Do the ducks ever shoot back?

Recall the metaphor “shooting ducks in a barrel”? It’s the phrase I think of when I see thoughtful progressives criticize the excesses of wokism. Their critiques are so obviously correct it’s hard to believe that anyone disagrees. So do the ducks ever shoot back? Are there any thoughtful rebuttals?

And yet we are told that the woke have taken over almost all of our key institutions.

[I suppose something analogous has happened on the right. Almost all thoughtful conservatives have written highly persuasive critiques of Trump, and yet Trumpism has taken over the GOP.]

These progressive critiques of woke excesses almost write themselves. I mean, how hard is it for an intelligent intellectual to write an op-ed full of stuff like this (From Nicholas Kristof):

As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.

Or this (from Freddie deBoer):

The basic stance of the social justice set, for a long time now, has been that they are 100% exempt from ordinary politics. BlackLivesMatter proponents have spent a year and a half acting as though their demand for justice is so transcendently, obviously correct that they don’t have to care about politics. When someone like David Shor gently says that they in fact do have to care about politics, and points out that they’ve accomplished nothing, they attack him rather than do the work of making their positions popular. Well, sooner or later, guys, you have to actually give a shit about what people who aren’t a part of your movement think. Sorry. That’s life. The universe is indifferent to your demand for justice, and will remain so until you bother to try to change minds. Nobody gives you what you want. That’s not how it works. Do politics. Think and speak strategically. Be disciplined. Work harder. And for fuck’s sake, give me a simple term to use to address you. Please? Because right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

Or Matt Yglesias:

Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.

I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.

I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.

These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.

Relative to these thoughtful progressives, I am skeptical of many left-of-center public policies. But even if became converted to progressivism, my view of wokism would not change at all. In fact, I might become even more critical, as they would be hurting my cause.

Again, here’s Yglesias:

Some old school progressives seem to believe that wokism is a sort of secret plot by the neoliberal elite to divert attention away from economic inequality. That’s probably nonsense, but in some respects wokism does serve the material interest of the neoliberal elite, by making voters turn away from left wing political parties (not just in the US, but throughout the world.)

Here’s Freddie deBoer:

If you’re looking around online for criticism of Musk, you’ll find more in terms of pure volume that engages in culture war – going after him for the dumbshit rightwing memes he shares – than that which criticizes the position of billionaires in our economy, their disproportionate influence on our political process, and the connection between their riches and the poverty of others. This is a pretty effective gloss on the poverty of progressive priorities right now; even with one of the richest men in the world, people can’t look past culture war and see the structural problems underneath.

Montaigne pointed out that the barbarians that conquered Greece had a disdain for intellectuals. Surprisingly, they decided not to burn Greece’s libraries. One of their leaders pointed out that Greece was their enemy and that their intellectual pursuits would keep the Greeks from pursuing the sort of “vigorous and soldierly” lifestyle that would make them formidable military foes. I don’t know if Trump is funding the woke movement, but if he’s not then he’s even dumber than I thought.

PS. And it isn’t just progressives that get this point:

PPS. The Economist also sees how the scolds on the left are their own worst enemy. Remember when being left wing was cool?

The left once drew energy from scorning authority and bourgeois convention. But as it becomes America’s enforcer of social norms, it increasingly treats the arts as a tool for instruction. As a result it is surrendering what puts the arts in society’s vanguard, the capacity to question and shock.



18 Responses to “Do the ducks ever shoot back?”

  1. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    3. February 2023 at 13:53

    Isn’t it “fish in a barrel”? Or am I missing a joke?

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. February 2023 at 15:24

    I think you’re right—I must be getting senile.

  3. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    3. February 2023 at 15:52

    I don’t know, but when some kid says they want to “dismantle” their University code against plagiarism that certainly sounds crazy but, keep reading and what they really suggest is a few simple reforms. That is hardly dismantling to me, but as they say, language is arbitrary and always changing.

    I don’t run into wokeness in my daily life, so perhaps I’m too sheltered. I’ve heard the term houselessness, but only as part of an old George Carlin joke. To me, the examples people give of wokeness gone amok never seem to amount to much. I sort of think people amplifying and expressing outrage about a student newspaper article is more indicative of a problem.

