An Inclusive Litany

3/21/03

British Conservative Parliament member Boris Johnson writes in the London Spectator of his odd experience being solicited for a New York Times op-ed piece on the subject of British-American relations in the period leading up to the Iraq war.

After being told by the op-ed editor of several unobjectionable copy edits that represented minor variations between British and American terminology, Johnson writes that he started to get a "floaty, out-of-body sensation" when asked to change a sentence criticizing diplomatic maneuvering in the United Nations Security Council. "I had said something to the effect that you don't make international law by giving new squash courts to the President of Guinea," says Johnson. Instead, "Guinea" was changed to "Chile," another country currently occupying one of the rotating chairs in the Security Council. Johnson was told it would be "easier in principle if we don't say anything deprecatory about a black African country" if it didn't affect his overall point. Fine, Johnson said, South America it is.

Next, the editor insisted on removing a passage asserting that many people influenced by the anti-war cause had developed a psychological need for a disastrous outcome. "To illustrate the point, I noted that the last Gulf war had been so amazingly free of casualties that Gulf war syndrome (a stochastically unexceptional ragbag of symptoms) had been invented to fill the void, and to satisfy the yearning of the anti-war brigade for catastrophe." The editor said the passage would have to be removed because the Times took Gulf war syndrome very seriously. Johnson was incredulous. While he conceded it was a bit provocative, wasn't that the point of journalism? And since it was in an op-ed, could anyone mistake it for an opinion of the editorial board? But the editor was inflexible on this point, and the passage came out.

Finally, after an hour on the phone discussing the article, the editor took issue with the first sentence: "Gee, thanks, guys," a sarcastic reference to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's undiplomatic offer to proceed with the war without Britain's help should Prime Minister Tony Blair's support suddenly collapse. "All right, it was a bit colloquial," admits Johnson, but the sentence was also snappy and "for the life of me, I couldn't see why" it would have to be removed. Eventually, he got his answer: "Gee" is supposedly an abbreviation for Jesus. Johnson paraphrases the editor: "For a century this has been a Jewish-owned paper, and we have to be extremely sensitive about anything that might offend Christian sensibilities. We can say God, God is fine, but we have to be very careful about anything that involves the name of the Lord and Saviour."

Johnson describes his reaction: "Jesus H. Christ... this is insane. This is utterly insane. I really think we ought to try to get that one in...." Later, after consulting with his superiors, the editor allowed the word "Gee" to stay in the article.

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