MAD ABOUT BARI WEISS: THE NEW YORK TIMES PROVOCATEUR THE LEFT LOVES TO HATE
The Times op-ed writer is a Trump-loathing theater nerd who studied at a feminist yeshiva and used to date Kate McKinnon. She also led a controversial protest at Columbia, and popularized the “intellectual dark Web.” The contradictions of a social-media lightning rod.
eet Bari Weiss, “alt-righter,” “fascist,” “the Jewish, female version of Kanye West.” She doesn’t like immigrants. She’s a traitor to her gender, and she should be “sterilized.” In short, “Bari Weiss can fuck off.”
That’s the word, anyway, about the 35-year-old star opinion writer for The New York Times,from a very loud and increasingly influential corner of social media. Her newfound fame has transcended her platform. She’s become a somewhat unwitting avatar for the knee-jerk flash-bang of social media, a poster child for the polarization of the chattering classes.
Therefore it’s disorienting to meet Weiss and discover that she’s neither an aspiring sex symbol/bomb thrower, à la Ann Coulter, nor a defensive Ivy League know-it-all. When she walks into Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, blocks from her fifth-floor walk-up, you might peg her as a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face. She’s effusive and warm, immediately popping out with one eager question after another before I can successfully steer the conversation around to her. Her minor insecurities are blurted fodder for making a connection. “I have pen marks on my boob. I was like, ‘I’m going to meet a Vanity Fair writer and I have pen on my boob.’ I was really embarrassed. Also, I’ve been sweating a lot.” She says that her father has been urging her to freeze her eggs. “Should I do it now?” she asks, sincerely searching for an answer. This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm. Weiss seems genuinely fueled by curiosity, the desire to connect, to cross boundaries and try out new things. As she sums up her outlook, “I just want to gobble the world.”
Though most of her friends are liberals, she sometimes socializes with conservatives too. According to friends, she loves to spar not just to hear the sound of her own voice but because she might learn something. After listening to someone else’s point of view, she’s been known to do something amazing—change her mind. Given the current climate, in which everyone seems to be retreating to angry and angrier corners, those who meet her find this expansiveness refreshing. Jennifer Senior, an op-ed columnist for the Times,disagreed with some of Weiss’s political opinions (she’s to the left of Weiss on Israel, for example) but was curious about this new co-worker, who was, as Senior puts it, “steering the aircraft into a cloud of flak.” So Senior introduced herself. “She was so adorable! I wanted to wrap her up in tissue paper and take her home with me.” Young writers, such as Tariro Mzezewa, who’ve worked under Weiss in her capacity as editor, attest that she’s consistently enthusiastic about ideas she may disagree with, even nurturing. “She was the first person to put in my head that I could write an op-ed,” says the Zimbabwe-born writer. Today, Senior says, “I always marvel at the huge gulf between the Bari who’s this Twitter bogeyman and Bari the actual person. She is the subject of more unexamined hatred in our profession than almost anyone I can think of. She’s the target of so much snark. The irony, and what almost breaks my heart, is that she has almost no snark in her. She’s super-generous and loving.”
For people of a certain age, it might seem odd that Weiss should be a favorite punching bag for lefties with itchy Twitter fingers. If you read her work, she’s a liberal humanist whose guiding principle is free expression in art, love, and discourse, something the left spent decades fighting to achieve. Some of Weiss’s articles have been harshly but fairly criticized, with basic civility, by prominent journalists, such as Rebecca Traister and Glenn Greenwald. But Twitter is something else. There lives a non-negotiable doctrine, in which there’s only “good” opinion and “bad” opinion. Anyone who strays must be called out, but “called out” is too gentle a term. The targets must be taken down, not just hated but hated on. And the trolls aren’t random. Some have platforms beyond Twitter, including HuffPost, Esquire, and lefty news sites. For writers hoping to gain a following, slamming Bari Weiss has become an easy way to be seen. It wouldn’t matter if she were writing for The Wall Street Journal. The problem—or opportunity, really—is that she’s writing for The New York Times, which is supposed to be their paper, and that she’s getting famous for it.
Broadly speaking, Weiss’s work is heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization. Since getting hired at the paper in the spring of 2017, she has focused on hot-button cultural topics, such as #MeToo, the Women’s March, and campus activism, approaching each topic with a confrontational skepticism that until recently had a strong place within the liberal discourse. Her basic gist: while such movements are well-intentioned, their excesses of zeal, often imposed by the hard left, can backfire.
