In 2015, President Obama described the Nation as “more than a magazine—it’s a crucible of ideas.” If it was ever entitled to this descriptor, it isn’t anymore. Academic identity politics may be importing an obsession with phantom victimhood into the business world and the media, but The Nation’s editors are now taking aim at language itself, reducing the complexity of human communication to a primitive understanding of words.
In late July, the magazine’s poetry editors issued a groveling apology for a poem they had published earlier that month. “How-To,” by Anders Carlson-Wee, was an ironic critique of social hierarchies, couched as a manual for successful panhandling: “If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,/say you’re pregnant,” the poem opened. It went on to suggest begging gambits for other presumed outsider groups, including the handicapped: “If you’re crippled don’t/flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough/Christians to notice.” The poem, in its entirety, reads as follows:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, say you’re pregnant—nobody gonna lower themselves to listen for the kick. People passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know you is. What they don’t know is what opens a wallet, what stops em from counting what they drop. If you’re young say younger. Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.
The word ‘crippled’ and Carlson-Wee’s use of black street dialect set off reader hysteria. Editors Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith penitently announced that the poem contained “disparaging and ableist language that has given offense and caused harm to members of several communities.” (This maudlin invocation of ‘harm’ in response to speech is the fastest growing academic export into the non-academic world.) “We made a serious mistake [and] are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” Burt and Giménez Smith continued. They had originally read the poem, they said, as a “profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which members of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization.” No more, however: “We can no longer read the poem that way.”
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of The Diversity Delusion, forthcoming in September. Follow her on Twitter here.