On the day in March that eight people were murdered in a massage parlor in Atlanta, six of them Asian-American, a Cherokee County, Georgia, police captain gave a media briefing after the alleged murderer was caught. He described the suspect’s motivation as follows: “He was pretty much fed up, and at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
Indignation erupted. How, people cried, could the police captain attribute the murders to someone merely having a bad day? Having determined that the crime was motivated by anti-Asian hatred, the Internet furies concluded that the captain had spoken callously because of his own anti-Asian bias.
Leave aside that anyone who had seen a police movie could recognize as tough-guy talk the captain’s seemingly casual description of an unspeakable act. And never mind that just a few weeks later, President Biden described the slaughter of eight people in a FedEx facility not as a human tragedy but as a “national embarrassment,” as if it had been a messily disputed election. Consider instead what the policeman’s critics cared about. Imagine that the captain had appeared before the media and had said that he believed that the suspect was motivated by anti-Asian hatred and that this hate was the true virus ravaging us all. Would he have been lauded? Yes. But what if he gave this briefing while the suspect remained at large, giving him time to flee? In reality, the entire Atlanta police department was on the scene almost immediately. The suspect was caught shortly after the shootings, before he could harm anyone else. Even if the police captain had been insensitive, why should this matter more than his and his officers’ actions?
Words are crumbling under the weight of moral one-upmanship. One cannot, for example, call both Hitler and Donald Trump “fascists” without the term losing its meaning. But for four years, an imminent fascist revolution sponsored by the Trump movement was a liberal obsession. (Hard to make a fascist revolution, though, without having the military on your side, and Trump spent four years insulting both the military and the state’s intelligence apparatus.) Nor does the term “systemic racism” mean anything if it describes both the structure of apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the antebellum American South and the circumstances we live in today. Apartheid South Africa was systemically racist. Georgia in 1860 was systemically racist. But the New York suburb where I live—Montclair, New Jersey—has a black mayor who succeeded another black mayor; a black superintendent of schools; a black assistant superintendent of schools; several black school principals; a black deputy chief of police; a self-conscious enclave of wealthy black bankers and black lawyers; and accomplished black residents, from a world-famous jazz bassist to a former head of Homeland Security. Montclair is more racially, socially, and economically diverse than any neighborhood in New York City. Yet cries of Montclair’s systemic racism have now swept the town, as well as its public school curricula.
In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Troilus has a nightmare vision in which language dissolves into “words, words, mere words.” If that world were actually to materialize, he later thinks, then
right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power. . . .
Today, right and wrong have indeed lost their names, their singular distinctness. Now the disposition of power decides the status of many conflicts or tensions. And in this new world where right and wrong are determined by whoever exerts the greater power—that is, whoever makes the loudest threats to shame and cancel—the emphatic appearance of what is right wields the most power of all.
The curious thing is that, even with tens of thousands of Internet public prosecutors working night and day, very few examples of genuinely racist language surface in this turbulent, chaotic country of 330 million people. Excepting the tiny minority of people who belong to organized right-wing hate groups, anyone even fractionally socialized has known for decades that the N-word, to take the worst racist term, is taboo, along with most other pernicious slurs. And anyone with the slightest bit of emotional intelligence understands that people who do use the word when quoting other people or texts—as clueless or maybe arrogant as that may be in our current climate—do so because they themselves are not racists and have no fear of being perceived as such.
Emotional intelligence, however, is becoming a liability in the age of algorithm-driven, outrage-obsessed social media. When Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, first learned that the paper’s crack science reporter, Donald McNeil Jr., had used the N-word in the process of paraphrasing someone else’s use of the word, Baquet concluded that McNeil’s “remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” This, one felt, was a reasonable response.
But Baquet’s rationality and humanity had an effect similar to the Atlanta police captain’s innocuous words. They infuriated the (predominantly white) ranks of mostly younger New York Times staffers, who sent a group letter declaring that “our community is outraged and in pain.” Baquet then made an abrupt about-face—how do you respond to declarations of “pain”?—and this time, along with his managing editor, issued an e-mail declaring: “We do not tolerate racist language regardless of intent.”
