When did the New Yorker become a magazine written by and for people who are deeply ignorant but imagine they are terribly bright? I can remember, as a boy in the 1970s, reading the magazine occasionally and thinking it was very clever. Yes, I mostly admired the cartoons, and yes, I was, well, just a boy, and pretty ignorant myself. But the magazine seemed to me to be somehow both breezy and smart, with an appearance of learning and culture lightly tossed about its writers’ shoulders like a comfortable old sweater.
But as a number of people on Twitter have pointed out, this blog post at the New Yorker s site, by Adam Gopnik, is one of the dumbest things published anywhere in a very long time. Gopnik manages to get absolutely everything wrong on which he thinks of commenting. He thinks, following “the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan” (the adjective is gratuitous and misleading, but that’s why Gopnik used it) that there is a “necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church,” as though the two pairs of counterparts were simply interchangeable. He thinks that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech expressed the classical American understanding of the proper relationship between “faith and public service,” and so he thinks Paul Ryan’s remark in the vice presidential debate that “our faith informs us in everything we do” is a remark worthy of an Iranian mullah. He thinks that one’s conscience is active only in one’s “chapel” and must not be carried into the public square.
But Gopnik is only warming up. Next he ventures into embryology and the metaphysics of the human person, and only proves himself a complete fool. Paul Ryan told viewers of the October 11 debate that he and his wife saw their first child’s sonogram and thereafter called her (to this day) “the Bean.” His point, of course, is that while she looked like a bean at that early fetal stage, she was in fact his daughter, fully present at that moment—and of course, much earlier too, from the moment of her conception.
Gopnik finds this confidence of Ryan’s, that he can see a human being when there is one before his eyes, to be appalling. Gopnik insists that what Ryan saw really was only a “bean,” by which he means “a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.” And so he meanders into his own altogether too confident imaginings of what “real science” shows about when that “bean” becomes a baby whose life commands our respect. But what Gopnik imagines to be scientific thinking—which turns out to be so uncertain, on his account, that we must permit arbitrary decisions by anxious pregnant women to determine which unborn children live or die—is actually not science of any kind, but only inept moral philosophizing. “It is conscious, thinking life that counts,” he avers. It is not the lives of all members of the species radically endowed with the capacity for conscious, thinking life—it is all those actually presently enjoying the conscious life.
How he can claim to know this at all; how he can claim to know it from “science” rather than unexplained moral premises; how he can peg which among us, in utero or ex utero, are among those who “count” on this criterion; how many human beings he has just consigned to be sacrificed to the interests of others, at the beginning of life, the end of life, and at countless vulnerable moments in between—none of these things can he tell us, nor is he interested in trying. Gopnik is only interested in rejecting, with all the force he can muster, any reasoned moral challenge to his own unreasoning partisan commitment to the unfettered abortion license throughout the entire term of pregnancy.
This is the New Yorker today: smugly stupid, vulgarly anti-scientific, passing off crude partisanship as philosophy. The only things worse than Gopnik’s post are the comments of the regular readers, who cheer him on as though he had just scored a great, witty, easy victory over that blinkered Republican Paul Ryan. Egad. Harold Ross would be appalled.