Ethics Quiz Of The Day: “Gotcha!” Or “Benefit Of The Doubt”?

That’s yesterday’s Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, titled “Some Theme’s Missing,”, above. Does the pattern of the letter squares remind you of anything? Given that December 18 is the first night of Hanukkah, many found the resemblance of the puzzle to a Nazi swastika…disturbing. Sinister even.

Republicans pounced. New York Times-haters pounced. Donald Trump Jr. pounced, on Twitter. Israel’s Israel National News thought it notable that the swastika crossword was published following what it deemed an anti-Semitic op-ed by the Times the day before, warning that Benjamin “Netanyahu’s government…is a significant threat to the future of Israel — its direction, its security and even the idea of a Jewish homeland.”

The publication also posted a poll asking readers if the puzzle’s design was “intentional Nazi imagery or an unfortunate coincidence?” Of the 440 votes, nearly 85% deemed the symbol to be deliberate.

Back in the USA, SAFE CUNY, a coalition of City University of New York scholars and students dedicated to the Zionist movement, said, “‘Today’s Crossword Puzzle from the New York Times for Hanukkah…Pretty much sums up the [Times] for the past few years in regard to Jews and Israel.” One horrified reader tweeted, “If the swastika is unintentional, you’d think an editor along the way would have caught it. And on the first day of Hanukkah, no less.”

You would think!

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of this Second Day of Hanukkah is…

Is the ethical response to the Times puzzle to give the paper the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume a malign motive?

There is a famous previous case where crossword puzzles triggered a crisis and caused an uproar, though it was a quiet one. In spring of 1944, a series of crosswords published in British Daily Telegraph newspapers raised alarms at MI5, the British Military Counterintelligence. As the invasion of Normandy was in the process of being planned and executed, the May 2, 1944 puzzle included as the clue for 17 across : “One of the U.S.” The four letter word was “Utah,” the code name for a beach assigned to the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. On May 22, a crossword clue was “the Red Indian on the Missouri” for 3 down. The solution was “Omaha,” another code name, for the beach assigned to the 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.

On May 27, 1944 the puzzle included the word “Overlord,” the code name for the entire D-Day operation. This freaked out the whole intelligence operation and the Allied high command, and there was more to come. On May 30, 1944 the clue for 11 across was: “This bush is a center of nursery revolutions.” The word was “Mulberry,” the code word for the portable harbors that were used during the invasion.

The poor puzzle-maker found himself being interrogated for hours, as he was suspected of sending tip-offs to the Germans. Ultimately, the guy was found to be innocent, the puzzles one of history’s weirdest coincidences, and the invasion plans still secret. No one has ever come up with a plausible explanation for the timing of the crossword puzzle clues.

I find the swastika puzzle even more bewildering. If it was an intentional swipe at the Jewish community, it was a spectacularly stupid one for New York City paper with a fanatic fan base for its puzzle that is also well-educated, and has a large Jewish component. If it was a one-in-a billion-coincidence like the Overlord puzzles, how could the puzzle run without anyone on the Times staff noticing the pattern—especially on Hanukkah, and especially especially with all the Nazi accusations being thrown around of late, in the pages of the New York Times among other places?

28 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: “Gotcha!” Or “Benefit Of The Doubt”?

  1. Crossword puzzles have dozens of random words. It would be more of a coincidence if none of the 1944 puzzles had clues that matched the names of important military operations, which for secrecy purposes are often assigned… random words. Also, the code words were spaced out across puzzles on multiple nonconsecutive days. I can understand the military’s paranoia because of the stakes involved and the very real possibility of coded spy messages, but I do not consider this coincidence to be weird or uncanny in the slightest. If they’d used different code words for the D-Day operation, there’s a decent chance the exact same thing would have happened.

    Regarding yesterday’s crossword, if someone is only looking at the puzzle and the the black shapes, they wouldn’t notice the swastika at first. It’s only when looking at the negative space as a whole (the empty white boxes) that it becomes obvious. However, I would expect the people creating the puzzle to be in the habit of looking at what the shapes resemble before they start filling them with words. Also, the timing is too coincidental for my suspicions. I am not inclined to believe that the imagery was accidental, especially if (I assume) it has never come up before. (That implies people are checking to make sure no unwanted shapes show up. Otherwise it would probably have happened before.) Somebody seems to be trying to inspire anger and fear.

    • Extradimensional Cephalopod wrote, “Regarding yesterday’s crossword, if someone is only looking at the puzzle and the the black shapes, they wouldn’t notice the swastika at first.”

      I completely disagree.

