NY Times op-ed dismisses Obama’s critique of “woke culture” because he’s an uncomprehending and privileged “Boomer”

November 4, 2019 • 1:32 pm

I’m too busy watching glaciers go by in the Beagle Channel to post much today. The Channel was in fact where Darwin saw his first glacier, and it’s cool to think that I’m seeing the same glaciers that he did.

But on to the opinion of the day. This time it’s a beef about Obama’s recent critique of “cancel culture.” You might remember that the ex-Prez said stuff like this at a meeting of the Obama Foundation in Chicago:

Mr Obama told the audience: “I get a sense among certain young people on social media that the way of making change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people.

“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because ‘Man did you see how woke I was? I called you out!’”

“That’s enough,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.”

Mr Obama added that “people who do really good stuff have flaws”.

This set up a severe bout of cognitive dissonance within the Authoritarian Left, who worship Obama (and for sure he was a good President and a good man), but suddenly heard him taking out after wokeness. What is an Antifarian to do?

It was inevitable that they decided to put their own emotions and penchant for calling out others on social media above the views of the ex-President. They can’t criticize him as a racist, but they can (and did) say that he’s simply old, grumpy, privileged, and not in tune with the young people. And that’s what journalist Ernest Owens said in a New York Times op-ed (click on screenshot; you can see Owens’s HuffPost biography  here)

As you see from the subtitle, Owens dismisses Obama’s views because he’s “old” (for chrissake, the man is 58) and “powerful”. Owens doesn’t tell us why his power—now much less than four years ago—should be important. But let us make no mistake, Owens practices the very form of bigotry denigrated by his cohort—ageism:

[Obama’s] eagerness to dismiss one part of what happens when young people stand up for what they believe in as “casting stones” is a reminder of a largely generational divide about whether it’s impolite to speak out in favor of the most vulnerable among us and the world we’d like to live in. While there’s some debate about which generation Mr. Obama belongs to, he’s solidly in the older camp.

Big fricking deal! “Older” does not always mean “worse”.

Okay, fine. But let’s ignore Obama’s demographics rather than do what the woke regularly do: concentrate on someone’s age, identity, and ethnicity as a substitute for engaging their arguments. What, says Owens, is Obama doing wrong? Apparently dismissing real concern for social justice, manifested as online “activism” ostensibly trying to repair society’s inequalities.

What members of older generations now dismiss as “cancel culture” — or, as Mr. Obama put it, “being judgmental”— is actually one of many modern-day iterations of protests they took part in when they were younger. Students at the University of Pennsylvania using social media to push for the cancellation of a campus event including a former Trump administration Immigration and Customs Enforcement director is not totally unlike college students using bullhorns to criticize apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

This is ridiculous. Using a bullhorn to cancel a campus event is a disruptive violation of free speech. You can criticize someone or their views without silencing them. Martin Luther King silenced nobody; he was eloquent in both his speech and his actions, and often practiced counterspeech against Southern racists. But he didn’t demand that anybody shut up.

Now that we know which side Owens is on, we can proceed:

Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MuteRKelly, #MeToo and others that were created by black women online aren’t all that different from the picket signs and petitions our parents used to demand racial and gender justice. Of course, we take part in more traditional activism, too. But today we have additional tools. Why wouldn’t we use them?

It’s almost as if Owen didn’t even absorb what Obama was getting at. There’s nothing wrong with using social media as a tool to rectify injustice. What Obama emphasized was that the way the tools are used are often impotent or counterproductive at rectifying the problems addressed. They’re used to demonize opponents, cast oneself as a victim who cannot be criticized, and promote a Manichaean view of the universe in which opponents aren’t lured into the Big Tent, but cast out of it into the lowest circle of hell. I, for one, can’t imagine Martin Luther King calling out dreadlocks, hoop earrings, or those who fail to censor themselves when singing along to rap music. King had, as they say, his eyes on the prize: civil rights legislation.

