Unlocking the Mystery of the Bari Weiss Anti-Wokeness Gestalt: Part One

A quest for understanding through an absurdly close readings of a New York Post column

Bari Weiss’s latest New York Post column, “10 ways to fight back against woke culture,” is a pretty wild ride. I honestly can’t make out the argument that leads to Weiss’ conclusion that “It’s time to stand up and fight back” against woke scolds and her ten tips for beating them back. That said, the column is just jam packed with confident declarations advanced in a grand spirit of resounding moral authority that are, upon inspection, pretty puzzling. Yet I’m intrigued.

I doubt that Weiss’ piece hangs together intellectually, but now that I’ve read it a few times, I feel that it has a strong impressionistic emotional/moral/ideological coherence that bubbles up from the column’s jumble of assertion, admonition, and exhortation. I want to understand it! Maybe if I can make sense of the Bari Weiss gestalt, I can finally begin to understand the moral panic about “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” Maybe? Seems worth having a go. Even if I can’t bottle the ghost, I’m bound to learn something, right? So let us plunge into the unknown and proceed to parse and interrogate this New York Post column with a spirit of analytically rigorous adventure!

Weiss begins:

I realize the faddish thing to say these days is that we live in the worst, most broken and backward country in the world and maybe in the history of civilization. It’s utter nonsense.

Can it be faddish to say something literally no one says? It cannot. I think we’re all happy to allow for a bit of vivacious hyperbole, but I’ve never heard or read anyone make a claim that comes within a million miles of this. But, yeah, if anybody ever did say that the United States of America is the worst place on Earth, and maybe in all of human history, it would be nonsense. So there’s a point of agreement. Anyway, it’s clear enough that Weiss believes that too many Americans see their country in an excessively negative light, and she strongly disapproves of this.

Weiss doesn’t need to provide evidence that the U.S. circa 2021 is not in fact hellish beyond compare, because no one thinks that it is. Yet she goes ahead and offers a bit of evidence anyway, lest anyone is inclined to doubt that America is not in fact the absolute pits.

I have a few basic litmus tests in my own life: Can I wear a tank top in public? Can I walk down the street holding the hand of my partner, a (beautiful) woman, in many places in America without getting a second glance? Can I wear a Jewish star without fear?

I do not take those things for granted. I know very well that in many other places, the answers would be different, and my life wouldn’t be possible at all.

Yup, America’s definitely not the worst country on the planet or of all time. So ….?

I take her point to be that some of us ought to be more grateful than we are for all the good things we’ve got. Agreed! For my part, I’m awfully glad that Bari Weiss can serenely stroll hand in hand with her special lady whilst wearing a tank top bearing the star of David … “in many places.”

It would be much better if this freewheeling sense of ease were available in every destination between California and the New York island. But it’s not, which isn’t great. Still, the freedom to be overtly queer, Jewish, and bare-shouldered “in many places” is a hell of a lot better than “in no places,” which is how it is in plenty of countries. So, sure, we have plenty of room for improvement, but let’s look on the bright side: we totally aren’t the worst.

Fine! But have we made even an inch of progress? Weiss appears to think she’s arguing against a popular position to her left, but it seems to me she’s either mailing her message to a vacant lot or to folks who agree with her about everything she’s said so far, except for her suggestion that they’re misguided because they don’t. Why does Weiss think that anyone at all believes that America is the worst country on Earth? Does she think that’s the only possible explanation for what she sees as excessive negativity about America and inadequate gratitude for the fact that people in other countries are much worse off? Let’s see…

America is imperfect. (Does it even need to be said?) There is bigotry toward blacks and gays and Jews and immigrants; there is intense polarization; political violence is becoming more regular; elected representatives believe conspiracy theories. All true here as in many other countries being torn apart by the dislocations of the 21st century.

The “whataboutism” here is a red flag for me. It strikes me that Weiss is beginning to resist the logic of her own comparative claims, which no one disputes. It’s true that the problems that afflict us are as at least as bad in a bunch of other places. Weiss supposes that this gives us reason to remain relatively sunny about America. That’s fine. But then it’s also true that a bunch of countries suffer far less from these same problems. If we apply the same logic, this fact should give us reason to be dissatisfied with America. If you put them together, as you should, you end up with ambiguity. But Weiss doesn’t compare up, which would cast us in a less favorable light. Nor does she compare our present to our past — that is, unless it leaves us with something to feel good about.

