How Not to Fight Wokism
Five Things You Need to Read Today
Check out a fun podcast I did with Lou Perez . (You may remember Lou as "Gary" from a comedy video he did that went viral a few years back.) I talk with Lou about defending the classics, which includes a brief sample of my riff on Shakespeare in regional American accents.—RWT
1. Individual Immunity
The speed with which the COVID-19 pandemic is winding down is really remarkable. We went from a very high peak in January and February—a massive third wave much bigger than the first two—to cases and deaths falling to levels not seen since the early weeks of the pandemic.
The United States of America did not cover itself in glory during the early stages of the pandemic, but over the past few months our vaccination efforts have roared to life and made a very dramatic difference, nearly ending the pandemic here while many other nations lag behind.
Naturally, my commentary on the pandemic will be winding down, except for a few retrospectives, but I wanted to pass along some confirmation of what I expected. It's not that the pandemic will be completely over, but that it will move onto two tracks. It will be over for the half or so of Americans who are vaccinated, while limping along at a reduced level for the "vaccine hesitant." But we may never quite reach "herd immunity."
Reaching the herd immunity threshold doesn't guarantee that people cannot be infected by a pathogen. But the closer a community gets, the more transmission slows down, which benefits everyone. The current rate of new Covid-19 cases in the United States right now shows this phenomenon in action. Forty percent of the US population is fully vaccinated, and the number of new cases of Covid-19 reported each day is now one-tenth of what it was at the pandemic's apex in January....
Still, countries with high rates of vaccination like the United States may be able to move past many of the restrictions of pandemic life before reaching that goal. The seasonal flu, a virus that has a lower fatality rate but is also highly transmissible, offers a good example of how this works: Most years the flu does not become a disastrous epidemic, even though vaccination rates aren't sufficient to get to the threshold and even though the efficacy of flu vaccines varies from year to year....
Even with adequate vaccine supply, the United States as a whole may never reach the herd immunity threshold—because of vaccine hesitancy, inequities in health care access, and coronavirus variants. But rather than fretting about this, Americans should stay focused on the bigger picture: Every person vaccinated is one who is very unlikely to get infected and spread the virus to friends and family.
In other words, herd immunity matters a whole lot less now that you can acquire individual immunity. This is also a surprisingly frank admission that the pandemic is moving into two tiers, that "some communities will likely reach the herd immunity threshold," meaning that well-off, educated people—like the readers of this article in the New York Times—will be OK. But the vaccine-hesitant rubes out in Trump country will still be at some risk. Which will be their choice.
There is one respect in which the vaccinated still have a stake in driving down infections, particularly globally.
Even in communities with high levels of immunity, new variants can infect people who are not vaccinated, whose immunity is waning or whose immune systems did not respond adequately to the vaccine. The approved vaccines appear to protect against the main variants of concern, but future adaptations of the virus could evade this immunity. That's why it is so important to vaccinate as much of the world's population as possible, as quickly as possible.
This should continue as a global public health operation of the kind the US has conducted many times in the past. But that puts it back more in the category of "normal life" and ends the emergency conditions of the pandemic.
2. Mugged by Reality
One of the reasons I tend to be optimistic about the fate of the world, despite it being a big part of my job to catalogue all the crises as they go by, is the fact that they do go by. Crises tend to peak and then fade and then get better. I've seen it happen enough times now that it's not just a vague hope. It's a certainty. It's not a matter of whether it will happen, it's just a question of how long it will take.
Consider the race riots and the "De-Fund the Police" campaign of last summer. The anti-police measures championed by the left have led to the predictable result of a mini-surge in crime.
My favorite example is what happened when San Francisco decided not to prosecute shoplifters and the result was—big surprise here—a whole lot of shoplifting that is causing chains to simply remove their stores from the city.
But we're already beginning to pass into the phase we went through during the much larger crime wave of the 1970s: the point at which earnest leftists get mugged by reality. (Back then, they often got literally mugged.)
So we see the Washington Post finally acknowledging that the whole "Defund the Police" agenda has been a disaster, particularly in uber-woke Portland, and particularly for the black residents in whose name it was adopted.
"The nightly confrontations with police and federal agents deployed here by President Donald Trump have been replaced by a kind of generational hopelessness, a tenuous sense of security across an under-policed city and a return to an old-school style of gun violence reminiscent of a tit-for-tat cycle of deadly reprisals, almost always among young men of color. Through April, the police reported 348 shootings, more than double those recorded over the first four months of last year....
