A Perspective On the Problems of Wokefulness

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

One of the irritations of the last year has been the endless repetition of the words: Covid, virus, vaccine, mask, social-distancing, etc. Even more tedious is the over-use of the three “ITY” words: sustainability, diversity, and inclusivity, not to mention the favorite of the “woke folks”: social justice.

Now I hesitate to write this essay, since I don’t want to stir up hatred, especially of me. I want to make it clear that I am not a racist. “Racism” is about hating those who are “other” and doing them harm or denying them rights simply because they are different. Lynching is unspeakably evil. Denying someone a job because they are not “the right sort” is not evil; it is stupid. (I am reminded of Talleyrand’s comment about one of Napoleon’s bad decisions: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”) So is racism.

When I was working in the corporate world and had the power to hire and fire people, I once hired a black civil rights activist as my executive assistant simply because he was well-qualified, even when everyone warned me it “would be a mistake”. I’d like to say he turned out to be a superstar, but the simple truth is he did a satisfactory job and then moved on. The best aspect of his tenure was that I spent a lot of time learning from him the point of view of a black activist. It was eye-opening.

In those days, I promoted a lot of women to senior positions, and I never regretted it. I had a gay male secretary who made me realize that gays are different, just like women are different from men. Ethnic and religious minorities also are often different. I don’t want to get sucked into a debate over why. The important thing is for any manager to recognize differences, minimize those characteristics that are not helpful to achieving the tasks at hand and maximize each individual’s strengths. The most positive aspect of “diversity” is that it provides management with a broader array of tools to bring to bear on the issues at hand. It is not so much that everyone’s opinion may be voiced as it is that different backgrounds bring different experiences which may provide useful perspectives on an issue.

To me, all this is just common sense. But to the woke folks, that is not enough. They are determined to preach a doctrine that unless you are enthusiastically pro-diversity/inclusivity and seeking social justice at every turn, you are a racist, sexist, or whatever anti-“ist” cause they are stumping for currently. Their goal is to make all men, all whites, all straights, etc. feel guilt and shame and to embrace the NY Times dreadful “1619 Project” that seeks to rewrite U.S. history as an unending story of suppression by the majority against minorities.

The reality of world history is that the strong have always taken advantage of the weak. Even the best of countries and the best of leaders have done bad things. The United States is looked upon by the rest of the world as slightly daft because we are always proclaiming that everything about us is the greatest “on the planet” and the best that ever was or ever could be. What arrogant nonsense! There is a great number of things we have to be proud of, and many gold stars that we deserve for things that we have done that others have not or could not. But we also less than enlightened against the American Indians (and against the Filipinos in their own country), and we discriminated against Jews, Italians, and others, not to mention the Chinese who built the Transcontinental Railroad and died by the thousands in doing so.

Where the U.S stands out and can have justifiable pride is that we have created a culture where people can come and then overcome their handicaps and prosper. Progress has been slow at times, but progress has been steady, even if not fast enough for the BLM crowd.

Many years ago I recall a senior management meeting at Aetna where the agenda included a discussion of vice-presidential promotions that were under consideration. One was for Irv Sitkin, who headed up what was then still called “Data Processing”. When President Bill Bailey asked if there were any objections, someone commented, “Does everyone realize that he will be the Company’s first Jewish Vice President?

Bailey responded with immense sarcasm, “What the f*** difference does that make?”

I don’t think anyone’s religion was ever mentioned again. Subsequently, we had women VP’s, black VP’s, and ethnic VP’s, but, as Bill’s attitude had made clear, “So what?”

Apparently, that is not enough anymore. Companies must make a formal commitment to “diversity and inclusivity”, stating or implying that it has co-equal priority with profitability. Corporations are falling all over themselves to prove their wokefulness. Have you noticed that ads currently feature black actors with a frequency out of all proportion to their actual representation in the population? I sometimes wonder what black people think when they see themselves portrayed in scenarios far from anything they may have actually experienced in their lives.

Does that wondering on my part make me a racist? No – just a realist. At one time I owned a chain of toy stores. One was in an upscale mall shopped primarily by wealthy “blue-haired ladies”. Occasionally a black kid would come in: baggy pants, baseball cap turned backward. They never bought anything. We watched them closely, as shoplifting is endemic and can destroy a retailer. Racism? Actually, we were just trying to survive.

