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01 Nov 2021, 6:57 pm

Batya Ungar-Sargon for Bari Weiss’s substack

Why is it, for example, that between 2013 and 2019, the frequency of the words “white” and “racial privilege” exploded by 1,200 percent in The New York Times and by 1,500 percent in The Washington Post? Why was the term “white supremacy” used 2,400 times by National Public Radio in 2020?

What changed? Why was there suddenly a relentless focus on race and power? And who—or what—was driving it?

At last those questions have been answered with unusual clarity by Batya Ungar-Sargon in her new book “Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy.”

Batya, who is an opinion editor at Newsweek, is hard to pin down politically. I first met her in 2018 and I would have described her then as woke. These days I’d call her a left-wing populist. (She’s part of an endangered species: a person willing to change her mind.) But what I appreciate most about Batya, and what I think you’ll find when you read the essay below, is someone who is able to put ideology aside and pursue to illuminate why the news is broken, how it is fueling one war (culture) to distract from another (class), and how that might be changed. — BW

On November 16, 2018, CNN’s Don Lemon hosted a panel discussion about white women who voted for Donald Trump. There was no real news peg for the story; the president hadn’t spent the morning tweeting about anything specific, and it was 10 days after the midterm elections. But Lemon valiantly torqued them into an awkward hook for the panel: “A wave of women, white, black and brown are sweeping into office after the 2018 election. Does Donald Trump still have the support of a majority of white women and if so, why is that?”

A Friday night capping off a slow news week was as good an opportunity as any to bring up the increasingly hot topic of white supremacy. In fact, the only remarkable thing about the panel was how unremarkable it was, one of a thousand such panels that have graced American airwaves in recent years.

Lemon’s guests were Kirsten Powers, a senior CNN political analyst; Alice Stewart, a CNN commentator playing the supporting role of token Republican; and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a professor of history at UC Berkeley, whose book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South” had been cited in an article on Vox, a progressive opinion site that caters to millennials.

Powers had much to say about Donald Trump’s female supporters. “People will say that they support him for reasons other than his racist language,” she told Lemon. “They’ll say, ‘Well I’m not racist; I just voted for him because I didn’t like Hillary Clinton.’ And I just want to say that that’s not, that doesn’t make you not racist. It actually makes you racist,” Powers explained. “As for why white women do it,” she went on, “I think we have to remember that the white patriarchal system actually benefits white women in a lot of ways.”

Professor Jones-Rogers concurred. “So, as a historian, I explore white women’s economic investments in the institution of slavery,” she said. “And what that has led me to understand is that there’s this broader historical context that we need to keep in mind when we’re looking at white women’s voting patterns today, and as we look at their support—their overwhelming support of Donald Trump.” Lemon jumped in to note that just over half of white women had voted for Trump—hardly what would constitute “overwhelming” support. Jones-Rogers clarified: “What I meant by overwhelming was emotionally overwhelming.”

The sole Republican, Alice Stewart, was briefly allowed to respond, and voiced her resentment at being called racist for her vote for Trump, whom she chose for his policies. But Powers interjected: It’s not just Republican women who have a problem with racism but all white women, indeed, all white people.“Every white person benefits from an inherently racist system that is structurally racist, so we are all part of the problem,” Powers said. Jones-Rogers heartily agreed. It was a scene as inescapable today as it would have been rare ten years ago.

What changed? Most obviously: white liberals. Their enthusiasm for wokeness created a feedback loop with the media outlets to which they are paying subscribers. And the impact has been monumental: Once distinct publications and news channels are now staggeringly uniform.

Where did this obsession come from? The election of Donald Trump is often given all the credit. Trump was so extreme in his disregard of liberal mores, so willing to offend with comments that were sometimes casually racist—comments that were amplified and justified throughout conservative and right-wing news outlets—that American liberals, including the liberal media, swung hard to the left. This is true: The mainstream media certainly molded itself around Trump, whose presidency was a major gift to MSNBC and CNN and the New York Times—outlets that were facing a bleak outlook are now thriving thanks to the ratings and clicks that the Trump stories generated.

But Trump is an insufficient answer. The moral panic mainstreamed by the liberal news media had actually been underway for at least five years before Trump appeared on the scene. It began around 2011, the year the New York Times erected its online paywall. It was then that articles mentioning “racism,” “people of color,” “slavery,” or “oppression” started to appear with exponential frequency at the Times, BuzzFeed, Vox, the Washington Post, and NPR.

he recent obsession with identity has allowed these journalists to pretend—indeed to believe they are still speaking truth to power, still fighting on behalf of the little guy, even after they have themselves ascended to the ranks of the powerful, even when they are speaking down to an audience who, in more cases than not, have less than them on every measurable scale.

In other words, despite a no doubt well-intentioned desire to ameliorate racial inequality, their enthusiasm for the language of wokeness has allowed affluent white liberals to perpetuate and even excuse a deeply unequal economic status quo.

If journalists once fought the powerful on behalf of the powerless, in 21st century America, they are the powerful. While the average pay for a journalism job is quite low at around $40,000 a year, that’s because entry-level jobs pay so little; at the higher levels, journalists now make quite a bit more than the average American. More importantly, journalists now have social and cultural power, and they are overwhelming the children of economic elites.

