Matthew Continetti / July 11, 2020

The Winds of Woke

Can Joe Biden withstand the storm of political correctness?

Before Thursday morning I had not heard of Thomas Bosco, and I am willing to bet you haven’t heard of him either. He runs a café in Upper Manhattan. From the picture in the New York Times, the Indian Road Café is one of those Bobo-friendly brick-lined coffee shops with chalkboard menus affixed to the wall behind the counter and a small stage for down-on-their-luck musicians to warble a few bars of “Fast Car” as you sip on a no-foam latte while editing a diversity training manual. It looks pleasant enough. “Local writers, artists, musicians, and political activists are regulars,” writes metro columnist Azi Paybarah. “And for years, two drag queens have hosted a monthly charity bingo tournament there.” Drag queens! You can’t get more progressive than that. Bosco seems like a noble small businessman making his way in a turbulent world.

There’s a problem, though. He once expressed an opinion. Though Black Lives Matter signs are posted throughout the restaurant, and its owner identifies as “a liberal guy who supports almost every liberal cause I can think of,” in early June Bosco told MSNBC that he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and expects to do so again. Omigod no. “The backlash was swift, as you might expect,” writes Paybarah. Neighbors denounced Bosco on Facebook. Some vowed not to patronize the café. Randi Weingarten, who as president of the American Federation of Teachers draws close to half a million dollars in salary and benefits, wrote online that it would be “hard to ever go back.” No more tips for the barista from her. As for the drag queens, they are taking their glitter elsewhere.

Bosco is distraught. “My staff feels like I let them down to a certain extent,” he told the Times. He has supported Bernie Sanders, donated to immigrant groups, contributed to the food pantry, provided child care for an employee, and plans to change the name of the café to Inwood Farm to avoid any possible offense toward the Indigenous. None of this is enough to quell the fury of the Very Online. “Similar backlashes have erupted in liberal New York City, usually after a business is revealed to have financial links to Mr. Trump or socially conservative causes,” notes Paybarah, citing the example of Stephen Ross, an investor who had to cut ties to the Equinox and SoulCycle gym chains after it was revealed that he was going to throw a fundraiser for the president. “But Mr. Bosco is no Mr. Ross.”

No, Mr. Bosco is not. He is instead one of the countless private individuals whose lives have been upended by the gale of righteousness blowing through this country since the killing of George Floyd in police custody on May 25. For all of the high-profile sackings, vandalism, and cancellations — the editor of the New York Times opinion pages, the CEO of Crossfit, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit, the head of Adidas human resources, the Atlanta police chief, statues of Confederates, Columbus, Grant, and Douglass, and the Washington Redskins — there have been an equal number of stories concerning absolute nobodies, pipsqueaks, formally anonymous men and women whose unpopular opinions or boneheaded errors of judgment, widely publicized on social media, transform them into public enemies, splittists, and heretics whose livelihoods suffer as a result. Andy Warhol’s 1968 prediction of the future was wrong. It’s not that everyone is world-famous for 15 minutes. It’s that they are infamous.

This towering inferno of outrage culture, social media virality, and social justice journalism reached new heights on June 17, when the Washington Post devoted thousands of confusing and bizarre words to an investigation of a Halloween party at cartoonist Tom Toles’s house two years ago where a random neighborhood woman, in a gross misjudgment and lack of self-awareness, showed up in blackface. “I’m Megyn Kelly — it’s funny,” the woman is said to have told partygoers agog and offended by her costume, demonstrating the truism that any “joke” requiring explanation is a bad one. The embarrassed Megyn Kelly impersonator left the gathering, not knowing that two years later she would lose her job because another guest at the party could not take her mind off the incident. “Why Did the Washington Post Get This Woman Fired?” asked Josh Barro and Olivia Nuzzi in New York a week after the superfluous exposé appeared in the paper. No one they spoke to could explain why.

Here’s one theory. Bouts of hysteria are often accompanied by loss of perspective and lapses in critical thinking. In a moment of national self-examination, distinctions between private and public, between guilty and innocent, between criminal and clueless are tossed aside. What was precious and inviolable minutes ago — the musical Hamilton, for example, or Harry Potter — becomes the object of suspicion and derision. The frenzy builds on itself, and grows stronger, and doesn’t know where to stop.

At first the flagellation is sincere. No one, no society, is without fault. But the self-punishment soon becomes an end in itself. And for some, it even starts to feel … pleasurable. Confessing your badness turns into an uplifting sensation. It’s good. You help make bestsellers of How to Be an Antiracist, Between the World and Me, White Fragility, Stamped from the Beginning, So You Want to Talk About Race, The New Jim Crow, Begin Again, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, White Rage, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, Me and White Supremacy, and *I’m Still Here. You get into Run the Jewels. And before long, you can’t contain the self-criticism, it has to be poured outward, unleashed, directed at others. Whoever that may be.

When Noam Chomsky, who had no trouble putting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge into “context,” signs a letter warning that “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” it is a sign that things … things have gotten out of control. Social media has become a system of surveillance, policing, and stigma, news media the vehicle for an attack on the American Founding and on classical liberal principles, and progressive politicians the saps for a revolutionary ideology that hides behind egalitarian ideals.

Joe Biden better be paying close attention. The other day a member of his vice presidential shortlist, Senator Tammy Duckworth, expressed her willingness to “listen to the argument” of radicals who would tear down statues of George Washington. As I wrote this, Nancy Pelosi shrugged off the illegal desecration of the Columbus statue in Baltimore, saying, “People will do what they do.” You know how people are — they get angry and wild and destroy public property. So fuggedaboutit. Would she say the same if vandals tossed the sculpture of her dad into the Inner Harbor?

There is only so much self-abasement a nation can take. And when the winds of woke start to blow, millions of Americans find that there is one way left for them to oppose political correctness: pulling the lever for the man in the White House.

Matthew Continetti is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. For more from The Washington Free Beacon, sign up free of charge for the Morning Beacon email.

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