PC Culture

The Nature of Progressive Insensitivity

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., July 27, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Why do so many famous social-justice crusaders turn out to be racist and sexist?  

Former vice president Joe Biden is back in the news yet again. For a second time, he seems surprised that poor residents of the inner city are capable of doing sophisticated jobs:

We don’t think ordinary people can do things like program, code. It’s not rocket science, guys. So, we went and we hired some folks to go into the neighborhoods and pick 58 women, as it turns out, from the hood, for a 17-week program, if my memory serves me correctly, to learn how to code.

In 2014 Biden had said about the same thing about women from the “hood”:

They asked me to come by this program they had at a community college in the inner city in Detroit. And I walked in and — I think it was a 15-week program — and it was a group of women from the neighborhood. Or, from “the hood.”

What was the point of emphasizing “hood” instead of just “neighborhood”?

Maybe the same condescending reason that the impulsive Biden once in 2016, speaking to a black audience, attacked Mitt Romney with the slavery slander:

He is going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. He is going to put y’all back in chains.

Earlier, Biden had scoffed:

In Delaware, the largest growth of population is Indian Americans, moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.

The locus classicus of Biden’s racialist sloppiness, of course, was his famous putdown-praise of 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama:

I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that liberal politicians and celebrities should be the least likely to express such racist condescension, if only out of cynical careerist and political concerns. Progressives see bloc minority, gay, and female support as vital to their project. The entire thrust of progressive charges of “white privilege” and “white supremacy,” usually lodged against less enlightened and less affluent whites, is that the elite are confident they’ve created a partnership of solidarity with minority activists. All deplore the supposed Neanderthal, red-state, and Trump-supporting white middle class.

Few may now remember the post-election rant of Melinda Byerley, an obscure founder of the Silicon Valley company Timeshare CMO. She became a window into the mind of the furious 2016 progressive voter — and infamous for five minutes for her candid, embittered, post-election Facebook posting that soon was enshrined as a credo explaining why miffed coastal elites hated people unlike them:

One thing middle America could do is to realize that no educated person wants to live in a sh**hole with stupid people. Especially violent, racist, and/or misogynistic ones. . . . When corporations think about where to locate call centers, factories, development centers, etc., they also have to deal with the fact that those towns have nothing going for them.

Certainly, those who blast the clingers, deplorables, and irredeemables cannot themselves be racist or sexists or misogynists or homophobes.

By now, the number of MeToo accusers in the post–Harvey Weinstein era is legion. But increasingly, the most prominent of those accused of sundry harassments and, on occasion, assaults are liberal media and celebrity icons such as Tom Brokaw, Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Ryan Lizza, Charlie Rose, and Tavis Smiley. How can that be?

Aside from the charges of treating women poorly are often the additional writs of racism. Some women, for example, have alleged that Weinstein has replied most vehemently to charges from his non-white victims, such as Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek.

Among all the charges of lurid and cruel behavior leveled against social-justice warrior and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the strangest and most disturbing might have been his racial slurring of his Sri Lankan girlfriend, the Harvard-educated activist writer Tanya Selvaratnam. The socially crusading Schneiderman allegedly called her his “brown slave” and told her to refer to him as her “master.”

Joe Biden’s putdown of Barack Obama in 2008 apparently was xeroxed by liberal icon and former senator Harry Reid, who likewise dismissed Obama as a veritable racial chameleon, a “light-skinned African with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid also once addressed an Asian-American audience and sermonized, “I don’t think you’re smarter than anybody else, but you’ve convinced a lot of us you are.” In the question-and-answer follow-up, Reid offered: “One problem that I’ve had today is keeping my Wongs straight.”

Both liberal Dan Rather and Bill Clinton in the past had offered racist putdowns of Obama that no deplorable or irredeemable would have considered: Here is Rather’s, speaking to Chris Matthews in 2010:

The Republicans will make a case and a lot of independents will buy this argument. . . . a version of, “Listen he’s a nice person, he’s very articulate” this is what’s been used against him, “but he couldn’t sell watermelons if it, you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic.”

And here is Bill Clinton, describing Obama in 2010: “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”

Remember in 2008, in one of her earlier incarnations, a once national-populist Hillary Clinton was running against Obama by galvanizing the so-called white working classes. Often, she was not shy about saying so: “I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” Clinton bragged. As evidence, she cited an Associated Press story that found, in her words, “how Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”

“There’s a pattern emerging here,” she concluded.

There is.

Of course, progressive Obama himself has played the racialist card on occasion. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, he described Gerald Kellman, the first boss he had as a community organizer: “Still, there was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white.” Obama had once positioned his own grandmother as the moral equivalent of the racist and anti-Semitic Jeremiah Wright, his pastor for two decades. He went on to dub her a “typical white person.”

Cable news anchor and anti-Trump activist Joy Reid apparently had posted an entire corpus of homophobic rants in years past. The late Helen Thomas had a history of anti-Semitic slurs. And Ta-Nehisi Coates is never held to account for many of his overt anti-white invectives.

