have gotten to stay if she was a columnist and not associated with the publication’s overarching editorial brand?
As for the future of the Times, they should pray that more of their readership shares Norton’s view on the absolutism of redemption. The paper sure is spending its readers’ good will like it can forever earn it back in one simple swoop.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.