The Woke Wars

The left targets the left.

Update: The vaccines are genuine miracles, and I’m grateful to have gotten my second (Moderna) shot Monday. But it’s more or less kicking my butt today. Which means that I’m turning over today’s podcast to my colleagues Bill Kristol and Mona Charen and asking you to indulge me if today’s newsletter seems funkier than usual.

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You probably missed this story from Madison, Wisconsin, because it’s not really a big deal. But it’s a weird tale about the various tripwires of performative wokeness.

The story also exposes an under-appreciated aspect of the woke wars: the targets are not always retrograde conservatives. In woke precincts, it is actually far more likely that the targets will instead be other progressives who are insufficiently woke.

Here’s what happened: Two members of the “Sustainable Madison Committee” resigned in a cloud of performative indignation after two of their colleagues made “clearly racist statements.”

The abhorrent comment? “God bless George Floyd.”

I had to read this story three or four times to understand who was offended by that and why.

In fact, it’s so mind-bendingly difficult to follow that you really need a score card to keep track. So here’s my best shot.

The Dramatis Personae

The performatively woke members of the Sustainable Madison Committee who were offended and resigned:

Matthew Braunginn and Nada Elmikashfi resigned Wednesday by email from the committee over comments made by a committee member during a Monday meeting.

The insufficiently woke progressives:

Denise DeMarb and Lance Green .

The Woke War

What they said that was “abhorrent” and “clearly racist”:

DeMarb was trying to make the point that the SMC should be intentionally anti-racist in the way it approaches sustainability.

She said “God bless George Floyd,” and that Floyd’s death allowed white people to see and understand racism.

Why this was deemed to be offensive:

“The very idea George Floyd’s death somehow shook white people awake is a lie in itself,” the perfomatively woke members wrote. “It also dehumanizes him, it makes him a martyr for white people to become better, to drop the project of whiteness.”

“The implication (was) that white people got better, that he served as a martyr for this country,” Braunginn said in an interview Wednesday. “The martyrdom of Black Americans is very prevalent among particularly white liberals and we see that, I think, in how we celebrate MLK and how a lot of these folks will uphold the whitewashed and martyred idea of Dr. King without actually exploring his radical nature and radical ideology.”

Braunginn called DeMarb’s remark “the typical well meaning white liberal kind of paternalistic type of racism.”

The abject apology:

“I understand that my words caused harm and had a horrible, negative impact regardless of my intention,” DeMarb said. “I’m committed to being an antiracist and to be an ally and this is a huge example of the work that I’ve yet to do.”

How the apology was received and rejected:

Elmikashfi recounted her conversation with DeMarb:

“She called to apologize in a way and it just really rang hollow to me. It rang like somebody that, one, didn’t reflect on what she said before she heard that I was upset,” he said. “She also resorted to it as an individual hurt, in saying sorry she hurt me, without an ability to see a wider level and see as what it was, racist behavior, racist mentality. And I kind of started to say that and I’m like, ‘You’ve got a lot of work to do.’ And she said, ‘I’m trying to do that work. Maybe you could help me.’ And I told her that it’s not for me, I’m not here to do the work for you. You’ve got to do it yourself.”

What else was said at the meeting:

Lance Green, noted that the committee’s antiracist work included making energy-efficient homes accessible to low-income families.

Why this was deemed to be offensive:

Braunginn said “equated being poor to being Black.”

What they demanded:

“At no point did either of the chairs of this committee stop the meeting to address two clearly racist statements,” the wrote. “It became abundantly clear that if anything was to be said and these issues were to be addressed, it would be incumbent upon one of the four people of color present at the time to address these abhorrent comments.”…

The resignation letter demands the resignation of DeMarb and Green as well as new policies to address racism in city committees.


I’ve actually written about Madison’s wokeness before, and Elmikashi in particular. After protesters tore down the statue of a 19th century abolitionist, Hans Christian Heg, Elmikashfi, then a Democratic candidate for the state Senate from the Madison area, tweeted her support for the destruction, arguing that the “statue of Heg is a monument to a white savior and not a monument to black liberation.”

She also applauded toppling the statue of Lady Forward, telling The Associated Press: “The symbolism of Lady Forward and that word Forward has really been only for white Wisconsinites.”


