Karen was my best friend in high school. Blond. A drinker. Smart; thirsty for intellectual stimulation to go with her gin and tonics. Her nickname was something like Missy, and frat boys liked her. She married one, to her eventual chagrin. He spoiled the best years of her life.
My Karen, for all her personal tragedies, takes the time to post lovingly on social media. Karen is flawed, kind and beautiful. She reads and writes and works and drinks and laughs at the absurd turns life takes. Maybe she’d laugh less, and drink less, if she weren’t white. That is entirely possible; lots of things are possible. Life’s funny that way.
Lord, how she must be cringing at the way her bland name with the hard early consonant has been turned into a meme. “Karen” is now the middle-aged woman in yoga pants who uses her unearned, white-lady privilege to lean on those with less class and colour-privilege than she’s got. Who snarls and snarks her way to small victories like a better seat, a more coddled child, more space.
The Karen call-out
The other day on Twitter, someone called me Karen. I nearly dropped my glass of wine (red, not white) in shock. I’d run afoul of the Karen-callers in defending the NY Times from an angry denunciation by a journalist. This blue-check reporter had accused the newspaper of promoting fascism and — gasp — upholding capitalism.
I could understand the first charge. Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed called for the full force of the military to be deployed against the protesters who’d been filling the streets of America’s cities for the last several days. While rioters and looters had been marring some of the peaceful demonstrations, the notion that America’s military should be turned on US citizens calling for justice was sickening. Current and former military leaders have expressed why such a move is illegal, immoral, immoderate and unacceptable.
I assume the editorial board of the Times decided to run the senator’s piece in order to let readers know how one of the senate’s most ambitious members thought about law and order. Voters should know who their leaders really are.
Was it a wise decision to give him the platform? Plenty of NY Times journalists think it was not. It’s caused a furor at the paper, which has lost subscribers disappointed and disgusted that the Times would lavish an opinion page on a senator angling to drape the mantle of President Trump’s authoritarianism over his own shoulders.
It’s doubtful the editorial board is trying to facilitate the fascist takeover of the United States. It is far more likely that they were operating from the liberal premise that exposing and engaging with opinion is healthier than suppressing and denying it.
We no longer live in a liberal age. We live in an age of retrenchment. Much of the right has been coopted by the illiberal engines that fuel the emotional parts of its platform. Similarly, the left has armed and fortified the borders of its pet orthodoxies.
And the discourse is dominated by sweeping generalizations like the ones I just made. Lumping people into ideological camps is to gloss over, or ignore — or worse, refuse to see — the ways in which individuals dissent from their standard-bearers. In fact, Twitter’s certainty about things notwithstanding, most people are not camp followers and couldn’t care less who their supposed standard-bearer is.
Anyway… I thought the journalist’s tweet was dumb, and I said so. Mea culpa. It seemed, what’s another word for hysterical, let’s see… feverish … to claim that a respected newspaper was enabling fascism based on the fact of this editorial decision PLUS upholding capitalism. Was she saying capitalism was fascism? Did she think the editorial board is interested in running propaganda pieces in order to bring about an authoritarian, nationalist, chauvinist state? Did she think the free market was the cornerstone of fascism?
My god, so much to think urgently about. Why hadn’t I seen all this before?
I did what I’ve never done before. I asked the journalist to reconsider her “scurrilous, hysterical” tweet. That didn’t go over well, as I should have known. Damned wine! Before I knew it, the journalist had told me to f* off, which remark was liked dozens of times. Masochist that I am, I checked out some of the likers’ bios. Many of them had anonymous Twitter handles. Many of them claimed to be fervent supporters of BLM, #Palestine, #strongwomen, love, compassion, etc. etc.
(Some of the worst MAGA Twitter trolls claim fealty to all sorts of high human traits and aspirational beliefs and values: compassion, Jesus, #alllivesmatter, #mychildrenaremylife, and so on. There’s a lesson in here.)
Soon, people were demanding that I explain myself, apologize, and detail when and where I’d sold my soul. I was called a fascist-enabler and a fascist. Someone took issue with my profile photo, muttering darkly that I looked like a little German girl-Nazi. The insults were flying thick and fast, their darts containing venomous little extras like “white” and “privileged”.
The SJW I live with
I showed my profile photo to my husband. He thought I should change it to something less… blond. Et tu, husband? I mean, it was a photo of me hitchhiking through Texas, back in the day, after spending six months in Mexico hanging out with Zapatistas. I thought I looked pretty, with my sun-bleached hair and hopeful air.
I guess I could update it, but don’t blame me if people complain about my roots.
Apparently, you’re not supposed to call a woman’s tweet hysterical. Even if it’s overwrought. Even if it’s suggesting that the NY Times is a petri dish of fascist ideology. Even if the tweet in question is suggesting that capitalism is in the mix. Even if the person who posted the tweet writes for publications that wouldn’t exist were it not for capitalism.
But I was a Karen. The times are calling out for understanding, compassion, and a willingness and openness to take a second look at the way in which people of colour are treated by the police. Got to get on the right side. This was no time for criticizing urgent tweets, it was a time for posting urgent tweets. Karens criticize; blue-check leftist journalists engage in critique. Didn’t I know anything at all?!?
But wait. I’ve been thinking about social and political justice for a long time. A long time. I’m a GenX-er. I know we live in an unequal world. We protested against apartheid, Reagan, the police and nuclear war. I know a lot of things, because I’m not a child. I also know that this Karen trope is misogynist b.s. Take that, rose Twitter.
The New York Times is packed, wall-to-wall, with thoughtful reporters who work very hard to figure out the world. Most of them are left of centre. There are people on the right who roll their eyes at the Times for being so predictably left wing. I like their bias, if bias it is. I agree and sympathize with the belief that, given the facts, society can do more to redress structural barriers to equality.
Many New York Times reporters have taken their employer to task for publishing the Tom Cotton op-ed. I’m down with that, too. If you support free speech, you have to support the speech of people who think it’s appalling to let an opportunistic, ambitious senator argue his case for violence against protesters in the pages of a major newspaper.
I’m not down with being cowed, though. I’m not cool with anonymous Twitter users swarming around like vultures, waiting to pick the last of the meat off the bone. It’s gross. It’s uncivilized and, before someone says “civility is overrated”, no it’s not. Powerful street protests in support of an important cause — that’s skin in the game, and it’s a moral good. Calling somebody who’s on your side a fascist is no way to move the ball forward.
Feeling slighted is not an emergency. That’s the lesson the Karens need to learn, amirite? Physical danger is an emergency. A government abrogating your rights, that’s an emergency. An out of control, heavily armed police force that targets minorities is an emergency. Dialogue, empathy, making space, admitting when you’re wrong, handling criticism with aplomb: these are the values that will help bring about a better world.
Get to know who the real bastards are. Get involved in voter registration drives. Tweet urgently, if you must, and make sure to vote the bastards out.
Meanwhile, I’m going to check in on my Karen. It’s been a while, and these are strange and lonesome times.