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The Silence of Good Intentions

How Wokeness censors newsrooms and American discourse

Last week, the liberal Bill Maher went after his own in one of the best political commentaries I’ve seen. Maher asked why more of the country didn’t vote for Congressional Democrats or liberal politicians in state races when Trump and his Ever-Trumpers were the alternative. Democrats lost seats in the U.S. House, didn’t turn a single state legislature, and may not take the U.S. Senate. “If Cracker Jack were made of popcorn and dog shit,” Maher joked, “and half the people threw out popcorn…popcorn should want to know why.”

For Maher, and for me, the answer lies in hyperventilating liberals online and in popular culture. Maher lays out his case so I won’t repeat it, but will say I’m alarmed by the censorious Woke around me and what today’s ultra-liberal movement might mean for the future of writing and journalism.

Around the time Maher delivered his rant, Matt Ygelsias left the website he co-founded, Vox. Yglesias is a moderate to liberal thinker but his politics no longer fit within Vox’s progressive newsroom, staffed by, yes, some very smart people but ones who are quick to say they feel “less safe” when Yglesias takes a political position in contrast to their own. “It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas,” Yglesias said, a few days after leaving Vox, “and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.”

I am myself a man of moderate to liberal politics and by the standards of today’s identity-obsessed progressivism a member in good standing: I’m white, my wife is Black, we were married in our gay friends’ backyard, we have three bi-racial children and a few years ago welcomed into our home my Black mother-in-law, a feisty retiree who made a life for herself after growing up in the Jim Crow South.

But my wife and I, both of us journalists, see how the rhetoric of the moment censures even newsrooms. An example: When the New York Times ran an Op Ed this spring from Republican Senator Tom Cotton, imploring President Trump to send in the National Guard to counter Black Lives Matter protests, some Black writers and editors at the paper said the piece “put [them] in danger.”

Now, because of my skin color, I have never had a gun pulled on me by a cop. I’ve never been stopped for Driving While White. Those writers and editors at the Times may have legitimately felt threatened by a conservative Senator demanding a vengeful President send in the National Guard. In fact whatever their personal histories with law enforcement, there’s a long collective history of violence and death in this country when protestors clash with the military. Neil Young once wrote a song about it.

And yet the preferred language of 2020 among Woke progressives is its own weapon. You can disagree with Cotton’s argument — and I do; it’s bullshit and ignores the violent history I cite above — but to say you feel (and here is that phrase again) less safe because of it is to begin to smother and suffocate the intellectual give and take of life, and of newsrooms. Whether that was the intent of the Black staffers at the Times is almost beside the point. That was the result. Saying they felt less safe ended the debate. Shamed it. Again, I’m not saying those writers and editors should feel and respond any way other than how they felt and responded. Nor should they apologize for ending the debate. But the more often people of any profession respond to political disagreements with the language of personal harm, the more that language not only states one’s truth but fashions itself into a cudgel, out to slice the throat of discourse.

It’s why such language is so effective and in wide use among all progressives.

In my more optimistic moments I see the modern left’s grave and humorless liberalism as a fad. It’s mostly young progressives, after all, who are so aggrieved and filled with rage. They’ll probably outgrow it. But in my more cynical moments I remember an essay the professor Jonathan Haidt wrote a number of years ago, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about the trend among universities to provide “safe spaces” to students alarmed by, say, the bloody barbarism of history or Adam Smith’s free market theories. The microaggressions and trigger warnings that entered our lexicon a decade ago via the academy are now not just words but political identities. The people who ascribe to this strain of progressivism obtain with each passing year more power, in politics, in entertainment, in journalism. Matt Yglesias was not the only liberal writer in 2020 to leave the website he co-founded for suddenly lacking sufficient progressive bona fides. These incidents and more — the open letter from Harper’s magazine saying free speech was being stifled in America and how that letter was itself “cancelled” on Twitter and labelled “anti-trans” — cause me deep concern in a year full of it for the future of discourse in America, and the future of the only industry I ever loved.

New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.


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