For Joseph Epstein and The Wall Street Journal, the control is the point
You might have heard about a little Wall Street Journal op-ed that went viral this weekend for arguing that future First Lady Dr. Jill Biden should drop the title “Doctor” from her name.
Many decried the column, by the Jewish essayist and former editor of The American Scholar Joseph Epstein, as sexist from its first line onward. (The first line in question: “Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo.”) Its argument: Biden, who in 2007 earned a doctorate in education, known as an Ed.D., is an example of the ways in which, per Epstein, the standards required to earn a doctorate have declined. Based entirely on Epstein’s own anecdotal accounts of such declines — he himself, he admits, has only an honorary doctorate — the column is almost less about Biden than a general sense of grumpiness that academia is, in some vague way, not what it used to be.
There’s much to be made of why Epstein and his editors at the Journal thought the imminent installment of a First Lady with a doctorate would be the right target for these concerns; there’s a world in which Biden’s academic achievement is cause for celebration, not derision. But the op-ed’s most telling and distressing line, in fact, isn’t about Biden at all. It’s this: “If you are ever looking for a simile to denote rarity,” Epstein wrote, “try ‘rarer than a contemporary university honorary-degree list not containing an African-American woman.’”
The bias inherent in that thought is obvious. Universities could only possibly wish to honor Black women because of political correctness, it suggests — not, say, because Black women are as likely to accomplish great things as people belonging to any other social group, or, heaven forfend, because academia has long excluded Black women and may have some belated acknowledgments to make.
One thinks of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pronouncement that there will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine — after all, for most of the country’s history, the court has been composed entirely of men, and faced few objections.
But above all, the line revealed the profound, cynical hollowness at the column’s core.
A year and a half into President Trump’s term, Adam Serwer, a writer for The Atlantic, coined a phrase that would become lastingly popular among Trump’s liberal critics: “The cruelty is the point.” Serwer was writing specifically in response to one of the Trump administration’s many inhumane moves against immigrants, and generally about the ethos of cruelty that seemed to govern much of the administration’s decision making, in which the greatest good was not the achievement of concrete policy ends, but rather getting a group of powerful people and their supporters hopped up on the high of humiliating others.
Epstein, in his throwaway dismissal of academic recognition of Black women, suggested an evolution on that idea, one that’s easy to imagine coming to characterize a certain strain of American thinking once Trump has lost his grip on the American psyche — whensoever that might be. (That strain cannot, importantly, be characterized as strictly Republican; Epstein himself, as he wrote in the Journal in 2019, has voted for Republicans and Democrats alike.) It is not quite that the cruelty is the point, although Epstein’s mocking is certainly cruel. It’s that control is the point, whether of who gets to be considered genuinely intellectually lofty or who gets to be president.
And it’s the entire point, not the means to an end. An easy way to determine whether an opinion is significant is to ask who might be hurt by the supposed wrong it claims to address. No one is hurt by academic recognition of Black women, just as no one is hurt by Jill Biden’s insistence on the use of the title “Doctor,” which she has earned. Epstein’s attempt to exert control on those alleged wrongs does not have a point beyond control, in politics long accepted as the highest good. In fact, his argument takes that precept a step farther: It is only valid in a sphere in which control is not just the foremost good, but the only one.
In the middle of a month in which, for the first time, more than 3,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 per day, and the President of the United States has called for members of his party to overturn the results of the fair, democratic election that unseated him, the Journal’s opinion editors have made clear that among all the pressing issues that face our country, they see Epstein’s thoughts on academic credibility as their cause célèbre. In a follow-up to Epstein’s column, editorial page editor Paul A. Gigot slammed the backlash against it as a callous bit of identity politics maneuvering. “The complaints began as a trickle but became a torrent after the Biden media team elevated Mr. Epstein’s work in what was clearly a political strategy,” he wrote.
In other words: It was fair game for Epstein, via the Journal, to attack the earned qualifications of the incumbent First Lady, but a bit of unpalatable politicking for her and her staff, husband and supporters to take him seriously enough to respond. The aim of the column was never conversation, theoretically an opinion section’s mandate. The aim was always control, for its own sake.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s innovation editor. Follow her on Twitter @TalyaZax, or email mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org