Guest columnist Frank Splitt: Woke extremism counter productive to the goals it promotes

Extremists in both the Democratic and Republican parties divide America, as evidenced by the divisive behavior of the anti-fascist groups in the antifa movement on the far left and that of hate groups such as QAnon and the Proud Boys on the far right.

The following narrative focuses on divisive far left woke behavior - the extreme measures seen in woke cancel culture that are characterized by overly zealous actions to resolve contentious issues surrounding social and racial justice such as aspirational ideals of inclusion, diversity and equity. These actions fuel resentment and not only contribute to the widening of political divisions, but can also lead to lost elections.

To begin, the subtitle to the Daily Herald's Feb. 20 editorial, "The Father of the Nation," took the form of a penetrating question: "How should Washington's slave ownership affect our reverence for his role in the birth of our country?" The same question could be asked writ large over previously respectable people such as Christopher Columbus, Junipero Serra, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

In today's woke cancel culture, the names of Washington and all these other notables are considered inappropriate, not worthy of naming opportunities for memorials, because their lives and actions could be related to charges of racism, sexism and /or colonialism. So say reassessments by extremists who tell a horror-like story of our nation's complicated development with emphasis on its sometimes sordid behavior. This unbalanced telling of American history is undoubtedly deeply resented by many if not most Americans.

Consequently, there is an urgent need to have Americans reminded that Washington and the others were, like all of us imperfect, persons immeasurably shaped by their place and the social norms (mores) of their time that were substantially different from those of our own.

In that light, a true and balanced history of America would reflect the good and the bad while still providing very good reasons to honor the significant roles played by Washington and all the others in the complex birth of our nation.

In line with the above, there are related questions that should also be asked, such as: What is the objective end to this woke business, this sometimes hypersensitivity to issues surrounding social and racial justice? What long-term good can come of overbearing measures that build a solid foundation for long-lasting resentment that can, in turn, foment bitter hatred?

A good example of resentment was that felt by Americans of Italian and/or Catholic heritage with the January 2019 cave of Notre Dame University to the extreme left by covering 1880s murals that portray Columbus bringing the Catholic faith to this hemisphere. Another example is the resentment felt by past graduates of Madison, Wisconsin's James Madison Memorial High School when the school board approved a name change to that of a notable Black graduate of the school, thus Vel Phillips Memorial High School. The change was based on the fact that Madison once owned slaves, a common practice in Virginia in his time.

Also, consider the following two non-memorial-related woke measures: First, the 2005 elimination of (Indian) Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Warrior Chief at Maine West High School - eliminations that are still deeply resented by Illini and Maine West alumni and second, the fairly recent history of non-faculty administrators at our nation's colleges and universities placing ever outsized emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity - diminishing faculty hiring based on disciplinary merit.

Are all such measures steps on a slippery slope which, if followed to the end, will make us always see things far worse than they really are? C.S. Lewis proffers an answer in his 1952 book, Mere Christianity: "Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything - God and our friends and ourselves included - as bad and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred."

In her Feb. 19 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "San Francisco Schools the Left," Peggy Noonan opined on parental countermeasures against the far left's woke atonement measures:

"The landslide recall of three Board of Education members will have major national repercussions. Overreach via atonement measures by the left-wing of the Democratic Party foment resentments and will likely fragment the Party as well as repulse Independents."

As Noonan stated: "A cultural rebellion within the Democratic Party has begun" - all but assuring a return to power of the Republican Party that has been crusading against 'woke' as, for example, with its 2022 CPAC theme of "AWAKE NOT WOKE."

Finally, one must ask: When will the politicians in both political parties ever learn that extremism is not only a surefire recipe for ineffective government, but extremism in any form tears the fabric of American Democracy as well?

• Frank G. Splitt, author of the book "An Odyssey of Reform Initiatives: 1986-2015" and its sequel "Reflections: 2016-2021," is a former McCormick Faculty Fellow at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and a Vice President Emeritus of Nortel Networks.

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