  4. Gravatar of Russ Abbott Russ Abbott
    3. February 2023 at 16:00

    I don’t get all this talk about “wokism.” For the most part it’s the far-out conservatives who talk about “wokism.” (You probably heard that Trump recently called the US military “woke!”) It seems that if they can’t find any real policy issues to critique, they busy themselves with name-calling.

    Scott, I’m surprised to see you caught up in this charade. If you want to critique a position or policy, please do so. Calling something “woke” is no more helpful than calling something crazy. If something is “woke” (or crazy) explain why you see it as such and then, more importantly, explain what’s wrong with it.


  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. February 2023 at 16:49

    Russ, You said:

    “For the most part it’s the far-out conservatives who talk about “wokism.””

    That’s what they want you to think. You are playing right into Trump’s hands.

    If the progressive community wants to call the more thoughtful intellectuals in their midst “far-our conservatives”, that’s their prerogative. There’s no law against political suicide.

    If something is “woke” (or crazy) explain why you see it as such and then, more importantly, explain what’s wrong with it.”

    Have you been paying attention? I’ve done this many times. It’s crazy to cancel people for expressing reasonable and moderate political views. It’s crazy to suggest that economic and social inequalities are necessarily evidence of racism.

    Dale, Wait, you think the following is reasonable?

    “Princeton’s Honor Code, tasked with holding students accountable and honest in academic settings, mirrors the criminal justice system in its rules and effects. It is harmful to the entirety of the Princeton community: the fear it instills in students fosters an environment of academic hostility. But it is often most damaging for first-generation low-income (FLI) students — students who also often belong to racial minorities.”

    Is it too much to ask that Princeton student refrain from cheating?

    I’d suggest you become better informed about what’s happening in our educational system. Woke excess is not a made up concept–it’s almost everywhere. If you don’t see it, then you aren’t looking very hard.

  6. Gravatar of Dale Doback Dale Doback
    3. February 2023 at 18:10

    I recall that some cultures do not follow western concepts of attribution. Such a student who fails to cite a source on a term paper is cheating, but taking away their financial aid and permanently brandishing them a cheater seems particularly harsh, akin to arresting someone for jaywalking.
    I have no idea if this interpretation is what the author was trying to say in the paragraph you cited, and I don’t really care. The only actual substance they offered in the article was a few proposals that sounded reasonable and straightforward even if prefaced with spurious activist language.
    And yes I do need to be better informed because I am still not aware of examples of people being cancelled for expressing reasonable and moderate political views.

  7. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    3. February 2023 at 18:44

    Is it woke to note that Florida is moving towards only allowing state approved books in schools and raising the specter of felony charges against teachers who allow non-approved books into the classroom?

    What real difference does it make if some student at Princeton said something silly?

    “It’s crazy to suggest that economic and social inequalities are necessarily evidence of racism.” This is true. It’s also crazy to suggest that no economic and social inequality is caused by racism or that racism played no meaningful role in significant portions of US history.

  8. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    3. February 2023 at 23:30

    When you call for open borders, and “packing the courts” (your words, not mine) that places you firmly into the radical left camp. You also contradict yourself; when classical conservatives (old right) warned you about BLM, you wrote a glowing article of support (see july 2020).

    When you use COVID hysteria to shut down what you strangely call “non essential business” (i.e, people’s livelihoods), and call for the “eradication” and “annihilation” of Russian sports, music, culture and tradition, and use coercive policies to force nurses and doctors into taking a vaccine, then you are part of the radical left.

    The “thoughtful” conservatives you speak of are corrupt. Bolton, Romney, McConnell – you can’t be serious now, lol. These people don’t care about the poor; they don’t care about the economy; they care about their own wallets, and are willing to send people like me into battle to do their bidding; and the only reason these “thoughtful conservatives” don’t like fascist wokism is because the woke are calling for the end of their private property. “The thoughtful” conservatives you speak of are the 1960’s republicans. There in the same brand as Nixon.

