Moral Panics Work

On the poisonous inability to diagnose bullshit.

Hamilton Nolan

Pay no attention to the private equity executive behind the curtain. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Congratulations to everyone who signed the Harper’s letter on the election of Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia. Truly, we may now say that your concerns are being heard in the public square. 

You will recall the momentary sensation caused by last summer’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which was signed by a panoply of anti-cancel-culture warriors ranging from John McWhorter to Anne Applebaum to David Brooks. The letter’s actual content was an impossibly vague celebration of the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” that read like the introductory section of a very boring free speech textbook. Its real point was not in the words, but in the signal it sent: An affirmation from the most rarefied cultural elites that all of the panic over the censorious Left that Fox News had been floating for months was, in fact, a real thing. 

And here we are, a year and change later, breathing deeply in the free and fresh cultural atmosphere that all of these deep thinkers have helped to create. That atmosphere has delivered to us, among other things, a new Virginia governor by the name of Glenn Youngkin: a zillionaire private equity executive who quite purposefully ran on the twin lies of election fraud and critical race theory” in order to trick the rubes into voting for him. And it worked. Thank you all to everyone who contributed. 

There will never be a shortage of opportunities to sit back and laugh about the fact that the class of people who self-consciously focus their life’s work on becoming and discussing the cultural elite are often the most clumsy set of patsies you can find anywhere outside of a slot machine parlor. It has been painfully obvious from day one that cancel culture,” to the extent that it exists at all, is the rebranding of a niche problem that afflicts a vanishingly small number of people in academia; and that critical race theory” panic is the rebranding of something even more classic: American racism. In the 1960s, politicians could stand up and rail against integration and successfully channel America’s racism for their own political benefit. In the following decades, it became necessary to rail instead about welfare reform, or crime, in order to accomplish the same thing. Now, it is critical race theory,” the latest acceptable format for Americans to express their racism in a public forum. It’s all the same thing. 

No, this is totally different! Parents are just full of rage that their children will be taught about, uh, racism.” Yeah. It’s all the same thing. All of the people who can’t stop talking about the dangers of being woke” seem completely unable to wake the fuck up. 

Moral panic is a wonderfully effective political strategy. It really works. Always has. The irony that Glenn Youngkin, a man who made a fortune in an industry that profits by systematically sucking capital out of the hands of working people like a vampire, has now risen to success by selling regular Virginians the idea that their enemies are leftist academics and Black people is a little on the nose. But it goes to show just how strong moral panic is. If you can push the buttons for fear and rage, people will follow you. And here in the Greatest Country on Earth, we have hundreds of years of history demonstrating the fact that racism is the surest way to lead people down this path. (The next most effective way, historically, has been red-baiting, which can be considered an early version of the loony leftist professors are indoctrinating your kids to hate you.”) Nothing changes. 

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate in Virginia, sucks. He is a Clinton-era money man awkwardly trying to remake himself as a man of the people. Terrible candidate. The Democratic Party cannot help itself from existing as a lifetime jobs program for party power brokers. But Joe Biden just won his state by half a million votes one year ago. McAuliffe lost because Youngkin’s spiel worked. And that spiel was lies and hand-waving to scare the yokels.” 

I am not a cultural elite, but I do know what Occam’s Razor is. Which analysis seems more likely: Tens of millions of people across America spontaneously, in the past year, have become intensely concerned about ideological debates on remote college campuses and the ins and outs of grad school theories about race and power? Or is it, maybe, that people are racist, as they always have been? It’s that people are racist. And they are easily fooled. 

My point here is that, unfortunately, the very writers and journalists and deep thinkers who are institutionally responsible for describing what is happening in society have instead been roped into becoming contributors to today’s moral panic. I expect Fox News and Republican political strategists to create pseudo-issues to tap into the latent racism and fear of voters. But the people who run academic departments and write for the Atlantic and stroke their chins professionally inside the New York Times are supposed to be a little savvier than that. But they are not. They have chin-stroked themselves right into validating the idea that any of this bullshit is A Real Thing, just like their ancestors did when the best and brightest minds of last century validated Joe McCarthy’s moral panic then. 

If you can’t identify lies and racism when you see them, I question your fitness as a member of the cultural elite. Or maybe the ability to look at bullshit and call it a serious issue worthy of debate is just the price of entry.

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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