The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The sensitivity sweepstakes of 2020

A demonstrator in Charleston, W.Va., holds an American flag at a November protest against the restrictions put in place to limit the spread of covid-19.
A demonstrator in Charleston, W.Va., holds an American flag at a November protest against the restrictions put in place to limit the spread of covid-19. (Stringer/Reuters)
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It has been the worst American year since at least 1968, or 1862, or, arguably, ever. It has, however, provided episodes that will amaze and perhaps amuse a calmer future America.

There has been feverish statue-toppling: Up with “social justice,” so down with Ulysses S. Grant, pulverizer of the slavocracy. School names from the past are scrubbed away to signal the superior virtue of the scrubbers: San Francisco’s School Names Advisory Committee — really — objects to Abraham Lincoln High School because Lincoln sinned against various 2020 sensibilities. And 2020 concludes with medicine and political mania entangled on a campus.

Cornell University says vaccinations against seasonal flu are mandatory, but more so for some than for others. Because of “systemic racism” and “health inequities,” members of “some marginalized communities” are exempt. “Historically,” Cornell says, “the bodies of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) have been mistreated, and used by people in power.” Hence the vaccination requirement “may feel suspect or even exploitive” to BIPOCs, especially after recent police misbehavior. So, to protect their sensitivity, and to advertise Cornell’s, the university offers to BIPOCs exemptions from a measure to protect BIPOCs and those with whom they may interact.

Some social justice warriors desecrated Boston’s Civil War memorial to the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. UCLA’s politics department rounded on a lecturer who read in class a portion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King used the n-word. Students who heard this portion of an American masterpiece could share their traumas with the university’s Discrimination Prevention Office, to which the lecturer was reported. In another notable moment in American education, Oregon, responding to Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic-response directive closing public schools, ordered the closure of online charter schools.

A Mississippi third-grader was forbidden to wear a “Jesus Loves Me” mask at a school that allowed “Black Lives Matter” masks. The school might want to brush up on the First Amendment case law forbidding non-neutral, content-based speech restrictions. NBA uniforms were emblazoned with various social justice slogans, not including “Uighur Lives Matter.”

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When Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she was open-minded about removing George Washington’s name and visage from federal property, historian Richard Brookhiser was bemused: “The short, tart answer to her would be George Washington is the reason you have your job.” No George Washington, no United States, no U.S. Senate. Speaking of those who govern us, Duckworth’s new colleague, Alabama Republican Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville, former Auburn football coach, says Republican control of the Senate would be salubrious. “Our government wasn’t set up for one group to have all three branches of government. . . . You know, the House, the Senate, and the executive.”

The U.S. is more politically polarized than ever. The Post’s Kate Woodsome asks experts what drives political sectarianism — and what we can do about it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Forgive the digression. Let us return to measures taken this year to make America a “safe space” for the exquisitely sensitive.

A Pennsylvania school district demonstrated that a stance of “zero tolerance” of this or that behavior often is adopted by officials to enable them to get away with zero thinking. The district called the police because Margot, a 6-year-old girl with Down syndrome, pointed a finger like a gun at her teacher. The school district’s defense is that it was adhering to “policy,” as though this somehow makes it all right.

Margot’s school is Valley Forge Elementary. From Washington’s suffering soldiers to obtuse school administrators — 243 years downhill.

Some Texas real estate agents will no longer refer in their listings to “master” bedrooms, lest people be reminded of slavery. The University of Oregon-Oregon State University football rivalry will no longer be called the “Civil War.” Lest people be reminded of what it took to end slavery? But Americans competing in the global Sensitivity Sweepstakes should look to their laurels.

London activists want to rename a school because, Rod Liddle writes in the Spectator, “it is named after a road which was named after a dairy farmer who had the same name as someone the activists dislike.” Rhodes Avenue primary school was named, indirectly, after Thomas Rhodes, who died when Cecil Rhodes — the imperialist the activists disapprove of — was 3. Nevertheless, the activists say Thomas cannot be “disentangled” from Cecil.

Liddle says, “Perhaps we should also cease calling roads roads because of the phonetic distress occasioned to too many activists.” The sound you hear is of activists’ hands slapping activists’ foreheads while the activists exclaim, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

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