This donnybrook is at least adjacent to matters concerning the ideas industry, so the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is ready with some explanatory journalism about what exactly is going on. Let’s do this in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions page:
Q: So what exactly is going on?
A: On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from long-standing WSJ contributor Joseph Epstein titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Here’s the first paragraph:
Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden ” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.
The online response to Epstein’s op-ed was critical. Many observers highlighted the myriad ways in which Epstein’s argument seemed, how to put this, sexist and demeaning. Eventually Jill Biden subtweeted it and the commentary was off to the races.
Q: Does Epstein have a point?
A: Not really, no. The etymology of the word “doctor” reveals that it was originally used for teacher and not for medical doctors. The idea that “doctor” should only apply to MDs is a more recent notion. Also, claiming that Biden’s dissertation topic is “unpromising” is bonkers — student retention is a pretty important topic! The rest of the op-ed was poorly edited as well, without so much as a competent fact-check.
Gigot’s defense of the op-ed was also ... let’s say “unhelpful.” He alleged that the hullabaloo was orchestrated by the Biden campaign, a dubious claim given that the online response largely preceded the Biden team’s official responses. Gigot then claimed that Epstein’s use of “kiddo” was acceptable because Joe Biden had used that term to refer to his spouse in a 2012 DNC speech. I believe Gigot is a confirmed bachelor, so perhaps a married friend of his can explain that when a spouse uses a term of affection that is not a license for everyone else to use it.
Gigot also asked, “Why go to such lengths to highlight a single op-ed on a relatively minor issue?” This is a fair point (see below) but it raises the question of why Gigot wasted the ink to print it.
Q: Was the reaction outsized?
A: Only in the sense that all social media reactions are outsized. It did not take much effort to suss out that Epstein’s op-ed was obnoxious and unenlightening — seriously, look at that first paragraph again. This enabled an awful lot of people to execute the easy dunk. Add those up and one can understand Gigot’s perception of feeling besieged.
Q: Are there any clear social rules on the proper honorific for holders of doctorates?
A: Not really, which is one of the complicating factors. While holders of PhDs and EdDs and PsyDs can be called “doctor,” not all of them choose to do so. I work at a pretty prestigious university and the only honorific I ever expect is “professor.” For academics, this might have something to do with the fact that we are surrounded by PhDs, which means they lose their meaning. One quickly learns that some holders of doctorates are not very bright.
There are two qualifiers to this point, however. First, studies show that women are often not given the same kind of honorific as men. Insisting on the proper title is not an unreasonable response to sexism. Second, those holding doctorates outside of the academy often want the moniker of “doctor” to distinguish themselves from others. A lot of think-tankers who hold PhDs want that fact known. When I was in high school, those teachers with doctorates insisted on being called “doctor” and no one thought it out of place. It would not be surprising that Jill Biden, who earned her EdD later in life, might want the same treatment.
Q: Is there a double standard where liberals get the honorific and conservatives do not?
A: Some conservatives have claimed this although their evidence is a tad murky. Even in instances in which the honorific could have been used, folks like Dr. Lynne Cheney went for “Mrs.” in their official bios.
For the record, I also supported Sebastian Gorka wanting to be called “Dr.” in public.
Also, I guarantee you that Tucker Carlson would never compare a conservative holder of a doctorate to Dr. Pepper.
Q: So why the kerfuffle? Why have so many columns been written about it?
A: In a weird, unintentional way, Epstein’s op-ed reveals a deeper truth about how conservatives and liberals both feel besieged at the end of 2020. For conservatives, this is just another round of a culture war in which they lose battle after battle. Conservatives have excelled at preserving political power but care more about preserving control over culture. They see themselves as an embattled minority in the halls of academe and other professional settings requiring advanced degrees. Assaults on conservative elements of the ideas industry, such as the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, merely reinforce their conviction that they are fighting a rearguard action against cartelistic credentialism. Even if they think Epstein’s op-ed was not very good, they roll their eyes at the outrage and view it as another manifestation of liberal hypocrisy.
For liberals, the past five years have been an unrelenting onslaught of right-wing attacks on experts and expertise. This was the supposed reason Donald Trump won in 2016, and after that election there was a lot of discourse about the need to listen to the unforgotten portions of America. The president and much of the GOP have spent the past four years rubbishing the very idea of professional training and expertise. This proved to be an unwise move in handling a pandemic and an election. Liberals have had their fill of conservatives lecturing endlessly about the need to respect the custom and beliefs of populist Americans without some reciprocity in gestures of respect.