I don’t think she’s being shady. Conservative aversion to ambiguity is very real and (if I may speculate) I suspect Weiss is so invested in an upbeat narrative about superlative American greatness that it really didn’t occur to her to consider that hundreds of millions of people in other countries might be better off than Americans are, or that there might be several respects in which we have it worse than we used to.

If this had occurred to her, I’d think it would have been blazingly obvious to her that you don’t need to believe that America is the worst place on the planet to be justifiably downbeat about the state of the union. I don’t think you’d go ahead and say something so ridiculous if it was apparent to you that it is ridiculous. But if you dwell exclusively on how much better off we are than people in other places, but (for whatever reason) don’t pay any attention at all to the fact that people in other places are better off than we are, then people who do allow themselves to see the bigger picture might seem like they’re refusing to acknowledge the facts about how wonderful things really are. If that’s how you see things, it’s easy to imagine wanting an explanation for this sort of willful blindness and ingratitude. Once you’ve come this far, it probably doesn’t take a major leap to decide that it must be rooted in some sort of baleful doctrine or ideology, especially if you’re primed by pre-existing factional enmity.

The favorable downward comparisons continue:

But there is no gulag in America. There are no laws permitting honor killings. There is no formal social credit system of the kind that exists right now in China. By any measure, we have achieved incredible progress and enjoy extraordinary freedoms. And yet people aren’t acting that way. They are acting, increasingly, like subjects in a totalitarian country.

Okay, let’s do this. Why aren’t Americans thrilled about how relatively great we have it? In the last sentence here, Weiss rounds the corner toward her pet answer: we are terrorized by wokeness. But there’s a much more sensible and straightforward answer to the question.

Allow me to depress you without being even remotely woke.

American democracy very recently failed the peaceful transfer of power test and (last I checked) 447,715 Americans have perished of an easily preventable viral infection in an uncontrolled pandemic, which has caused the largest contraction in the U.S. economy since 1946. Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

As bad as all that is, things were pretty shitty before more Americans than the entire population of Iceland died from our maliciously negligent government’s non-response to Covid-19. As the (faddish?) Ann Case and Angus Deaton insist on informing us:

What we call “deaths of despair” – deaths by suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug overdose – have risen rapidly since the mid-1990s, increasing from about 65,000 per year in 1995 to 158,000 in 2018.

The increase in deaths from this other epidemic is almost entirely confined to Americans without a four-year college degree. While overall mortality rates have fallen for those with a four-year degree, they have risen for less-educated Americans. Life expectancy at birth for all Americans fell between 2014 and 2017. That was the first three-year drop in life expectancy since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19; with two epidemics now raging at once, life expectancy is set to fall again.

Behind these mortality figures are equally gloomy economic data. As we document in our book, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for US men without a college degree have fallen for 50 years.

That’s not great. But how do we feel? Not great:

Why the long face, America?

Here’s Jean M. Twenge in the 2019 World Happiness Report:

This decline in happiness and mental health seems paradoxical. By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever. The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades. This is the Easterlin paradox: As the standard of living improves, so should happiness – but it has not.

Several credible explanations have been posited to explain the decline in happiness among adult Americans, including declines in social capital and social support (Sachs, 2017) and increases in obesity and substance abuse (Sachs, 2018). In this article, I suggest another, complementary explanation: that Americans are less happy due to fundamental shifts in how they spend their leisure time.

Since this is one of my pet subjects, allow me to intervene and say that isn’t actually the Easterlin paradox. Money does buy happiness, even when you’re rich, but the marginal dollar buys less happiness the wealthier you already are, and the marginal dollar obviously buys you nothing if you never get it. As Case and Deaton emphasize, the standard of living has been declining for broad swathes of the population for decades. There’s no paradox at all in the combination of rising per capita income and stagnant or declining self-reported life satisfaction, because a high level of income inequality and the declining marginal utility of money are all you need to explain it.

