23 July 2020 Edited by Elizabeth Cosgriff, proof in progress
The journalist Bari Weiss quit her job in reaction to a climate of intimidation that reigns, according to her, within the American newspaper. She is implicitly denouncing the emergence of “woke” culture, a concept referring to a state of having woken up to sexist and racial injustices.
Does free thought still exist at the most prestigious American newspaper? Bari Weiss, 36, an op-ed staff writer and editor for The New York Times, has just slammed the door on the paper by calling out the harassment she feels she is a victim of. At issue? Some editors of the openly progressive and anti-Trump media find her ideas disturbing. She claims that she has been ostracized for trying to broaden the newspaper’s perspective to include conservative views; exactly what she was hired to do three years ago. Weiss, who worked for The Wall Street Journal for a long time, was recruited by the New York-based publication at the time of Donald Trump’s election, as the newspaper embarked upon profound self-examination for not having foreseen the billionaire’s victory. Weiss’ departure reinforces the march toward intolerance of ideas other than their own that a fringe of the American left has embarked upon.
An Activist Version of ‘Cool’
In a letter published on her website, the renowned journalist who won the National Jewish Book Award in 2019 for her book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” (Crown, 2019), says that some of her colleagues called her a racist and a Nazi, and that management did not intervene. She describes an editorial team that is undermined by a generational conflict between the centrist old guard, and young writers and editors who are more concerned with feminist battles and racial inequality. They represent the emergence of a “woke” culture at the newspaper. The term, originally African American slang, describes a state of having woken up or a certain determination to fight the oppression of minorities. For its defenders, being “woke” corresponds to a new hyperconscious form of activism against a multitude of inequalities, including sexist, ethnic, social and even environmental. This means no longer allowing any inequality. For its critics, it constitutes a direct threat to democracy because it infiltrates public debate with a push to conform to “right thinking.”
Before landing on The New York Times’ opinion page, the concept first appeared in “Master Teacher,” a 2008 song by Erykah Badu, before gaining currency in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2013 against police brutality toward Black Americans. “Woke” is the activist version of anti-conformist “cool,” a political position that African Americans adopted in the 20th century to defuse institutionalized racism; Joel Dinerstein, a professor at Tulane University, described it in “The Origins of Cool in Postwar America” (The University of Chicago Press, 2017). More of a call to action and more aggressive than its predecessor, “woke” culture has grown stronger within the American left as the Trump administration and its supporters have sunk into racist one-upmanship – a fringe of public opinion that Weiss, who is very critical of it, ended up alienating.
“Woke” culture has become so popularized that it has almost gone astray. Just like cool, the concept seems to have been adopted in advertising, political messaging and self-promotional strategies. “The term started to lose its racial connotation, becoming instead a catchall for any sort of progressive behavior,” laments American writer Damon Young in a New York Times column in November 2019. “You were woke if you recycled, or maybe just retweeted an infographic on the virtues of recycling.” Even the 2018 Golden Globes, dominated by the Harvey Weinstein affair, were woke, according to The New York Times.
An Environment of Ideological Intimidation?
In spite of everything, including a common enemy who is the 45th president, the Democratic camp continues to tear itself apart over this new manner of expression. In a column entitled “The Problem with Wokeness,” published in June 2018, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks explained the rigidity of the intellectual concept in the following way: At its most extreme, he wrote, “wokeness … makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time.” In October 2019, Barack Obama himself found woke activism’s tendency toward moral lecturing, especially on social media, counterproductive. By being overly sensitive to divergent opinions and by taking radical action against opposing ideas – to the point of trying to silence them altogether, which is called “cancel culture” – does wokeness drive a form of moral superiority, if not an environment of ideological intimidation? It is, in any case, a form of defensiveness against the persistence of racist, sexist and homophobic discourse within institutions and media outlets, even those classified as leftist.
“Self-censorship has become the norm,” writes Weiss. “Op-eds that would have been easily published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble … If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it … And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it only happens after every line has been carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.” Weiss cites as evidence the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennett after publishing an op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the deployment of federal troops to control rioting after the death of George Floyd. Bennett would later admit to not having read the Arkansas lawmaker’s article before allowing its publication.
At the moment, the American right is on cloud nine. Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. have taken a perverse pleasure in celebrating Weiss’ remarks. “This is a must read for everyone. If you want to get a glimpse into today’s enlightened media, and in this case The New York Times, you need look no further,” Trump’s son tweeted. An endorsement that Weiss could have done without.
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