"[S]mall groups of self-described anarchists overwhelm[ed] the year-old push for police reform and social justice.
"From the assessments of the white mayor, Ted Wheeler, and the nblack police chief, Chuck Lovell, this smaller faction comprises mostly white, middle-class students and others, who have made places such as churches, public libraries, small black-owned businesses, and a Boys & Girls Club the confounding targets of their vandalism....
"The rising gun violence, and for a time the downtown demonstrations, have stressed the police department and put it largely on its back foot, as a response unit rather than a force with resources to prevent crime. As one measure, police response time to emergency calls has more than doubled over the past eight years, to more than 40 minutes of wait-time before a call is even fielded by emergency dispatchers.
"'Police are bailing,' Henning said. 'We are losing our best, most experienced officers left and right."...
"The chief's goal to reestablish a larger uniformed presence on Portland's streets and in its most dangerous neighborhoods appears to be supported by many residents, who just a year ago were very much opposed to the city's police practices."
By the way, the Post not only capitalizes the "b" in "black" but also capitalizes the "w" in "white," which just gives me the willies, so I'm editing that out for my readers' benefit.
Notice also how much of this article you might recognize. The "Antifa" groups that were once likened to GIs storming the beaches at Normandy are now described as "anarchists" who are undermining the cause of "social justice." They are also being recognized as middle-class white kids LARPing as revolutionaries at the expense of people who actually live in black neighborhoods. Police also now regarded as essential to maintain order, and it is also recognized that black neighborhoods have more to gain from the police because they are more likely to be torn apart by runaway crime.
In other words, here we see creeping into the mainstream everything that critics of Antifa and the Black Lives Matter movement were saying last year.
That's what happens when people get mugged by reality.
3. How Not to Fight Wokism
David French has spent a whole career advocating for toleration and freedom of speech as a protection for conservatives and for Christians facing the hostility of conformist institutions. In other words, he has done more to drive back censorious Political Correctness than 99% of the people complaining about it today. That he has become a target for many of those people tells us a lot about their real goals.
French describes how this applies to two massively self-defeating attacks on wokism, which sweep away freedom as a goal and replace it with the pursuit of power.
"One of the incredibly bizarre developments of this dysfunctional modern time is the extent to which a faction of the Republican Party is now rejecting the crown achievements of the conservative legal movement. Increasingly, the GOP is looking at remarkable legal advances in the fight against speech codes, against government regulation of corporate speech, and against government-mandated viewpoint discrimination—and declaring that it prefers power over liberty....
"The most prominent recent example is Florida governor Ron DeSantis's decision to sign a bill enhancing state control over social media moderation....
Taken together, the bill's provisions compel private corporations to host (and also promote through application of their algorithms) speech they would otherwise reject. Not only do these provisions of state law conflict with a federal statute—the famous Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—they violate key First Amendment precedents that grant private citizens broad protections against compelled speech, protect the independent political speech of private corporations, and protect all Americans against vague and overbroad statutes....
"[T]he ongoing alarm over 'Critical Race Theory' is resulting in state legislatures proposing and passing sweeping laws designed to sharply regulate teacher and professor speech.... Note the drafting problem here. Ask yourself—what is the line between teaching about concepts that are vital to understanding American history and culture (such as, for example, the ideology that defined the Confederacy or the various conflicting streams of thought in contemporary racial discourse) and the prohibition against making those concepts 'part of a course'?
"Moreover, a number of states are considering applying these laws beyond public primary and secondary schools to include public colleges and universities. Applying such statutes to public university professors would not only flatly violate existing precedent, their very existence would cut directly against the longstanding conservative and libertarian legal effort to protect conservative, Christian, and libertarian public university professors from censorship and retaliation against their own countercultural viewpoints."
This is the warning French has been sounding for some time. If conservatives are now demanding more government power over speech, they are deluding themselves if they think they are going to be the ones to wield that power. In effect, rather than fighting the woke brigades' attacks on the speech of dissenters, they are giving wokism even more tools and precedents to use against us.
The only good news, French points out, is that one of the Trump era's biggest achievements was the appointment of conservatives judges who mostly came from the same classical liberal tradition as David French. They might end up being the ones to thwart the illiberal agenda of the Trumpist conservative movement.