That said, I think Twenge is onto something. It’s plausible that national happiness is plummeting because we’ve royally screwed up how we spend our free time — because the Internet and especially social media is making us miserable, which is what she’s saying. Disruptive innovation! Move fast and break spirits!

(Aside: Most of my friends think that scotching Section 230 would “end the Internet as we know it,” and that this would be bad. Maybe it’s not bad.)

Anyway, Weiss is on very firm ground when she says that “we have achieved incredible progress and enjoy extraordinary freedoms.” But this is a misleading claim outside the context of the facts that our progress is measurably eroding and we’re getting measurably less free.

Here’s Cato’s 2020 Human Freedom Index. During Trump’s first two years in office, America’s “freedom rank” plummeted. I’d expect it to fall even further once the 2019 data’s analyzed.

Taken all together, massive bummer. This parade of horribles certainly doesn’t add up to the claim, which nobody makes, that “we live in the worst, most broken and backward country in the world and maybe in the history of civilization.” But I think it’s pretty clear that our country is a lot more broken than Weiss thinks. It seems to me that even the things Weiss thinks we ought to take comfort in aren’t actually very comforting. Maybe we do have a gulag and just don’t call it that? Maybe we don’t have laws that allow honor killings, but we do get a grisly fuck-ton of whatever killings. (Imagine drawing your last breath, after getting shot in the neck by a maniac with an AR-15 in a Ruby Tuesdays and thinking, as you expire, “At least it wasn’t for honor!”)

The United States of America is far from the worst place in the world, but it is not, by any measure, the greatest nation on Earth. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tremendous blessing to live in the 17th freest country in the world. But that’s cold comfort when we’re worse off than we used to be in a lot of ways, in both objective and subjective terms. Our psyches are sensitive to changes, not levels, and we feel like we’re falling, because we are. It can be anguishing to be on the downward slide, even if you’re still close to the top.

But none of this is why Weiss thinks folks are unduly sour on America or feeling oppressed, despite our alleged lack of gulags. The problem isn’t preventable mass death, declining lifespans, plummeting happiness, or punishing economic contraction. Nope. It’s that we do have a sort of stifling social credit system:

These people write to me daily. They admit to regularly censoring themselves at work and with friends; succumbing to social pressure to tweet the right hashtag; to parroting slogans they do not believe to protect their livelihoods, like the greengrocer in Václav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless.”

These people aren’t crazy. They are scared for good reason.

How much does it cost me to log on to Twitter and accuse you, right now, of an -ism? America is fast developing its own informal social credit system, as the writer Rod Dreher has noted, in which people with the wrong politics or online persona are banned from social media sites and online financial networks.

It’s interesting what changes we’re sensitive to, isn’t it? We’ve always censored ourselves, succumbed to social pressure, and parroted slogans. These pressures have intensified for many of us and it really rankles Bari Weiss. Personally, I don’t think this is nearly as important as the deaths of a half-million Americans in a plague, declining wages and lifespans, or the precarious instability of democratic institutions. But I also don’t think Weiss is wrong to alarmed by the fact “we live in an upside-down time in which pressing the ‘like’ button on the wrong thing can bring untold consequences.”

I think Jean Twenge is probably right: social media is making us miserable. We’re hyper-social beings inherently anxious about our standing in the tribe. Social media has come to make us feel as though the superego’s harshly appraising eyes have been infinitely multiplied. We feel watched everywhere. We’re stuck together with our enemies — with everyone — in a house without walls. Everyone can see everything: how we’re rated, liked, shared, affirmed, hated, mocked, completely ignored. There are roving bands baying for scalps, and everyone can see them. The blade of social judgment swings heavily above our heads. We’ve seen it fall on others. Everyone sees it. Every execution is public.

This is not healthy for humans. The fear, anxiety, depression and dejection produced by this distributed dystopian panopticon are very real and may well be a non-trivial part of what’s wrecking America body and soul. But I don’t think the problem with it is what Bari Weiss thinks it is. Why?

Well, I hate to leave you hanging, but I’m gonna leave you hanging. This got ridiculously long and I don’t want to rush this part; I feel like this impulsive quest is bearing fruit! In Part Two, we’ll either get to the bottom of everything or the bottom of Bari Weiss’ column. Or is this a distinction without a difference? Watch your inbox!

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