      I am a very visual person and the white outlined swastika jumped off the page at me when I saw the photo before I read a word of the post. I can’t look at that and not see it even if I try.

      • I don’t see how that disagrees with what I said.

        After reading the title of the post, but before reading the body, I immediately started looking at the clues to see if I could spot the offense, because I assumed that the offense was in the clues or the answers. I also looked a bit at the some of the shapes of the black squares, to see if that was the issue. I didn’t look at the negative space created by the empty white boxes until I started reading the body of the post, and then I saw the swastika. Hence, I was “looking at the puzzle and the black shapes”, and didn’t notice the swastika at first. Or, to phrase it differently, “fixating on some aspects of the image can delay people noticing other aspects.”

        You looked at the puzzle as a whole and immediately spotted the issue. That’s what I would also expect the people who made the puzzle to do, along with many, if not most, other readers. I’m not sure what your thesis is here or why you think it contradicts anything I wrote. Are you saying you believe everyone sees things exactly the way you do?

          • Ah, okay, then. I’ve had moments like that as well. Eventually I decided I’d hold off on responding to people until I looked for points of agreement as well as disagreement. Not only does this approach help prevent violent agreement, but it also helps prevent violent disagreement. It turns the asynchronous nature of online discussion into an advantage, by allowing me to spend several minutes thinking about what someone else said and how to respond to it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the internet looks like when it becomes mainstream.

      • I am a very visual person and the white outlined swastika jumped off the page at me when I saw the photo before I read a word of the post. I can’t look at that and not see it even if I try.

        Yet I don’t see a swastika at all – unless I use my hands to mask out the periphery. Of course, I am not a visual person; I can’t tell you how many times “helpful” people have got in my way by cluttering up stuff with context-dependent visual cues in the material rather than simply indicating stuff more explicitly, e.g. one software interface that had a horizontal row of options in white against a dark blue background, with the activated options “helpfully” changed to yellow (I always had to look at each option individually without missing any, and then remember each before I could take any action – yet I have never had any trouble with vertical columns of options, each preceded by a blank or an asterisk, because I could just scan down for that).

    • I think you are vastly underestimating the unlikelihood of the 1943 puzzle coincidences. I can’t argue that it couldn’t have been a coincidence, since the episode was one, but 1) the words that appeared in serial Sunday puzzles weren’t like “sword” or gold” the code words for the British-assigned beaches, but two Native American words in a British puzzle. There were 48 states, and the one that popped up was Utah. There are many thousands of US cities, and “Omaha” turned up. “Overlord” is not an especially common word: I’ve never used it except in reference to D-Day. “Mulberry” is a bit more common. But four code words that could have been saying, combined, “the expected mass allied invasion is occurring via amphibious invasion on these Normandy beaches” all appeared in the same feature, in the same paper, in successive editions, one after the other, less than a month from the invasion, with all puzzles devised by the same person, who swore that he didn’t know anything.

      And indeed, there is evidence that came out later indicating that it wasn’t mere happenstance. Leonard Dawe was the Telegraph crossword maker, and created puzzles at his home. Dawe was headmaster of Strand School, which had been evacuated to Effingham, Surrey. Adjacent to the school was a large camp of US and Canadian troops preparing for D-Day. Security around the camp was reportedly lax, there was unrestricted contact between the schoolboys and soldiers. It has been theorized that some of the soldiers’ talk included D-Day code words, and may thus have been heard repeatedly by some of the schoolboys, who didn’t know their significance. Dawe often used students to fill his crossword blanks with words, and he would provide the clues for those words. Dawe said later that he did not know that these words were military code words, and the boys probably didn’t either, but that they had heard them mentioned recently and frequently, leading to the leak. In 1984 Ronald French, one of Dawe’s students, revealed that in 1944 he had inserted D-Day code names into crosswords, and was of the opinion that hundreds of children must have known what he knew.

      • Point taken. Now that you mention it, I vaguely remember reading about how those crosswords came to have those words in them. You’re right, it is more improbable than I had estimated; I was overlooking that it was a British newspaper. So there was a leak, of sorts, and the military discovered it by noticing the unusual crossword answers that matched their code words. Had it been real espionage, the enemy would have to have also known what the coded words actually referred to, but perhaps a separate spy could have accomplished that.

        • This story stuck in my mind because it was one of the most unusual revelations in Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day,” from which the movie was made. But when Ryan wrote it, he didn’t have the facts about the schoolboys, so he viewed it as just an amazing coincidence (that nearly changed the war).

  2. I will go with the benefit of the doubt without any other evidence. I suppose you can find a symbol in many random patterns.