Then Owens goes after Obama’s “privilege”, linking him to white straight men and ultra-right conservatives who are most “agitated by this form of online activism”. I’m not sure whether that’s true, as there are plenty in the center and on the Left, as well as the poor, who are turned off by cancel culture. Just look at leftists who object to the Islamist views of Ilhan Omar, or the Jews who don’t like cancel culture’s demonization of Israel and the Jews in general. And it’s not just Republicans who were upset when Al Franken became a victim of cancel culture. The problem with that culture is that it can’t distinguish between the meaningful and the trivial.

The objection to cancel culture, then, is several fold: it is based on emotion, the idea of oneself as a victim, the view that one’s opponents must be demonized permanently, the histrionic idea that one’s ideological opponents must be racists, misogynists, or alt-righters, and, above all, promotes the kind of activism that accomplishes almost nothing. It one thing to sit at lunch counters or put oneself under the truncheon of an Alabama cop, another thing entirely to emit a splenetic tweet.

Owens goes on, and started to give me a pain my kishkes when he tries to lump Obama in with Trump, the Koch Brothers, Mitch McConnell, and other Old White Privileged Men:

It’s telling that it’s the powerful and privileged people in society who are most agitated by this form of online activism, and most convinced that it represents unnecessary evil that is tearing away at our civil discourse. The group that Mr. Obama joins in his scolding of outspoken young people is dominated by white straight men, far-right conservative talking heads, and celebrities who feel entitled to audiences who appreciate their art and dutifully ignore their missteps. It’s no surprise that Fox News fretted that his comments were “snubbed” and didn’t receive sufficient coverage from broadcast television networks.

This really burns my onions. It’s not an answer to Obama’s arguments, but a claim that he deserves no attention because of the company he keeps. And so Owens himself shows the weakness of the very culture he espouses.

What people of Obama’s generation don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — about the ways in which younger people use the internet to make our values known, is that we’re not bullies going after people with “different opinions” for sport. Rather, we’re trying to push back against the bullies — influential people who have real potential to cause harm, or have already caused it.

. . . We have a tool that has helped democratize public debates about these issues, and we hope it will move us to a more just world.

It’s called social media. And we’re going to keep using it.

Fine. Keep using your social media to call out “harms” like reading Huckleberry Finn without bowdlerization, of writing literature from the point of view of members of other cultures, of making General Tso’s chicken the wrong way, of showing Westerners what it’s like to wear a kimono, of allowing free speech at the University of Chicago (that speech, of course, causes the “harm” of hurting people’s sentiments), and of casting every offense, however slight, as “violence.” Keep using your social media, and we will tell you when you’re using it in a ludicrous manner, which is often.

I wouldn’t trade a thousand social justice warriors hammering away on their keyboards for one ex-President Jimmy Carter, hammering away building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Typing is easy, but unless you’re Karl Marx or Martin Luther King, with their passion for big issues, your efforts are lame.

Here’s one comment on the NYT piece that gets it pretty much right:

63 thoughts on “NY Times op-ed dismisses Obama’s critique of “woke culture” because he’s an uncomprehending and privileged “Boomer”

  1. Obama sees young people struggling with the old Chinese finger trap. He lets them know that their pulling harder and harder apart is actually anti-helpful to their plight. He lets them know the secret is perhaps counterintuitive. Ease up on the pulling apart. It’s not helping you.

    Owens replies, “Fuck you, old man, our generation pulls hard! That’s what we do!”

      1. Understanding the old Chinese finger trap is wisdom hard won. The ‘woke’ suddenly woke up and began to realise there really is injustice and stupidity and whatever else in the world and just going along is barely moral. Going one step further and realising it’s going to be a long hard slog to influence it and maybe not successful anyway is maybe what folks come to somewhat in their forties if then. So bravo to Obama and maybe his words will stick and come to mind when young folks are able to hear it thru hard experience. And find ‘better’, ‘less aggressive’,’more experienced’ approaches’.

