Better to mock the Epstein-Biden story than to censor it

Hilarious condemnation is much better than a takedown

Tim Wu

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Joseph Epstein is a 1980s-style villain (this isn’t him though)

Late last week, Joseph Epstein wrote a ridiculous and insulting opinion column for the Wall St. Journal. It suggested that Jill Biden, holder of an educational doctorate, not a medical doctorate, should not call herself “Doctor.”

It was a weak, insulting column that relied on a dated snobbery and evident sexism to try to diminish Jill Biden. Indeed it was a flashback to a older, pre-Trump conservatism — more 1980s National Review than Breitbart — when conservatives liked to think of themselves as a kind of self-restrained upper class who defined themselves by their disdain for the striving classes. (Think of your average 80s teen villain, like Steff McKee from “Pretty in Pink.”)

The 2020s backlash to this 1980s sexism has been powerful and has included calls for the Wall Street Journal to retract the column, but that would be a mistake. For it is far better to defeat than to censor; to miss out on the devastating reactions would be to miss out on something important.

While Epstein has some tepid defenders (mainly trying to attack the attackers and gin up a partisan battle) he has nearly none on the merits. Instead, the reaction shows a near-unified contempt for such dated snobbery and sexism. Epstein has ended up dating and damaging himself, while the backlash itself is an important contribution.

I’m influenced in my views by John Stuart Mill who in his defense of free speech made an important but subtle point about the importance of testing received wisdom. As Mill once put it “however true [a view] may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” Censorship driven by infallibility can be bad for you even even if you’re pretty sure you have truth on your side. Better to give your received wisdom the occasional workout and see how well the engine is running.

This — the power of engagement — has been well demonstrated by the Epstein reaction. Monica Hesse, writing in the Washington Post, wrote a take-down that was devastatingly hilarious:

We could go on picking things apart at the sentence level, but it becomes…

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Tim Wu

Professor at Columbia University; author of “The Curse of Bigness,” “The Attention Merchants,” and “The Master Switch;” veteran of Silicon Valley & Obama Admin.