On Saturday, Joseph Epstein of the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece: “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an MD.” The world reacted angrily to it, but it was his editor’s piece, “The Biden Team Strikes Back,” that particularly caught my attention. Together, the two say a lot about our divided America.
Mr. Epstein’s first sentence met the criteria for “successful” discourse today. Snarky, droll, and a little insulting. It delivered with a dry, yet acerbic, political bite:
“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”
Informed readers knew what to expect next, and they were not disappointed.
Traditionalists were glad to hear the following: “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally [due to the snowflake generations and the multitude of advanced degrees earned today]…”
Epstein continued, “I have only a B.A. in absentia from the University of Chicago [a university superior to Jill Biden’s University of Delaware, by the way] — in absentia because [I was serving my country in an important way as] I took my final examination on a pool table at Headquarters Company, Fort Hood, Texas.”
After the brutality of the first sentence, a progressive reader cannot avoid seeing insult after insult hurled at women and liberals, as if the writer were getting paid by the snark. The article criticizes Jill Biden’s dissertation, noting its “unpromising title.” It demeans the modern PhD and, especially, the Ed.D by declaring that decades ago earning such degrees “was then an arduous process.”
Next it explains the banality of the honorary PhD by noting the “low quality of academic honorands” like Stephen Colbert and, even worse, Billie Jean King. In its final sentence, it further drags Jill Biden into her proper place [a wife defined largely through her husband] by adroitly admonishing, “Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.”
It is no surprise that thousands of people criticized Epstein’s article in the news and on social media. The next day, Paul A. Gigot, WSJ Opinion Editor, responded with his article, “The Biden Team Strikes Back.” It seems likely that his piece had largely been written in advance, counting on the negative reaction to Epstein’s article. Curiously, perhaps, for an editor at one of the most powerful daily newspapers in America, far more profitable than the New York Times, the title of his piece mirrors that of the second Star Wars movie.
Mr. Gigot delivers an orderly, thoughtful response with little of the bite delivered by Epstein. Unlike Epstein’s knife, it is a hammer that pounds the central arguments of the conservative case against the modern progressive movement.
Gigot’s argument is clear:
1) Epstein’s core purpose was to criticize the “highfalutin” use of the term “Dr.” by anyone not in medicine,
2) Jill Biden, PhD, is simply an example,
3) the article was a “fair comment” and did not deserve a massive attack,
4) the mainstream news and social media counter-attack, coming to the rescue of Jill and Joe Biden, was equivalent to the assault led by Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back,
5) the mainstream media would have never helped rescue a family member of President Trump,
6) the Biden Team used “the big gun of identity politics” to ward off future criticism of President Biden, and
7) the violent response does not suggest that President Biden is truly here to unite Americans.
Generously, though, at the end he says, “We’ll give the Biden crowd a mulligan for their attacks on us.”
Ahhh…How to respond? These short pieces and our response to them reveal so much about our America.
We are all a bit paranoid. Rightly so.
Conservatives feel that everything about them and their traditional world is under attack. Tens of millions firmly believe that the 2020 Presidential election was more rigged than a county sheriff race in Louisiana under the Huey Long family of the 1930’s. They are still rallying together to “stop the steal.”
Progressives are certain that dark forces swirl around the Trump White House, and the powers of reaction are massing to slow social progress. They are determined to “resist” these assaults and those against democracy, the environment, and civil society.
We are well-armed.
Many declare the demise of the news and truth. The journalism of 1955 America is certainly gone. Today’s news sites have learned that financial success is found in serving a narrow segment of viewers. Fox taught the lesson to CNN. And proudly strident news outlets like the Daily Wire and NewsMax are tearing away chunks of viewers from today’s market leaders.
More importantly, though, the internet provides all of us rapid notice of every slight. Social media gives the ability to coordinate the actions of hundreds of thousands. We are well armed for combat in the “public square” of the virtual and the physical worlds.
We are a little disingenuous.
The assertion that Mr. Epstein was primarily engaging in commentary about a “small thing” (the use of the honorific “Dr.”) is hardly genuine — not with the title, first paragraph, and last paragraph all focused on Jill Biden.
