In his classic defense of intellectualism, The House of Intellect, Jacques Barzun wrote that if you’re going to do legitimate social criticism, you attack “only examples of the best … And by the best I mean the most developed, the most serious, the most highly regarded efforts in any relevant kind. The worst, and even the mediocre, must be taken for granted as a cultural constant. It is a waste of time to belabor shady schools, corrupt journals, stupid government officials, and unscrupulous exploiters of the eternally gullible. … What matters to a nation is whether the best product, or in certain cases the high average, which prides itself on excellence, deserves its reputation.”
That important principle is being violated by much of the written angst I’m seeing from the right, about their cluster of complaints about liberal intolerance these these days. I receive these cherrypicked examples of atrocities of “wokeness” from both public figures and personal correspondents.
A good example is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ column this week, titled, “Woke Me When It’s Over.” The column is structured exactly this way:
1. The first third of the column is an anecdote about a truly asinine apology by Condé Nast for a harmlessly snarky headline in Bon Appétit over a six-year-old recipe for Jewish cookies, “How to Make Actually Good Hamantaschen.”
“The original version of this article included language that was insensitive toward Jewish food traditions and does not align with our brand’s standards,” the editor wrote. “As part of our Archive Repair Project, we have edited the headline, dek, and content to better convey the history of Purim and the goals of this particular recipe. We apologize for the previous version’s flippant tone and stereotypical characterizations of Jewish culture.”
2. Stephens calls the above nonsense “the apotheosis of Woke.” But of course, as Jacques Barzun would point out, Bon Appétit is not the apotheosis of magazines.
3. More paragraphs ragging on Bon Appétit.
4. The obligatory George Orwell quote. Even long dead, Orwell must be getting tired of hearing himself talk. (Similarly, I once heard Leonard Cohen say he thought “Hallelujah” was covered too much.)
5. Stephens identifies more objectionable things published over the years, by other Condé Nast publications, like The New Yorker. Why aren’t they getting erased, he asks? Maybe, because The New Yorker is far too smart to employ something called an “Archive Repair Project.” And maybe, because anyone smart enough to understand a New Yorker cartoon would consider the “Archive Repair Project” a sophomoric satire.
6. A jarring cross-country, sector-leaping trip to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where a law professor was censured for using the N word without actually using the N word, but actually—oh, read the fucking column yourself, I don’t even want to get into it. (And either does Stephens, as you’ll see.)
7. A grandiose conclusion with a weary sports metaphor: “In the game of Woke, the goal posts can be moved at any moment, the penalties will apply retroactively and claims of fairness will always lose out to the perpetual right to claim offense.”
8. Stephens quotes an unnamed liberal in support of his position: “A friend of mine, a lifelong liberal whose patience is running thin with the new ethos of moral bullying, likes to joke, ‘Woke me when it’s over.’ To which I say: Get comfortable.” Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that pair’s Pret a Manger palavers!
No responsible person could deny that there have been rhetorical excesses and overreactions in the current cultural mosh pit of social justice, critical race-theory, cancel culture, the 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter and antiracism. Sometimes, even virtuous mass movements generate degenerate mob behavior—just like reactionary movements. As a friend says, somewhat reductively, I think: “Meet the new boss, just like the old boss.”
But there is also great moral force behind people who seek to do what has never been done in the history of any civilization anywhere on Earth: Fully absorb and understand the effects of centuries of slavery and institutional racism, to re-create a society free from its unbelievably stubborn and seemingly endless legacy. Do I like their chances in achieving all that in my lifetime or my child’s? No, I’m afraid I don’t. But yes, I’m on their side.
And I hear a lot of bullshit about, “This is not the way to go about creating equality in this country.” How the fuck do you know? Because you once created equality in this country? Well by all means, show us how it’s done, Son!
But what about existing American culture? The living and dead thinkers and artists and ideas we have, who are good, the babies we don’t want to throw away blithely, with the bathwater. I worry about that, too.
But it’s not the moralizing social justice people I fear in that regard.
It’s the amoral force of the Corporate Attorney, who oversees every goddamn thing (including universities), and who is not paid to think a lot about these issues from the perspective of a sustainable civilization. When confronted with a #metoo claim or a BLM boycott, the formula is to quickly dump the target and let everyone think the pressure from the left was unbearable. Not worth bothering with, more like.
But conservatives are more accustomed to blaming pointy-headed university department heads and middlebrow magazine editors than well-heeled corporate philistines, who are the real cultural cancers of the cancel culture.
And if those people get any more power by default, we are all in trouble. Them, included.
Paul Engleman says
Damn, you made it all the way through an entire Bret Stephens column without barfing? You, my friend, have a remarkably strong constitution or, as Barzun might say, one trés bon appetite for the mediocre in food for thought.
David Murray says
I don’t always read Bret Stephens. But when I do, I don’t wear my best shirt.