    More importantly, if we keep trying to find sinister motives we will all be living dreary lives that eventually cause us to look at each neighbor with suspicion. I don’t want live that way.

  3. Jack asked, “Is the ethical response to the Times puzzle to give the paper the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume a malign motive?”, “If it was a one-in-a billion-coincidence…”

    I vote malign motive on the part of the creator, pure and simple. As far as the NYT goes, I think the editor should have caught this one and since the editor didn’t, the editor should be demoted or fired for blind stupidity.

    The statistical possibility of random chance creating a puzzle that looks like that is in the quadrillions or quintrillions and the title “Some Theme’s Missing” directly implies that there is no theme to the puzzle which usually drives the word order thus dictating the layout of the black and blank spaces. That puzzle was designed with the black and blank layout before they figured out what random unthemed words that could fill the space. I don’t buy for even a second that there was random chance in that one.

    A friend and I used to do the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle together every Sunday afternoon until he died some twenty+ years ago, I’ve never gone back and I don’t miss it one bit.

    • Steve,
      If everyone chooses to ignore an intentional offensive act does the act inflict harm? I don’t think so. Every slur is a construct of human beings if we deny the offender the meaning then the offender gets no benefit.
      Even if there is malign intent how does it benefit society to give voice to the offender?
      Obviously if there is a pattern to anti-Semitic or bigoted behavior it can be called out but once called out we should move on to more important things so that the positive reinforcement effect of the offender’s behavior is minimized. In short we should not amplify their speech by focusing our ire on it.

  4. I think it’s too coincidental for the image to appear on the first night of a major Jewish feast. Understandably it seems odd. Why would an obviously liberal paper with a large Jewish following do this? My guess is that, the same as the intern at NTSB slipped names that were bad Chinese jokes into a news report on a Chinese airliner in distress (“Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Li Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow”),
    some generation Zer or young millennial who was working with less supervision than usual because of the holidays decided that it would be funny to do this and see if anyone noticed. Given that the editors let a lot of garbage slide through, it perhaps should not come as a surprise that they let something like this, which a lot of people skip over anyway, slide through.

    Still, this is something that should have been noticeable. It’s not even under-obvious like the ship in The Thing, in which the pilots and scientists each walk to the outside edge of the hidden ship and suddenly realize they are standing in a perfect circle and have found a flying saucer (cue ominous music).

    If that is the case, someone very senior who is descended from Holocaust victims or survivors needs to haul the person responsible into an office and tear him (I can’t see a woman being stupid or insensitive enough to pull a prank like this) apart up one side and down the other. Then that person needs to be fired on the spot and blackballed in the industry.

    Some things you don’t joke about or poke about, and you make damn sure you don’t do so “accidentally” or even with plausible deniability. For those of us on the right it’s 9/11, for those on the left, it’s Meghan Markle, but the Holocaust is one that everyone should agree not to touch.

    • The Times editorial writers (kiddie corps in control) have evidently called for the demolition of the British Monarchy because it’s racist and has had the temerity to be wary of Meghan Markle (who’s a kiddie corps icon intent on demolishing the British monarchy). The pro-Palestinian urge is so strong among recent college graduates that I’m fairly certain this was an intentional poke in the eye of those Jews who are not actually in favor of the Palestinians (unlike most likely the vast majority of the Times’ Jewish readership). When it comes to the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian War, being Jewish and anti-Israel/Netanyahu is pretty darned common. With a tip of the hat to Jessie Jackson, New York City most likely ain’t Himey Town anymore.

      • “Hymietown (as in “Louie, Hymie, Abe and Sam, we’re the boys who eat no ham…”)” but close enough. I think he also used the term “jewniversity.” Nice. Why am I not surprised that the George Floyd Freakout spread to calling for the trashing of the British monarchy, those paragons of imperialism, who at least left literacy and hospitals in their wake. Meghan was their last saving grace and thy pushed her out. Now nothing can same them.

  5. This is an accident.

    But the pouncing is occurring because the other side pounces on so-called microaggressions like this all of the time. Unintentional offenses are trotted out as proof of systemic racism constantly and we are told that intent does not matter.

    Yet, the double standard also persists in which the Right makes a mistake, an error, a verbal flub or overlooks what seems to be an obvious dog whistle and it’s evidence – Freudian slip-wise – of their natural racism/sexism/homophobia/xenophobia. If the Left does it, the worst that happens is a mea culpa about how “we have to do better, but keep voting for us because you know the other side is literally Hitler” and the enablers out there give them a pass.

