[Paleopsych] WP: Michael Kinsley: (Dowd) He Wrote, She Wrote

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He Wrote, She Wrote

    By Michael Kinsley
    Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page B07

    When the New York Times anointed Maureen Dowd as a columnist nine
    years ago, I gave her some terrible advice. I said, "You've got to
    write boy stuff. The future of NATO, campaign spending reform. Throw
    weights. Otherwise, they won't take you seriously." The term "throw
    weights" had been made famous by a Reagan-era official who said that
    women can't understand them -- whatever they are, or were.

    Dowd wisely ignored me and proceeded to reinvent the political column
    as a comedy of manners and a running commentary on the
    psychopathologies of power. It is the first real innovation in this
    tired literary form since Walter Lippmann. Eighty years ago, Lippmann
    developed the self-important style in which lunch with a VIP produces
    a judicious expression of concern by the columnist the next day about
    developments in danger of being overlooked. Most of today's columns
    are still variations and corruptions of this formula. But Dowd is
    different, and she is the most influential columnist of our time.

    So the question is: Did it have to be a girl? Or could a boy have
    built an op-ed career out of feelings and motives and all that ick?
    The question is pressing because of the current controversy over the
    number of women's bylines on newspaper opinion pages. (Only one in
    five or so at the Los Angeles Times and even fewer at the Other Times
    and The Washington Post.) As the guy in charge of opinion at the L.A.
    Times, I have endured some horrendous insults, such as being compared
    to the president of Harvard University.

    Harvard President Lawrence Summers is in trouble for suggesting that
    inherent differences between men and women may be part of the reason
    so few women are at the scholarly peaks of fields such as math and
    science. To be a university president, you are supposed to reject any
    such notion out of hand.

    In the op-ed controversy, by contrast, talk of innate differences
    between men and women is not merely permissible, it is the very
    justification offered by some women (and deeply resented by others)
    for demanding more women's bylines. Dowd declares a girlish reluctance
    to be mean, which she says she overcame, but she urges her sisters to
    play the boys' game with the boys. The linguist Deborah Tannen pretty
    much shares Dowd's analysis, but says women shouldn't have to adapt to
    the peacocky political culture created by men; the culture should
    learn from and adapt to women.

    Meanwhile Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, observes that this
    discussion has been all-girls so far, and she demands that the boys
    jump right in. This is a terrifying invitation. Even the most
    testosteronic male commentator might be excused for deciding that
    developments in Uzbekistan really require his insights this week. In
    such circumstances, I always ask myself, "What would the president of
    Harvard do?" So I proceed.

    It is hard to think of a hiring decision in which sex or race ought to
    matter less than in choosing a professor of mathematics. That makes it
    a good focus for a discussion of meritocracy, reverse discrimination,
    innate abilities, cultural prejudice and so on. It's too bad that
    Harvard seems incapable of having -- or at least allowing its
    president to participate in -- such a discussion.

    By contrast, there cannot be many places where "diversity" is less a
    euphemism for reverse discrimination and more a common-sense business
    requirement than on a newspaper op-ed page. Diversity of voices,
    experiences and sensibilities is not about fairness to writers. It is
    about serving up a good meal for readers. Sure, it's possible that a
    man might have come up with the Maureen Dowd formula that has so
    enriched the New York Times op-ed page. But in this busy world,
    diversity in the traditional categories of ethnicity and gender is a
    sensible, efficient shortcut. Everyone involved should be trying
    harder, including me.

    Newspaper opinion sections also want diversity of political views. In
    recent years, that, frankly, has led to reverse discrimination in
    favor of conservatives. And an unpleasant reality is that each type of
    diversity is at war with the others. If pressure for more women
    succeeds -- as it will -- there will be fewer black voices, fewer
    Latinos and so on.

    Why should this be so? Aren't there black women and conservative
    Latinos? Of course there are. There may even be a wonderfully
    articulate disabled Latino gay conservative who is undiscovered
    because she is outside the comfortable old-boy network. But there
    probably aren't two.

    It's not a question of effort, it's mathematics. Each variable added
    to the equation subverts efforts to maximize all the other variables.
    You can seek out the best Japanese restaurant in town, or the best
    steakhouse. But if you want a Japanese steakhouse, you will have to
    settle for Benihana's of Tokyo. Or something like that. Where is that
    Harvard math professor when you need her?

    The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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