Racism has always existed. It still exists, but is declining, George Floyd notwithstanding. The media now plays up every black person killed by a policeman, giving the impression that all white police are out hunting black men to kill. There is silence about the fact that most blacks are killed by other blacks or that blacks commit a disproportionate percentage of crimes. That runs counter to the woke story that all blacks are victims and the whole 1619 Project theme.

Whenever something bad happens, the media always seems to include a phrase that “minorities were disproportionately affected”, enhancing the sense of victimhood. On the other hand, it was reported with obvious approval when the Rhodes Scholarship Committee announced that 1/3 of their scholarships are being now being “reserved” for people of color. (Cecil Rhodes, a devoted racist, must be spinning in his grave.) The Wall Street Journal recently had an article that explained how math was now being taught in such a way as to emphasize social justice, with less emphasis on “getting the right answer” Apparently, teachers correcting math errors is seen as “a holdover from colonialism”. U.S. student math scores are already abysmally low. This won’t help.

Transportation Secretary Buttigieg is talking about tearing down highways because they are racist in that their construction tore apart black neighborhoods. He thinks restoring them would be a positive step. Where the cars are supposed to go is unclear. Perhaps this will be part of a larger plan to replace cars with burros.

In Phoenix, we have an art museum that has been hard hit and is struggling financially. A new Director hopes to bring back visitors with a greater commitment to diversity and inclusivity. I guess he sees a great thirst among museum patrons for more racially sensitive paintings.

Please don’t get the wrong idea about my commitment to social justice. A few years ago, we watched an excellent Israeli TV series called In Treatment, starring the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as a sensitive psychiatrist. Recently, HBO Max revived the series with a new cast. I was skeptical when I saw that the role of the psychiatrist was being played by Uzo Aduba, a large black woman, about as different from Gabriel Byrne as possible. Racist reaction? Probably. However, after two episodes I forgot entirely about the color of her skin. The important thing is the ease with which I was able to switch from seeing her as a black woman to seeing her as an engaging and believable actress. However, I cannot be a hypocrite and exclaim how wonderful it is that a black person has been given the lead in an important series. I am glad she got a top role, but not just because she is black. If she wasn’t good, I wouldn’t watch.

The media gets all worked up over the fact that there are so few black head coaches in the NFL. No one seems bothered by the fact that there are so few white players in the NFL (or NBA).  Professional sports is a “produce or perish” jungle. There are no positions reserved for alleged victims. Nor should there be.

Morgan Stanley is currently running spot ads trumpeting their commitment to diversity and inclusivity, which they have managed to roll together with climate change as a commitment to sustainability. By that, they mean a utopian world as conceived by the woke folks. The idea is that if you don’t have diversity you can’t have a sustainable economy. Investors are supposed to concentrate on companies that are committed to woke ideals and shun the rest, hopefully driving the bad guys to the wall or to conversion by coercion. I am not a shareholder of Morgan Stanley and don’t intend to become one. (Old J.P. Morgan must be revolving in his grave along with Cecil Rhodes.)

Joe Biden seems to be selecting his Cabinet and key advisors with diversity and inclusivity as his main criteria. He has tasked Kamela Harris with straightening out the border disaster. She has not been to the border, so she is going to Guatemala to hand out some money. Great idea! Perhaps I am too cynical.

To check my non-denominational credentials, I recently went through my e-mail address book. I found that of the 50 people I interact with most frequently, 25 are Jewish. I don’t use religion as a criterion for friendship. I am not a Zionist, or even Jewish. There is not a single black among the 50. It is not because I am a racist. There are very few blacks in Arizona. I do discriminate, however. I prefer intelligent thinkers over those who merely repeat what they read on social media.

If everyone simply followed the Golden Rule, we might avoid what I fear may become inevitable, namely a bigger push towards “reparations”, with a pushback that could easily turn violent as a frustrated majority becomes fed up with having the “ITY’s” shoved down its throat at every turn. I hope I’m wrong.

 

Footnote: This morning The Wall Street Journal had an Op-Ed piece discussing how the State Dept. is encouraging U.S. embassies to fly the BLM flag. Since the BLM movement is about telling the world how terrible the U.S. is, that should help offset our constant “We are the greatest” boasting. No wonder foreigners are confused. They may wish to live like us, but our cognitive dissonance must be difficult to understand. Our foreign policy seems to be: “Like us and be like us, but we are a shameful people.”

*****

Ken Veit is a retired corporate executive and actuary.

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