The story is a reminder that despite periodic suggestions that we have more conversations about race, there are folks who don’t really want it to be a dialogue. Even the most earnestly sincere attempts to discuss social justice can hit a landmine of fervent absolutism.

Apologies are not accepted. Explanations can compound the crime.

As Matthew Yglesias points out, Ibram Kendi, author of the bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist,” has argued that “any racial gap simply is racist by definition; any policy that maintains such a gap is a racist policy; and — most debatably — any intellectual explanation of its existence (sociological, cultural and so on) is also racist.”

In practice that means that certain things cannot even be discussed.

In his book —  ubiquitous in educational circles — he denounces not the existence of a large Black-White gap in school performance but any discussion of such a gap. Kendi writes that “we degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic-achievement gap’ ” based on standardized test scores and grades.

So this is yet another trip wire lying in wait for the insufficiently woke progressive who actually thinks a problem needs to be acknowledged before it can be fixed.

Bonus read: Don McNeil Jr. has written a lengthy, detailed, four part essay on the controversy that cost him his job as a veteran NYT reporter. Very much worth your time.

Another bonus:6 Dr. Seuss books won’t be published for racist images.”

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Cancelled, you say?

ICYMI, Mike Pompeo tweeted:

Curious minds want to know: WTF is he talking about?

He was criticized. Held accountable for his lousy tenure. Called names. And fired by the voters.

But criticism is not cancellation.

It almost makes you wonder if these guys even know what the word means.

The Plasticity of Delusion.

I’m quoted here in this Wapo deep-dive: Rewriting January 6th: Republicans push false and misleading accounts of Capitol riot.”

Charlie Sykes, a former radio host who founded the Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative website, said the right-wing media ecosystem is building elaborate alternative narratives around scant data points.

“They will always find a way to adapt reality to the narrative, even when it requires some pretty massive leaps of logic and fact,” he said. “The further you get away from Jan. 6, the more it gets possible to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad,’ or, ‘It wasn’t an armed insurrection.’ . . .­ It feels like this massive gaslighting that assumes that we have really short memories, and, in some cases, that is true.”

A savvy reader points out that this is known as the “plasticity of delusion,” and is a well-known phenomenon among psychologists who study the persistence and durability of delusions. From one 2009 paper:

[There] is more to delusion maintenance than persistence in the absence of supportive evidence: delusions persist even when there is evidence that directly contradicts them. When confronted with counterfactual evidence, deluded individuals do not simply disregard the information. Rather, they may make further erroneous extrapolations and even incorporate the contradictory information into their belief (Joseph, 1986 ). So, while delusions are fixed, they are also elastic and may incorporate new information without shifting their fundamental perspective

Exit take: don’t expect a Great Awakening any time soon.

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Quick Hits

1. When Will Progressives Accept Accomplishment?

Richard North Patterson in today’s Bulwark: The risks of loose talk about purging or punishing Democratic moderates like Joe Manchin

Progressives insist that Biden strongarm [Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema], all but charging him with cowardice. This ignores two unavoidable truths.

First, the Senate is divided 50-50: Because Republicans unanimously oppose the relief bill, Biden needs every Democratic senator. Second, Manchin and Sinema have their own constituency to consider—the electorates of West Virginia and Arizona.

Some progressives suggest a simple answer—purge them. Witness activist Yvette Simpson on This Week with George Stephanopoulos: “We can organize all of the working-class West Virginians who need this bill. . . . If Joe Manchin wants to be a Republican, let him be a Republican. We will play a Democrat against him.”

Here’s the problem: If Joe Manchin switches parties, Mitch McConnell becomes majority leader, and nothing progressives like will ever reach the Senate floor.

2. The Biden White House vs. the Press

Brian Karem in this morning’s Bulwark:

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made it clear that the United States will not issue sanctions on Saudi Arabia or hold its crown prince accountable for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. This was an unwelcome decision—suggesting the Biden administration is not as committed to the free press as it claims.

But while the decision to let Saudi Arabia get away with the Khashoggi murder got a lot of attention, another announcement from the administration concerning its relationship with the press did not.

Last Friday the administration announced that, beginning this week, it would adopt rules to make life harder on independent reporters.

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Not sure this is actually Christianity.