A recent piece by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “The Covington Scissor," presents a dialogue between him and a mysterious Voice, which he finds “devilish,” though it claims to be his conscience, and which culminates in “dark laughter, echoing away into an abyss.” The dialogue concerns the saga of the Covington High School boys, and it does illuminate what passes for conservative thought at the paper of record.
Before introducing the Voice, Douthat remembers a short story in which the term “Scissor” is defined. It is “a statement, an idea or a scenario that’s somehow perfectly calibrated to tear people apart—not just by generating disagreement, but by generating total incredulity that somebody could possibly disagree with your interpretation of the controversy, followed by escalating fury and paranoia and polarization, until the debate seems like a completely existential, win-or-perish fight.”
The nature of the Scissor issue then is such that both sides are equally irrational and dogmatic. They are each unwilling to see matters through the opponent’s eyes. The Covington boys incident is an example.
Still in advance of the Voice’s intrusion, Douthat characterizes the recent event before the Lincoln Memorial. He refers to “videos of Catholic high school boys from Kentucky, in Washington to attend the March for Life, some of them wearing Make America Great Again hats, in some sort of confrontation with a chanting, drumming Native American activist who was intervening in another confrontation between the teenagers and a group of black nationalists.”
Proceeding from that summary of the facts, Douthat observes that “what makes this incident so brilliant in its divisiveness” is the “tapestry in full,” the “tapestry” consisting of “abortion, race, MAGA, white boys, Catholicism, Native American ritual” and “automatically confirm[ing] priors on both sides of the divide.” He calls the episode “brilliant” and a “tapestry,” but not in itself or its aftermath a tragedy for anyone concerned.
Furthermore, even though we have a film of the whole thing—sight and sound—that, it seems, resolves nothing. Postmodernism intervenes: what is reality but one viewer’s narrative? And so, “the video itself, far from being a means to achieving consensus, is an amazing accelerant of controversy, because everyone who watches can pick up on a different detail and convince themselves [sic] that they’re [sic] seeing the whole tru[th].”
It is at this point that the Voice interrupts, claiming to be Douthat’s conscience. It is really Douthat’s portrayal of a conservative’s response to his ultimately unsympathetic treatment of the boys and their ordeal. The Voice is made to sound angry and in due course irrational, so Douthat by comparison can appear the true voice of equanimity and moderation. It also demonstrates the moral depth of Ross Douthat, who indeed has pondered and given due weight to the objections of his unseen interlocutor.
The Voice accuses him of attempting to “write one of [his] pretend-evenhanded, both-sides-do it, ‘let’s all get together and learn something’ columns about this incident.” After the Voice introduces itself as Douthat’s conscience, it briefly summarizes the respects in which the initial press depiction of the incident was false and the ugly remarks about the boys, including the explicit wish by celebrities to do them harm, were foul.
A summary of the other distortions pedaled by the media follows, as the Voice takes us through their failure for some time to disclose the anti-Semitism in the Women’s March, to present honestly the horrors exposed in the Planned Parenthood undercover video, to treat fairly the Vice-President’s wife, slammed by the Left for the crime of teaching in a Christian school (the kind that adheres to Christian precepts).
Douthat says that he is inclined to agree, but nonetheless pushes back. The whole point, which the Voice is missing, is to see it from the other guy’s perspective. “[Yo]u need to imagine how other people interpret the story,” he tells us. But do we really have to imagine anything in this case? Did the “other people,” those who publicly reviled the boys, leave anything to the imagination?