"Last December I wrote in Time magazine how the conservative legal movement—the network of elite conservative lawyers and judges centered around the Federalist Society—had saved the election (and perhaps even the republic) from Trump's GOP.... It looks like the conservative legal movement may well be called upon again—this time to save the First Amendment from a fearful, grievance-obsessed party that seems intent on becoming what it once opposed."
So if this is how not to fight against wokism, is there something we can do that is more appropriate and effective?
4. How to Fight Wokism
My frustration with the anti-woke politics of the Trump-era right is not just that its substance is bad, but that in the final analysis, there is no substance, just symbolism. Sure, they'll pass a law, but it's a law so blatantly unconstitutional that it will almost certainly be struck down, as French points out, by the very same judges these politicians have spent the past four decades appointing to the courts.
That's what makes this the perfect issue for a politicians. They can complain about it endlessly, claim that they tried to do something but some bad guys somewhere else got in their way, and milk the problem for political points forever because it will never be solved. You know, sort of like how Democrats use inner-city poverty.
That's what drew my attention to an interesting analysis of the problem by Richard Hanania, who quotes a revealing anecdote from conservative scholar Ramesh Ponnuru
"I did this interview with Senator Cotton and it had been set up as a thing on cancel culture, which is fine, and great, and there's a lot of interesting stuff to say about it. But I did say, I did ask,'So OK, if this is like this huge problem in America, what are you as the Senator going to do about it?' And he didn't have much of an answer to that.
"And I'm not sure that there really is much of an answer, other than, well, I'm just going to keep saying what I'm saying."
Hanania is agog.
"You have a liberal pundit asking a conservative pundit whether those on his side have any plans or ideas regarding how to deal with the animating issue in their party. The conservative pundit responds 'no, we really don't have any ideas, and when I asked a Republican senator whether he actually knew what to do, he admitted that he really doesn't. And it makes sense because his voters don't really care either but want someone to say the right words.'"
That pretty much sums it up.
Partly the Republican emptiness on this issue is because this is a cultural problem rather than a political problem, so it calls for a cultural solution rather than a political solution. That's why, when it is made into a political issue, it tends to just become an excuse for empty posturing.
But Hanania goes on to point to one very specific way in which political decisions made long ago, largely by default, prepared the environment that gave the contemporary woke orthodoxy its power. He points to the perversion of the Civil Rights Act to mobilize government power, not just against actual racial discrimination, but against anything judged to have a "disparate impact," including ideas.
"The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on race and gender. While most at the time thought this would simply remove explicit discrimination, and many of the proponents of the bill made that promise, courts and regulators expanded the concept of "non-discrimination" to mean almost anything that advantages one group over another. An important watershed was the decision in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), in which the Supreme Court ruled that intelligence tests, because they were not shown to be directly related to job performance, could not be used in hiring since blacks scored lower on them, and it did not matter whether there was any intent to discriminate. People act as if 'standardized tests are racist if they show disparities' is some kind of new idea, but it's basically been the law in the United States for 50 years, albeit inconsistently enforced....
"Government interpretation of the Civil Rights Act also invented the concept of the 'hostile work environment.' UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has written about how this has been used to restrict free speech."
But it isn't just the ideological precedents these government policies established. Vast bureaucracies were built up around those doctrines, particularly within large private institutions.
"The rise of HR departments can be directly traced to the federal government's race and gender policies, which involve direct control of the federal bureaucracy, the 'carrot' of government contracts, and the 'sticks' of EEOC enforcement and lawsuit threats....
"As Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin wrote in Inventing Equal Opportunity, it was civil rights law that revolutionized the American workplace. Corporations started to hire full time staff in order to keep track of government mandates, which were vague and could change at any moment. There was a sense of 'keeping up with the Joneses,' in which every company and institution had to be more anti-racist and anti-sexist than the next one, leading to more and more absurd diversity trainings and other programs....
"While fewer than 30% of organizations had an HR office in 1955, by 1985 that number had grown to 70%. Although no organization in the study had an Equal Employment or Affirmative Action Office/r in 1967, 40% did in 1985. Later, the terminology shifted away from 'affirmative action' to 'diversity and inclusion,' but the ideas are largely the same....
"The 'Great Awokening' has been traced to the early 2010s. Since there was no major law passed at the time that coincided with the shift, people have tended to see wokeness as purely cultural. Yet by the time of the Great Awokening, the federal government had been enforcing an extreme form of anti-discrimination law for two generations. Young people have never lived in a world in which every major institution that they interacted with was not assigning them oppressor or victim status and making decisions on that basis."
