Of course, colleges and universities are not the only institutions in our culture that seem to be in a race to render themselves ever more trivial and superficial. There are also various dispensers of news and comment—The New York Times, to take one prominent example. Like many others, we have often had occasion to reflect on what has happened to the Times in recent years: the blurring of the traditional distinction between news reporting and blatant editorializing, the shocking poverty of its cultural coverage, the subjection of nearly every aspect of the paper to an obsession with “lifestyle” and so-called human interest stories. We believed—foolishly, as it turned out—that we had inured ourselves to the worst that the Times could deliver. But as the old adage has it, if you can say “This is the worst,” then worse is yet to come. And so it was to be with the Times. Many readers will have their own catalogue of fatuous stories that have appeared on the front page of our Paper of Record. It constitutes an embarrassment of … well, an embarrassment, anyway. But even we were not prepared for the front-page story, complete with color photograph, called “Two Experts Do Battle Over Potty Training.” The President of the United States was being impeached; Russia was sinking further into chaos; most of Europe was in the process of transforming itself into a German colony; but the Times devotes a large portion of its front-page (and half an inside page) to rival theories about toilet training. There was some poetic justice, perhaps, in the fact that this story appeared below the fold, but above the fold a long story about rumors that the basketball player Michael Jordan was set to retire competed heartily with genuinely newsworthy items. (When Mr. Jordan finally did announce his retirement, he got the sort of front-page treatment formerly reserved for major bank crashes or mid-level political assassinations.) Which is worse, the politicization of the Times or its trivialization? The story about potty training showed that all bets are off. From the archives of academic publishing: “Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self and the Other In Queer in Russia Laurie Essig examines the formation of gay identity and community in the former Soviet Union. As a sociological field worker she began her research during the late 1980s, before any kind of a public queer identity existed in that country. After a decade of conducting interviews, as well as observing and analyzing plays, books, pop music, and graffiti, Essig presents the first sustained study of how and why there was no Soviet gay community or even gay identity before perestroika and the degree to which this situation has—or has not—changed.” A lead item in the “General Interest” section of the Spring 1999 list from Duke University Press.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 6, on page 3
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