    And I will remind you that just recently you called for the United States, which already spent 125B of tax paper money in Ukraine to “do more” and “we aren’t doing enough.” In other words, your “thoughtful conservatives” want to send young people like me to their death.

    I’m sorry, but nobody in my generation gives a flying fuck about Donbas acquiring sovereignty. This is just another babybooming, russia hatred, putin fear mongering, nonsense.

    The left might have been cool in the 60’s when it actually supported freedom of speech, and stood up to some injustices that were readily apparent at the time; but blacks 60 years later are not being beaten in the streets by men in white robes. There are no jim crow laws; the progressives today are doing nothing but pushing for the destruction of religion, culture, free speech, and merit. And that’s where moderates and old school classical liberals (old right) draw the line.

    And you, sir, attack religion, culture, and speech all the time. So stop hiding behind “thoughtful conservativism”: there is nothing thoughtful about signing off on a 2T omnibus bill (your buddy Romney) or sending men to their death (establishment RINO’s like war criminal Bolton), or calling eminent virologists “anti-scientists” (Malone), or writing glowing reviews for BLM, or denying the existence of Antifa, or telling everyone that Trump is Hitler and democracy is at stake (simply because you don’t like him) or that photographs of Hunter Biden is “russian disinformation” or that there is no reason to fear China despite spy balloons over U.S. airspace and apps with proven malware; because lo and behold the real threat is that horrible no good rotten Donbas that wants autonomy. We’ve got to stop them because we care so much…lol.

    You are not thoughtful.

  9. Gravatar of kangaroo kangaroo
    3. February 2023 at 23:42

    “It’s also crazy to suggest that…racism played no meaningful role in significant portions of US history.”

    I don’t know who’s suggesting that. I don’t think I’ve even heard Trump make that claim.

    “It’s also crazy to suggest that no economic and social inequality is caused by racism”

    No it isn’t. You should check your facts against actual data. Racial groups that are struggling economically have several factors in common: (1) extremely high teen pregnancy rates; (2) high levels of single parent families; (3) very low levels of college education, and (4) extremely low levels of advanced technical degrees. That’s just for starters. Y’ought a grab a copy of Thomas Sowell’s book, “Basic Economics”.

  10. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. February 2023 at 08:23

    Dale, You said:

    “It’s crazy to suggest that economic and social inequalities are necessarily evidence of racism.” This is true.”

    I would encourage you to become better informed. I used to be in academia; this stuff is not theoretical for me—I know people who were hurt.

    foosion, You said:

    “It’s crazy to suggest that economic and social inequalities are necessarily evidence of racism.” This is true.”

    Glad we agree that the modern woke movement is nutty.

    Ricardo, You said:

    “packing the courts” (your words, not mine)”

    It’s true I said the words “packing the courts”. More specifically, I said packing the courts is evil. You really are an idiot.

  11. Gravatar of td td
    4. February 2023 at 15:51

    It’s noteworthy how vague and random the assorted targets of ire are here, all apparently assembled under the umbrella of “wokism” — unnamed BlackLivesMatter proponents, “elite institutions and codes of manners,” unnamed people with the wrong ratios of DeSantis/Musk/Medicare tweets, a single student making a complaint at Princeton University. Who exactly are we expecting a “thoughtful rebuttal” from?

  12. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    4. February 2023 at 15:52

    Why are you quoting Freddie to make your point when he says stupid things like inequalities and these things being a distraction. He’s an avowed socialist which I don’t think you’ve joined that camp. And the inequalities are a stupid argument. I believe you have posted before on consumption inequality not growing and probably shrinking when you adjust for a Porsche doing basically everything a cheaper car does, but there was another paper out this week showing no change in consumption inequality.

  13. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    4. February 2023 at 22:44

    There is nothing worse than the left. And they were never “cool”

    Just look at Bill HD.3822 in MA, which calls for prisoners to donate their organs in return for shorter prison sentences.

    They say things like “if you eliminate prohibition on drugs, then you will have less crime.” That is a mistake in logic. It’s called circular reasoning. If you eliminate murder and permit murder to be legal, then you would reduce crime too. Of course anything legalized will reduce crime.