    1. I love the analogy. I see those who engage in cancel culture as similar to the Furies of Greek mythology. They punish wrongdoers relentlessly, and don’t differentiate between large and small crimes.

      1. And they’re mean and snatchy. “Harpo” means to snatch and I imagine that’s where “harpy” comes from. When my Greek prof told us we all thought of Harpo Marx and she was annoyed with our pedestrian ways. 😆 Harpies also spoil good things like food with their filth so there’s that side of it too in the analogy!

    2. “… the old Chinese finger trap … “

      Ooo – a brash analogy for wokes. Well played sir, well played.

  2. Owens needs to re-read what Obama actually said. If he still doesn’t understand the problem, then things are even worse than I feared.

  3. Obama created the situation that he is now criticizing by pushing for an expansion of Title IX when he was president. That basically handed a weapon to students looking to use petty grievances as a power grab. They could intimidate faculty into submitting to their every demand by using the threat of lawsuits and loss of federal funding. These recent campus power-plays did not just spring up out of the blue. They were enabled by Democratic policies. I’m not a supporter of Trump or Republicans, but we need to acknowledge the role the Democrats have played in bringing about this whole mess.

    1. There is a lot a truth there. Add moral and epistemological relativism taught to kids for 30 years and you get some nasty effects. Make no mistake, the motivation is raw political power and intimidation of “enemies”

      1. Thanks! That’s why I get so annoyed at all this “Oh, they want protection from their elders” crap. No, they want to tyrannize over their elders. Stop making them sound more innocent than they are!

  4. Chrissake, Obama was born in August ’61. He was two years old when JFK got croaked in Dallas, when the Beatles made their debut on Ed Sullivan’s really big shew. Eleven when Nixon pulled the US outta ‘Nam. He barely qualifies as a Boomer.

    He’s on the opposite end of the chronological spectrum from Clinton and Dubya and Trump, the three of whom were all born within two months of each other in the Summer of ’46 — Year Zero of the baby boom.

    1. I have always wondered how they created that age span for boomers – 1945 to 1964. They should have come in with another group around 1955 or 6. Call it post Korea war or cold war kids but I don’t see myself in the same generation with those born in 1960 and beyond. In other words, how is born in 1961 a product of WWII. We could separate kids affected by the draft and all those who came after. Is it a big deal, no, but it provides a separation.

      1. I think a lot of people born around the threshold of generations may identify more strongly with the one after the cohort they’ve been assigned to. Also, a lot of people may be in one generation but identify and behave more like another depending on their influences.

      2. The Boom started nine months’ after VJ Day (15 August 1945), when the GIs began coming back from the War and started gettin’ jiggy with their wives and sweethearts at home.

        When it ended is a little more hazy. Sometime between 1960 and ’65, seems to be the consensus range. I have theory (which is mine) that for kids born on the cusp, like Obama, a lot depends upon whether they had older siblings (and whether they looked up to those siblings or resented them). The ones who looked up to ’em developed Boomer tastes; the ones who resented them rejected the Boomer outlook and got into things like Punk Rock.

        My kid brother was born in 1959, and he identifies with us. I had him propped up against a hassock in front of the teevee when he was four to watch Maca give the four-count for “All My Loving” when the Beatles’ first appeared on Sullivan’s show in February ’64.

        Obama, who grew up in a home without older siblings, never struck me as someone who identified much as a Boomer.

        1. I think maybe Diana is correct, we identify with one even if it is not ours. If I had the choice I would be of the greatest generation that my father just barely made and he was born in 1927. It was so much better than the boomer generation I am in. But my younger brother and sister born in 52 and 55 seem like another generation to me. In the end it is probably allot more to do with how you grew up than what years you were in. Even kids in the same family can grow up in completely different worlds as I can confirm.

          1. … we identify with one [generation] even if it is not ours.

