Opinion | ‘Let’s Talk About “Personal Responsibility”’: A Year of Tough Conversations in the Comments

This has been a tumultuous 12 months, a harrowing ride through the pandemic and elections, racial injustices and civic turmoil. Through it all, in your comments, you’ve shared your fears, frustrations and anger, but also hope, humor and much wisdom. In the process, you helped document this extraordinary year.

We took a look at some of our most popular and moving pieces of 2020 and asked the authors to pick just one comment that resonated with them (not an easy task, given the quality of your contributions) and respond to it. Some chose comments that sparked deeper debate or helped hone perspective; others chose one that evoked a visceral response — in a few cases, even tears.

Your voices are a vital part of our community at Opinion. Thank you for a year of thoughtful, engaging conversation. We look forward to more in 2021.

‘It was an act of kindness to tell me this’ — Jennifer Senior

Mary in Dallas on “Happiness Won’t Save You” (Nov. 24):

My 47 year old son died of suicide a few weeks ago. I think about it for the majority of my waking hours, and I often dream about it. I read everything I can find to try to understand it enough to forgive him and myself. Reading this article, and many of the comments added by readers, is like getting a message from my son. I am very grateful.

Jennifer: Thank you for this beautiful note, which made me cry when I read it. It was an act of kindness to tell me this. It let me know my work has meaning, and I don’t always feel that way. And it was an act of generosity, too, letting those who are quietly suffering know that they are by no means alone in their grief.

I received many letters after this piece appeared. The most common, by far, was from people whose loved ones had died by suicide. At first, I was surprised. But in hindsight, I should not have been: As I wrote in the story, the irremediable pain of the suicidal is all too frequently passed along to those they leave behind. Writing, commenting, talking — these are some of the only ways survivors have to work their tortured emotions through. I can only hope that, as Roxane Cohen Silver’s work has shown, you will one day come to terms with your loss, even if you can’t make sense of it.

I am so, so sorry about your son, Mary.

‘By all means, let’s talk about “personal responsibility”’ — Nicholas Kristof

Carol in Berkeley, Calif., on “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” (Jan. 9):

So long as poverty is seen as an individual or cultural failing (e.g. the culture of poverty which was linked to race, even though the evidence was nonexistent) we will not treat this with the seriousness it deserves. Yes, every individual has responsibility for their lives. But pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, after we take away not only your boots but your capacity to buy or make boots is unfair and is also emblematic of how poverty is understood. We need to understand that collectively this costs us all — both morally and financially. The solution is collective. It is jobs that pay a living wage, it is opportunities for upward mobility for oneself and one’s children, it is training for these jobs and it is a real safety net. Will some people still be poor? Will they self destruct? Of course. But the numbers will be far smaller. And we will be far richer as a society.

Nick: This observation by Carol struck me as exactly right. One of America’s mistakes over the last half century was to go too far down the track of extolling “personal responsibility” and haranguing people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. When an infant in three counties in the United States has a shorter life expectancy than an infant in Bangladesh, that’s not because the American newborn is making “bad choices”; it’s because we as a country are. So by all means, let’s talk about “personal responsibility” — it’s real — but also about our collective responsibility to help America’s children and give them a fighting chance to succeed.

‘America’s daughters — my own teenager among them — received quite a political education’ — Michelle Cottle

Woman in Iowa on “Elizabeth Warren Had a Good Run. Maybe Next Time, Ladies.” (March 4):

I have no idea how to face my 7-yr-old daughter tonight who keeps asking if Warren won. She watched me caucus for Warren in Iowa and is highly curious why we don’t have many female leaders in our country. It doesn’t help that she knows about female political leaders and activists from India, my birth country, including her great-grandmother who was an activist herself.

I am personally devastated that after all the women’s marches and pink hats and what not, the “liberal” party comes up with two bitter bickering old white men, both of whom have personally mansplained to Warren at different times in her career.

Michelle: I heard this kind of heartbreak and frustration from more than one reader, and it got me every time. America’s daughters — my own teenager among them — received quite a political education these past four years, much of it dismaying. But witnessing the up-and-coming generations of kick-ass women demand better and push for progress offered both reassurance and inspiration. And while Joe Biden certainly isn’t changing the face of the presidency, his choice of Kamala Harris as a running mate means there will be a Madame Vice President for the first time ever. This is another step forward. Our daughters are watching.

