Members Only | June 12, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

George Floyd Ended the ‘Culture War’

Anti-political correctness needed plausible deniability. Now what?

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Tom Cotton gave a Senate speech Thursday in which the Arkansas Republican, a figure who’s key to advancing Trumpism beyond Donald Trump, mocked the push to remove statues memorializing “heroes” and other notables of the dead Confederacy.

“The idea that we all need safe spaces from mean words. Trigger warnings on op-eds or TV shows that might constitute a microaggression. This is the language of the campus social justice seminar but increasingly it’s the language of our workplace. Are we going to tear the Washington Monument down? Are we going to rename it the Obelisk of Wokeness?”

“Obelisk of Wokeness” is actually pretty cool-sounding, so it naturally got attention. The best came from novelist Gary Shteyngart. “Fact: The Obelisk of Wokeness is the world’s tallest and wokest obelisk. Originally called the Washington Monument, it was renamed to celebrate the defeat of Donald Trump & his racist minions in 2020.”

The “culture war,” as the conflict over language is often called, was made possible by a majority of white people deciding that racism existed only when it was overt. 

Cotton deserves mockery, lots of it, but we shouldn’t follow him down the rabbit hole of amorality and indeterminacy where everything is as good or bad as everything else, and nothing matters. Cotton and his GOP confederates benefit from the impression that language is an end itself and not a representation of people, things, actions and ideas. When words become all, it’s quite easy to conceal who’s doing what to whom. They would love debating “defund the police,” but not white cops murdering black men.

The thing about Cotton’s argument is that it’s not an argument at all. Arguments, honest ones anyway, come from people who care about not being wrong, at the very least, because not being wrong is the point of the exercise in logic. When comparing the Washington Monument to, say, statues of General Robert E. Lee, Cotton doesn’t care about being right, because being right is beside the point. His objective is discrediting his opponents, tarring them as unreasonable, even as his own “argument” departs from fact and reason, distorting our sense of reality and making us feel crazy.

Insane “arguments” turn plaintiffs into defendants, victims into perpetrators. The Confederates really did betray the United States. They really did defend chattel slavery. They really did invade our nation with the express purpose of overthrowing and replacing a civilized republic with a barbarous slave regime. As “arguments” pertain to historical figures like Columbus, he did indeed sail the ocean blue, but the Italian sailor also really did foment genocide on Hispaniola, mutilating and torturing natives, and selling their children to sex slavers—if he didn’t first feed the babies to his dogs.

Hit the tip jar!

Plaintiffs in the statue-removal movement urge us to honor people worthy of honor, not traitors, sadists and criminals against humanity. Yet to hear Josh Hawley tell it, the plaintiffs are trying to “erase history.” For The Federalist, the GOP senator from Missouri wrote that the plaintiffs are so cynical and acting so contrary to their claim of seeking healing, that there’s only one conclusion: “The Left Wants a Civil War.” Given the well-documented history of the Republican Party’s soft civil war over the last 40 years, this is gaslighting, my friends, so masterful as to be the envy of Vladimir Putin.

Insane “arguments” are also perverse. Two Buffalo cops really did shove a 75-yer-old protester so hard he fell backwards, cracking his skull on the concrete, and the same two police officers really did walk on by as the elder lay bleeding out. These are indisputable facts captured on video. I watched it. But US Senator Joni Ernst can’t comment until the facts are known (they are known). But, the Iowa Republican said, we might wonder if the victim did anything to justify violence (he didn’t). Facts become questions. Questions become facts. The point isn’t being right. It’s power.

The other thing about Tom Cotton’s “argument” is that it presumes that systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against out-groups for the safety and benefit of in-groups are fake. Slavery is gone. Racism doesn’t exist. You are not really seeing white cops brutalizing people on newscasts and social media that you really are seeing. Instead of believing the evidence of your eyes, Cotton is saying in other words, believe us when we say there’s a few bad apples in police departments, to be sure, but these protesters, like the PC police, are hyping things for their own political reasons, not moral and humane reasons, and any reaction to it, including civil war, is justified.

The “culture war,” as the conflict over language is often called, was made possible by a majority of white people deciding that racism existed only when it was overt. Fights over political correctness, therefore, were fights that would never come to an end as long people like Cotton, Hawley and Ernst had plausible deniability on their side.

George Floyd’s death and the reaction to it mean deniability is implausible.

And yet they still deny.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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