There are various stock explanations for liberal prejudicial outbursts that earn the additional wage of hypocrisy — given progressives’ self-identification as the protectors of minority rights and racial sensitivities.

One, and the most charitable, might be that when one talks about race and gender nonstop, one is more likely to misspeak. Such an interpretation assumes, of course, that these revelations are not windows into one soul, as progressives allege of foul-sounding conservatives.

Was the reprehensible treatment of victimized women felt to be a small price to pay to protect high-profile progressives who were on the front lines of social justice?

Two, do not forget the cynical notion of deterrence. Humans are not necessarily nice people but behave well out of fear of punishments. In such a reductionist view, conservatives assume that one malapropism or sloppy phrase can end a career. Certainly, if a U.S. senator had compiled a record of racially insensitive rhetoric comparable to Joe Biden’s, he would long ago have been ostracized. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is currently being blasted for clinically and quite accurately describing current waves of immigrants from southern Mexico as mostly poorer, less well educated, and for a variety of reasons less able or willing than earlier waves of immigrants to assimilate quickly. Kelly has certainly has not talked pejoratively about anyone’s skin color in the manner of a Biden, Reid, or Obama.

What exempted Harvey Weinstein or Eric Schneiderman from an accounting years ago was likely progressive cost-benefit considerations — or perhaps even more disturbing rationales. Was the reprehensible treatment of victimized women felt to be a small price to pay to protect high-profile progressives who were on the front lines of social justice? And did Weinstein and Schneiderman bake such calculations into their behavior?

Could not a few women be sacrificed on the altar of progressivism to allow far more to be helped? An even darker corollary is that the monsters like Weinstein and abusers like Schneiderman may have felt they deserved to be sexually rewarded for their progressive fides by progressive like-spirited women — much as feminist reporter Nina Burleigh, during the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, said she’d have been happy to sexually service Clinton if meant keeping him out of trouble and thus preserving the feminist agenda.

A cynic would conclude that once deterrence is lost and perpetrators have no fear of career or legal consequences, they feel justified in doing as they please and therefore can double down on their crudity. Al Franken certainly seemed surprised that a pro-feminist such as himself should be held accountable for a randy uninvited grab or two.

One analogy is the case of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, who, in the context of the Iran deal, scoffed at the “echo chamber” and “know nothing” White House press. The Obama administration realized that it was far less likely to be held accountable by the liberal media if it surveilled Associate Press or Fox News reporters, if it weaponized the IRS, if it jailed as a scapegoat for the Benghazi attacks an obscure video-maker, if it warped the FISA courts, and if it improperly surveilled and unmasked political opponents. And so it did all that and more in the absence of media deterrence.

One of the great ironies of the entire 21st-century obsession with race is the fact that supposedly racist lower-middle-class whites are often more likely than gentry whites to live among non-whites.

There is a third and more controversial exegesis. There is a certain progressive profile that is, in truth, biased or at least tribal. One projects one’s own prejudices onto others in the abstract, as a sort of psychological squaring of one’s own shortcomings — or the failure to live the race and class diversity one preaches.

In the last 30 years, we’ve seen the growth of an entire new class of bicoastal gentrified urban elites who are ostensibly — on matters of race, class, and sex — hyper-progressive. But are they really?

Often their rhetoric is belied by their own behavior, if gauged by where they live, where they put their children in school, and the people with whom they socialize. One of the great ironies of the entire 21st-century obsession with race is the fact that supposedly racist lower-middle-class whites are often more likely than gentry whites to live among non-whites. The diversity they experience is a natural expression of shared work, neighborhoods, school, and class, not an artificial and boutique variant of the university, the media, or entertainment.

Also, when one by act and deed demonstrates more comfortability with one’s own tribe, that de facto apartheid can be hard to turn on and off. In contrast, a white truck driver who lives with Mexican Americans, or a Mexican-American carpenter who lives in a working-class neighborhood of whites, realizes there are consequences to racialist slurs. And they are not confined to Twitter virtue-signaling or Internet mobbing but often are muscular and can be dangerous.

I have found race, class, and gender tensions far greater at Stanford University than in San Joaquin Valley rural communities, where difference is incidental and not so essential to one’s person. Perhaps the reason is that people share a lower middle-class existence, or that muscular work tends to outweigh rhetoric and abstraction. When one works and lives alongside someone of a different appearance, there is no need or time or affluence to create a façade of identity politics.

Finally, there is a final and mostly cynical explanation for the recent spate of progressive intolerance. Those who are by nature or habit intolerant mask their resulting guilt or fear by progressive virtue-signaling and occasional inadvertent revelations of their own moral selves.

In other words, perhaps liberal Harvey Weinstein and social-justice kingpin Eric Schneiderman really did have more contempt for their non-white targets, just as Harry Reid may feel more comfortable with his own kind. And one way that such progressives square the circle of that reality is with an unimpeachable progressive façade — and just maybe that reality is now becoming widely known.

 

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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