Bret Stephens and NY Times commenters on the incident at Smith College

Yesterday NY Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote a piece about the incident at Smith College in 2018 which led the school to embrace critical race theory. Here’s his summary:

For those who missed it, the story begins in the summer of 2018, when Oumou Kanoute, a student at Smith, recounted that she had just been confronted by a campus police officer while she was eating lunch in a dorm lounge.

“All I did was be Black,” she wrote on Facebook. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman.” She added that the officer might have been carrying “a lethal weapon.”…

But the narrative of racist harassment of a minority student at an elitist white institution turned out to be comprehensively false.

If you missed all the details of how these claims were false, those were uncovered in a news story the NY Times published last week. From there, Stephens argues that the “woke left” is exploiting liberal guilt:

The telling line in Powell’s story comes from a letter the Black Student Association wrote to McCartney, Smith’s (white) president, saying its members “do not feel heard or understood. We feel betrayed and tokenized.” Tokenized, most certainly: Behind every affirmative action program at every liberal institution is a yearning for moral redemption — admission to its present ranks is granted in exchange for absolution for past sins and acceptance of its ideological assumptions.

The Woke left doesn’t want to be a party to this bargain. Absolution is off the table. And the liberal ideals themselves are up for renegotiation.

In place of former notions of fairness toward individuals regardless of race, the Woke left has new ideas of “restorative justice” for racial groups.

That’s bound to be a controversial approach, but I was surprised how much support there was for Stephens point in the comments. It’s not universal but certainly there was a lot of sentiment from otherwise progressive people that there is indeed a problem with fashionably woke ideas. Here’s the top response (over 1,600 upvotes):

Spot on. There are a lot of lifelong Lefties like me who see that there is something very wrong going on among our Blue Team. Let me add one thing to the list Stephens printed in his second-to-last paragraph. We’ve also replaced the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt when accusations go public. All the liberal ideas we cherished are being replaced by illiberal ideas. Free speech is now hate speech if we don’t like it, and critical thinking and the free-flow of ideas are now micro-aggressions and violations of safe spaces.

Cancel culture is real and it’s a weapon of the Left. At some point people gotta start seeing this and growing tired of the constant purges of people from our society.

The second most popular comment is my favorite. This is brief but brilliant:

The spectacle of excited youngsters pointing their fingers at and ruining the lives of poorer, older people around them, while those in power stand cowed and frozen with fear, is a New England tradition that goes back to at least the 1690s.

And the very next comment from a Democratic Socialist:

Stephens is not saying that racism doesn’t exist, he’s saying that Woke culture overreach does. Many people seem unable to keep the two concepts in their head simultaneously.

And I say this as a democratic socialist who rarely agrees with Bret.

There are dozens more like this. It’s a bit of a relief to see people who are on the left and yet look at what happened at Smith College as part of a disturbing trend. Most people aren’t woke activists.

Naturally, the comments highlighted by the NY Times as “Times picks” are far more likely to push back on the column than the ones readers actually liked. For instance:

The excesses of racial ”wokeness” are directly proportional to the racist excesses of our slave history. That doesn’t excuse them necessarily but it might explain them.

Sounds like an excuse to me, and not a very good one. The student in this case is attending one of the priciest liberal arts colleges in the country. If she’s not privileged, no one is.

Let me wrap this up with a word about the Times’ selection of comments. I’m not sure who makes these picks. If it were up to me, I’d drop this always slanted selection and let readers decide for themselves which comments they like best. The Times has a surprising number of fair-minded commenters and still the paper has found a way to present the subset of them who sound exactly like the stereotype of a NY Times commenter.

Alternatively, let the author of the piece select which comments get highlighted. Sometimes the readers make good points for or against a topic but as it stands the “Times Picks” selection always seems to over-represent left wing talking points and often ignores the best comments because they don’t fit the agenda.