Ben Stein, Wokeness, and The Conservative Mind

Mar 2, 2023 | 7 minutes read
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The Republican party is obsessed with wokeness; the woke mind virus has made us all trans, the military is too woke, but also, we’re so woke we don’t love the military enough. But unlike the chum the GOP normally throws out to rile up the base (“illegal” immigration, Christian values), it feels like Republican leadership actually believes this stuff–or has been replaced by true believers.

I’m less interested in dummies like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s views on wokeness–she’s been mainlining QAnon and Fox News for so long, there’s no coherent ideology there (beyond “I want to do whatever I want and crush my enemies into dust”). But someone like former Nixon speechwriter / game show host / actor Ben Stein making short form Internet content bitching and moaning about Aunt Jemima fascinates me.

Why is one of the last links to the Nixon era debasing himself like this? He can’t actually care about this… can he? How did the conservative mind become infected by the anti-woke mind virus?

I’d like to break this video down a bit to speculate why conservatives are so obsessed with wokeness, and what it says about their world view.

The first point of interest in this video is Stein’s attempt at humor. Looking directly into camera, Ben Stein sarcastically comments that Aunt Jemima was removed from the label because of “the inherent racism of America’s corporate culture.”

Conservatives like Ben Stein expect you to go along with this premise–it’s ridiculous to assume that corporations would be inherently racist. Corporations can’t be racist–they’re not even people (except when it’s convenient for them to be)!

Ben Stein would love for you–the squeamish liberal (or gun-toting Communist) reading this–to debate him on this point. He’d love to trot out his little book full of little facts about how corporations aren’t racist, and that the number of Black CEOs blah blah blah. That stuff is boring for anyone who’s even skimmed through Marx.

What’s much more interesting to me is how Stein’s shitty joke betrays his disinterest in the real question – who actually took away Aunt Jemima?

It wasn’t “the wokes”–they have no power here. No, the real decision was made by PepsiCo. They didn’t want their brand to be associated with discussion on racial stereotypes, and cynically, they wanted credit (in the form of positive press and increased sales) for the slightest nod toward anti-racism.

PepsiCo removed Aunt Jemima because what Aunt Jemima is was not important to them. Aunt Jemima was not a deceleration of values or some sacred tradition–it was a brand. If that brand helped sell syrup, great. But the moment the brand was tarnished, the second the brand alienated even a fraction of consumers, it was gone.

This is because corporations are not inherently racist–they are inherently amoral.

This is what conservatives like Ben Stein can’t understand about capitalism, about the very system they purport to be the greatest economic system in the history of the earth. Corporations don’t value conservative values, tradition, the nuclear family, whiteness, America… they don’t value anything. The only thing they believe in is making money. Their only desire is to subsume everything.

Now, there are some conservatives who don’t care about any of this. There are true-blue capitalists who just want to make a dollar however they can make a dollar. It doesn’t matter how harmful their product is to their consumers, their country, or even their planet–they are here to make money, and they will make money by any means necessary.

But I think conservatives like Ben Stein–the majority of conservatives–like to believe in something more. They believe in something they’d like to conserve, whereas capital believes in conserving nothing. It only believes in self-preservation.

I think conservatives like Ben Stein, rather than confront the nature of the system, feel betrayed by this. Corporations were supposed to be on our side! How dare they capitulate to the wokes! Why don’t they want to make America great again? Rather than confront the true horror of our lives–that we are under an system that believes in nothing beyond its own infinite growth–they lash out at an enemy that’s far more comprehensible manageable: the woke mind virus.

Moving on to the next line, which Stein says dripping with contempt: “they decided to make it a white person.”

Now, I agree with Ben Stein here. It would be ridiculous, in an attempt to appease anti-racists, to replace a Black female mascot with a white man. This would be a classic case of “two steps forward, one step back.” This would feel even a tiny bit racist–that the only way to please anti-racists is to substitute depictions of Black women with depictions of white men.

All of this would be ridiculous if it were true. Stein quickly realizes that there is no white man on the bottle, as he immediately looks at the bottle and adds, “or maybe no person at all.”

Now, I truly believe, in Ben Stein’s mind, he honestly believed there was a white man who replaced Aunt Jemima on the label. Why wouldn’t he believe it? It creates a wonderful narrative where the “wokes” and the liberals are the real racists and hypocrites, and the ideology (or lack thereof) of his precious corporations can remain unchallenged.

But now that Stein has gone the extra step of actually looking at the label, he’s faced with a new question. Does he really have a problem with the new, Aunt Jemima-less label?

If Ben Stein–and conservatives like him–were true-blue capitalists, the answer would be an immediate, obvious, “no.” Who the fuck would possibly care? Brands exist to entice customers to buy. If you can sell without the brand, and you can lower your costs by avoiding paying a slew of marketing consultants to come up with a new mascot, that’s a win.

But conservatives like Stein are too human. They look at the blank spot on the syrup bottle where the racist stereotype used to be with anxiety and fear. Losing something they once took for granted, however inconsequential, is a reminder that the world is constantly changing, and it is impossible to fight change, that nothing living can stay inert.

This is terrifying for conservatives, who fear change more than anyone. That is what it means to be conservative, after all–you are trying to conserve everything that wants to flourish and evolve. Nothing living can stay inert–no idea, no resource, no person, and no syrup mascot.

If you are afraid of change, what you really are afraid of is loss–loss of contentment, loss of meaning, loss of purpose, loss of ego, loss of self. You believe that which is lost cannot come back in a new form. You do not believe in the possibility of a better future. You do not believe that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but rather, we stand knee-deep in a pit of decaying giant corpses. You believe that matter and energy is destroyed forever, and when you look at your syrup bottle, you see your own death staring back at you.

When coming face to face with your own mortality, you have two options. Some people embrace the inevitable. They accept there must be an end, and vow to do something personally and spiritually fulfilling with their precious time. Others… well, they double down.

The most illuminating part of this thirty second video is Stein’s next line.

“I prefer,” Stein says, with one hundred percent sincerity, “when it was a Black person showcasing their incredible skill at making pancakes.”

To a normal person, this is comical. In what way did the mammy mascot show off her skill at making pancakes? But to a conservative, they believe this. And I think they believe this because they need to tell a story.

Conservatives are just as alienated by capitalism as the rest of us. As we already discussed, capitalism has no traditional conservative values. It swallows everything, constantly growing, constantly evolving.

So you either recognize this, get over your fear of your own death, and help build a better world… or you tell yourself a story. A story where the syrup mascot wasn’t offensive and wasn’t such a minuscule part of day-to-day life that no one rational would waste an ounce of energy mourning its absence, but a hero. Not just to Black women, who looked to Aunt Jemima to inspire them to become better chefs, nay, human beings… but to white conservatives. White conservatives, who, in their infinite grace, bestowed upon the Black community a role model, someone whom they could gaze lovingly upon and think, “someday, if I work real hard, I can cook pancakes just like Aunt Jemima.”

And now the fucking wokes want to take that away.