Our flags seem perpetually at half-staff. They came halfway down in honor of the Atlanta shooting victims, and for when we crossed the somber total of an estimated 500,000 Americans who died with coronavirus. They were lowered in honor of U.S. Capitol Police Officer William “Billy” Evans, in honor of the Boulder, Colorado shooting victims, and in honor of the Indianapolis shooting victims. They fell for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Chadwick Boseman.
Perhaps some of these memorial actions are warranted — certainly, it is proper to have some form of public memorialization for the dead. Yet the constant churn of half-staff tributes has become so routine that it has lost its honorary lustre, an action more representative of performative, activist art than a recognition of some especially important public loss.
Indeed, an op-ed in Harvard University’s student newspaper has argued that our flags be kept at half-staff in perpetuity. “We need to stop the continuous cycle of shootings that we have all become accustomed to,” it argued. “Until then … don’t raise the half-staffed flag a d-mn inch. We’d be disrespecting the country of equality, freedom, and happiness that the United States stands for”
In other words, a historically apolitical act intended only to solemnize the most important American public figures — such as the deaths of presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices — must now have an activist spin. It’s not just our flags that have been “activized.” Practically every institution in our nation, including government agencies like the Department of Labor, has either undergone an activist transformation or is under serious pressure to do so.
In a Mar. 24, Washington Post interview responding to a question on whether he has been a “beneficiary” of white privilege, President Joe Biden’s new Labor Secretary Marty Walsh asserted:
Absolutely. There’s no question about it. White people shouldn’t be afraid of the words white privilege. It can be a complicated conversation to have, but we can’t run away from it.
Yet Walsh was curiously non-specific when asked to explain how white privilege has specifically benefited him. “I look at the world through the eyes of a person who grew up in Boston,” he responded, “And I’m a white Irish kid from Dorchester, a white Irish American, I guess you could call me. I never walked in the shoes of friends of mine that are African American.”
This is simultaneously laughable and terrifying. One can easily imagine Walsh thinking to himself that yes, he needs to obey the left’s talking points on identity politics and acknowledge the reality of white privilege. Yet that’s not enough! Woke activists want people like Walsh to admit that they have been the beneficiaries of white privilege.
Still, if Walsh is too forthcoming in his admission, he effectively undermines his own career. Indeed, following the logic, if Walsh holds the position of labor secretary only because he’s a white guy, shouldn’t he step down and make room for someone whose racial, gender, or sexual identity has suffered under oppressive patriarchal structures? Indeed, as a white, cisgender male, woke activists might even argue Walsh is perpetuating those structures.
Thus, Walsh’s non-answer. “White privilege” amounts to him not having the same perspective as other non-white Americans. According to that absurd definition, all persons are privileged in regards to their particular racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender demographic identity as compared to those who don’t perfectly share it.
Perhaps a black gay man has “black gay man privilege” in comparison to female heterosexual Asians, and transgender Latinas have “transgender Latina privilege” in comparison to black “cisgender” males. And on, and on, and on.
Ultimately, much of the normalization of activist culture — including among our elites and elite institutions — is simply appeasement and playacting. If keeping the flags indefinitely at half-staff and admitting our white privilege will keep radical activists from targeting the elites, bureaucrats, and even wary, exhausted everyday citizens, so be it.
Yet the obvious superficiality manifested in comments like those of Walsh’s give up the game. A lot of people are simply trying to survive the woke machine and its insatiable appetite to devour anyone perceived as an enemy.
All of this leads to an inherent tension. Activists by their nature are supposed to exist in opposition to the system. The problem is “the man,” right?
Yet politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations have become either beholden to woke activism or extensions of it. The elites must know this is an unstable, dangerous alliance. If white privilege and the patriarchy truly are systemic evils to be destroyed, should there be any white, male, cisgender politicians, bureaucrats, or CEOs? Their very existence allows the perpetuation of such supposed systemic evils.
Certainly, many leftist activists, pundits, and politicians think they are the ones in the driver’s seat. As evidenced by the proliferation of identity politics commercials and political performances (kente cloths for everyone!), they believe they can co-op activist fervor and zealotry while keeping their political power and financial security. Perhaps. But identitarianism and racialism have proven themselves voraciously eager to dispense with former allies once they are no longer useful (see Al Franken and Andrew Cuomo).
In one sense, we cannot escape identitarianism and are all products of biological and familial realities we cannot control. We are people who develop strong, passionate affiliations with certain religious, cultural, or social groups. Yet there is a certain brand of identitarianism ascendant in our contemporary culture that is demonstrably self-destructive and inimical to political and social cohesion.
It’s a new special kind of pathology that argues the open (and objectively correct) vilification of the brutal totalitarianism of communist China represents a “Sinophobia” that is “fueling a wave of domestic hatred.” It is the kind of pathology that believes that the lack of any female umpires in Major League Baseball (there are only 76 full-time MLB umpires) represents a serious obstacle to women’s rights and equality.
We need political leaders, corporate executives, and everyday citizens willing to call these activist causes what they truly are: absurd, asinine distractions unworthy of our time or attention, and that further vitiate what little remains of our fraying social and political fabric.
The eternal half-staff flag makes a mockery of the true memorialization, as much as it would if every month was Black History Month or every day Thanksgiving, while radical racialist ideology that sees “white privilege” behind everything only heightens racial tension. And please, we need more Americans to take seriously the aggressive totalitarianism of a China that persecutes minorities and political dissidents. Indeed, that’s an activist cause far more worthy of our time and energy.