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The Left is Now the Right
We laughed at the Republican busybody who couldn't joke, declared war on dirty paintings, and peered through your bedroom window. Now that person has switched sides, and nobody's laughing
In August, 2005, Rolling Stone sent me to cover a freak show. In a small Pennsylvania town called Dover, residents contrived to insert a sentence about teaching “intelligent design” into the curriculum, and fought for its right to do so in an extravagantly-covered trial in the “big city” capital of Harrisburg.
Dover’s school board president, Alan Bonsell, was a fundamentalist who believed God shaped man from dust. It was said Bonsell would stand at his window at night, wondering, as he gazed at the stars, at the intervening hand of God. “If you can’t see that, you’re just not thinking clearly,” he said. His wife told him he looked like Chuck Norris.
The bureaucratic atmosphere Bonsell presided over was not kind to the eggheads trying to teach. When the head of the district’s science department, Bertha Spahr, begged the board not to promote “intelligent design,” listing past Supreme Court decisions about religion in classrooms, another fundamentalist board member named Bill Buckingham – an ex-cop who wore a lapel pin in the shape of both a Christian cross and an American flag – shouted her down. “Where did you get your law degree?” he snapped. Author Laurie Lebo in the book The Devil in Dover described what happened next:
Neither Nilsen nor Bonsell spoke up to address Buckingham’s rudeness to the thirty-year veteran teacher. Spahr pulled back, shocked, and then sat down without saying a word.
It was after this meeting in October, 2004 that a passage about teaching “gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory” was inserted into the curriculum. The science geeks fought back, however, and roughly a year later I sat in a packed courtroom with overeducated reporters from all over the world who came to gape at the spectacle of rural ignorance showing its rump in an American courtroom.
When a Christian attorney named Robert J. Muise tried to cross-examine the smooth-talking Superstars of Science who’d flown in from places like Brown and Harvard to denounce “intelligent design,” journos murdered their thesauruses looking for new words for “hayseed.” The chuckling press section felt like front row of a comedy club.
Dover’s failed school board rebellion inspired multiple books, law review articles, and films, including a Nova doc that won a Peabody award. For decades, whether in Arkansas or Texas or Louisiana, every time even a small group of fundamentalists tried bullying teachers via this stacking-the-school-bureaucracy trick, northern press heathens would descend in mammoth numbers. Especially in 2005, which felt like the dawn of a new thousand-year reign of Bushian conservatism, liberal audiences jumped at any opportunity to re-create the magic of one of their foundational knowledge-over-superstition parables, the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Fifteen years later, America is a thousand Dovers, and the press response is silence. This time it’s not a few Podunk school boards under assault by junk science and crackpot theologies, but Princeton University, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and a hundred other institutions.
When the absurdity factor rocketed past Dover levels this week, the nation’s leading press organs barely commented, much less laughed. Doing so would have meant opening the floodgates on a story most everyone in media sees but no one is allowed to comment upon: that the political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip.
Conservatives once tried to legislate what went on in your bedroom; now it’s the left that obsesses over sexual codicils, not just for the bedroom but everywhere. Right-wingers from time to time made headlines campaigning against everything from The Last Temptation of Christ to “Fuck the Police,” though we laughed at the idea that Ice Cube made cops literally unsafe, and it was understood an artist had to do something fairly ambitious, like piss on a crucifix in public, to get conservative protesters off their couches.
Today Matt Yglesias signing a group letter with Noam Chomsky is considered threatening. Moreover a lot less than booking a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit can get you in the soup – a headline, a retweet, even likes are costing people jobs. Imagine how many movies Milos Forman would have had to make if Jerry Falwell had been able to get people fired this easily.
This is separate from the Democratic Party “moving right,” or in the case of issues like war, financial deregulation, and surveillance, having always been in lockstep with the right. This is about a change in the personality profile of the party’s most animated, engaged followers.
Many who marched against Dick Cheney’s spy state in the early 2000s lost interest once Donald Trump became a target, then became full converts to the possibilities of centralized speech control after Russiagate, Charlottesville, and the de-platforming of Alex Jones, with even the ACLU wobbling. (Some of the only left media figures to be consistent on this issue work at the World Socialist Web Site, which has gone after woke icons like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Internet censorship). Support for the “radical transparency” concept that made Wikileaks famous receded in favor of a referendum on the political and sexual iniquity of Julian Assange: many activists today are more concerned with who than what and find nuance, contradiction, and double-meaning repulsive. Bad person = bad idea!
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was the exact profile of Bush-era conservatives, who were so famously impervious to irony that corporate America could not develop for them one functioning comedy concept. Just five years ago, the Atlantic ran one of many investigations into the issue, quoting University of Delaware professor Dannagal Young:
Stephen Colbert, for example, may say that he’s looking forward to the sunny weather that global warming will bring, and the audience members know this isn’t what he really means. But they have to wonder: Is he making fun of the kind of conservative who would say something so egregious? Or is he making fun of arrogant liberals who think that conservatives hold such extreme views?
