The Price of Wokeness: Stupidity

Peter Van Buren
4 min readDec 13, 2021

One of the great things about not being obsessed with racism is not having to go through the mental twisty turns required to see racism in everything.

For example, I don’t have to pretend moving from New Jersey to Manhattan to find a new job was for a free black man in the 19th century the same thing an Irish immigrant boarding a “coffin ship” hoping to survive the Atlantic journey, knowing his only alternative was to die of starvation during the Potato Famine.

That unexpected example infiltrated my life a week ago because of an article I wrote criticizing New York’s Tenement Museum for including an exhibit about a (black) person who was neither an immigrant nor lived in the tenement building the museum occupies, two of the criteria that kept the museum from telling the story of say any Haitians, Greeks, Japanese, and blacks until now.

The museum has told, magnificently, the stories of a handful of the 7,000 actual residents of its building on Orchard Street, German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian families. I worked there in 2016, quitting after the Trump election turned the institution into some sort of woke bunker fighting fascism.

After my article suggesting the black family from New Jersey’s story could be best told elsewhere, I became a racist. I’m not, but no less than the liberal coven at the Daily Beast sort of called me that. They wrote a story calling my argument nonsense, said I’d provoked an “ugly” fight by even asking questions, took a headline from a New York Post reprint of my article and attributed it to me as a quote, mangled another quote, and hinted I might just be a disgruntled employee seeking revenge over a minimum wage job I quit almost six years ago.

Every pro-wokeness tale needs a villain and in 2021 that would be an old, white, straight man writing for a conservative outlet. The Beast even selected their “race and diversity” editor to interview me. They go hard in the paint, these woke folks.

That’s how I found out how difficult it was to be woke. In order to shoehorn the black Jersey guy into the immigrant world, the Museum told the Beast that the guy, who was born free in America and was never a slave, left New Jersey for New York in 1857. The Museum claimed “though he was not an immigrant in terms of leaving one country for another, he was still embarking on a new life in a society with social norms that differed from what he was accustomed to.”

So an immigrant from New Jersey? That sounds like the set up for a good SNL gag except wokeness has no sense of humor. And right, the Museum did not enjoy Louis C.K.’s takedown any more than mine.

If you surgically remove the woke, here’s what the Museum should have said. The 19th century immigrant experience happened because people were desperate enough to leave absolutely everything they had ever known, including language (the early Irish immigrants spoke mainly Gaelic), culture, religion, food, profession, and family, cross an ocean at direct risk of life, and fight their way out of the ratty status that they’re given when they step ashore in a new land overtly hostile to their presence, except for those standing by to exploit them as they cross that stern barrier at Ellis Island.

I cannot imagine anyone seriously claiming that was the experience from someone moving from New Jersey to Manhattan, black or white.

Well, check that. A white woman did (photos show 11 of the 14 Museum senior staff are white, ten are women) so guilty her Museum doesn’t have a black guy in it that she is willing to ignore the base realities and somehow claim a guy who took the ferry over from Jersey is an immigrant. The Museum might as well recreate George Floyd’s childhood bedroom in the attic and at least be honest about its intentions.

That is what wokeness drives otherwise intelligent people to do, twist facts to match a narrative (“we have a winner, folks, nobody suffered more than black people, with thanks to our Holocaust refugees as the runner-up”) rather than allow facts to create a narrative (America treated its 19th century white immigrants poorly, visiting upon them many of the same discriminations as it did slaves, because class and capital, not race, is controlling.)

No less than The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) said it is also concerned about the Tenement Museum’s replacing its Irish single family tour with a hybrid story of Irish and black families. The Museum was quick to respond they aren’t doing away with the Irish, just pushing them toward the back of the bus a bit to make room for some 2021 liberal tears.

“The history of anti-Irish Catholic bigotry in the U.S. is little told,” stated the AOH. “The Museum proposal to eliminate it in favor of a ‘hybrid program’ only furthers the trend of airbrushing it from American history… The Museum’s strategy of pitting the story of one heritage against another is a recipe for enmity, which is the last thing we need in these divisive times. It would indeed be sadly ironic that the telling of the story of the 19th century history of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ at the Tenement museum should fall victim to a 21st century incarnation.”

I am glad I remain unwoke. Unwoke, I see no special reason to celebrate a transperson won Jeopardy. I don’t have to display toxic positivity at wordplay that means nothing actually changed, things like “raised awareness” or “increased representation.” Unwoke, I do not skip a heartbeat when some made up superhero character is cast as Asian or gay or disabled. I can acknowledge the Spanish language is gendered, so no Latinx silliness. I remain free to ask troublesome questions.

Wokeness, and flippant accusations that anyone who disagrees with it is a racist, shields society from asking questions, and creates a stage where any intellectual bull is accepted as long as it sells the narrative, whether at the Tenement Museum or the Daily Beast. At its heart wokeness is anti-intellectual, almost medieval, with today’s canceled comedians or the Irish of the Tenement Museum, as the modern Galileo.



Peter Van Buren

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People