    It’s hard not to laugh at this. I’m only human. Is there a rationalization on the list for that?

    • If we want to be multicultural about this, we have to look at how the New York Times would judge such an occurrence if it happened in say ‘The Baptist Messenger”. How does the New York Times deal with these things when they find them? That tells us their shared values and attitudes towards such behavior. If they are being treated the same way that they would want others to be treated, then all is right with the world. You would think the NYT would WELCOME the criticism.

      Sorry, got a little sarcasm stuck on my chin.

  6. I say that it is very suspicious. Some will give the Times the benefit of the doubt. Others will find it straightforwardly intentional. I am no mind reader, so I don’t know.

    What I do know is that the Times in particular and the Left in general seem to be more and more negative, or at least not stridently in opposition, to antisemitic symbols and tropes unless they can be tied to conservatives or Republicans. The Times seems less likely to qualify anti-Israel editorials and comments, and generally more accepting of positions that are sometimes couched as potentially antisemitic.

    There is an argument for both sides, and in my view, no clear decision is possible on the evidence available. But I am suspicious, and part of that is probably bias on my part. Let’s just say that the Times needs to be more careful of what it’s crosswords say, and looks like, these days.

  7. This one is fascinating. Were I still in the classroom, I’d definitely be using it as an example of the way the postmodern idea of meaning being created by the receiver rather than the sender plays out in real life as well as in art per se.

    There’s a little bit of Hanlon’s Razor, a little bit of Paul Simon’s line in “The Boxer” that “a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.” However we frame it, it seems to me that an individual’s response to this stimulus tells us more about the respondent than it does about the creator of the puzzle. I say this as neutrally as possible: there are those, like Steve Witherspoon, to whom “the white outlined swastika jumped off the page.” There are those, like P.M. Lawrence, who struggle to see the design even when knowing what to look for.

    Two observations, both of them important. First, neither response is wrong, although they seem totally at odds. Second, I am not suggesting that an individual’s response is necessarily linked to an ideology or demographic. That is, having a positive or negative view of the NYT, leaning to the left or the right politically, being Jewish or not… any of all of these considerations might influence our reactions, but I’d be surprised if there aren’t a significant number of people from every combination of these factors on both sides of this issue.

    I think we can take as given that few if any readers of this particular blog have any sympathy for Nazis, or for the intentional use of Nazi symbology except in a carefully circumscribed, clinical, manner. And outrage at such a perceived usage is certainly a reasonable response. But I must confess that had I been the editor charged with approving this puzzle, I would have done so, because I just don’t see a swastika. Steve would have me “demoted or fired for blind stupidity.” So be it.

    I can also say that I would describe myself as being “visual,” although after a career as a stage director and sometime scenic, lighting, or costume designer, I’d hardly claim otherwise, even if, as the Gershwins caution us, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

    There are enough “coincidences” (scare quotes quite intentional) to give Steve’s verdict of “malign motive” credence: the timing, the title, the first clue, the unconventional grouping of black spaces. Are these dog whistles? Perhaps. But I can’t say that with confidence. Alternatively, it would certainly be stupid to intentionally print something offensive to a significant number of your readers. And it’s certainly true that some people are in a continual quest for the ability to claim victimhood. Does that mean the NYT is off the hook? Not to those who see an obvious swastika, of course… or to those to whom “stupid” seems a reasonable description of NYT policy-makers.

    Perhaps there’s a larger issue here for which this incident could serve as a useful metaphor. It is one more example of the way two people can look at precisely the same objective information and come to radically different conclusions (remember the “what color is the dress” meme that dominated social media a couple of years ago?). We all find it difficult to believe that someone could fail to see what to us is obvious, or that someone could make a serious accusation based on what we fail to see at all. Maybe we should consider that none of us is omniscient.

    We seem to be left with the most ethical choice being a variation on Reagan’s “trust and verify.” I’m with the “benefit of the doubt” crowd on this one, barring future revelations, and I don’t think the previous day’s editorial is relevant at all: criticism of a particular politician’s policies hardly qualifies as anti-Semitic. Still, it’s worth keeping our eyes open to the possibility of emerging patterns, should they in fact come to light.

    • Curmie,

      I tend to agree with your position here. I would be surprised that the NYT would publish something of this nature intending a back-handed slap at the Jewish community at the being of Hanukkah. I need more information to determine bad intent; I don’t read the NYT and I am not a crossword puzzler (Candy Crush? Let’s talk about that game!) so I don’t know if this was/is a simple design mistake or nefarious action on the designer’s part. I am skeptical but willing to learn more about it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.