Regardless of intent! Others then raised their voices in protest against Baquet’s sudden new perspective on language and truth, and Baquet swiftly reversed himself again. “In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture,” he told his staff, “we ham-handedly said something you rightly saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives. It was a deadline mistake and I regret it. . . . Of course intent matters when we are talking about language in journalism. The author and his purpose also matter, the moment matters.”
It was painful to see the editor of one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers stumble so publicly; it was painful to ask whether he, a gifted journalist, had found himself over his head in uncharted territory and had compromised his paper through a series of breathtaking reversals made to cover himself and put the blame for his malleability elsewhere. “We” this and “we” that; it was a “deadline mistake.”
But the most embarrassing part of the incident was the spectacle of the newspaper’s first black editor being hounded by a mostly white, wholly privileged, mob into submission, when all he had to do was stand up and say: “I’m black, I grew up in a black, working-class neighborhood in the deep South, brains and guts got me into an Ivy League school, I won a Pulitzer Prize, and I have one of the most distinguished careers in journalism. I tell you what the N-word means in this context. You don’t tell me.” Perhaps Baquet, being black “and gifted with second sight in this American world,” in W. E. B. Du Bois’s memorable phrase, understood that the predominantly white mob that had taken over his newsroom enjoyed reducing his career to his stance on the N-word and thus making him entirely dependent on the outcome of their privileged white outrage. Perhaps Baquet went along with this because he thought that he still had the ultimate power. That would be an old American story about race, about black resourcefulness when confronted by white liberal condescension. As Martin Luther King said, the white leaders of the North “welcomed me to their cities, and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet . . . only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.”
We are now living in a new golden age of American racism. So long as you talk the proverbial talk—and, if you really need extra cover, make the obligatory accusations and issue the compulsory condemnations—you can actually indulge racist impulses. You can inveigh against racism at your local school board meeting and then, a year or two later, quietly move your children into the whitest private school you can find. You can fawn so fulsomely over your white daughter’s black friend that the friend will never return to your house. You can be so excessively polite yet calculatedly distant with black people that you will ensure that none will enter your life. If you are a Coca-Cola executive, you can declaim against the new Georgia voting laws, even as you market your product extra-aggressively in poor black neighborhoods, where the obesity and diabetes caused in part by regular soda consumption has by now afflicted generations of black children. Maybe the hope among Coca-Cola executives is that, thanks to the new rhetoric of morally superior denunciation, you can start addicting liberal white kids in the suburbs, too: “Woke Goes Better with Coke.” And why not? Apple tells me that in order to “protect the environment,” it will no longer include a power adapter and earphones at no extra charge with its new phones. However, Apple will gladly sell them to me.
German economist Werner Sombart famously predicted that socialism would founder in America on the “reef of roast beef and apple pie,” meaning that American prosperity would not provide a breeding ground for the kind of popular discontent with material conditions that socialism needs to thrive. What we are witnessing now is the first social revolution to draw all its energy from prosperity, as today’s “radicals,” failing to find the suitable material conditions for their revolution, focus on words divorced from context, unprovable “micro-aggressions,” and particular abuses of power that supposedly represent universal conditions.
Occurring in the most prosperous nation ever known, the woke insurrection has a self-indulgent inwardness that makes it susceptible to the most incongruous influences. This onslaught could be the first time in American history that commercial interests have helped drive a radical social revolution. It was the Left that used to rail against marketing strategies that sanctimoniously concealed the profit motive behind them. Now conservatives do that—just as generations of left-wing writers once accused big media of, in effect, producing “fake news,” a charge now made by the other side.
Maybe this reversal is not so surprising when you consider that, also for the first time in American history, the media are an engine behind social change, rather than being the relatively detached institution that reports on it. The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which attempted to prove that racism is fundamental to the American system, is a paradigmatic example: it was speculative, amateurish, inaccurate, and sloppily written activism presented, absurdly, as an objective journalistic investigation into the past.
