If you read the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent even occasionally, they you probably already know that what he does day in and day out is provide a solidly progressive take on the news. He’s always, almost without fail, on the side of whatever the most progressive voices in Congress are saying and he’s usually using his column to amplify their arguments or to attack what he perceives as flaws in the arguments of anyone who opposes them. He’s especially harsh toward Republicans who he mostly seems to portray as irredeemable authoritarians bent on ending American democracy.
So when he published a piece today titled “The right-wing culture war just got worse. Liberals need a better response.” I expected just another run-of-the-mill piece bashing the right as monsters without souls or conscience and advocating whatever progressive talking points are currently circulating about the best ways to banish them.
What I didn’t expect was an article arguing that sometimes wokeness goes too far. Just yesterday it was the NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg making this point and today it’s Greg Sargent. Here’s his wind up:
The right’s line has been to tar vast swaths of “wokeness” — antiracism, racial equity and critical race theory, which examines how racism gets baked into law — as a kind of slippery slope to Stalinism.
The underlying claim is that these tendencies are fundamentally illiberal. They submerge liberal individualism by classifying groups as either oppressor or oppressed. They treat slavery and its legacies as the indelibly defining fact of U.S. history, denigrating the foundational role of liberal ideals and the United States as irredeemably incapable of realizing them.
Again, it sounds like he’s setting up a takedown of this view but in fact he’s trying for something that’s more like a mild rebuke of woke extremism: [emphasis added]
the wokeness discourse is salutary when it tries to tease out the ways these legacies continue to create vast inequalities in socioeconomic circumstances and in access to the resources needed to achieve human flourishing. It’s unclear why trying to pin down the role of race in all this is itself objectionable.
But the discourse can indeed go off the rails.
A good example is this video that offended a lot of Virginia parents. It depicted Blacks as starting a footrace with built-in disadvantages. That might be crude, but it’s defensible: Socioeconomic disadvantages resulting from the legacies of racism are real.
At the same time, it also seemed to imply that the entire White race is privileged, with no mention of the fact that many Whites face similar disadvantages…
Similarly, school materials that teach that various cultural traits and values are definitionally extensions of race are obviously illiberal or worse. Various forms of white sensitivity training plainly stray into all kinds of illiberal excesses.
Sargent goes on to like a piece by Brian Beutler in which Beutler is very open about trying to balance his awareness that many of the stories of woke extremism he sees are indeed nutty with his commitment to not ever saying anything that might be inadvertently beneficial to the right:
This conundrum arises all the time these days. It’s a miserable artifact of operating in a world saturated with Republican bad faith, but it creates interesting challenges for liberal writers. What are the right words to use if, say, you think the boycott methods of the campus left are destructively censorious, but you also recognize that people who merely aim to crush higher education will exploit any validation of anti-left wing hysteria to mislead the public about campus life generally? How do you minimize the extent to which your word choices will be exploited by liars, without violating your ethical obligation to tell the truth?…
I don’t know how prevalent the worst DEI trainings are, or even if reliable data to that effect exists. Surely we hear a lot about them because the underlying ideas are offensive and the people subjected to them complain about it. Worse than offensive, they’re ridiculous, and, thus, ripe targets for those on the hunt for anything and everything they can use to caricature all of liberalism. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
But what is the likely endpoint of that kind of propaganda? What happens when conservatives, “recodify [critical race theory] to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Are we merely on a path to rooting out a subset of bad ideas from workplace anti-bias training? Or will the very notion that teachers have a role to play in the process of integrating increasingly diverse communities be the main casualty? Because between some liberals crouching defensively from a right-wing onslaught, and other liberals validating the onslaught, I don’t hear a lot of concern over what will happen if the propagandists win.
For Beutler the whole discussion is about gauging what response will produce the proper (progressive) outcome. Even in this piece where he’s being pretty open about his own disdain for some anti-racist extremism, he can’t stop worrying about “what will happen if the propagandists win.”
It never seems to occur to him that it’s not really propaganda if it’s true or, more importantly, that if only the right can admit what’s true the left is stuck in an untenable position. A lot of what the left has labeled as propaganda isn’t that at all, it’s mostly just embarrassing stories of woke extremism they don’t really want to acknowledge or be forced to explain. It’s knocking them off their game and they’d much rather ignore it or play word games about how CRT isn’t taught in elementary schools than just admit there could be a problem on their far left flank.
The left has been denying this leftist cultural insurgency is happening for nearly a decade now as this ideology has made its way through college campuses. The problem with that approach is that it is really happening and the evidence of that is all around us. Regular people, not just college administrators, can see it happening now. So denial isn’t really going to work any longer.
Michelle Goldberg and Greg Sargent are on to something by finally acknowledging that there is such a thing as too extreme on issues of race. As I’ve said before, the progressive parents in San Francisco are recalling members of the woke school board because they’ve crossed a line. The progressive mayor of SF supports the recall. So Democrats either start saying what they actually believe, even if that means agreeing with the right, or they can keep pretending it’s just right-wing propagandists who think wokeness is a problem and pay the price at the ballot box. Those are the only two options.
As for what happens if the left starts telling the truth, well for one thing some of the extremism probably diminishes and that means less material for the right to complain about. If you want to have a real discussion about the legacy of racism and what to do about it, start by taking the most extreme takes, the ones that almost no one supports (and for good reason), off the table.