‘We have to acknowledge and confront these existing problems’ — Wajahat Ali

8theist in Stowe, Vt., on “What Makes You Think 2021 Will Be Better?” (Dec. 16):

I think you’re missing a key story here. We are all driven by some variable sense of hope or doom relative to what’s to come. The on-the-ground things won’t change much. In fact with climate change raging and right wing bubbles getting tighter and the economy worsening from Covid fall out, things will actually get worse. But to know that we are no longer at the will and whim of a terrible leader, that our global allies are back in the trenches with us, and to know the man and woman running the country are genuinely trying to make this county better. That hope helps me sleep, plan, spend and invest with more confidence.

Wajahat: I agree that the Biden-Harris administration will bring forth principled, experienced leadership that replaces the corrupt cruelty and buffoonery of Trump’s presidency, which has revealed and exalted the worst demons of our country. I refuse to be a cynic, and remain hopeful. However, to ensure that we move this country toward progress and success, we have to acknowledge and confront these existing problems with fierce dedication and resolve. We can and should exhale; we’ve earned it. But there’s no rest for me yet. Much work must be done.

‘Let me challenge you on the subject of unemployment’ — Bret Stephens

Bruce L in Sharon, Mass., on “Groupthink Has Left the Left Blind” (Nov. 17):

One can’t keep trying to rationalize Trump or Trumpism by pointing to the fact that unemployment was low — it is not like under a Democrat the rate would have been much different. Trump is unworthy of the office and trying to conceive of a rationale as to why he gets out the vote other than the love of a pseudo macho man who spews hate (“he tells it like it is”) is plain wrong — if I can be so black and white.

Bret: Thanks for this note, Bruce. I agree completely with your broad point about Trump’s unfitness for office. But let me challenge you on the subject of unemployment. If, as many prominent economists predicted in 2016, the U.S. economy had taken a nosedive in Trump’s first years in office, would his critics, including you, not have blamed him? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s fair to have it both ways: Blaming Trump when things go wrong, while refusing to give him credit when things go right. Trump inherited a reasonably good economy, but — until the pandemic — it got better in nearly every respect, including wage growth for the bottom half. That’s a fact that needs to be acknowledged for the sake of intellectual honesty.

In my five-plus years of covering Trump as a columnist, I’ve tried to give him credit where I think it’s due. I feel I owe that to every politician I’ve ever covered. I hope that makes my overall verdict about his presidency — the most disastrous in U.S. history since James Buchanan’s — that much more stinging.

‘Our own innocence isn’t the point.’ — Margaret Renkl

JRC in N.Y.C. on “An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians” (June 8):

Not buying it at all. I was born white into a Christian family. Didn’t do it on purpose. And feel no guilt for it. I’ve never oppressed anyone. Or abused anyone. My faith? Just means I treat everyone I meet with love and respect. I’m not responsible for what Christians did three or four hundred years ago, for goodness sake. All any of us can be responsible for is how we wake up in the morning every day and treat people with loving kindness. That is what being a white Christian is. And a black Christian is. And an Asian and Latin American Christian is.

Margaret: I understand why people who have done no harm and feel no malice bristle when grouped with those who cause enormous harm and who feel actual malice. But implicating Christianity in white supremacy is not the same thing as implicating every white Christian, and that’s why the column mentions by name many who are working for positive change.

I chose this comment because the writer lives in New York, not in the South, but the argument here echoes what Southerners often say in the context of race generally: I didn’t own slaves. I didn’t make anyone sit at the back of the bus. Why should I feel guilty for atrocities committed by earlier generations?

My response to that question is the same as my response to this commenter: Our own innocence isn’t the point. We live in a culture that remains saturated with racism, and so we are morally obliged to recognize the ways in which we have benefited from that system and to work passionately for its reform. It’s true that Christians should treat everyone we meet with love and respect, as this commenter does. But surely that’s not enough in a country where these senseless murders keep playing out right in front of our eyes. I’m convinced it would not be enough for Jesus Christ. Why is it enough for so many of my fellow white Christians?

‘As if we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world’ — Paul Krugman

Holly in Canada on “The Cult of Selfishness Is Killing America” (July 27):

Here’s the thing: We are in the middle of a global pandemic, not an American pandemic, so the U.S. has the world to look to for examples on how to best control this virus if necessary. In Canada, we were given guidance based on science, advancing stages based on rates of infection in each province so we could safely reopen our economy. The difference is trust, trust that our governments, both federal and provincial, will protect us over petty politics. We have a duty to one another and we are reminded of that duty by our leaders. If you are not willing to do what it takes to protect your entire community, not just your tribe, then you are destined to fail.