The media-driven pattern of indignation, accusation, and condemnation is becoming tediously familiar. A group waits its turn in the queue for some singular event that the media insist is representative of its horrible circumstances in America. Then it leaps onto the social ladder and climbs a few rungs before reluctantly returning to the back of the line and waiting again while others grab their turn.
Commercial calculation doubtless plays a role in this process. Recently, the New York Times sent one of its reporters to ferret out an instance of anti-Semitism that might warm the hearts of its Jewish readers, who could well feel neglected these days. The Times reporter came up with the seemingly anti-Semitic persecution of a Jewish student at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, located in rural New Jersey. But the story had some holes. The Jewish student had waited years to complain. She had many friends at the school. She had been voted school treasurer. She didn’t even seem to want to leave.
The reporter noted: “In New Jersey alone, bias incidents reported to law enforcement increased by 55 percent between 2016 and 2018, following a decade of decline.” Statistics bear out both assertions. Indeed, between 2010 and 2018, reports of bias incidents in New Jersey fell by about 40 percent. But the article left out two other statistics. In a state of nearly 9 million people, 569 bias incidents were recorded in 2018. Keep in mind that these were police reports of bias; they had yet to be determined as such in a court of law.
When demand exceeds supply, discord follows, and indeed, no integrated consortium of the oppressed exists. Black Lives Matter was quiet after Atlanta, just as Asian-American civil rights leaders were mostly quiet after the murder of George Floyd. And few activist groups officially denounced the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The satirist in me imagines each group muttering impatiently as it momentarily endures the attention trained on another. The mockery of “Karens”—entitled white women—seemed like an effort by frustrated black people, who had watched the #MeToo movement eclipse Black Lives Matter, to discredit their rivals for attention.
Empty forms bespeak empty hearts. Cries of racism are the new white racism. Now, to use a hypothetical example, if a modestly middle-class white male resident of Montclair meets a wealthy black neighbor who makes more in six months than the white male has made in his whole working life, or if he runs into the jazz great who lives in town and who has won no fewer than seven Grammys, then the average white guy doesn’t have to feel that twinge of lower economic or social status in comparison with theirs. On the contrary: thanks to the 1619 Project and the totalizing framework of systemic white racism, he can regard these elevated figures with condescending pity. It turns out that they are, and always will be, dependent on his status as master of their fates.
Looking back, it is astonishing that anyone would have thought Donald Trump posed a “fascist” threat. “Fascism is not our future—it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so—but this is surely the way fascism can begin,” declared New Yorker editor David Remnick not 24 hours after Trump was elected—and not too long before he invited (and then disinvited) Steve Bannon to speak at the New Yorker Festival. To the extent that Trump could be called some sort of aspiring fascist, he resembled what Ernie Pyle once said about Italy in the 1930s: the country was like a dog that got hit by a truck while trying to bite its tires.
Just as Trump’s insults about people’s intelligence and sanity reflected an insecurity about his own, the liberal obsession with the coming fascist revolution has self-revealing origins. Actual fascism has three cardinal traits: a totalizing mentality that reduces the world to a single cause; a worldview that regards every human interaction as social and that allows no space for unquantifiable private life; and an insistence that all human affairs involve politics and questions of power. Sound familiar?
One day, a group of Polish Communists visited Stalin in Moscow. After greeting his guests, Stalin asked, “Where is Comrade Z? Why is Comrade Z not here? She is one of the brightest and most promising voices in the party. Why has she not joined you?” The Polish Communists looked at the ground in terror. They knew that Stalin had had Comrade Z killed shortly before they left Poland. Our own open secret, too swiftly punished to reveal publicly, is that the woke revolution is a sham disconnected from history, society, experience, intuition, and common sense.