And what journalists have done with that power, perhaps inadvertently, is to wage a cultural battle that enhances their own economic interests against a less-educated and struggling American working class.

Once working-class warriors, the little guys taking on America’s powerful elites, journalists today are an American elite, a caste that has abandoned its working class roots as part of its meritocratic climb. And a moral panic around race has allowed them to mask this abandonment under the guise of “social justice.”

Wokeness perpetuates the economic interests of affluent white liberals. I believe that many of them truly do wish to live in a more equitable society, but today’s liberal elites are also governed by a competing commitment: their belief in meritocracy, or the fiction that their status was earned by their intelligence and talents. Today’s meritocratic elites subscribe to the view that not only wealth but also political power should be the province of the highly educated.

A moral panic around race was the perfect solution: It took the guilt that they should have felt around their economic good fortune and political power— which they could have shared with the less fortunate had they cared to—and displaced it onto their whiteness, an immutable characteristic that they could do absolutely nothing to change.

This is how white liberals arrived at a situation where instead of agitating for a more equal society, they agitated for more diverse elites. Instead of asking why our elites have risen so far above the average American, they asked why the elites are so white. Instead of asking why working-class people of all races are so underrepresented in the halls of power, white liberals called the working class racist for voting for Trump. Instead of asking why New York City’s public school system is more segregated than Alabama’s, white liberals demanded diversity, equity, and inclusion training in their children’s exorbitantly priced prep schools.

In other words, wokeness provided the perfect ideology for affluent, liberal whites who didn’t truly want systemic change if it meant their children would have to sacrifice their own status, but who still wanted to feel like the heroes of a story about social justice, who still wanted to feel vastly superior to their conservative and even slightly less radical friends. They took a no doubt genuine abhorrence for the truly heinous ways black Americans have been treated historically—and, in some cases, continue to be treated—and instead of seeing in it a call to arms to create a genuinely equal society, they used it as an excuse to withdraw from the common good and the social contract, rebranding the problem of racism to fit the solution that would most benefit them. In the process, they demonized America itself, deplatforming the working class (of all races) while protecting their own status.

Racism is still a blight on American life. But wokeness is not how we heal; it has simply redefined the problem to the benefit of educated elites. By focusing on immutable characteristics like race, the woke moral panic has allowed economic elites to evade responsibility for their regressive view that elites should not only exist but rule. And in presenting race rather than class and income as America’s deep and worsening divide, the purveyors of wokeness have ended up comforting white, liberal elites, even as they have called them white supremacists.

It would have been impossible without the media.

A whole lot of mind reading by the author. Doing some mind reading of my own the author seems pissed race has replaced class as the be all and end all explanation for our problems. Both explanations are too simplistic. The article does get at a truth that many times it does seem like what is meant by the catch all term “progressive” boils down to I am smarter then you. Maybe I was naive but “liberal” the predecessor catch all term to “progressive” meant a genuine desire to use ones fortune to help the less fortunate. It was optimistic and idealistic(naive to conservatives). I started noticing the change during the Bush the son years.

Woke does not directly say you are dumb. They posit you get it wrong that because of your baked in privileged racism you don’t experience living while black. It still boils down to I figured out what you could not.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

It is Autism Acceptance Month.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


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02 Nov 2021, 7:35 pm

Eric Weinstein brought up his wife's idea on this, Pia Malaney, and her idea was something to the effect that center-left power brokers got together, probably in many small conversations that added up, concurred that labor was too expensive a constituency for votes and they tried to think of what was either cheaper or would cost them next to nothing... and out came the idea that identity would be the almost-free substitute.

I think for the start of this we're still looking at whatever happened in 1973 (split between wages and productivity), the early 1980's neoliberal revolution, and I can't say whether it's just my age and how things unfolded across my late 20's and 30's but I still can't help but feel that so much of what happened for the last decade was accruing after-effects of the 2008 crisis. You can add Jonathan Haidt's sense that social media, and in particular places like Facebook and Twitter, hit a flash point around 2009 and that it was around 2012 where things started getting noticeably strange.

For me the time between 2015 and 2019 really felt like Batman Begins where someone put something like PCP in the drinking water. It was like watching a two-headed juggernaut of narcissism and borderline personality disorders trample everything in it's path. In some sense that seemed to come to a head in 2020 and it's almost like we're - at least a little - regaining ground.

For the New York Times, one of the things that amazes me is that they're now taking on John McWhorter as a regular columnist. If you're not familiar with him I'd highly recommend listening to his discussions with Sam Harris, Chris Williamson, his regular chats with Glenn Lowery, I've been listening to him off and on probably since 2018 or 2019 but his book is titled 'Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America', and the New York Times felt enough pressure - from somewhere - to stop ignoring PoV's like his, Glenn's, Coleman's, etc..

I think we're at least starting to see some flickering of light at the end of the tunnel, but as always - give it another year and I can't help but think we'll find some brand new tunnel that we'll be stuck talking about. Hopefully this one's waning. I say that especially thinking about what Vivek Ramaswamy's been saying - that if we lose any more than part of a generation to a circular religious ideology we lose our future.

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you'll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privelege of owning yourself" - Rudyard Kipling