            Woody Allen got a whole movie out of that concept, Midnight in Paris. Pretty good one, too, you ask me. One of his Indian Summer tetralogy of movies he shot in Europe about a decade ago.

          1. Yeah, in terms of their movement through the demographic charts, the Boomers are like a pig swallowed by a python. 🙂

            1. I always thought ’twas the birth control pill that killed the baby boom in the mid-60s. Shut it off like flicking a switch.

        2. I never resented my older brother, nor the older kids I hung out with, but I resented the hell outta the jocks and stoners and nerds my own age in high school. Would have been into Punk Rock, but living in exurban Cleveland, Ohio did not afford me that privilege. I did, however, discover punk and other such forms of music in the Early 80s, and kept up wit new styles of music until about 2000, when I was nearly 40 years old. I used to joke that I was the World’s Oldest GenXer ™

          1. I got into punk and other “alternative” music in the mid-80s, although I still liked classic rock. I just expanded my tastes. When I first heard the Sex Pistols on the radio in the 1977 (from a station in Fresno), I thought they sounded terrible. Took me a few more years to change my opinion and start listening to the San Francisco alt-rock station more often that the San Jose classic rock station. Still have a lot of cassettes I recorded from that period from 1986 to 1990 (when I moved to Jacksonville, FL).

            1. When I first heard the Sex Pistols on the radio in 1977 (from a station in Fresno)

              Fresno of all places! I’m sure the locals were horrified. (I used to be one decades ago.)

              1. That station also played the Flying Lizards’ version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” which I actually sort of liked because it was so weird.

              2. The weirdest radio station I’ve ever encountered was the college radio station at U.C. Berkeley in the nineties. The programming was a disjointed mix of country, rap, heavy metal, punk, and various kinds of ethnic music, all jumbled together with no respect for time period or genre. Pure sonic chaos. One day I tuned in and heard an audio recording of tree roots sucking up water, which dragged on for ten or fifteen minutes. (Commercial considerations weren’t a big concern with the DJs, I guess.)

              3. I think a lot of college stations were that way back in the day. I worked as an engineer at USC (KUSC) for a little while when I was an undergrad. They would play anything that didn’t cost them much. I remember playing some stupid show about Edgar Cayce, “The Sleeping Prophet of Virginia Beach”. Now the station is all classical, as far as I know.

        3. I was born in ’62 myself, the eldest of 3 sons, the youngest born in ’68. Our parents were born in ’40 and ’43 (my mother turned 19 four days after I was born). Since my father was a career Navy man, from 1957 to 1983, we moved around a lot, spending nearly 3 years (April ’67 to December ’69) in Japan. Perhaps those of us born in the early ’60s could be referred to as Tailend Boomers. To be honest, I don’t really have any real memories of any of the key events of the 1960s — I have a vague memory of perhaps watching the moon landing on tv in my 2nd grade classroom in Japan (in a school for children of U.S. military personnel) but I’m not certain if that’s where I saw it. I didn’t even become aware of the Beatles until I saw the film Yellow Submarine on tv in 1972. By the late ’70s, however, I was very much into the music of the mid to late ’60s much more than the contemporary music of the time, entirely due to that being what I liked when I heard it on the radio rather than anyone else getting me into it as I didn’t much share my parents musical tastes, which tended towards country and easy-listening, although they did have some Ray Charles and Motown in their collections which I liked. No Beatles, however. It was left to me to bring the music of the Fab Four into our household.

  5. Owens is just another blindered woke-one. As JAC pointed out, our generation’s protests against the American War in Vietnam did not deprive anyone of free speech and did not de-platform or try to silence those who supported the war. Pretty much ditto for the anti-apartheid movement. As they say, the louder the voice, the weaker the argument – oh that these idiots would focus on strong logical arguments to counter those they disagree with.

  6. “The group that Mr. Obama joins in his scolding of outspoken young people is dominated by white straight men, far-right conservative talking heads, and celebrities who feel entitled to audiences who appreciate their art and dutifully ignore their missteps.”

