Woke and Anti-Woke
By design and through strict discipline, Symposium avoids discussion of electoral politics in favor of a discussion of ideas—but political results do occasionally add urgency to the ideological debate and help push it in one direction or another.
The elections three weeks ago in Virginia and elsewhere, for example, announced the arrival of anti-wokeness as a political force.
As I and others have argued, the result of the gubernatorial election in Virginia was partly a backlash against the left trying to push "woke" teaching and illiberal ideas into the curriculum of public schools. Yes, there were other compounding factors, such as lingering anger over the public schools' poor response to the pandemic, which left parents feeling that they and their children had been abandoned.
But it is at least widely believed that leftist indoctrination in the curriculum was part of the reason for the swing back toward Republicans, and this has supercharged the ideological contest, not just between the right and the woke left, but between the center-left and the woke left, and even within the anti-woke coalition.
As Yascha Mounk points out, many Democrats are making the damage to the party worse by trying to gaslight voters.
If cable-news analysts and newspaper columnists are to be believed, Youngkin, an extremist posing in the garb of a suburban dad, was able to incite “white backlash" by exploiting “fake" and “imaginary" fears about the teaching of “critical race theory" in public schools.
But this account does not help explain the inroads Youngkin seems to have made in blue suburbs, among political independents, and even among Black voters....
In some elementary and middle schools, students are now being asked to place themselves on a scale of privilege based on such attributes as their skin color. History lessons in some high schools teach that racism is not just a persistent reality but the defining feature of America. And some school systems have even embraced ideas that spread pernicious prejudices about nonwhite people, as when a presentation to principals of New York City public schools denounced virtues such as "perfectionism" or the "worship of the written word" as elements of "white-supremacy culture."
Effective opponents of these developments, such as Youngkin, explicitly acknowledge the importance of teaching students about the history of slavery and even the injustices that many minority groups continue to face today. They do not pretend that grade schoolers are reading academic articles. Instead, they focus the ire of many parents on curricular content that can fairly be described as popularized, less sophisticated cousins of critical race theory.
Mounk concludes: "It is impossible to win elections by telling voters that their concerns are imaginary."
Meanwhile, as if to underscore the point, immediately after the election, a New York Times article featured this description of proposed changes to the math curriculum in California.
The California guidelines, which are not binding, could overhaul the way many school districts approach math instruction. The draft rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, recommended against shifting certain students into accelerated courses in middle school and tried to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to calculus, like data science or statistics.
The draft also suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice—for example, by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to topics like immigration or inequality.
This is why we are seeing wokeness really arrive as a political issue. The general public will happily tune out most of what goes on in the culture war—until it comes home in their kids' homework.
People are increasingly going to encounter wokeness electorally for another reason. Elections are the point at which leaders ask for the consent of the governed—and that's one thing that the enforcers of wokeness never do.
Wokeness is by its nature authoritarian. Damon Linker recently offered some interesting thoughts on this.
How can it be that things considered perfectly fine in 2019 have become "problematic" just a year or two later? What is the process involved?...
As the article about changes on Broadway also notes, those choosing to make alterations to shows "are responding to pressure from artists emboldened by last year's protests, as well as a heated social media culture in which any form of criticism can easily be amplified." So...activists insist on the change, backed up by likeminded social media mobs. That's it? That's the authoritative, trustworthy process by which our common moral world purportedly "evolves" over time?...
It should be obvious that this isn't an especially small-d democratic process. It's one in which a single political faction uses a form of moral blackmail to seize control of the cultural reins and then deploys that (often sub-political) power to bring about a certain kind of social change.... Never mind that the members of this faction do not command majority support in public opinion, they were never elected to representative office of any kind, and they lack broad-based authority and legitimacy.
This is a strange kind of authoritarianism, because it doesn't exactly come from the top down. It comes from an amorphous mob, in a kind of technologically mediated anarcho-authoritarianism.
See an intriguing blog post which analyzes wokeness less as a specific ideology than as a system for pushing "updates" to the "rules of human decency" by way of social media platforms, creating "a crowdsourced guru-less pseudo religion." (Come to think of it, this also describes the QAnon phenomenon on the right.)
This system's lack of "small-d democratic" legitimacy, it's failure to seek or gain the consent of the governed, applies with special force to the woke mob's central claim, which is that they speak on behalf of oppressed people, particularly victims of racism. But they have never really asked those people for permission to represent them.
Jonathan Chait notes the result, which is that the more the Democratic Party moves toward the woke left, the more it loses actual black and Hispanic voters.
The grim irony is that, in attempting to court non-white voters, Democrats ended up turning them off. It was not only that they got the data wrong—they were also courting these "marginalized communities" in ways that didn't appeal to them. For the reality is that the Democratic Party's most moderate voters are disproportionately Latino and Black.
In 2020, even as Biden improved on Clinton's performance among white voters, Black support for Trump rose by three percentage points from four years before, and Latino support rose eight points. The California recall election and Virginia governor's race this year both showed at least some evidence that Latino voters are continuing to slip away from Democrats. The 2021 New York mayoral election was marked by heavily Asian American neighborhoods flipping Republican....
The split within the Democratic Party runs along educational lines. The party's college-educated cadre holds more liberal [sic] views and is increasingly estranged from its working-class counterparts. Those non-college-educated voters are disproportionately Latino and Black, but their worldview bears similarities to that of the white working-class voters who have left the party. The college-educated wing might have claimed power in the name of minority voters, but in reality it has started to drive them away.
So we have a situation in which the woke left screams about the anti-woke coalition being racists, even as the anti-woke coalition becomes increasingly multiracial.
