The McMinn County, Tennessee school board’s banning of Maus should perhaps give the anti-woke crowd pause. These people have made a collective killing shopping the idea that the illiberal left is primarily responsible for the muzzling of free and open debate in society—particularly in academia. So when the right reveals itself as the perpetual and real censorship threat, this group is left without much to say.
Not that (some) don’t try to cover their bases. After persistent requests to comment on the school board action, Bari Weiss re-tweeted a mild Art Spiegelman quote posted by The Daily Beast’s Harry Siegel (“Keep your nose in a book—and keep other people’s noses out of which books you choose to stick your nose into!”). Earlier in the week, and focusing on other cases, John McWhorter wrote a baffling editorial in which he tepidly walked back his repeated insistence that the left is uniquely illiberal (“I’m genuinely open to the idea that censorship from the right is more of a problem than I have acknowledged. The truth may be as it so often is, in the middle… our problem today is illiberalism on both sides.”) Most did even less. Steven Pinker did not comment. Zaid Jilani made a characteristically meaningless comment. Andrew Sullivan did not appear to comment except to re-tweet Corey Robin’s bizarre thread downplaying the banning. Glenn Greenwald did not really comment and continues to make nonsensical arguments about censorship. And really—what can they say?
Truthfully, I continue to find this anti-woke niche puzzling. Not because their views aren’t retrograde and often repulsive… they are. But their perspective is also almost universally banal. These people stand varyingly at the edges of mainstream conservatism, lightly pushing their acolytes to go farther, but largely refusing to do so themselves. In their graceless way they collectively re-affirm some mainstream sense of conservatism, but most of them are not the ultimate threat.
Of course, by saturating the media with the notion of an aggressive and intolerant left, they do serve a function, opening the door to more extreme versions of their own right-wing beliefs. In this I feel a sense of déjà vu. Barely a “generation” ago (what is a generation now?) this cohort was called the intellectual dark web. Now they are a more diverse, but just as dull, amalgam (and one-time IDW critics have joined them). So what’s next?