So the guys who are going to fire you for daring to question the latest nonsensical "antiracism" corporate training have the power to do so because government policy summoned them into existence.
Hanania points out that most of these perversions of civil rights law were imposed by executive order and could be lifted by executive order or by legislative action, and he decries the "learned helplessness" of conservatives like Senator Cotton—and the actual, practical indifference of the Trump Administration.
"Trump could've literally signed an EO at any time in his presidency to end affirmative action within the federal government and among all government contractors, not just the most absurd form of 'anti-racism training' that exists (ironically, during the 2016 primaries Jeb! bragged about ending affirmative action by EO while governor of Florida, though he was hated by the most strident anti-wokes in his party)."
Ah, but this would imply that opposition to Political Correctness was the actual animating force behind Trumpism, rather than just a pretext.
5. Proving the Taliban Right
America's biggest weakness in foreign policy and military affairs is a short attention span.
Civilian control of the military means that politicians respond to public opinion, and American public opinion about events in the rest of the world tends to be very consistent: "Can we think about something else, please?" We would rather obsess over our own domestic dramas, real and invented, and hope that the rest of the world will just go away and not bother us. Which it never does, over the long term.
Under the best of circumstances, public neglect of foreign policy allows a handful of serious-minded political leaders and professionals in the federal bureaucracy to pursue a long-term policy unmolested, so long as they don't cost anyone too much money all at once.
We are not currently living in the best of circumstances. We are dealing with our third president who would rather that the rest of the world go away and is dogmatically committed to winding down any overseas engagement. Barack Obama did it because he was raised on blame-America-first leftism; Donald Trump did it because he admires foreign authoritarians and because he was educated in America-first mercantilism; Joe Biden is doing it because his party has thoroughly adopted blame-America-first, and as their leader, he must follow.
Historically, though, we know that if America can maintain a policy over decades, it can achieve astonishing results, as in our Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. And when we take the easy way out and retreat, a superpower's weakness is an invitation to much greater troubles.
Take just recent history. A few months ago, leaked transcripts of a discussion with Iran's foreign minister revealed just how badly they were hit by even a small show of American strength, our assassination of Iranian terrorist kingpin Qassem Suleimani.
On the other hand, our announced withdrawal from Afghanistan is already leading to the pre-emptive surrender of local forces to the Taliban. We are proving right Osama bin Laden's confident prediction that the US cannot maintain a long-term strategy.
As Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware argue, this will embolden not just bin Laden's successors, but also the would-be "great power" rivals who are capable of causing us far more harm.
"America's withdrawal from Afghanistan should be cause for rejoicing. But conditions in the country today, and the historical record of past US withdrawals from similar conflicts, suggest that it will only create more problems. By leaving, Washington is vindicating an aphorism attributed to a captured Taliban fighter over a decade ago: 'You have the watches. We have the time.'
"Proving the Taliban wrong is not a politically unaffordable extravagance. It merely requires retaining a couple of thousand elite special operations, intelligence, and support personnel in Afghanistan. Otherwise, the risk is that this will be the fourth time in as many decades that a US military withdrawal encourages terrorists by showing the weakness of US resolve. When America left Beirut in 1983, Mogadishu a decade later, and Iraq in 2011, the result was more terrorism, not less....
"The second risk is that withdrawal from Afghanistan will weaken, rather than strengthen, Washington against peer competitors. The United States, rightly or wrongly, is shifting from prioritizing counter-terrorism toward a great-power competition posture. But thinking of the two as zero sum is a mistake.... Every military setback—whether in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan—illuminates a path by which great-power adversaries see they can defeat the United States. It is no coincidence that Russia has provided support to the Taliban, likely aiming to help sap America's energy and spirit and encourage America's withdrawal from the region."
The essential thing to understand here is that the continued cost of engagement in Afghanistan is not material, not significantly. As Hoffman and Ware explain, "a responsible strategy need not involve gratuitously exposing troops to harm. In fact, the last American combat fatality in Afghanistan was more than a year ago. The current troop level there, approximately 3,500 personnel, accounts for 0.27 percent of America's active duty forces—hardly a drain on the resources of even a declining superpower. "
No, the real drain is psychological and epistemological—the excruciating and unbearable effort, for the pragmatic politician's mind, of thinking about something the public doesn't want to think about.