As Young noticed, this is a kind of ambiguity that liberals tend to find more satisfying and culturally familiar than conservatives do… In contrast, conservative talk radio humor tends to rely less on irony than straightforward indignation and hyperbole.
The old Republican right’s idea of “humor” was its usual diatribes against Bad People, only with puns thrown in (are you ready for “OxyClinton”?). As a result the Fox effort at countering the Daily Show, the 1/2 Hour News Hour — a string of agonizing “burns” on Bush-haters and Hillary — remains the worst-rated show in the history of television, according to Metacritic. The irony gap eventually spelled doom for that group of Republicans, as Trump drove a truck through it in 2016. However, it’s possible they just weren’t as committed to the concept as current counterparts.
Take the Smithsonian story. The museum became the latest institution to attempt to combat racism by pledging itself to “antiracism,” a quack sub-theology that in a self-clowning trick straight out of Catch-22 seeks to raise awareness about ignorant race stereotypes by reviving and amplifying them.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture created a graphic on “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture” that declared the following white values: “the scientific method,” “rational, linear thinking,” “the nuclear family,” “children should have their own rooms,” “hard work is the key to success,” “be polite,” “written tradition,” and “self-reliance.” White food is “steak and potatoes; bland is best,” and in white justice, “intent counts.”
The astute observer will notice this graphic could equally have been written by white supremacist Richard Spencer or History of White People parodist Martin Mull. It seems impossible that no one at one of the country’s leading educational institutions noticed this messaging is ludicrously racist, not just to white people but to everyone (what is any person of color supposed to think when he or she reads that self-reliance, politeness, and “linear thinking” are white values?).
The exhibit was inspired by white corporate consultants with Education degrees like Judith Katz and White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, who themselves echo the work of more consultants with Ed degrees like Glenn Singleton of Courageous Conversations. Per the New York Times, Courageous Conversations even teaches that “written communication over other forms” and “mechanical time” (i.e. clock time) are tools by which “whiteness undercuts Black kids.”
The notion that such bugbears as as time, data, and the written word are racist has caught fire across the United States in the last few weeks, igniting calls for an end to virtually every form of quantitative evaluation in hiring and admissions, including many that were designed specifically to combat racism. Few tears will be shed for the SAT and ACT exams, even though they were once infamous for causing Harvard to be overpopulated with high-scoring “undesirables” like Jews and Catholics, forcing the school to add letters of reference and personal essays to help restore the WASP balance.
The outcry against the tests as “longstanding forces of institutional racism” by the National Association of Basketball Coaches is particularly hilarious, given that the real problem most of those coaches are combating is the minimal fake academic entry requirement imposed by the NCAA to help maintain a crooked billion-dollar business scheme based on free (and largely Black) labor. The tests have been tweaked repeatedly over the years to be more minority-friendly and are one of the few tools that gave brilliant but underprivileged kids a way to blow past the sea of rich suburbanites who feel oppressed by them… But, fine, let’s stipulate, as Neon Bodeaux put it, that “them tests are culturally biased.” What to make of the campaign to end blind auditions for musical positions, which the New York Philharmonic began holding in the early seventies in response to complaints of discrimination?
Before blind auditions, women made up less than 6 percent of orchestras; today they’re half of the New York Philharmonic. But because the change did not achieve similar results with Black and Hispanic musicians, the blind audition must now be “altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences.” This completes a decades-long circle where the left/liberal project went from working feverishly to expunge racial stereotypes in an effort to level the playing field, to denouncing itself for ever having done so.
This would be less absurd if the effort were not being led in an extraordinary number of cases by extravagantly-paid white consultants like DiAngelo and Howard Ross, a “social justice advocate” whose company billed the federal government $5 million since 2006 to teach basically the same course on “whiteness” to agencies like NASA, the Treasury, the FDIC, and others.
It’s unsurprising that in the mouths of such people, the definitions of “whiteness” sound suspiciously like lazy suburban white stereotypes about Black America, only in reverse. They read like a peer-reviewed version of Bill de Blasio’s infamous joke about “CP Time.”
It’s perfect cultural satire, like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode showing what ensues when Larry David is put in charge of creating a racial sensitivity exhibit for charity. The Smithsonian story is essentially the same tale of bubble-thinking run amok as the infamous “Museum of Creation” exhibit showing Adam and Eve partying with dinosaurs, only featuring opposite politics.
Those creation exhibits inspired multiple loving treatments from some of our best press humorists. In a predictable pattern, however, major media mostly did not go near the Smithsonian story until it became the focus of attention from chortling conservatives. Only at that point did headlines like the following appear in the Washington Post:
African-American Museum site removes ‘Whiteness’ chart after criticism from Trump Jr. and conservative media
Once, the right couldn’t see or comment upon its own absurdities, and instead spent most of its time whining about being frozen out of the media at the exact moment its messaging was becoming hegemonic, e.g. when we weren’t even able to watch a football game without someone trying to shove Rush Limbaugh or Dennis Miller onscreen. Now the left has adopted the same traits (the NBA restart played on a “Black Lives Matter”-emblazoned court is going to make those old Monday Night Football broadcasts seem chill), with a major difference: it has the bureaucratic juice to shut down mass media efforts to ridicule its thinking. These are the same pontificating, stereotyping busybodies Republicans used to be, only this time, they’re winning the culture war.
