What is happening to the New York Times? Are they really walking back their “progressive” philosophy by criticizing—or rather, allowing one of their liberal columnists, Michelle Goldberg to criticize—the “Social Justice Industry.” (She says that the SJI is “often derided as ‘wokeness'”; and note that she said it, not me!)
This column by Goldberg stunned me, as she is not only a Leftist, but a “progressive” one. Still, according to Wikipedia, she has criticized progressive Leftists before (though she’s nearly always criticizing the Right):
Goldberg, a progressive, has sometimes criticized strains of intolerance within the left’s discourse. In 2013 in “The Nation,” Goldberg criticized the public and media reactions to a racist tweet by Justine Sacco, who was fired for tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She wrote, “Almost any of us could be vulnerable to a crowd-sourced inquisition.” In a July 17, 2020, column in the “New York Times,” headlined, “Do Progressives Have a Free Speech Problem?” Goldberg wrote, “The mass uprising following the killing of George Floyd has led to a necessary expansion of the boundaries of mainstream speech…. At the same time, a climate of punitive heretic-hunting, a recurrent feature of left-wing politics, has set in, enforced, in some cases, through workplace discipline, including firings.”
In 2014, Goldberg wrote a piece for The New Yorker, titled, “What is a Woman?,” about the conflict between transgender women and some radical feminists. It was criticized by Jos Truitt in the Columbia Journalism Review on the basis of Goldberg’s support for trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs).
Now she’s writing a column that could have been taken from this website, criticizing the excesses of the progressive Left because they play into the hands of conservatives at a time when the Democratic grip on governance is in peril, and because some of these excesses do nothing to further real social justice. Click to read.
Goldberg’s bête noire here is the American Medical Association’s pamphlet and website “Advancing Health Equity: a Guide to Language“, which I wrote about previously, highlighting Jesse Singal’s criticisms of this ultrawoke document, which does nothing beyond suggested Wokeifying of medical lingo. Here are several examples of how whole phrases are supposed to change. Bad conventional phrases on the left, new “progressive” alternatives on the right:
Goldberg is quite critical of this (as any rational person would be), and says it’s not really been widely adopted. For example, the CDC, when talking about Covid, uses the term “vulnerable populations” (the new version is “oppressed populations”, which isn’t even the same thing), and still uses forbidden violent language like “combatting the virus” or “an army against the virus.” (I presume such language is considered “triggering”.) And Goldberg then indicts the Social Justice Industry as injurious to the Left (my emphasis)
Like most other reports written by bureaucratic working groups, “Advancing Health Equity” would probably be read by almost no one if it did not inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life. Still, the existence of this document is evidence of a social problem, though not, as the guide instructs us to say instead of “social problem,” a “social injustice.” The problem is this: Parts of the “diversity, equity and inclusion” industry are heavy-handed and feckless, and the left keeps having to answer for them.
I’m gobsmacked by this paragraph, especially the last sentence, which is of course true. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe had to answer for another heavy handed issue: Critical Race Theory. Now it’s true that the formal CRT isn’t taught in secondary schools, but there’s no doubt that ideas taken from it—harmful and divisive ideas—have seeped into school curricula throughout America. In this case, though, Goldberg doesn’t see even that:
Consider the endless debate over critical race theory in public schools. In certain circles, it’s become conventional wisdom that even if public schools are not teaching graduate-school critical race theory, they’re permeated by something adjacent to it.
“The idea that critical race theory is an academic concept that is taught only at colleges or law schools might be technically accurate, but the reality on the ground is a good deal more complicated,” wrote Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic. Across the nation, he wrote, “many teachers” have started adopting “a pedagogical program that owes its inspiration to ideas that are very fashionable on the academic left, and that go well beyond telling students about America’s copious historical sins.”
In truth it’s hard to say what “many teachers” are doing; school curriculums are decentralized, and most of the data we have is anecdotal. But there was just a gubernatorial election in Virginia in which critical race theory played a major role. If the right had evidence of Virginia teachers indoctrinating children, you’d think we’d have heard about it. After all, school there was almost entirely online last year, offering parents an unprecedented window into what their kids were learning.
Well, Ms. Goldberg, I was with you until that last paragraph. We have enough documentation (the California state proposed ethnic studies program, for one), that we now have enough data (i.e., a flurry of disturbing anecdotes) to worry about schools being marinated in ideas derived from CRT. Do I need to mention the many examples of race-shaming in public schools, or the sudden Wokification of elite private schools in New York City? You can find enough anecdotes, letters from irate parents, and newspaper reports to show that yes, Yascha Mounk is right.
But even if we agree with Goldberg that CRT and its offspring aren’t really a problem, she does note that the indoctrination of teachers, as documented in training slides, is a problem. She’s not that bothered, though, by antiracist training or teaching—she simply thinks (and she’s right) that it doesn’t work:
Such training would be worth fighting for if it had a record of success in changing discriminatory behavior, but it doesn’t. As the scholars Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in The Economist, hundreds “of studies of anti-bias training show that even the best programs have short-lived effects on stereotypes and no discernible effect on discriminatory behavior.” Instead of training sessions, they suggest that employers should focus their diversity efforts on concrete efforts like recruitment.
And with that I agree. For a while we were told by the Provost here that faculty might have to undergo equity training, but the pushback from our faculty was so hard that this idea has vanished. Despite repeated studies showing that anti-bias training doesn’t alter bias, people keep on paying consultants to deliver that training. As they say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Goldberg finishes on a high note, arguing that all this posturing and policing is just hot air. No substantive work is done, no minds changed. And that is what “wokeness” is: the set of words and performative assertions that have no effect on the problems they’re supposed to remedy:
But substantive change is hard; telling people to use different words is easy. One phrase you won’t find in “Advancing Health Equity” is “universal health care”: The American Medical Association has been a consistent opponent of Medicare for All. The word “abortion” isn’t in there either, though it would advance health equity if more doctors were willing to perform one.
Excellent points and good writing!
Finally, Goldberg dismisses the argument that documents like the AMA’s “medspeak” report are Orwellian, for she says that truly Orwellian efforts would compel doctors to use them instead of allowing people to laugh at them. Her response:
But it does irritate me, because [the AMA’s language policing] is so counterproductive. “It’s not scary, it’s just ridiculous,” is not a winning political argument.
Note that she doesn’t say, as many do (even here) that we should ignore this stuff and keep bashing the Republicans. After all, they’re a bigger danger. But I tell you what: the biggest danger is that they’ll regain power in a year or three, and we can’t do anything to let that happen. What occurred in the Virginia gubernatorial elections is a shot across our bow.
As for Goldberg, she seems to be an open-minded and rational Leftist, and I admire her more after reading this piece. I’m surprised they let her run it, but then again they’re publishing McWhorter as well as articles on Leftist infighting that wouldn’t have appeared two years ago.