    Funny, as I was reading down to this quote I was thinking something very similar about the author of this article. Owens apparently feels entitled to pretend that Obama said something entirely different from what he actually said then criticize that and expect his audience to ignore the bait & switch, or possibly to not notice it at all.

    Owens should be ashamed of himself. He’s lying. Or perhaps he was so negligent in his duties as a journalist that he didn’t even watch the Obama video or read a transcript of it?

    1. Option 3: he is so convinced in his moral rightness that any criticism of what he believes is wrong as soon as it is uttered.

  7. Agism still seems to be an okay form of bigotry. I read a comment at work that said we needed to balance diversity in hiring young people with all the energy and drive and older people (people probably my age) who have experience. I was so insulted. I have a lot of energy and drive and I’ve seen plenty of dead beat young people….stop stereotyping!

    It’s also amusing to me that Gen Z and Millennials seem to think anyone older than them is a boomer. I, and the rest of Gen X are, as always, forgotten….and Obama is barely in the Boomer category.

    1. I think you are right to think the age is not really the thing. Every time I get that age bigotry going it really doesn’t work. Today is the 140th birthday of Will Rogers as mentioned by google. I forgot how long ago he lived and although he died young he led a hell of a life.

  8. It’s telling that it’s the powerful and privileged people in society who are most agitated by this form of online activism, and most convinced that it represents unnecessary evil that is tearing away at our civil discourse

    Mr. Owens, I would love to hear you explain to me how cancelling or drowning out someone’s discourse is not ‘tearing away civil discourse.’

    1. No discourse allowed!

      Foolish fogies, thinking that we’re undermining civil discourse by disallowing discourse. We’re empowering discourse by not letting your opinion be heard!

  9. Modern version of the traditional curse:

    May all your tweets go viral,
    May someone take an interest in your past,
    May woke culture make you famous.

  10. What does some twit who writes for the NYT’s and HuffPost know about “injustice” anyways?

    Is that like your parent’s having to send you to the second-best boarding school?

    Obama had, in many respects, a challenging life growing up, what has this brat done?

    Did he grow up in Pol Pot’s killing fields? Was his family gassed by Saddam Hussein for being Shi’ite? Was half his family macheted to death for having stars on their bellies in Rwanda? Was his brother one of the many to die from AIDS because the President of South Africa believed that anti-retroviral drugs were a conspiracy by evil white people? Was he tortured and raped by Burmese military? Did he get ethnically cleansed from his village in the former Yugoslavia?

    [Because that’s what real injustice looks like if you wander outside of a Manhattan apartment.]

    How can some pampered man boy have accrued sufficient life experience to lecture a former President on “injustice”?

  11. The Jefferson Humanists (Golden, CO) listed in their recent newsletter the book, Coddling of the American Mind, by Professor Jonathan Haidt which addresses how Generation Z has been raised in a protective bubble.
    Haidt recommends three goals for young people to be happier, healthier, stronger and more likely to succeed in pursuing their goals:
    1) Seek out challenges 2) Free themselves from cognitive distortions 3) Take a generous view of other people and look for nuances.

  12. The underlying fight for morality, ethics, civil thought, and civilisation will not be won at a keyboard or with thumbs on a phone, but at the breakfast table.

    Cancelling the kids while they munch their Pop Tarts or the parents as they sip coffee seems…Orwellian.

  13. All very ironic, criticising “old, powerful people” when its the scions of the US ruling class leading the charge in identity politics and cancel culture.

  14. (My emphasis):

    “The Channel was in fact where Darwin saw his first glacier, and it’s >>>cool<<< to think that I'm seeing the same glaciers that he did.”

    I see what you did there

  15. The group that Mr. Obama joins in his scolding of outspoken young people is dominated by white straight men, far-right conservative talking heads, and celebrities who feel entitled to audiences who appreciate their art and dutifully ignore their missteps.