Paul: This gets at one of my enduring gripes about the way we discuss policy in America — namely, as if we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world. It’s not just the presumption of American superiority — I still run into people who are sure that we have the world’s highest life expectancy, when we actually die a lot younger than people in other rich countries. It’s the way we don’t learn from policy successes abroad. It’s not just the pandemic: Every other advanced country has universal health care, yet we talk as if that’s an unattainable goal. These days, nations are the laboratories of democracy, but we’re too insular to learn from their experience.

‘Was it possible to cover this territory without making readers want to throw themselves out a window?’ — Gail Collins

Scott O’Pottamus in Right Here On The Left on “Vote for Trump’s Worst!” (Aug. 5):

Ms. Collins,

How dare you make light of the tragedy that is our Trump Administration! It is offensive that you find humor in a situation that is devoid of both light and humor. Why can’t you just write a column telling us how awful this so-called President Trump is? Why must you search for a light moment when you could instead choose to dwell on the darkness, rot, slime, and stench of this awful Administration?

Stop being funny, Madame! Be morose, please! Dagnabbit!

Gail: I get a lot of letters along your line, Scott, so I appreciate the chance to comment. It goes back to a time when I was working for one of the New York tabloids as a city politics columnist. At that time, said politics were really, really bad and involved a lot of indictments. One day as I was posting another enraged column, I wondered, was it possible to cover this territory without making readers want to throw themselves out a window? That’s sorta been my mission ever since, and Trump has made it pretty easy.

‘I’m always worried about my role as an amplifier’ — Charlie Warzel

LindaP in Boston on “Protesting for the Freedom to Catch the Coronavirus” (April 19):

Why the outsized coverage? Why have I — and I’m sure many like me, who follow the news rabidly — felt these protests were a wave across the country? They have not been presented as large rallies, true. Nor have they been reported as “at most, hundreds.” Seems to me this entire nonsensical, dangerous movement would have been best left ignored. How many more now have doubt in the science, in what is safe, where doubt did not exist before because of the media coverage? This is almost as disturbing as the protests.

Charlie: I really appreciate this type of criticism from readers as it is the kind that sharpens my own thinking on what I choose to write about and how I frame it. As somebody who covers a lot of fringe-y subjects, I’m always worried about my role as an amplifier. I think that — broadly speaking — the press is pretty uncritical about what we deem newsworthy when, in reality, it is all a choice.

For this particular column, I actually agonized a bit over whether to give this protest movement the oxygen it was looking for. Ultimately, I saw the group’s tactics as important and felt that, even though the protests were small, they were indicative of something larger in American political culture that deserves understanding. My hope was, with the right context, that exploration would be useful. But I really appreciate that readers are asking these hard questions and challenging me on it. Frequently, they bring up something that I hadn’t considered and that informs how I tackle similar subjects on the next go-round.

‘Sometimes I think religion must be the last remaining taboo’— Linda Greenhouse

JM in Palm Springs, Fla., on “Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Choice” (Dec. 3):

I’ve been waiting for you to weigh in on this. I say if churches want to disregard our laws go ahead and do so, but not with exemption from federal taxes. Why should we, the taxpayers, subsidize the overtly political actions of thousands of religious groups? Republicans have effectively ended I.R.S. oversight and prosecution through intimidation and loss of funding. This nation needs to decide if we are a secular society in which one is free to practice whatever faith one chooses or a religious state which imposes its notions on our laws and their faithful execution. As you suggest, this insignificant action is freighted with dire implications for the future. We ignore it at our peril.

Linda: I’m always heartened — who wouldn’t be? — by a reader who says, “I’ve been waiting to hear what you think.” JM clearly knows I’ve been writing a lot about the Supreme Court’s religion cases and understands why I’m concerned about the court’s increasing deference to religion above all else, such as the right not to be discriminated against. I don’t think this trend gets enough attention — sometimes I think religion must be the last remaining taboo — so I plan to keep at it.

I completely sympathize with your situation’ — David Brooks

Mark in Missouri on “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever” (Feb. 28):

As a member of Gen Z, the points Brooks makes are exactly why I and many of my generation support Bernie and his cause. I don’t want to implement communism, I just want to be able to get a job that actually pays me enough to pay off my student loans, not have 50 percent of my income go toward rent, and be able to retire. I don’t care about keeping my doctor or having to wait in lines to see one, I just don’t want to pay $1,500 plus for an X-ray.

