On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times announced that it would be hiring Quinn Norton as an editorial board member. Shortly before 10 p.m., the paper fired her. Norton has been a prolific tech journalist—covering issues ranging from bioethics to the Anonymous movement for publications like Wired and the Atlantic—and seemed initially to be a remarkably good pick to become the Times’ lead opinion writer “on the power, culture, and consequences of technology.”
The hours between her hiring and firing were an object lesson in all three.
A number of unflattering facts about Norton traveled quickly across social media. She is a long-time friend of Andrew Auernheimer, better known online as “weev,” one of the two men behind the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. Norton described her friendship with Weev in a 2014 profile of him published at Medium:
I must say at once that this man is someone I count as a friend. I have written him and sent him a book, which I doubt he has received. He has spent much of his recent time in solitary, and is being punished with various forms of isolation available to his captors. I can’t write about my friend’s incarceration with detached journalistic distance. I won’t pretend to, nor even that the laws he is convicted of breaking are neutrally distant things. They are laws that have dogged my life and my community for years, incoherently and violently striking down computer experts like car accidents or cancer. They are a hated and random fate.
[…] He laughs too loud and too long. His brain is a cavern of facts, which he can bring to mind quickly, and generally does to cause as much offense as possible. Weev has an impressive intellect, employed as it is towards the general discomfort. His hair and beard, fine and unkempt, give his head the feel of being too large for his body. His skin is pale, and he often talks like a white supremacist, at least around people that are likely to react to such things.
Of course, Weev is notorious not for his racism in the company of his friends and acquaintances, but for his status as one of the chief promoters of racial terrorism in America—through both his work for the Daily Stormer and other his other postings online, including his guide to converting others to white supremacy. It includes the following passage:
Antagonize! Make flagrant references to a Day of the Rope, lynchings, mass murder. Push against any sense of propriety they have. Notice in the above conversation I am asked if I would hang Obama, and my answer is unequivocally yes. The speaker is looking a way to have their old worldview reconciled with the truth they are being confronted with. Don’t give them any room to cuck themselves. When asked questions like this, assert extremely strongly that yes, all nignogs and mongrels must be purged without exception.
Norton has been confronted about her friendship with Weev on social media several times. She has typically responded with both denunciations of his views and refusals to allow social media critics to “police her friendships.”
In tweets on Tuesday evening, she reiterated that she doesn’t agree with weev. “I don’t support weev, that’s not given in how I define friendship,” she wrote. “I believe white folks should engage with the racists in their life and I believe all people are redeemable, and ‘all people’ is all people.” This reads like a suggestion that sticking with a man whose primary occupation has been promoting a movement that has killed or injured more than 100 people over the past four years is akin to keeping up with a friend from high school who tells off-color jokes.
As critics of her hire noted, Norton’s old tweets are also littered with slurs.
“I’ve been a queer activist since 1992,” Norton wrote in a tweet explaining her language. “But when I speak to communities, I used their language to do it.” Her old tweets do suggest she holds a number of socially progressive views. For instance, she has forcefully condemned rape and assault apologia in the wake of #MeToo; defended trans pronouns; and has written about the need for white people to reckon seriously with the history of American racism, which, evidently, does not require that white people sacrifice friendships with those who call for the lynching of black people. One reading of all this is that Norton also believed her use of intentionally transgressive language and her acquaintances on the far right could build credibility within the regressive communities she covered and to some extent was part of—the hackers and digital freedom advocates that inhabit the rowdier corners of the web.
Many in those corners would have been impressed with a Medium post Norton wrote in 2013 titled “The Morality of John Rabe.” “John Rabe is my personal patron saint of moral complexity,” it began. “Rabe was a Nazi who died after the war in 1950, broken and poor. 76 years ago this week, he started a committee that led to him being known as a ‘living Buddha’ in China. There is nothing higher that can be said of a person than this.”
Rabe was a German businessman and staunch Nazi party member who in 1937, through his leadership of the safety zone in Nanking, played a significant role in saving more than 200,000 people from the massacres that would follow the Japanese occupation of the city. Although Rabe was not in Germany during Hitler’s rise, rabid anti-Semitism had been unambiguously established within the party’s ideology and program well before his heroics in China. The Nuremberg Laws, for one, had been instituted in 1935. Norton acknowledges this in her piece. “Rabe appeared to have understood something of the disposition of Nazis towards Jews,” she wrote. “In Nanking he took in a German friend whose career was ended by having a Jewish ancestor. But he blamed the Jewish ancestor for his friend’s misfortune, not his beloved Nazis.”
From Rabe’s story, Norton draws a broad conclusion about the human condition. “For me there is only this in the story of John Rabe: there are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity,” she wrote. “There is just an uncomfortable pause, where you can let history crowd in on you. The best you can do is be quiet in the face of the terrible contradictions, and try to figure out what the next right thing is.”
There will be much speculation over the coming days about whether the Times thoroughly inspected Norton’s social media posts and writings. If they didn’t, it will have been a remarkable coincidence that they hired a writer whose core worldview resembles the Times’ inclination toward false balance taken to an existential extreme.
Maybe we’ve gotten to the point where it can be considered political correctness, or thought policing, or SJWism to insist that evil exists in the world, and that human beings’ infinite complexity shouldn’t prevent us from rendering judgements on individual people based on the balance of their beliefs and actions. Hopefully not. Because some people are, clearly, better or worse than others. Rabe, while not as immoral as Hitler, fares very poorly in moral comparison with history’s many grand humanitarians who did not subscribe to an ideology that killed 6 million Jews.
Norton’s apparent belief to the contrary—that complicated people are best evaluated with a simple and universalizing ambivalence— would not, for an ideal newspaper, be among the traits sought in a hire tasked with analyzing “power.” But the Times, for all its virtues and public value, is not an ideal newspaper. Norton succeeded instantly, without even trying, in generating the kind of controversy the paper seems to be actively courting with the work of Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens. Unlike those writers, Norton’s job didn’t keep. If the Times had kept her on, it would have been fascinating to see whether she would have pursued the route the other two have taken.