“Diversity through segregation” sounds like another idea clipped from poor over-invoked George Orwell, but it surged in recent weeks as the Smithsonian-style conception of “antiracism” caught fire.
In the media context, diversity consultants recently invited Intercept employees to a “Safe Space Conversation” that would feature “two breakout groups – one for those who identify as people of color and one for those who identify as white.”
The same strategy is used in DiAngelo’s version of antiracist training. A theater employee forced to go through her program described the shock of being separated into “affinity groups” in this episode of the Blocked and Reported podcast. If you’re wondering what employees who “identify as white” can learn from being put in a room without minority co-workers and urged to “express themselves sincerely and honestly,” you’re not alone. Is “learning to speak in the absence of Black people” a muscle any sane person believes needs development?
At Princeton, the situation was even more bizarre. On July 4th, hundreds of faculty members and staff at Princeton University signed a group letter calling for radical changes.
Some demands seem reasonable, like requests to remedy University-wide underrepresentation among faculty members of color. Much of the rest of the letter read like someone drunk-tweeting their way through a Critical Theory seminar. Signatories asked the University to establish differing compensation levels according to race, demanding “course relief,” “summer salary,” “one additional semester of sabbatical,” and “additional human resources” for “faculty of color,” a term left undefined. That this would be grossly illegal didn’t seem to bother the 300-plus signatories of one of America’s most prestigious learning institutions.
The Princeton letter didn’t make much news until a Classics professor named Joshua Katz wrote a public “Declaration of Independence” from the letter. Playing the same role as the Dover science teacher who feebly warned that teaching Intelligent Design would put the district at odds with a long list of Supreme Court decisions, Katz said it boggled his mind that anyone could ask for compensation “perks” based on race, especially for “extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors.”
Katz also complained about the letter’s support for a group called the Black Justice League, which he described as a “local terrorist organization” that had recently engaged in an Instagram Live version of a kind of struggle session involving two students accused of an ancient racist conversation. Katz called it “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.” The video appears to have been deleted, though I spoke with another Princeton faculty member who described seeing the same event in roughly the same terms.
In response, University President Christopher Eisengruber “personally” denounced Katz for using the word “terrorist.” Katz was also denounced by his Classics department, which in a statement on the department web page insisted his act had “heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk,” while hastening to add “we gratefully acknowledge all the forms of anti-racist work that members of our community have done.”
That statement was only signed by four people, though there are twenty faculty members in the Classics department, but the signees all had titles: department Chair, Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, head of the Diversity and Equity Committee. The pattern of administrative leaders not only not rejecting but adopting the preposterous infantilizing language of new activism – I am physically threatened by your mild disagreement – held once again. Not one institutional leader in America, it seems, has summoned the courage to laugh in this argument’s face.
The saving grace of the right used to be that it was too stupid to rule. Politically defeated liberals secretly believed that in a moment of crisis, the country would have to be turned over to people who didn’t think hurricanes were punishment for gay sex and weren’t frightened to enter a room with a topless statue. In an effort to console such readers, reporters like me were sent to mock every Dover-style cultural stooge-fest and assigned strings of features about dunces like Michelle Bachmann, who believed energy-saving light bulbs were a “very real threat to children, disabled people, pets, senior citizens.”
The right still has more than its share of wing-nuts, the president being the most famous, and we’re allowed to laugh about them (in fact, it’s practically mandatory). Unfortunately, a growing quantity of opposite-number lunacies – from a chess site temporarily shut down by YouTube because of its “white against black” rhetoric, to an art gallery director forced to resign for saying he would still “collect white artists” – is mostly off-limits. If we can’t laugh at time is a white supremacist construct, what can we laugh at?
Republicans were once despised because they were anti-intellectuals and hopeless neurotics. Trained to disbelieve in peaceful coexistence with the liberal enemy, the average Rush Limbaugh fan couldn’t make it through a dinner without interrogating you about your political inclinations.
If you tried to laugh it off, that didn’t work; if you tried to engage, what came back was a list of talking points. When all else failed and you offered what you thought would be an olive branch of blunt truth, i.e. “Honestly, I just don’t give that much of a shit,” that was the worst insult of all, because they thought you were being condescending. (You were, but that’s beside the point). The defining quality of this personality was the inability to let things go. Families broke apart over these situations. It was a serious and tragic thing.
Now that same inconsolable paranoiac comes at you with left politics, and isn’t content with ruining the odd holiday dinner, blind date, or shared cab. He or she does this infuriating interrogating at the office, in school, and in government agencies, in places where you can’t fake a headache and quietly leave the table.
This is all taking place at a time when the only organized opposition to such thinking also supports federal troops rounding up protesters for open-ended detention, going maskless to own the libs, and other equivalent madnesses. If you’re not a Trump fan and can’t reason with the other thing either, what’s left?
Ambrose Bierce once wrote there were “two instruments worse than a clarinet — two clarinets.” What would he say about authoritarian movements?