This year marked the first time since 1993 that Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood failed to host its annual Taste of the Danforth weekend food festival. I like to grumble about Taste of the Danforth because I live in the area, and it always feels like half the 1.5-million attendees are circling my block in search of parking. But as soon as the 2020 instalment was canceled, I started to miss it. More importantly, so did the hundreds of restaurants that depend on the event for a mid-summer business boost. Bankruptcies have been rife up and down the Danforth, especially now that patio season is over. Behind many of the for-lease signs you now see are working-class families that sank everything they had, and then some, into these businesses. Now they have nothing.
In the category of small mercies, however, lies the fact that these restaurateurs will be spared a young Toronto Star journalist’s manifesto about the cultural appropriation on display. You see, relatively few Greeks still live in Greektown (which was mostly Italian in the 1950s, and an Anglo-Scottish-Irish enclave before that), as the sons and daughters of 1970s-era immigrants have migrated out to the suburbs. Most of my favourite Greek restaurants are staffed and run by Tamils, in fact. In the world that exists outside woke Twitter, no one cares about this. Nor do they care that the best sushi restaurant is run by Chinese immigrants, or that the two guys who heroically kept the local shawarma place open during every single day of the pandemic are South Asian. But of course, to a certain kind of perpetually aggrieved activist-cum-journalist, this is all delectable red meat, lined up for the skewer. I was never quite sure whether the Star’s eventual take on Taste of the Danforth would be “Greek Culture Appropriated by Interlopers,” or “Foodie Fascination Built on Emotional Labour of Cooks of Colour.” (“‘It was like a punch in the gut and a kick in the teeth,’ Costa/Prahan told The Star as a stray tear extinguished the Saganaki he’d lit aflame.”) Or maybe both. It doesn’t matter, just so long as my neighbours were made to understand that serving or eating food created by a person with the wrong kind of DNA marks them with the garlic and sesame stench of white supremacy.
The accusation rocketed around woke Twitter for a day until — surprise, surprise — the business was canceled
On Wednesday, a young Star journalist, we’ll call her Karen, tweeted out a long thread about “a white-owned trendy spot …selling bone broth across from golden turtle pho. also sexualizing ‘jerk’ sauce and pho hot sauce and making ‘superfood dumplings’ for profit? y’all im sick.” Karen, who also accused the white woman who owns the business of undermining Asians who “literally fight daily for legitimacy,” was tweeting from a private account, and it isn’t clear what race-metric benchmarks she was using to measure the owner’s blood quantum. But the accusation rocketed around woke Twitter for a day until — surprise, surprise — the business was canceled.
In a Thursday “update,” Karen (and to be clear, that’s not her name) spiked the football, triumphantly declaring that the white woman’s food kiosk is being canceled “immediately.” She also helpfully posted a note from the grovelling business owner who’d hosted the kiosk, expressing appreciation for being publicly humiliated: “We saw your tweet yesterday and have been working since to make these necessary changes…thank you for calling us into this conversation.”
We have all been through this type of culture-war battle many times over the last few years. The front lines are static, and it’s doubtful that I’ll be able to get anyone to switch sides. If you’re someone who, like Karen, truly believes that stripping food-service workers of their livelihood during a pandemic recession is justified by the need for ethnically purified dumplings and bone broth, I can’t help you.
But what I can do, I hope, is help the normies understand what is at play here. These battles are often described in left-versus-right terms. Jordan Peterson, in particular, has popularized the term “cultural Marxism” to describe the kind of cruel, ideologically driven cultism at play in Karen’s Twitter thread. But that term always confused me. Real Marxists stood up for the interests of workers against those of the privileged class. And Marx himself based his whole system of thought on the idea that those who work with their hands tend to get systematically shafted by the privileged cliques of capitalists and knowledge workers (as we now call them) who control societies. If the bearded grouch were around today, @TheActualKarlMarx would be tweeting out his fury that his brand was getting attached to hash-tagging dilettantes who brag about mobbing a bunch of food-service workers.
Real Marxists stood up for the interests of workers against those of the privileged class
I’m happy to report that there’s a real conversation about this phenomenon going on among leftists—by which I mean actual leftists, not NDP party leaders who tweet about #BLM from their #BMW. I particularly recommend a recently published essay titled “Art’s Moral Fetish,” by New York critic (and self-identified Marxist) Adam Lehrer, in which he notes that social-justice posturing has now basically become a bourgeois scam for avant-garde artists to hype their latest vernissage. As I wrote recently in Quillette, underpaid campus staff are also now starting to call out the snobbery and hypocrisy of those wealthy academic administrators and students who accuse janitors and cooks of racist microaggressions. Long before Marx railed against capitalism, the elites found ways to translate their material privilege into enhanced moral stature. Not so long ago, that meant buying your son a bishopric or putting your name on a hospital wing. Now, it means rolling out of bed, hopping on social media, finding some poor sod to denounce, all before getting your lunch delivered by the same sort of gig-economy prole whose life you just destroyed. The name for all this, of course, is social justice.
I do not pretend to be a member of the shawarma-serving, dumpling-delivering class (though I dedicated much of my early life to flipping burgers and delivering pizzas). I spend my days doing a lot of the same things Karen presumably does—writing, emailing, editing, zooming, podcasting, and generally kvetching about the world. Indeed, it would mystify a time traveler—let’s just stick with Marx for this thought experiment—to imagine that Karen and I are in opposite political tribes. We’re both extremely lucky people who have managed to keep our jobs while so many people around us are hustling desperately to stay one step ahead of homelessness.
It’s a free country, of course. And wokesters at the Star and elsewhere are at liberty to keep using their privilege to piss down on the working class all they like. But if they do, they might at least have the decency to stop pretending it has anything to do with progressive values. To quote a phrase, y’all making everyone sick.
Jonathan Kay is a regular contributor to National Post and Canadian editor of Quillette.