Surely, though, wokeness will retain its appeal among its core "college-educated cadre." Or maybe not, considering how it's working out for them.
The College Democrats of America—the Democratic Party's national organization presiding over 500 chapters on campuses across the country—is in turmoil.
The group's leaders are publicly firing off accusations of anti-Blackness, Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism at each other. Impeachment proceedings are now in the works against the organization's new vice president, Nourhan Mesbah, who is Muslim. College Democrats say that screenshots of tweets that their peers sent in adolescence spread rapidly through group texts, which already caused a student running for president of the group to withdraw their candidacy in September. And national advocacy groups for Muslim and Jewish Americans are now weighing in with criticism....
In an interview with Politico, Mesbah said she had been "held to a double standard solely because of the way I look, the faith that I practice." As evidence of that, she also said a member of the college Democrats called her a "terrorist supporter" last spring because of her strong pro-Palestine views. She declined to name the person.
"Everything I say is torn to shreds," she said. "I can't just make a tweet about pop culture without it being ripped apart for underlying messages and hidden meanings."
Mesbah also complains about being criticized for a tweet she posted at the age of 13. Another College Democrat complains that a single tweet at age 15 "doesn't define me, my character, or invalidate the work that I continue to do."
Ah, but those aren't the rules, are they? Invalidating a person's work and defining their character based on a single misstatement is one of the hallmarks of the political culture of wokeness, as is searching every statement, no matter how seemingly innocuous, for "underlying messages and hidden meanings."
This last is most important. What the "woke" are supposed to be "awake" to is precisely such underlying messages and hidden meanings, the "structural racism" hidden behind everything and most particularly behind pop culture.
Every movement has its trouble with bitter internecine battles, but wokeness is distinguished by being an engine of internal conflict, promoting as it does a constant contest for which group is more "marginalized" and can therefore claim moral authority over others.
So what are the woke to do? Well, they can make themselves disappear.
Hence the recent drumbeat to reject "woke" as a label. John McWhorter describes the linguistic progression.
What was once a popular adjective among left-leaning social media cognoscenti as part of the colloquial admonition to "stay woke" to various forms of systemic racism first morphed into a general shorthand denoting today's left-leaning orthodoxy and then a slur that underscored the overweening, obsessive nature of said orthodoxy....
"Woke" has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase "politically correct," which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: "Politically correct," unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way.
What he is describing is the progress of wokeness along the Euphemism Treadmill. A faction adopts a laudatory, self-complimentary name for itself—"woke" implies being awakened and enlightened—but over time others begin to figure out that behind the positive name is a set of repellent ideas and behavior. So the new name eventually takes on all of the unpleasant associations it was attempting to escape.
Hence, McWhorter's proposal: "Progressives inclined to tar people for their perceived complicity in an assortment of injustices—for having insufficiently woke views—might temper their fervor." I don't think that's realistic, though, because the zealous intolerance with which the woke promote their ideology is inherent in the ideology itself.
Instead, what the woke are now doing is to abandon the term and to resist all attempts to define their ideology in terms that can be objectively assessed by outsiders. You have to remember the extreme power the woke outlook ascribes to words. If it is harder to name wokeness, they assume it will be harder to oppose it.
Maybe this is clever Fourth Dimensional Warfare. Or maybe it is an implicit admission of defeat.
The arrival of anti-wokeness as a popular cause, even as a movement, also creates a danger within the anti-woke coalition.
In a recent piece in Quillette, I describe this danger.
There is a basic rift on the "anti-woke" right that is increasingly coming out into the open. Some of us oppose the censorious conformism of the social-justice left because we are classical liberals who believe that freedom of speech and inquiry are critical to the functioning of a free society. Then there are those whose opposition rests on the belief that they should be the ones imposing limits on free inquiry in the name of traditional values. They don't want a free society, they want a virtuous society, in which their idea of virtue is promoted by government.
I wrote this in the context of a proposed alliance between "nationalists" and "anti-Marxist liberals" suggested by Yoram Hazony at a conference of nationalist conservatives. But the nationalists are committed enemies of liberalism, and the terms of the alliance, as Hazony describes it, include letting the nationalists impose an a country its (supposed) "majority religion."
During his speech at the recent conference, for example, journalist Josh Hammer denounced the classical liberal wing of the Right as "effete, limp, and unmasculine, because it removes from the political arena, and consigns to the 'private' sphere, the very value judgments and critical questions that most affect our humanity and our civilization."
Notice that the word "private" appears in skeptical quotation marks. Hammer goes on to denounce "the fundamentally and empirically false distinction between the 'private' and 'public' domains." Those of us old enough to remember when "wokeness" was called "political correctness" might also remember that it was justified with a declaration that "the personal is political." The nationalist conservatives have now embraced this slogan in pursuit of a quite different goal. In Hammer's words, that goal is "the defeat of cultural wokism and restoration of cultural sanity by partial means of the return of overt public religiosity—that is, the return of God to the public square."...
This is the context in which Hazony is offering his new deal to centrist liberals. The key concession he demands is this: "What we say to anti-Marxist liberals is where there is a large Christian majority in a country ... the public life of the country has to be Christian." To which, he added, "Above all else we've got to get God and scripture back in the schools." At the same conference, Rod Dreher—fresh from a residency with Viktor Orbán's regime in Hungary—proclaimed, "We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power."
This is, as the old saying goes, not a choice but an echo. It is a call to escape the orthodoxy of a new religion by replacing it with the orthodoxy of the old one.
Anti-wokeness has arrived as a political cause and a movement. But this imposes on us the responsibility to decide what we stand for, not just what we stand against.
It is not enough to tear down the ideology of wokeness. We need to build up the philosophy of liberalism.
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