When everyone was making fun of Mara Gay and Brian Williams last week for saying on MSNBC that, for the $500 million Michael Bloomberg had spent on his failed campaign for the presidency, he could have given everyone in the country a million dollars, I felt a bit sorry for her — a bit less sorry for him — not least because she was only repeating something she had read on Twitter. That was her real mistake. Ms Gay, an ornament of The New York Times’s editorial board, had said on Mr Williams’s show: "Somebody tweeted recently that actually with the money he spent, he could have given every American a million dollars." It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. Not only had she and Mr Williams obviously discussed this calculation beforehand, but the whole production staff had to have known of it in order to put together a graphic of the tweet in question. No one spotted the error. For the same reason, more of the ridicule that greeted the segment, at least more of what I heard or read, was directed at Mr Williams and MSNBC, rather than her.
But it turns out that she doesn’t want my pity. She (though obviously not Mr Williams, who is white) is just another brave, noble, persecuted victim of racism in America, and nobody’s going to take that away from her. Writing in The New York Times today, she proclaims that "My People Have Been Through Worse Than a Twitter Mob: When you’re a black woman in America with a public voice, a trivial math error can lead to a deluge of hate." One would, of course, feel more sympathy for her if she wasn’t herself in the now-booming business of "hating" out loud anything that can be made to look like stupidity or mistakes on the part of her political enemies. But, unlike her, the "Twitter mob" as she represents it was only taking her "math mistake" as an excuse for deploying their own race hatred (Ms Gay is black). "Of course, in my case it wasn’t really about math, as anyone who read through my mentions on Twitter or saw my inbox would know. . . A colleague at The Times, an African-American woman, wrote to me on Friday afternoon, ‘They resent that you exist.’" Which, no doubt, some but by no means all of "them" do. But then she adds:
It didn’t help that I write for a newspaper where my colleagues are assiduously working to hold a rogue president accountable every day. We are living in a world where there is no grace for the smallest, most inconsequential mistake. In an instant, I became a target of those who are furious with the media for being too liberal, or not liberal enough, a totem for the grievances of millions of people who seem to be hurting. . . I write a lot about the underdog, which tends to make some people feel threatened, or simply uncomfortable. When I appeared on that TV program last week, I had been working for many days interviewing black voters in the South who were determined to defeat Donald Trump, whom they see as the nightmare embodiment of the old hatreds many of them fought to overcome.
So the real reason people were attacking her on Twitter was that she was black, but the other real reason was that she was one of those "assiduously working to hold a rogue president accountable every day."
Which is to say that the purity of the motivation for her attacks on the President must be considered beyond doubt, while those who attack her must be presumed to have only vile and corrupt motives. It only goes to show the practised skill with which Ms Gay and her "colleagues" can turn anything, from a worldwide pandemic to their own mistakes in arithmetic, into an attack on the President. And yet one can only marvel that they expect their readers to believe that nothing but public spiritedness lies behind such attacks. Even more marvelously, their readers apparently do believe it, for they keep on reading what less partisan folk must regard as pure self-righteousness.
Also note that her first response to the Twitter tsunami was to write that she was "Buying a calculator." Clearly, doing arithmetic with calculators is precisely what produces these kinds of mistakes. If she’d ever had to work out for herself the simplest sorts of mathematical problems in her head, or even on paper, she would have seen at once the mistake in dividing 500 million by 327 million and getting one million plus. And if the indulgence of the high school math teachers to which she appeals had been a little less in the first place, and they had bothered to correct a few more of her mistakes, she might have learned at an impressionable age what apparently she never did learn: namely, that it was possible for her, too, to be wrong.