But please, continue to tell us that we don’t know what we want, sabotage who we support, and continue to marginalize us. Keep alienating the soon-to-be largest voting block in the U.S. while you’re starting to retire and depend on the social systems; I’m sure that will end great for you.

David: Mark, I completely sympathize with your situation. Millennial and Gen Z workers are getting hammered by high housing, school and health care costs. I just think you’re more likely to get relief under a Biden presidency than you would if Sanders had won the nomination. In the first place, it’s highly unlikely Sanders would have been elected. Democrats were beaten in 2020 in congressional and state legislative races across the country. The only Democrat who could have won the presidency was Biden, in my view, precisely because he overperformed among suburban moderates who’d given Trump a chance in 2016. Beating Trump was Job 1, and Sanders was ill suited to that task.

Second, even if Sanders had been elected, passing bills requires the ability to compromise. In his decades in Congress, he has not been a productive legislator because of his unwillingness to do that. He never would have won over even moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin, let alone the bipartisan group we just saw write the Covid relief compromise. My column started from the assumption that we live in an evenly divided, pluralistic society. We need leaders who can flourish within that complex system, not leaders who undermine the legitimacy of that system or overturn it through some imaginary mass uprising that will never come.

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond.

‘What’s so gutting is the element of random chance in our downfall.’ — Michelle Goldberg

Dupuis in Paris on “Can Mitch McConnell Be Stopped?” (Sept. 19):

The old Republican world is actually the one dying. Justice Ginsburg’s ideals will prevail sooner or later. Be confident that the U.S. some day will become again a country the world envies. It might take time and patience but compassion and understanding will survive and thrive again. U.S. citizens will find the peaceful means to resist and win the battle for a better country.

Michelle: I think I used to believe this — that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t think I do anymore. I certainly don’t think the United States will ever again be the envy of the world; I’m not even sure how it survives as a functioning democracy. And part of what’s so gutting is the element of random chance in our downfall. Yes, our current predicament is the culmination of long-term structural forces. But had 80,000 votes in three states gone the other way in 2016, the Supreme Court would be a force for justice rather than reaction for the foreseeable future. Had Ginsburg lived a little longer, we could have saved Roe v. Wade and many other laws protecting civil rights, workers’ rights and the environment. But she died, and so, I suspect, did the America I once expected my children to inherit.

‘It is to appreciate the magnitude of relief we’re experiencing’ — Frank Bruni

Allison in Colorado on “After That Fiasco, Biden Should Refuse to Debate Trump Again” (Sept. 30):

Last night, I think I was too gobsmacked by the spectacle to form coherent thoughts about the debate, but this morning I feel overwhelmed with grief. Tears are welling in my eyes as I fathom another four years of Trump in the White House. It is, quite simply, unbearable even to imagine.

Frank: To read this now is to be reacquainted, in the most poignant way, with how titanically much this election meant to the tens of millions of Americans who, like me, felt that Trump was a very grave danger and, almost minute by minute, a soul-corroding insult to basic American decency. It is to appreciate the magnitude of relief we’re experiencing at the end of this terrifying and tumultuous year. It is to be grateful: Sometimes, at a crucial time, we get the second chance we so acutely need.

‘I am used to being on the receiving end of harsh words’ — Jennifer Finney Boylan

Norma Manna Blum in Washington, D.C., on “Time Won’t Let Me Wait That Long” (Dec. 9):

Beautiful Boylan:

I love it when I don’t quite understand what moves me so in the shared experiences of a stranger. Ergo, today’s column which made, willy nilly, the tears to flow. And then, I went out into the nearly deserted streets of East Hollywood and walked about trying to make sense of who we are in our present isolation and incomprehension.

And then to home to wrap my old Timex watch in a copy of your column and bury the small parcel in my garden. Perhaps one day someone will find my gift and understand that what I was trying, dying, to say is “I was here. And I tried. And I am still trying.”

Jenny: It may be that I am used to being on the receiving end of harsh words, especially when I mention trans issues. Or maybe I just like making people cry. But every last comment on this column about my visit to a clock-repair store was generous and sweet. I wonder if the topic — the way time has frozen in 2020, and our yearning for our clocks to start ticking again — just hit a nerve. Or maybe people are more sentimental than I thought. In this comment, Norma Blum spoke of burying her watch, wrapped in this column, in her garden. In response, it was my turn to get all teary for a change.

I am so grateful for my readers at Times Opinion, and look forward to hearing more of their reactions in 2021.

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