Rousseau, one of the fathers of modern democracy, distinguished between two types of primal egotism: amour de soi and amour propre. Both mean “self-love,” but they are radically different. Amour de soi is the biological drive for self-preservation. Amour propre originates in the competition for a sexual mate, and it seeks the esteem of others.
One Rousseau scholar describes amour propre as “the insatiable desire for superiority over one’s fellow beings based on the degree of moral respect one claims for oneself relative to others.” Another goes further. He writes that amour propre represents “a demand on others that they think better of us than they think of themselves.” That seems, in the current moment, just about right.
Rousseau did imagine a bright side to amour propre, in which the quality would regulate itself democratically, with people taming their basest hypocrisies in order not to devalue themselves by appearing sanctimonious. But the ability to tame the deepest impulses to vaunt one’s moral superiority over other people, to the point that they think better of you than they think of themselves, depends on a precious quality: self-esteem. If you respect yourself, you do not need to inflate your virtue to win others’ respect.
We inhabit, however, the most culturally and socially fluid environment in the history of mankind. The Internet makes any fantasy seem real, while social media isolate us and make us continuously uncertain of our moral standing among our peers and colleagues. This leads to moral accusation and denunciation—the quickest shortcuts to superior standing and moral invulnerability.
Trump was right when he described, at one time or another, various media organizations as “failing” in this atmosphere. The media are a collapsing environment that fosters tremendous insecurity in the people who work there, an insecurity that editors and their writers project out onto the American scene.
You could see the writing on the wall way back in 2003, when the ad hominem gossip website Gawker was founded. Liberal media, wounded by their role in the Iraq War, were feeling especially vulnerable to criticism. A website that mocked its victims in the most personal terms reduced its targets to abject terror.
It was astounding to see the New York Times, for example, contort itself to placate Gawker in myriad ways. But this was a portent. Pummeled by one social media giant after another, big media were laying people off in large numbers over the next 13 years. Trump’s election might have stanched the bleeding for a while, but his attacks unnerved media entities as they cast an envious eye on his Twitter feed and unconsciously remade themselves in his sensationalizing, truth-bending image.
By the time the so-called Shitty Media Men list appeared—containing names of men who had allegedly harassed or assaulted women in the workplaces of various media organizations—new power centers were arising as more and more individuals felt powerless, and the infinite regression of newsroom demographics proceeded rapidly. Male and female, old and young, divided, like cells, into black and white, brown and white, yellow and white, cis and trans, and on and on.
The tribes proliferated, all the while justifying their existence by blaming the new social divisions on Trump, the crude developer from Queens who was somehow portrayed as a dazzling Lucifer. Editors and reporters, producers and commentators, felt increasingly marginalized, depending on who the martyred social group of the day was. On one side, the Scylla of sudden cancellation—is “cancel” some subliminal projection of a subscription being “canceled,” the media’s abiding fear?—and on the other, the Charybdis of social and professional irrelevance. And all the while, amour propre as a survival technique became more deliberate and intense. It had, and has, the power of a vaccine. I am better than you. You can’t touch me.
On top of everything else, those damn boomers, thanks to the miracles of medical technology, weren’t going anywhere. You can’t overestimate the “toxicity”—amour propre has universalized its nature in a term—of the generational combat in news organizations now. “Racist,” more and more applied to situations that have nothing to do with race—infrastructure, for example—has now become another word for “old.” As competition in dying media organizations reaches unbearable levels, forms of one-upmanship become ever more morally rarefied.
The pandemic provided the final touch to the woke revolution in the media. Isolated at home, confined to endless Zoom meetings, journalists, especially Zoomers and millennials, lost all sense of what their standing was among their peers. The last supports of self-esteem fell away. Amour propre—the irrefutable, implacable, unanswerable assertion of superior moral status—became an instrument of professional survival and a technique of mental and emotional balance.
This is the most sinister dimension of the new woke social order. It is not fundamentally rooted in ideology, or even in a hunger for power. Its origins lie deep in the always threatened, ever insatiable, human ego.