    The left likes to point to Kennedy, who was super cool, but Kennedy wasn’t a progressive; The Camelot camp were moderates who asked serious questions about what we should value: i.e, philosophy, art, culture and tradition, the American way of individualism, or should we sell all of those things for a higher level of GDP. That question is as important as it ever was. But they were not big government, socialist/communist thugs who wanted to erect gulags and force everyone to be their servants.

    The real left wing is the party of slavery and Jim crow; they are also the party of Stalin, Hitler and Mao. The historically illiterate, like Sumner, always attempt to place Hitler into the right wing camp; but a little reading of history: including the damn book Hitler wrote titled Mein Kampf, expressely states otherwise. he was a socialist fanatic.

    It is much better to have a no nonsense, fiscally conservative, politically incorrect, rough around the edges conservative, then a so-called “thoughtful conservative” who panders and equivocates to Sumner’s (and the lefts) refined sensibilities.

    the real gangsters have always existed on the left. And if they can acquire enough power they will not relinquish it, and you will find yourself living in a world with no inalienable rights.

  14. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    5. February 2023 at 01:44

    Changing ‘field’ into ‘practicum’ must be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of in my entire life.

  15. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    5. February 2023 at 05:31

    I am glad I read much less news and opinion pieces than I used too. I have almost no idea what everyone is talking about. I can no longer read the right wing——and never could read the left wing. I have no idea how much of these “arguments” have a real effect on people’s behavior. I do get a sense that the whole concept of woke (what does that really mean?) is weakening——maybe because I read less.

    What I follow more closely are climate change policies———which will never be implemented——and how recent history keeps changing. How definitions of excess deaths changed, the weirdness of ~chinese balloons—-which has been by far the most entertaining thing I have read about in decades.

    I even contemplate who will be the Dem nominee in ‘24. Usually I have a sense what Dem is likely to win (Clinton and Obama were clear shoe-ins to me). I do love the occasional essay “DeSantis is worse that Trump”. That was easy to predict as well.

    The only issue I seriously worry about is our election process. It’s the worst in the western democratic world.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. February 2023 at 10:18

    td, I’m not expecting a thoughtful reply from the woke, as they are the problem. But I do find it interesting that they lack and intelligent spokesperson. (As do the Trumpistas).

    People should be cancelled for respectable moderate views?

    Defund the police?

    Racial inequalities prove the existence of racism?

    I’d be happy with a respectable defense of any of these ideas?

    Sean, I said right in the post that I don’t agree with these progressives on policy. I can tell a lot about a person when they attack me for quoting a person on point A, by pointing out that that person has objectionable views on an entirely unrelated topic. That’s what the woke do–please don’t become like them.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. February 2023 at 09:01

    So cancel culture is just a myth:

    “Social-justice activists have boycotted the game over its affiliation with J. K. Rowling — the author behind the wildly popular book series that inspired the video game — who has spoken out in recent years against the more extreme demands of the transgender movement.

    On Monday, a progressive U.K.-based web developer unveiled a custom website which like-minded gamers can use to find out whether certain Twitch channel owners have streamed the game. Designed by Sam Gibbs, the website is titled, “Have They Streamed THAT Wizard Game?”

    Are you the sort of evil person that reads Harry Potter?

    BTW, in my list above I forget to mention “cultural appropriation” hysteria

  18. Gravatar of steve steve
    8. February 2023 at 21:08

    But then you also have Nintendo adding an automatic shut off on their stuff if its not used for a while, like lots of other electronic gear. The right wing media declared that was woke. They change the shoes on the M&M characters and that is woke. So woke largely doesnt exist in my area, but I acknowledge it exists somewhere. I know some cancellations are real, but there is also a huge amplification effect by right wing media.

    Look at the Yglesias example with the word practicum. There was a lot written about this but this was something suggested by a professor no one had heard of in a department few had heard of and at a school (IIRC) few of us know. Using practicum is not a widespread thing. Reading about the story is, I think, the only time Have seen people on the left use the word and I certainly dont know people who preferentially use the word. Also, just so you know, everyone I know on the left who has kids has Harry Potter books. They all eat at Chic-fil-A too.


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