We all have access to infinite information. We can hourly hear arguments from the skilled purveyors of entertainment politics, be it Ben Shapiro, Rush Limbaugh, or Rachel Maddow. Most of us find ourselves conveniently tweaking our arguments to our advantage. Whether it is about who is responsible for our dysfunctional Congress (the Republican Newt Gingrich in the 1980’s or the Democrat Harry Reid in the 2000’s) or which President is most guilty for the imperial, overreaching US executive branch (take your pick among the last five plus FDR) or what is most degrading American society (technology, racism, greed, or godlessness).
Women do suffer disproportionately.
If Mr. Epstein were genuinely focused on the battle around the use of the term, “Doctor,” it would have made more sense to have picked on Dr. Phil, the TV therapist. Dr. Phil is widely known for one of the most famous TV shows in America. He brands himself “Dr. Phil” but has no medical degree. He earned a PhD but, according to sources, has not been certified to offer therapy in a clinical setting for years. By the way, I am not picking on Dr. Phil. He is fun to watch, and I am happy for him to call himself whatever he thinks best.
Mr. Epstein did not pick on Dr. Phil because Dr. Phil is a man. Calling Dr. Phil “Kiddo” or “Junior” or “Little Guy” would not have been as comfortable as doing so with Jill Biden. Yes, Joe Biden has affectionately referred to Jill as “Kiddo.” But we all know that our friends, family, and community can say things in jest that others cannot.
As a business consultant and the husband of an accomplished woman — Medical Doctor is just one of her titles — I well know that insults targeting gender remain common. Some are obvious. Commentary like, “I don’t see [her] as a serious candidate; she’s on the ‘mommy track,’” occurs less frequently than in the past, but it still happens.
The cause of other imbalances are less easy to pinpoint. Human Resources positions are less well-paid than many, and they are staffed by women far more often than men. Sales and Finance roles mid-level and above are more likely to be staffed by men and are higher paid. These realities have been shaped as the modern corporation emerged over the past two centuries. Lots of progress has been made, certainly. But we still have a ways to go.
We love snark.
Mr. Epstein does not write boring articles. Successful commentators don’t do much that is long and careful in 2020. Our best specialize in insightful, quippy pieces that jar the reader from common thinking. Or they simply make their followers laugh. A large proportion of social media personalities pride themselves on the use of a similar style powered by snit, insult, and extreme language. It is what we respond to. Mr. Epstein is more likely to be rewarded for the extra views than he is to be punished by cancellation.
So…What are we to do?
I am pleased to have seen lots of progress over the last few decades. It is real. Let’s keep it up!
In the case of Mr. Epstein’s article, its observations are so obviously inappropriate by the standards of even the year 2000 that we should use it as an example of what not to do. Though the topic is “fair” for discussion, it was not presented in an honest or respectful way. Let’s be explicit so all of us can see our inevitable missteps and learn from them.
We should recognize, though, that some of Mr. Gigot’s assertions are valid. We should be willing to discuss social issues…respectfully. What does it mean to be “educated” in the modern world? What do the titles “manager”, “boss”, “teacher”, “employee”, and “student” mean? These and many more are worthy of discussion and debate and change.
Mr. Gigot’s comparison of “Biden’s Team” to “The Empire” of Star Wars fame is intriguing. Ever since watching Star Wars as a child, I imagined myself fighting for the Rebellion, the good side of the Force. There is no doubt that Team Biden thinks themselves good.
At the same time, reading “conservative” news from the WSJ, Daily Wire, tweets from thousands — even the voices of family members — I can hear the confident assertion that they, the conservatives, are fighting for goodness, truth, justice, and the American Way. The conservatives are really the good ones.
It’s a real quandary. Who is good? As the Star Wars tale unfolded over decades, there was a growing sense that the extreme polarization of the Force was the real problem. That drawing the line so starkly, good versus bad, was prompting both sides to behave badly.
As difficult as it might be to accept, it is fair to conclude that Mr. Gigot’s argument has some merit. If we are going to bring America together — the 74 million who voted for Trump, the 81 million who voted for Biden, and the other 175 million or so who were unable or unwilling to vote — we have to change the way many of us (including myself) are behaving:
We must work to bring everyone into the American tent. Yelling that they have to get out isn’t going to help anyone.
You can read more of J. Andrew Shelley’s work at https://americanbutterflythestory.com.
Please get the book, American Butterfly. It is a good family story. It respects deep Southern veins and the pillars of our modern world. Filled with moments of humor and deep tragedy, American Butterfly is important for our divided America. Understanding one another’s family stories can help bring us together.