To Be or Not To Be Woke: The Follies of Political Correctness

Perhaps the greatest reason American politics tends to be simultaneously loud and brutally tedious is the fact that so much of the debate tends to take place on the level of abstractness. Nothing demonstrates this better than political correctness. The ever-expanding parameters of political correctness often serve to demonstrate their very absurdity. The absurdity lays in the abstractness of its precepts- the abstractness rendering its demands meaningless. Examples of this are legion. However recent weeks have provided some particularly poignant illustrations.

On June 24th NBA Commissioner Adam Silver declared that the league was moving away from using the term ‘owner.’ This issue wasn’t entirely new. A couple of years ago all-star forward Desmond Green had a back and forth with Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban over it. Silver announced that going forward team owners should henceforth be known as ‘governor.’ Was this at all a call to move teams toward public ownership, where for instance at least some of the fan-base owns team issued stocks, something like with the Green Bay Packers? No, it was simply the idea that in a league where 70 percent of the players are Black the term ‘owner’, with its apparent echoes of slavery, can cause offense. The fact that the said players often make tens of millions of dollars a year, with the minimum salary for full-time rookies at over half a million, is of no consequence. The NBA rakes in billions a year. The money has to flow somewhere and no one invests their time and money to root for owners. Still the ultimate emptiness of this gesture isn’t hard to miss, as if calling a 1830s slave owner ‘governor’ would have been an improvement. As is the case here the material relations stay the same and the cause, to the extent there is one, provokes nothing but exacerbating eye-rolls from most people whose incomes are significantly less.

On July 2nd Nike withdrew from the release of a pair of sneakers that featured the ‘Betsy Ross flag’, 13 stars in a circle representing the original 13 colonies. This happened at the urging of Nike’s brand ambassador Colin Kaepernick who apparently informed the company of the flag’s use by white supremacists. Kaepernick protested nobly against police brutality and his subsequent blackballing by the NFL is abhorrent. It’s true, stare closely at footage of Neo-Nazis long enough and one will come across the Betsy Ross flag, though it is hardly the first banner that comes to mind when thinking about such pond scum. It is probably safe to say that 90 percent of the public had no inkling that such controversy existed. Nike’s decision to pull the sneakers will no doubt result in many displaying the Betsy Ross flag simply to spite any sentiment that it contains racist connections. In fact it is a safe bet, if it hasn’t already, that the flag will make its appearance at Trump rallies very soon. Meanwhile, underneath it all is a multi-billion dollar sports apparel corporation with a very shady history of labor practices. Such is the case even as Nike seems to recognize that its bread is buttered more in ‘Blue’ America than ‘Red’ America- Nike’s market value reportedly jumped by $3 billion after the sneakers were pulled.

Out in California, the San Francisco school board voted in early July to demolish, at a cost of nearly a million dollars, a series of panel murals painted by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School. The thirteen-panel work, Life of Washington, completed in 1936, was commissioned as a part of the depression era Federal Art Project, a New Deal program sponsored by the Works Progress Administration to provide jobs to out-of-work artists to create public works or teach and research art. Arnautoff, who spent time as an assistant to Diego Rivera and considered himself a Trotskyist, and who would later be hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, depicted George Washington as exactly what he was: a complex figure who owned slaves (he freed them upon his death) and whose country’s expansion was happening at the expense of Native Americans. There are no cherry trees to be found, and this was a time when such cheap mythology was dominant. One part of the mural depicts Washington standing next to a group of gray-colored gun-toting colonizers walking past a dead Native American lying facedown on the ground. Another has two colonizers measuring land on the estate of Mount Vernon. Such social realism has become too much for the city’s school board, one of whose members, Mark Sanchez, claims the removal of the murals is a form of ‘reparations’ and it was ‘A grave mistake was made eighty years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input.’ The school currently has a student body of over 90 percent people of color (the majority of who reportedly don’t want the murals destroyed) along with a high poverty rate. It wouldn’t be hard to find good use for the hundreds of thousands of dollars being allocated to destroy anti-racist art.

Nonetheless, here we are: the sneakers won’t see the light of day, it looks like the murals will soon be gone, and more NBA bosses will go by ‘governor’ instead of owner. Can it be said that the cause of justice has advanced a millimeter? It has about as much depth as George HW Bush’s silly spiel, fresh off of the Iran Contra Affair, about a ‘kinder, gentler nation.’ Ironically as good a retort to that drivel was inadvertently quipped by none other than Donald Trump, who way back in a 1990 interview with Playboy said ‘I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.’

The Siamese twin to political correctness is labeled, at least by its many detractors, as ‘Identity Politics.’ The loudest shouts from this corner usually are of unconquerable ‘white privilege.’ It is a fact that most of the cushy jobs in DC still go to white men. And it is hard to imagine that a country free of racism would have Donald Trump as its president. The United States is permanently susceptible to the ‘Southern Strategy’ which has proven both enduring as well as quite flexible in who it presents as the threatening colored hordes that are about to swallow up the white masses. Yet it is just as much a fact that the unprecedented decline in life expectancy in recent years, due to deaths from opioid overdoses and other deaths of despair, has been driven largely by poor and working class whites. Conservatives have long had a tough time finding any city to praise, hence their acquiesce to Trump’s degrading of Baltimore and Chicago. However, the country’s poorest county is Owsley County in Kentucky. It is 98 percent white and staunchly votes Republican. Such could be said for many of the poorest places in the U.S. The gun control movement surges after every mass shooting but how often does it point out that two-thirds of gun deaths are suicide and that the number of suicides has spiked? Is there a worthy economic reform that wouldn’t uplift the poor white populations of Mississippi and Louisiana as much as it would the poor black populations?

It is worth recalling that as Trumpism was gaining steam in the Rust Belt and Rural Heartland, despite the wall-to-wall coverage that provoked, much of the country’s political energy was focused on the question of bathroom usage. For instance, the from November 8th 2015 to November 8th 2016 the New York Times contained the word ‘transgender’ 1169 times (as compared to ‘opioid’ which got only 284 mentions). The NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte in protest of North Carolina’s grandiosely named Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The NCAA followed up by stripping North Carolina’s hosting rights for several upcoming tournaments. Bands from Pearl Jam to Maroon 5 canceled gigs. The bathroom part of the law was partially repealed in March 2017. Now visit establishments today that consider themselves progressive and one finds more and more All Gender Bathrooms- meanwhile transgender people remain twice as likely as the rest of the population to live in poverty.

Such is the luxury and price of becoming woke: the luxury of having a radical attitude without actually taking a radical position. It is a price whose toll threatens to rise ever higher.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).