Take one of her early pieces, an August 2017 column on the Women’s March. The march “moved me,” Weiss wrote, and was an important response to Trump’s “attacking the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.” Yet she was disturbed that two of the four leaders of the march had recent histories of praising known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. Weiss’s view turned out to be prescient, and the march has since splintered into factions.
Weiss has approached #MeToo with attention to the gray areas. A piece called “The Limits of ‘Believe All Women’” praised those who started #MeToo but cautioned that if we believe women in every instance, it could result in a doozy of a mistake and harm the overarching movement. On the subject of Stephen Elliott—a writer who is suing the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list, where he was anonymously accused of rape—Weiss was sympathetic to his predicament, but warned that his lawsuit “could be used to stifle women’s speech.”
In a more reported piece, Weiss addressed Australian actress Yael Stone’s accusations against Geoffrey Rush; she came down on the side of the accuser, and highlighted the difficulty of publicly calling out bad behavior in Australia, where Rush and Stone are both from, due to libel laws. (Rush has denied the allegations and recently won a defamation suit against an Australian publisher.) Though Weiss did not devote a column to Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, she wondered aloud on MSNBC if his alleged crime as a teenager should be “disqualifying.” Weiss was promptly smacked down in headlines, and admits that her sound bite came across as “glib” and simplistic. For the record, she says Ford’s testimony moved her to tears, and believes Kavanaugh’s rage-filled behavior before the Senate Judiciary Committee should have disqualified him.
Weiss has little patience for the new campus activism, in which she says students have been blithely tarring professors as “fascist.” In a May 2018 feature, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” Weiss profiled several popular academics and pundits, such as Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, and Christina Hoff Sommers, who’ve retreated from academia and the mainstream media but have emerged on other platforms. Some thought the piece was a frank portrait of a phenomenon worthy of examination. Others believed that by giving these provocateurs the floor, Weiss was endorsing their opinions.
Weiss views outcries over cultural appropriation—Katy Perry shouldn’t wear a kimono, Marc Jacobs shouldn’t put white models in dreadlocks, and so on—as “un-American.” “If that point of view wins, it’s just a pleasureless, gray world,” she says. “Who wants to live in a world where you can only stay in the lane of your birth? Literally everything good about this culture comes from mixing.”
The day after Weiss wrote “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation,” Greenwald published a full-throated takedown of a range of her opinions, calling her writing “trite, shallow, cheap.” He also accused Weiss of “crusading against Arabs, Muslims, and other assorted critics of Israel.”
It’s here where Weiss’s views draw the most passionate objections. She is an ardent Zionist, and has come to believe that much of the anti-Zionist talk on the left is tantamount to anti-Semitism, a view that many American Jews find objectionable and even infuriating. But her passion for Israel has not defined her overarching belief system—the need to protect what makes America great—and in this, she believes it’s right-wing American Jews who have lost their way. After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, where Weiss grew up, she appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and issued a warning to American Jews who aligned themselves with Trump because they like his policies: “I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain. They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people and frankly this country for forever: welcoming the stranger, dignity for all human beings, equality under the law, respect for dissent, love of truth. These are the things that we’re losing under this president. And no policy is worth that price.”
So that’s her take on Trump. If she wanted to, Weiss could criticize him in every one of her articles. But, she asks, “is our job to be a warm bath and an ideological safe space for people who we think are our readers? Or is it our job to show them the scope of opinions, legitimate opinions, that people all over this country have? I think that’s our job. But there are other people out there who apparently think the job of a newspaper is almost to be socialist realist art.”
In Squirrel Hill, the menschy, salt-of-the-earth Jewish community in which Weiss, the oldest of four sisters, grew up, opposing viewpoints were able to exist in harmony. Her father, Lou, a successful carpet salesman, is conservative (he has contributed op-eds to the Journal himself). Her mother, Amy, who worked as a makeup buyer for Kaufmann’s Department Store before joining Lou at the family company, is a liberal. They ate bacon and went to synagogue only on Yom Kippur, but, as Weiss says, “Shabbat dinner was not to be missed!” It was a busy household with neighbors coming in and out. Passionate disagreements on the Clinton impeachment, or whatever issue du jour, were a constant, and Weiss relished these debates. Intellectual strivers and do-gooders, Lou and Amy made Weiss keep journals and would pay her five dollars to read a book and write a report. If she did something wrong, her punishment was to write a lengthy letter of apology and hand-deliver it to whomever was was offended.
