Friday, February 28, 2020

Looking For Trouble

Now, as a grown-up who never has a fav she doesn’t want to see problematized, I was excited to see that Eli Cook, historian of capitalism and author of The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life, had written an article for the Journal of American Studies putting [the Choose Your Own Adventure] series in its historical place.
Rebecca Onion. “Oh My God, It’s Milton Friedman for Kids”
The link to this article from the Slate homepage read: "The Choose Your Own Adventure Books Indoctrinated Kids With Cutthroat Capitalism." As one might expect, it's basically a hit piece on the series. The basic problem that Mr. Cook and Ms. Onion appear to have with CYOA is that some people took the fact that the books placed the outcome in the hands of the reader, and the choices they made, as some part of a supposedly sinister neoliberal plot to convince children that they, and they alone, were the masters of, and responsible for, the outcomes of their lives.

Not being the sort who sees conservative hatefulness under every rock, I found the article to be something of a stretch, overall. But the quote above stood out for me, namely: "Now, as a grown-up who never has a fav she doesn’t want to see problematized [...]" It helped me put into words what always bothered me about "woke" culture; the impression that it's a deliberate affectation. It's sort of like the stereotype of a hipster; the one in which a person creates a sense of ironic detachment from the world around them, not because they're actually detached and find the world a rich vein of irony to mine, but because it becomes a way of proclaiming their "betterness" than the people around them. In this case, people find things, especially things associated with the past, as "problematic" because finding problems with things becomes a way of signaling that one is the "right" kind of person, the sort who believes the right social-justice things.

And while I don't necessarily have a problem with the ideals and goals of the social-justice movement, I find its desire for purity to be off-putting. And perhaps a bit ironic, coming, as it does, from a movement that has as one of its goals the end of mass marginalization. But in the end, it's to be expected. People often define "right" as the opposite of "wrong," and "pure" as the opposite of "tainted." And so pointing out what is wrong and tainted, and then defining oneself in opposition to that, becomes a shorthand for righteousness and purity, but one that doesn't require any sort of self-reflection or work to live up to anything.

Of course, this isn't unique to the social-justice movement. All movements have their purity wings. "Wokeness" stands out for me, because even the word itself strikes me as a sort of purity test. I get that it isn't intended as such; my own history is the source of that particular impression. But it bugs me nonetheless. Now I better understand why.

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