    No, it isn’t dominated by older straight white men. It is actually a movement that is sick to death of being told to be of being told to be offended, and that they’re bad people if they’re not.

    They’re people like Mike Pondsmith, the man behind the Cyberpunk setting and one of the figures involved in making the videogame, who had this to say about a Rock Paper Shotgun article accusing it of being racist:

    “Want to say this just once. I am really tired of well-meaning people on internet chat boards paternalistically telling me what I, as a black person, should be offended by. You want to be my ally? Go gird up your loins and at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, have the nerve to tell your racist Uncle Bob to STFU for a change”

    They’re people like the EXMNA, who are sick of their ethnicity being used as a silencing tactic when they talk about things like the treatment of apostates. They’re prominent figures in the feminist movement who are sick of being told how privileged they are when they express doubts about letting male bodied rapists into female only prisons.

    They’re people like the Chinese who responded to the whole prom dress kerfuffle by saying they thought the girl in the dress looked pretty, they’re the Japanese who responded to Katy Perry in a Kimono by pointing out they sold Kimonos.

    They’re the people who actually cook, and thus saw nothing wrong with someone learning how to cook Mexican food in Mexico and starting a business doing that in Washington.

    They’re gay people like Stephen Fry, who said this about being offended:


    And a great many of them are – millenials. Think about the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson, a sub-par self-help guru who got popular by telling the woke to sod off and clean their rooms.

    The philosophy of the woke is post-modernist – and yet the most popular Anime airing is a show called Dr Stone, which is a pretty direct fuck-you to post-modernism.

    The millenial generation aren’t philosophically where they are painted as being.

    This is a big chunk of what pisses me off with people who go on about “purity politics” – the issue isn’t the purity of the politicians on offer.

    It was Amy Klobucher who ran Al Franken out of Washington on the back of him displaying risque sexual humour on a fucking comedy tour, Cory Booker is the guy pushing slave reparations, Joe Biden entered the race slamming the Tikki Torch brigade, Kamala Harris’ best moment so far was calling Biden out on his opposition to school busing.

    Sanders meanwhile is constantly painted as racially tone deaf, and it doesn’t take long for an old essay of his around rape to come up. Warren has her own weird racial baggage with regards to her claims around being Native American. These are the #2 and #3 candidates in the race right now and they’re as impure as the rest of the people running.

    But the race is currently between those two (Biden has consistently flopped in every debate, his lead is more down to the other two splitting the vote than actual electoral strength) – why? Because identity bullshit isn’t all that appealing. What the youth vote are looking for isn’t some platitudes on identity, it is a solution to student debt, it is healthcare, it is salaries which are high enough to allow them to move out and start families.

    And this is where the “centrist” campaigns have gone wrong, it isn’t “purity”, it is the lack of any real solutions to these issues. The compromises on offer by the centrists amount to the difference between calling someone a sanitation manager and a janitor, while the further left candidates actually have policies which may not work, and probably won’t get put into practice but at least try to address the bread and butter issues which do mean something.

    1. Good comment Bruce.

      I was not aware that Klobuchar was prominent in the Al Fraken affair. I’m sad to hear that.

  16. Most definitely Gillebrand and not Klobuchar in the Franken business. Please don’t tar Amy with that brush. Is Kirsten even still in the race?

  17. I only had to read the first few paragraphs to see that Owens is not being honest with his audience or himself.

    ‘But the former president’s disdain for the kind of criticism that has become popular to dismiss as “cancel culture” (which is a term that, as Osita Nwanevu wrote for the New Republic, “seems to describe the phenomenon of being criticized by multiple people — often but not exclusively on the internet.’

    “Cancel culture” is a fine phrase for this phenomenon but Owens picks a definition that trivializes it. An author is expected to choose quotes that support their agenda but that goes too far.

  18. “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
    —George Orwell, Review of A Coat of Many Colours: Occasional Essays by Herbert Read

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