Bari Weiss is my new hero. I say that with some trepidation.
Weiss’s conservative political outlook is not one with which I normally identify. But the more I’ve been reading her newsletter, “Common Sense,” and listening to her podcast, “Honestly,” the more I find myself nodding, sometimes begrudgingly, in agreement.
Weiss’s background confounds expectations. She’s an outspoken conservative who’s also staunchly pro-choice; a married gay woman who abhors intersectionality and cancel culture; a fierce critic of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden; a triple-vaxxed mask mandate critic.
Weiss was hired by The New York Times in 2017 as part of an effort to bring more conservative voices to the paper’s traditionally left-leaning opinion pages. She resigned three years later, charging that she had been “the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagreed with my views” and who called her “a Nazi and a racist” for what she’s dubbed “wrongspeak.” That led in part to Weiss’s searing yet brilliant book, How to Fight Antisemitism.
Post-New York Times, Weiss has become a high-profile example of how to squeeze life’s lemons into lucrative lemonade. A year after her departure, Weiss had amassed 14,000 subscribers to her Substack newsletter paying $5 a month, plus another 75,000 non-paying subscribers. That means Weiss is earning more than $800,000 a year. (Note to self: Weiss may be on to something I should look into, too.)
What do readers of Weiss’s newsletter get?
Perhaps her most provocative piece was a deconstruction of the “Central Park Karen” story that became emblematic of how America has reduced all conflicts to the issue of racial justice.
In May 2020, Amy Cooper was walking her dog off-leash in a mostly deserted part of the park.
Birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) was there too and asked Amy to leash her rescue dog, per the rules. Amy Cooper felt her life was in danger and called 911.
“There’s an African-American man... threatening myself and my dog,” she repeats over and over in an increasingly hysterical tone while Christian Cooper films the interaction.
Christian Cooper subsequently posted the video online. Amy Cooper was doxed (her address and phone number were leaked to the public), the humane society demanded her dog back, Cooper’s employer fired her and, following hundreds of death threats, hate mail and incendiary phone calls, she was forced into hiding.
The incident seemed the perfect embodiment of white privilege with Amy Cooper playing the ideal “Karen” (derogatory slang for an entitled white woman) – that is, until Weiss and Kmele Foster, cohost of the podcast, “The Fifth Column,” dug deeper and discovered that the story was not quite how it appeared.
LEFT OUT of most reports was Christian Cooper’s threat that if Amy Cooper didn’t leash her dog, “I’m going to do what I want but you’re not going to like it.”
The media also glossed over Amy Cooper’s history with sexual abuse and suicidal ideation, and Christian Cooper’s past interactions where he threatened other dog walkers in the park. Anxiety over social distancing during the early days of the pandemic also played a role.
Does this exonerate Amy Cooper as a classic “Karen”? Does it turn Christian Cooper from a recipient of racism into the story’s real bad guy? Not at all. That’s what’s brilliant about Weiss’s reporting: She doesn’t take sides but rather adds a level of nuance and complexity that is missing in today’s turbocharged, rancorous discourse.
Other Weiss columns and podcasts have covered the less-than-straightforward backstories behind the Kyle Rittenhouse and Jussie Smollett cases, why both sides can’t stop screaming about abortion, and Abigail Shrier’s controversial book Irreversible Damage on what’s fueling an explosion in trans-identifying teenage girls.
Reading and listening to Weiss, one might be tempted to consider a personal pivot to the right. Weiss probably wouldn’t be opposed. In one column, she recommends Liel Leibovitz’s piece in Tablet magazine, “The Turn,” where Leibovitz (who also cohosts the podcast “Unorthodox”) opines about how he feels the Left, where he grew up, has betrayed its principles in a mad rush to be uber-woke.
“You might be living through The Turn if you ever found yourself feeling like free speech should stay free even if it offended some group or individual but now [you] can’t admit it at dinner with friends because you are afraid of being thought a bigot,” Leibovitz writes. “You are living through The Turn if you seethed watching a terrorist organization attack the world’s only Jewish state but seethed silently because your colleagues were all on Twitter and Facebook sharing celebrity memes about ending Israeli apartheid.”
This new, woke ideology captivating America, Weiss argues in Commentary, results in persuasion being “replaced with public shaming. Moral complexity is replaced with moral certainty. Facts are replaced with feelings. Ideas are replaced with identity. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with deplatforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion, with exclusion.” Bullying is wrong, she adds, “unless you are bullying the right people.”
I don’t think rejecting wokeness requires joining the Republican Party (or the Likud). But it does require a level of critical thinking that doesn’t make it into sound bites and cancel culture. That’s what Weiss excels at. Her flight from The New York Times has turned her into a superstar of balance.
What’s the solution to our modern predicament? More courage, Weiss writes.
“Courage means, first off, the unqualified rejection of lies. Do not speak untruths, either about yourself or anyone else, no matter the comfort offered by the mob. And do not genially accept the lies told to you.”
Courage can be contagious, Weiss concludes, “and your example may serve as a means of transmission.”
May we all merit a little more courage in these troubling times. I look forward to what Bari Weiss chooses to debunk next. ■
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com