July 15, 2022

First Lady of the United States Jill Biden is the outrage cycle’s main character this week, after she compared a coalition of Hispanic voters to breakfast tacos. The offence occurred during an event called, and I am not making this up, the LatinX IncluXion Luncheon.

If you spent 10 years trying to write a satire that encapsulates our present moment in American Democratic politics, you could do no better than this story. It is practically art. It is divinely ridiculous. But it’s also an incident from which certain conclusions can be drawn — about where the Left stands politically, and what the future holds, here at the almost-halfway point to our next presidential election.

The LatinX IncluXion Luncheon took place on Monday, in the Texas city of San Antonio, and Biden was attempting to compliment civil rights activist Raul Yzaguirre. “Raul helped build this organisation with the understanding that the diversity of this community, as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami, and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio, is your strength,” she said — mispronouncing “bodegas” as “BO-guh-duhs”. For the uninitiated, that is basically the closest thing we have in New York City to the crime of lese-majesty.

The backlash came swiftly from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which released a statement that read, in part, “NAHJ encourages Dr. Biden and her speech writing team to take the time in the future to better understand the complexities of our people and communities. We are not tacos.”

The First Lady, of course, did not write this speech herself — as evidenced by the fact that it included a word she didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce. And the “tacos” line, of course, is not something she — or any normal person — would ever come up with organically. It’s pure political strategy, a too-earnest pandering to various identity groups that has dominated the liberal discourse for the past six years. It’s just unfortunate for Jill Biden that her speechwriters and political aides failed to realise that this type of rhetoric has not only reached the limits of its usefulness, but has lately become akin to walking around with a sign on your back that says “cancel me”.

This happened quite fast. It is only two years since the racial reckoning of 2020, a year when you couldn’t open your email without combing through half a dozen new corporate diversity declarations from every organisation you’d ever had contact with in your life. Your newspaper, your cable company, your dermatologist, the company that mails pineapples to your in-laws every year as a holiday gift: all of them wanted you to know that they stood in support of social justice. This was the year when the diversity industry climbed to a $7.6 billion valuation (and counting), and expensive DEI consultants flooded en masse into corporate life. It’s when Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility was a bestseller in its (approximately) 53rd millionth printing; when Democratic politicians took the knee wearing kente cloth; when celebrities purged their white guilt in self-produced confessional videos.

The momentum of the diversity movement was unstoppable, partly because Americans were united in genuine horror over the murder of George Floyd, but also because the country had been in pandemic lockdown for months, and everyone was bored and stir crazy and absolutely desperate to do something. Here was something to believe in and an excuse to flout the stay-at-home order, and by God, we were going to take it.

But as the landscape of daily life became littered with solidarity statements and BLACK LIVES MATTER signs, the significance of these expressions began to subtly shift. What started as legitimate outrage and demand for change was evolving into a sort of status signal, a code by which good liberals could recognise others of their kind. And as the summer wore on, the signs started taking on a subtext: not just I’m one of you, but also please don’t hurt me. Store owners plastered social justice slogans in their windows in the hope that their businesses would be spared if a riot broke out. Diners at sidewalk cafes were confronted by mobs of angry protesters who refused to let them eat until or unless they raised a fist for black lives. Silence, of course, was violence — and power was coalescing in new and different places.

The desperation to demonstrate that you were down with the cause was palpable, and not unfounded. In one viral video, released at the moment when cancelling so-called “Karens” had become America’s new favorite spectator sport, a sobbing woman tries frantically to shield both her face and her licence plate from view. The unseen videographer accuses her of calling him the n-word; she protests that she’s done no such thing. “I have a black husband!” she shrieks, terrified.

To some people, the sight of that sobbing, desperate woman was deeply distasteful: a sign of things gone too far. But to others, it was a lightbulb moment: here was an opportunity. You could see it in the way that allegations of racism began to run rampant — not on the political Right, but through the most diversity-conscious, progressive spaces. The industries rocked hardest by the reckoning, and where most cancellations occur today, were not hotbeds of white supremacy but Left-liberal havens, populated by highly educated white people who prided themselves on their progressive bona fides and lived in terror of causing offence.

Media, fashion, publishing, television, the non-profit industrial complex: somehow, it was always the people doing the most who were next on the chopping block. The yoga studio owner who hosted free classes for students of colour. The novelist who diligently sought sensitivity reads in hopes of avoiding offence. The café owners who set out to create a welcoming LGBT community space. The summer camp with not one but two separate diversity committees to address issues of racial equity. The greater your dedication to diversity, the less likely your business was to survive a callout for even the most minor offences against it. Suddenly, nothing made you a target quite like being an ally (except apologising, of course).

And those statements that used to signal solidarity, even status — that used to be a tool for self-advancement in a world where caring about diversity was the best thing you could do for your brand — have taken on a new shade of meaning. Now, to say you care is to advertise your susceptibility to allegations of not-caring. You’re telling people that you can be squeezed, for apologies, or for money, or for whatever shred of publicity or attention or advantage might be gained by humiliating you.

Jill Biden is being squeezed. Not because she actually did anything wrong, but because she cares about being seen to do right, and that makes her vulnerable. Let’s be clear about this: nobody actually believes that the First Lady of the United States, a 71-year-old professional with a doctoral degree, needs to be instructed as to the difference between people and tacos. Even the group of people who just issued a public statement declaring themselves not to be tacos do not believe it. Biden’s speech was many things — cringy, pandering, clearly unrehearsed — but it was not racist, not by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet, as long as someone can benefit from claiming they believe otherwise, they will — and the rest of us have to go along with it.

This might be the worst part: that everyone, from the First Lady to the NAHJ to the media covering this ridiculous story have to keep pretending that it’s a real thing, that it really matters. Journalists have to dutifully publish the interviews with the offended parties, who in turn dutifully manage to keep saying “We are not tacos” with a straight face. Jill Biden has to dutifully apologise and thank her interlocutors for the opportunity to listen, learn, and do better. And ordinary liberals who want to remain such, in good standing, have to dutifully nod along as if the party weren’t on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own ridiculousness.

Meanwhile, the economy is imploding, no laws are being passed, our president’s approval rating is hovering around 30%, and those Latino voters who we claim to care about so much are fleeing in droves to the Republican party — where a candidate need not bother with endless racial sensitivity charades that cater solely to the sensibilities of an elite class of progressive activists. Donald Trump not only refused to celebrate diversity, unless you count tweeting a picture of himself on Cinco de Mayo — eating, of all things, a taco bowl — alongside the caption, I LOVE HISPANICS! He also vowed to build a wall to keep Mexicans  — who, he suggested, were mostly rapists — out of the country, a comment for which he refused to apologise. And yet, for a growing number of voters, even that is better than the cringe coming out of the Left.

And if things continue this way, that tweeting, taco-bowl eating orange ex-President will be re-elected in 2024 by a multi-racial coalition who care far more about the price of gas than they do about the culture wars. Melania Trump, who not only makes no apologies for her husband’s coarseness but really doesn’t care about immigrants will resume her position as the least-enthusiastic, and least seen, First Lady ever to set foot in the White House. But sure, let’s keep holding our politicians hostage to increasingly tortured purity tests. Let’s nitpick and police and snipe over etiquette until every last normal person in our orbit has fled. Let’s keep schooling the First Lady on the difference between a taco and a person. This will definitely end well.