The other day, I was listening to a great podcast with a few figures for whom I think the modern term is “heterodox.” Contrarians, libertarians, the like.
The host was Coleman Hughes, who I really admire. A philosopher by background, a writer by trade, from New York City and a very critical thinker. And I mean that in the sense that he breaks down arguments, not that he criticizes people.
Among his guests was David Bernstein, who founded the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, and recently wrote a book with a provocative title called “Woke Anti-Semitism.” That title is a riff on an earlier book by John McWhorter called “Woke Racism.”
The interesting thing, although the conversation was specifically about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war on “wokeism” in Florida, is that none of the people around the table were what you would consider conservative, at least not in a Republican sense.
Other guests included Kmele Foster and Chloé Valdary. Foster endorsed the Libertarian candidate for President in 2020, and Valdary founded The Theory of Enchantment to teach social and emotional learning, two examples of how outside the box these folks are. And it’s worth noting that McWhorter, who was mentioned a few times, did not appear on Fox News to promote his book — when Fox News, a national news outlet, would’ve been very happy to feature a black intellectual critiquing the anti-racist movement. Instead, McWhorter characterized his book as a critique of one part of the left from another part of the left.
Perhaps the one thing that these heterodox thinkers have in common is that they disagreed to one degree or another with the most strident form of liberal thought – equity, anti-racism, what critics call “woke” thinking. And — this is key — they were willing to say they disagree very publicly. How can they do this without being canceled? (Another modern term.) Well, they have a superpower called “Being a New Yorker.”
I like to put the place in politics, and in this entry we’re going talk about New York City. As always, these are just my views. I am shooting the breeze and like to think about these things.
Coleman Hughes, the host of the discussion, like Mc Water, is a Black man affiliated with Columbia University in New York. Hughes attended McWhorter teaches there. Bernstein is a Jewish New Yorker, and happy to identify as such.
As listeners to this podcast know I am, if not heterodox in my thinking, then unorthodox. (Is that different?) Specifically, I try to boil political debates down to where people are coming from. Literally.
So, we’re not going debate what is logical or illogical about being woke, or anti-racist.
What we’re going to talk about is why we would be seeing resistance to that dominant strain of Democratic thinking in one of the largest, most important Democratic cities in the country.
The short answer is: New Yorkers are not Puritans, culturally speaking. Even though they butt right up against Massachusetts, the original Puritan colony, people in the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam think a little too freely to understand the rigid conformity that is a hallmark of Puritan culture.
Bernstein said as much:
“Now what I don’t do, and to me this is one of the major delineating factors. I don’t claim that my argument is beyond scrutiny. I don’t believe because I’m Jewish and I’ve experienced anti-Semitism I have some monopoly on wisdom about anti-Semitism. I believe that I have — you know, if you want to hear me out on it, you hear me out on it. And I’ll make my arguments. But it’s just one data point. And it could easily be that there’s other data points that you should listen to or other people’s lived experience that you should listen to. So, I think that’s one thing that separates sort of the brand of identity politics we’re dealing with now, sort of quote-unquote identity politics. Which is a claim of authority. It’s a standpoint claim. It’s that my lived experience qualifies me to define this for the rest of society. That’s a very, very aggressive claim.”David Bernstein
New York City can act as a kind of immune system for virulent group think in the United States. This can be good. They didn’t like prohibition; they didn’t like McCarthyism. They didn’t even go along with the Iraq war when it was the only city successfully attacked on 9/11. (And the Iraq War this week is 20 years old, if you can believe it.)
But New York City also didn’t get on board with abolitionism or the whole “war for independence against the British” thing.
It’s not that New Yorkers have superior instincts; they just act differently than other liberals in the US. Today, NYC is acting as a kind of throttle on the way of thinking that has wholly consumed the Northeast and the Left Coast.
New Amsterdam was founded on trade first, and we should always remember that. Unlike Massachusetts, which was founded to become the city on the hill, an ideal, religiously founded New World, New Amsterdam was established by the Dutch for trade and profit. They believe very strongly that limiting speech or religion interfered with that higher goal: profit.
Take a look at the articles of surrender drafted by the colony’s Dutch leaders in 1664, when the British took over. The very conditions of taking over Manhattan included the precursors to our own Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not nut picking here – holding up that very niche set of podcasters as if they represented all of New York. Here’s a few more things that I noticed that got me thinking that maybe New York City is not all in with DEI, or anti-racism, or whatever we want to call it.
Lester Chang, a military veteran and a Republican beat, a Democratic incumbent for a Brooklyn based seat in the New York State Assembly. He said he won because of community concern about crime.
His victory was a data point in a New York Times story about the shift in the Asian American vote towards Republicans. That included some interesting maps showing the governor’s races in Brooklyn’s Chinatowns, where you see a 30-point swing from 2018 to 2022. Apparently, this is the Sunset Park area, and it went from being plus-15 Democrat in some areas to plus-15 Republican in at least a couple blocks.