At her traditional high school, “where freshman girls were giving guys blow jobs in their ski houses,” Weiss says she felt excruciatingly nerdy and alienated, though she was student-council president. After high school, she took a gap year in Israel, becoming—or so she felt—a progressive, feminist Zionist. She worked in the Negev desert, helping to build a medical clinic for Bedouin, and studied at a feminist yeshiva and Hebrew University, where she took to musical theater. She came back to the States to attend Columbia, where she met and fell in love with a woman. Not just any woman but a wry fellow student named Kate McKinnon, who’s now Saturday Night Live’s premier star thanks to her spot-on impersonations of half the Beltway class (Hillary Clinton, Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mika Brzezinski, Nancy Pelosi, and more). They were on and off for several years, and remain good friends. Beyond that, Weiss won’t give details. “I’ve been in love with both men and women. I’ve been ghosted by both men and women.” But, she says, “I don’t trade on my sexual identity in that way for political points. I think that’s lame and it’s not my style.”
BILL MAHER AND WEISS DISCUSS THE #METOO MOVEMENT ON REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER LAST YEAR.
Weiss had entered college as a theater nerd but found herself, quite by accident, in the role of activist, writer, and lightning rod. She was taking classes in the Middle East department, which was largely populated, she says, by “anti-Zionist professors who were using their classrooms as a bully pulpit to promote their views—which they were entitled to do.” But there were instances that she felt crossed the line, such as the time a student who had served in the Israeli military allegedly asked a question of Professor Joseph Massad and Massad replied, “Before I answer your question, tell the group how many Palestinians you’ve killed.” (Massad has denied saying this.)
Weiss, along with a handful of other students, believed this kind of alleged behavior amounted to intimidation. They formed a group called Columbians for Academic Freedom, and Weiss began writing in the student paper The Columbia Spectator, arguing that students had a right to express their views without fear of punishment or intimidation by their teachers. Fellow students struck back, charging that Weiss and her classmates were McCarthyites out to silence professors. Indeed, some of Weiss’s current critics point to her history as evidence of hypocrisy, given her sharp stance against current student activism. Weiss insists her views are consistent, and come down to one fundamental principle. “I hate bullies. In college I protested bullying professors who used their classrooms to promote propaganda and to silence opposing views. Now I criticize bullying students who are succeeding in driving out or, at the very least, putting a bold question mark over the names of good people like Bret Weinstein and Nicholas Christakis.” Still, as her future friend Jennifer Senior wrote at the time of the Columbia controversy, in New York magazine, “Intimidation is a subjective notion, a devil without contours. What one student finds intimidating, another may find provocative, even intoxicating.”
Post-college, Weiss went to work for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Jewish newspaper The Forward. In 2007, at age 23, she got a job at The Wall Street Journal as a baby op-ed editor, did a two-year stint as an editor at the online Jewish magazine Tablet, and then returned to the Journal in 2013 as an editor of the book review. Around the same time she got married, to an environmental engineer, about whom she says, “He’s a wonderful person, and I think the world of him.”
Weiss might have stayed in the books section at the Journal, but Trump’s candidacy woke her up to her real passion: the intersection of politics and culture. She realized that she was one of the most left-wing people at the paper, a situation that became constraining. During the campaign, she tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon but was told that she “didn’t have the standing.” She wanted to write about Melania Trump’s hypocrisy with her cyber-bullying issue but wasn’t allowed to. (“Bari wrote many fine pieces for the Journal,and I don’t want to comment on work that wasn’t up to her usual standard,” then-acting op-ed editor Melanie Kirkpatrick says, referring to those proposed topics.) On the morning after Trump won, “I was sobbing, openly, at my desk. I wanted people to see how I felt about this, and what I thought it meant for the country. I realized I had to leave.” Her personal life had become frayed and disorienting, too. As much as she adored her husband, she realized that “we just operated on different speeds,” and they split up.
