Ellen DeGeneres, Usain Bolt, and the aggrieved, unpleasant empathy of faux liberals

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, while looking for something online, I came across this comment from my first editor, Leon Wieseltier, in a New York Times piece:

Who taught these kids that every morning when they wake up the world is going to affirm them? It's not the job of the world to affirm us. My favorite is when Americans say, "It's just my opinion," which really means, "I don't have an answer to the objection you've just made, so I want to stop the conversation." I feel very uncomfortable without controversy. If the stakes are high about important questions -- matters of life and death or the future of the culture -- it's inevitable. You have to argue ferociously. I don't believe that civility is a virtue in intellectual exchange. I don't understand the cult of niceness.

I said to myself, "Save this, you are going to want to use it someday." I had no idea I would need it so soon.

As always, Leon's brilliance shines through: How else would intellectual development advance except with some heavy doses of controversy? My objection to hearing "It's just my opinion" is related but slightly different from his: I expect people who voice opinions to have thought them through sufficiently that they are prepared to defend them. And, Lord knows, there are few experiences more intellectually and emotionally satisfying that deflating a stuffed shirt, or a stuffed cassock.

The time to employ this quote arrived two nights ago when I saw a news feed about some aggrieved people charging Ellen DeGeneres with racism because she tweeted a photo-shopped image of herself on the back of Usain Bolt with the caption, "This is how I'm running errands from now on." I want to find the people who objected to DeGeneres' tweet and spank them. It is they who make people think Donald Trump is right when he criticizes the culture of political correctness. (He isn't, and the political significance of political correctness is nil. It's just obnoxious and intellectually debilitating, this last a category that does not concern Trump.) Or, as my housemate, who like Bolt is Jamaican, said when he came across the story, "These are the people who will be voting for Jill Stein." (Note to DeGeneres: If you need a sidekick, my housemate is hilarious!)

Part of the problem here is that there is a professional class of people who get angry over nothing, who are looking to take offense, whose claim to fame resides solely in their membership in a class of people that has been historically disadvantaged or worse. It is not limited to race: gender and sexual orientation stake their claims too. You can spot the permanently angry because they invariably claim a privileged hermeneutic. If, within the first two minutes of a conversation, they begin a sentence with the words, "Well, as a (insert name of aggrieved group here), I think that ... ." This is not said to introduce a different perspective, which would not need such a qualifier. It is said to stifle, not to encourage, discussion. Translated, it means: "Don't even think of questioning me or I shall label you a racist, or a bigot, or a misogynist, or a homophobe."

This professional class of the aggrieved is heavily educated and often have benefited from efforts to address the racism, sexism or homophobia they denounce. "These are the people who like Cornell West or, even better, had him as a professor," sayeth the housemate, and surely he is right about the Ivy League pedigree of some of these constant objectors who see racism, sexism and homophobia where it does not exist. "I am marginalized," they say, "and I never realized how badly I have been marginalized until I graduated from Brown University." Yeesh.

There is a related phenomenon: Those who are perpetually offended on behalf of others. I suspect this can begin with a genuine concern for others, but then it either becomes, or for others the benign impulse masks the more sinister origin of, an impulse to be a busybody, to cover up for one's own combination of insecurity and demonstrable lack of a cause for being aggrieved by adopting the causes of others as if they were your own. It is sometimes hard to define the difference between the noble empathy and the obnoxious variety. Like Potter Stewart and pornography, I know it when I see it, and so do you.

In the case at hand, those who really do care about racial justice and racial healing want to see people like DeGeneres not give a second thought to the fact that Usain Bolt is black but mostly to the fact that he is one of the greatest athletes of our time. A first thought, yes: It is not inconceivable that a person could traffic in racist photo-shopped images. But, someone like DeGeneres, no, we want her to avoid even thinking she has to entertain a second thought. Indeed, when I saw the tweet I thought to myself, "Isn't that great. Fifty years ago, no white woman would dare post a photo like that." Alas, if all you seek is grievance, all you can find is grievance.

Another part of the problem is Twitter. It invites this nonsense. People see something and instead of reflecting on it, in this case, maybe doing a little research and finding out that DeGeneres had Usain Bolt on her show and is a big fan, or thinking that comedians are allowed to say and do things the rest of us don't if it is funny, they take umbrage, which is always easy to convey in 140 characters or less. Then, the media covers the Twitter back-and-forth and you have a news story. It is not really news, and it is not really a story, but there it is. If we do not insist on standards again, before you know it, pretty soon, someone from Breitbart is going to be running a national political campaign.

A last thought. You know that our conservative friends will make hay with a faux story like this one about DeGeneres and Bolt. The best way to ensure that all of us on the left are not painted with the same broad brushstrokes is to call out the zaniness ourselves. The tribal instincts of both sets of political partisans have no place in the world of ideas: We call out our own. We police our side of the culture as well as the other side. If not, we are not critics or commentators, we are propagandists or cheerleaders. We can enjoy, now and then, discovering idiocy among those with whom we usually disagree because it is good for a laugh. But, idiocy among those with whom we normally agree is not something to overlook because "they mean well" or "they are on our team." These fake liberals diminish the liberal brand. Call them out. How hard is it to say: If you think Ellen DeGeneres' tweet reflected racism, go bang your head against a wall but leave the rest of us alone. Try it. You'll feel better.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.] 

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