The Righteous Mind of the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin

By Jerry Kammer on August 4, 2015

(Part two of three; see Part One here.)

Jeffrey Toobin's July 27 article in the New Yorker qualifies him for lifetime membership in what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt might call the tribal moral society of advocates for illegal immigrants.

Haidt studies how human beings form their moral judgments. He writes that sometimes these judgments lead us to unite around a sacred idea. For liberal advocates of illegal immigration, the sacred idea is that illegal immigrants must be protected and offered the full rights of citizenship.

Toobin, who comes across as middle-of-the-road in his work as an analyst on CNN, doesn't hide his liberalism in his work for the New Yorker. He supports the classic liberal values of protection for the vulnerable and individual freedom to migrate. He shows scant interest in the conservative position that asks skeptical questions about the social and fiscal costs of mass immigration, especially of the illegal variety. Those contrasting values are the yin and yang of the immigration debate, both essential to any fair-minded approach to the issue.

Toobin illustrates Haidt's observation that righteous thinking does not just bind groups together; it also blinds them to opposing evidence. As Haidt approvingly observes, "liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion." But he adds that because liberals often fail to appreciate conservative values, they tend "to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions," and social cohesion.

Toobin does use a few lines of his six-page story to write about the views of Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions. He writes that Sessions leads an effort to defend "national security along with the rule of law." He quotes Sessions as saying, "If everyone who enters the country illegally can stay and become a citizen, that just encourages more people to come illegally."

Toobin's citation of Sessions is pro-forma and grudging. It presents the senator's concerns as cold, legalistic abstractions. It stands in sharp contrast with the warm sympathy of his portrait of the Flores family, whose members anxiously wait for federal action – either from Congress or the president – to allow them to stay in the U.S.

As Toobin writes of Olga Flores:

Under the immigration-reform law passed by the Senate in 2013, she would have had a path to become a citizen; under the executive actions announced by President Obama in 2014, she could have obtained work papers and a driver's license. But the House failed to vote on the Senate's immigration bill, and a federal court in Texas has placed Obama's initiative on hold.

For what it's worth, I hope Congress does pass legislation that would allow Flores and millions more like them to stay here. But I think that if we are to achieve meaningful reform, it must match compassion and realism with firm steps to restrain the tens of millions of people around the world whose desperation is so great that they would do almost anything for the chance to live in the United States.

Jeffrey Toobin thinks Donald Trump's outrageous insults of Mexican immigrants should lead to journalistic reflection on the lives of the immigrants. I agree. But they should also lead Toobin to acknowledge that one reason presidential aspirant Trump is doing well in the polls is the smoldering public outrage at the failure of our political leaders to contain five decades of mass illegal immigration.

Part Three: What Jeffrey Toobin Ignored in the New Yorker