In April 2017, Weiss got an offer to work as both a staff editor and writer for the Times’s opinion section, under James Bennet, who was looking to expand the spectrum of ideas. As an editor, she assigned (Vanity Fair contributor) Monica Lewinsky a piece about Roger Ailes and Fox News’s toxic environment, and she commissioned a piece by Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Olympics gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. While those articles fit comfortably into the Times’s progressive zone, her own did not. In “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” she took on the babe.net story in which an anonymous woman accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct because he didn’t respond to her “nonverbal cues” during their date. Weiss charged that “Grace” had every opportunity to walk out, and that her story denied women agency. Some feminists weren’t pleased with Weiss’s take. Gabriella Kamran, an editor at U.C.L.A.’s feminist news magazine, FEM, tweeted, “Hey Bari, please do feminism and the entire profession of journalism a favor and stop writing.” But Weiss had hit a nerve, including among Times readers. To them—and to some prominent feminist writers—Weiss was expressing a valid and growing fear about the movement’s overreach, a fear some were reluctant to state in public.
It was around this time Bill Maher took notice of Weiss, finding in her a kindred spirit in an increasingly lonely camp. “We’re trying to get ‘liberal’ back into liberalism,” he says. The two had never met before she appeared on his show in February 2018 to discuss #MeToo, but their interchange had an affectionate familiarity. With all the talk about pain and sexual violation, Weiss asked, “whatever happened to intimacy and love and romance?” Fellow guest April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, chimed in, “I want to be courted!… Courted but with boundaries,” she added. Weiss was a hit, says Maher: “I always say, ‘She’s my new star.’ The public has taken notice.”
Indeed, as Weiss and I discuss her appearance on Maher, we are approached by a middle-aged couple who’ve been eavesdropping.
“Alright, I have to interrupt,” says the woman. “We did see you on Maher. I loved you.” Her husband adds, “For our generation, it’s important that there’s a voice like yours.” Weiss tells them that they’ve made her day and gets their stories. They’re from the Upper West Side, but now live in Vermont, near Burlington.
“It’s Bernie country,” the woman explains.
“You Bernie people?” Weiss asks.
But Weiss’s growing visibility was galling to the hard-left Twittersphere. In February of last year, Weiss gave them an opportunity to show it. After Japanese-American ice skater Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel, Weiss tweeted out a video of Nagasu, along with the caption, “Immigrants. They get the job done,” referencing a line from Hamilton. Nagasu, though a child of immigrants, was born in California. When this was pointed out on Twitter, Weiss tweeted back, “Yes, yes, I realize. Felt the poetic license was kosher.” Well, it wasn’t kosher. She was called a racist for the tweet. She also got the pronoun in the lyric wrong—it’s “Immigrants, we get the job done,” not “they.” “You ‘othered’ a U.S. citizen because she is not Caucasian,” tweeted someone. Weiss says she meant to celebrate both the skater and the idea of immigrants, but this was a good moment for a pile-on: “Bari Weiss is a professional Bad Opinion–haver.” “Fitting that her last name is Weiss.” Etc.
The magnitude of her crime ballooned into her own workplace. A handful of staffers at The New York Times took to their group-chat Slack channel to complain about Weiss. “That tweet denied Mirai her full citizenship just as the internment did,” wrote one staffer, who believed the tweet constituted one more “microaggression” within The New York Times. A transcript of the conversation was given to HuffPost, which posted it on the site under the headline leaked chat transcripts: new york times employees are pissed about bari weiss.
Weiss tries to be sanguine about the nature of Twitter. “There’s nothing to do other than push forward and prove to people by the way you are in the world, and your behavior and what you write, your character and who you are,” she says. But the messaging among her colleagues was different. “I could sit here and tell you that that didn’t hurt me. But of course it did hurt me. The amazing thing is, not one of those [colleagues] wrote me an e-mail or said, ‘I disagreed with your tweet or your article. Want to have coffee and talk about it?’” Bennet, her boss, attests that “anybody who knows Bari realizes what a generous colleague she is. And what an openness she herself brings to these conversations.”
Last May, fresh horror was unleashed on Twitter when a random tweeter revealed Weiss used to date McKinnon, a certified cool person. “It’s very unsettling!!!” tweeted Brandy Jensen, an editor at The Outline.
Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, offered some soothing words: “Following up to emphasize that as unsettling as this might be who among us has not made extremely questionable dating choices at one time or another?”
More wrong people started falling for her, like Times reporter Nellie Bowles, a former Vicenews correspondent, who began posting photos of them together on Instagram. They’ve been dating for a year. (Bowles herself wrote the definitive takedown of Jordan Peterson just 10 days after he featured in Weiss’s “Intellectual Dark Web” story.)