The New York Times explains this shift basically by rolling out the same points that Ron DeSantis has been making in Florida in his “war on woke.” Here’s how the article explained it:
Nationally, the rightward drift of Asian voters is connected to a new class divide in American politics. The Democratic Party, especially its liberal wing, has increasingly come to reflect the views of college-educated professionals. …
The trend has long been evident among white working-class voters, and many liberal analysts have claimed that it mostly reflects racial bigotry. But recent developments have weakened that argument. Class appears to be an important factor as well. Since 2018, more Asian and Latino voters have supported Republicans, and these voters appear to be disproportionately working-class.NY Times
They have some other figures that I thought were really fascinating, this is national on Asian American votes. And it shows that while they were 74% Democratic in 2004, they had dropped by 10 points in 2022 to 64%. And what’s interesting is that we kind of zoom out of New York in this explainer piece. Here’s another quote.
The Pew Research Center has conducted a detailed analysis of the electorate and categorized about 8 percent of voters as belonging to “the progressive left.” This group spans all races, but it is disproportionately white — and upper-income. … the progressive left has an outsize impact partly because of its strong presence in institutions with access to political megaphones, like advocacy groups, universities, media organizations and Hollywood.NY Times
To recap, the New York Times is saying Asian Americans are voting for Republicans in greater numbers because they’re working-class people worried about real world issues like crime, and the Democrats are led by college educated elites in Hollywood and universities.
That is essentially the entire GOP case against the quote-unquote woke Democrats, coming from the New York Times. Of course, that summary was provided in an article trying to give context to a racially focused story. I got the vibe that the whole piece was a warning to Democrats about the losses amongst Asian Americans. So maybe one reason that we didn’t hear a lot of complaints about taking that view or rolling out essentially the Republican case against Democrats.
That story is couched in looking at a racial minority in the United States, but it also comes after the Times refused to fire anyone after more than 200 contributors working with GLAAD accused them of bigotry for reporting on the questionable medical science behind some transgender treatments.
In the face of other recent controversial verses, the so-called national paper record has parted ways with other writers. They have capitulated to complaints. However, in a February 16th letter from executive editor Joseph Kahn, and opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, they basically said this was a critique from an advocacy group and that it was a difficult issue. They understand the critique, however they called the specific pieces singled out, which reported controversy about how well-grounded the science is when we were talking about treatment for transgender people, “important, deeply reported and sensitively written.”
They ended not with “They’ve gotta go,” but, “We do not welcome, and we will not tolerate participation by times journalists and protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums.”
Interesting, right? The New York Times seems to have taken a turn.
If we want to push it a little further, I would say that if there was a face to this sort of New York version of liberalism that is distinct from the northeast or left coast version of liberalism, that face is Eric Adams.
He is the mayor of New York City, took office in 2022. Before that, he was the first black person elected Brooklyn Borough president. And before that, he represented Brooklyn in the New York State Senate from 2006 to 2013. And before that, he was a police officer in the city for 20 years, retiring as a captain, and he got his start in Brooklyn. I think he was actually arrested by the city police as a young man.
He ran a tough on crime campaign and that got a lot of notice. On his first day as mayor, he called 9 1 1 after seeing a street fight on his way to work. He was okay with stop-and-frisk, the controversial policy by New York Police, after he was against it in the state Senate. He supported free community college. He protested after the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. He’s a supporter of meatless Mondays in schools, and he was recorded calling white people “cracker.”
So, he is definitely not a conservative.
But he’s also not a progressive’s progressive. He supported solitary confinement of prisoners. He’s a supporter of Israel. He carved out an exemption to covid vaccination requirements, apparently to appease a local NBA player. And he criticized remote work as “staying home in your pajamas.”
Eric Adams doesn’t quite fit our mold of what we would think of as like standard Democratic views or standard Republican views, but what he is, is a New Yorker.
He embodies a unique form of politics only found in New York. And New York, despite being very liberal on the national political scale, has produced some of our most prominent Republicans, including former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and who can forget former President Donald Trump.
The key here is that free exchange of ideas and talking very loudly about your ideas are hallmarks of New York culture. And free thinking is a value that seems to extend to all sides of their political dynamic. I would say “all sides” because within New York City, you’re not really talking about a polarized, two-party electorate. Adams, once he won the Democratic nomination, got over 60% of the vote. The Republican Party is not a particularly potent force within the city, although they do come up with some powerful national conservative leaders. Instead you have many flavors of both liberals and conservatives.
This unique form of politics in New York City is clearly starting to separate itself from the dominant line of liberalism in the United States, which is found in those areas of the country that were founded by the Puritans. Yankee territory includes the whole Northeast and extending out towards like Michigan and Wisconsin, and it includes the West Coast, on the coast places of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, that kind of area.
It will be very interesting to see whether this daylight you’re starting to see, at least I am arguing that you’re starting to see it, between the New York version of liberalism and the New England version of liberalism will get brighter. Is there going to be more of a separation, or are we going to see them come back together in some more moderate version of “wokesim?”
We’ve talked before about an emerging Southern liberalism that’s very important to Democrats if they hope to be successful in a nation where more and more people live in this South.
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