Along with Maher came other famous liberal fans, including writer and L.B.G.T.Q. activist Dan Savage, who has become a friend. “With someone like Bari—someone people on my side drag to virtue-signal—there’s a temptation to cover your butt with ‘Now I don’t agree with everything she writes …,’” he says, “But, really, who couldn’t you say that about? I sometimes read stuff I wrote 10 years ago—or 10 months ago—that I don’t agree with anymore. Bari does good and interesting work and she’s a kind and lovely person. If liking Bari makes me a bad lefty, well, so be it.”
“It’s maddening for her critics,” says her friend Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet. “They would love for somebody who doesn’t share their politics to seem musty and unsexy.”
With every new career development, the attacks come. In August, when The New York Times announced it would send Weiss to Australia as part of an effort to expand readership, Jeet Heer of The New Republic tweeted, “The prospect of Bari Weiss in Australia is, frankly, terrifying.” A few weeks later, when The New Yorker decided to rescind its invitation to Steve Bannon to participate in the magazine’s festival—after readers and staffers protested—New Yorker food correspondent and frequent Weiss critic Helen Rosner tweeted, “Somewhere in Australia, Bari Weiss’s delicately filigreed Hebrew nameplate necklace just started pulsing a pure white light against her clavicle,” a reference to Batman.
When Weiss announced she would write a book about the need to recover a civic culture, “As If We Haven’t Suffered Enough, Bari Weiss Got a Book Deal,” went the headline on the Web site splinternews.com. (Weiss’s first book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, comes out in September.)
“The animating energy right now in the culture is destruction,” says Weiss. “The casual dehumanization, from the left and the right, is so appalling to me.” Bennet shares the concern. “It’s just a crazy, terrible environment right now,” he says, noting that one of his writers was recently verbally accosted and another, a left-leaning one, received a death threat.
In December, Weiss and Eve Peyser, a young social-media dynamo and progressive writer at Vice, wrote a Times column together, examining all the hate. The two women met at the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer. They had been aware of each other from social media and regarded each other with mutual distaste. “I used to watch her Twitter feed in terror that she was going to come after me,” says Weiss. “Hating [Bari] was the natural position for me to adopt,” Peyser wrote. Neither of them knew many people at the conference and so decided to hang out. They talked and talked—about religion, their childhoods, the pernicious nature of social media—and, lo and behold, became friends.
Peyser was genuinely terrified to tell this rather innocuous story of female friendship, a measure of the hard left’s power to intimidate. She recalls, “I couldn’t sleep, because I knew people would flip out at me and call me a bad person.” Indeed, Peyser got a beating. Among the many angry tweets the piece received were these from Rosner: “It’s vanishingly rare that anyone is a full-on oozing shithead one-on-one.” And, “I like Eve. I think I understand what she thought she was doing. It makes me so sad.”
“I’m usually pretty appalled by the perspective and issues that Bari has decided to use her considerable platform to amplify,” Rosner wrote to me in an e-mail. “Even more, I find her apparent bafflement at being joked about and criticized—even as she has made her profession out of diminishing and criticizing people with whom she disagrees—to be cut from the same flimsy moral fabric as her public opinions.”
Weiss is still trying to have a discourse without sacrificing her views. In a January column about Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress (and lately the target of Islamophobic attacks from the president), Weiss raised alarm about a tweet of Omar’s from 2012—“Israel has hypnotized the world”—pointing out that her word choice was classic anti-Semitic rhetoric. Without retracting her criticism of Israel, Omar sincerely apologized for her language, and replied to Weiss that she had learned that “my use of the word ‘hypnotize’ and the ugly sentiment it holds was offensive.” Weiss thanked her and invited her into the Times office to share her views with editors.
And what of the snark-happy would-be journalists of Generation Y? As it happens, Gabriella Kamran, the U.C.L.A. student who had tweeted that Bari Weiss should “do feminism and the entire profession of journalism a favor and STOP WRITING,” revised her view about Weiss after a synagogue meeting last spring. “That tweet epitomizes everything that is wrong with Twitter,” Kamran told me. “I was partially motivated by the desire for likes and re-tweets, wanting to cultivate a brand on Twitter. It was at Bari’s expense, knowing that she, like me, is a complex person.”
UPDATE: This article has been amended to clarify positions held by Nellie Bowles and Jennifer Senior.
A version of this story appears in the May 2019 issue.