The Anti-Woke Vote
Top Stories of the Year: #4
I've been counting down the top stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2021 and reviewing and extending my coverage of them.
At #4 is the backlash against "wokeness." In the past few years, this has shown up as a trend among the intellectuals—that's what I put at #3 in last year's countdown. This year, it began to show up as a successful political cause—and as a way for politicians to win elections.
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A Brief History of the Culture War
We're far enough into the current iteration of the culture wars—about seven years, by my count—that it's worth stepping back for a little overview of its stages.
The culture war goes back a long time, and in fact the culture will always be at war over something. But there is a distinctive modern iteration that thirty years ago we called "political correctness." That earlier culture faded into the background for a while, only to come roaring back in 2014, the year I became one of its reluctantly draftees. There were two triggers for this new culture war.
The first was Ta-Nehisi Coates's semi-incoherent argument for "black reparations"—that's reparations, not for slavery, but for every real or imagined incident of racism ever directed against black people. But as I noted at the time, "It's not so much the article itself, but a reception for it that is so rapturous it borders on orgasmic."
The most interesting thing about Coates is that as of about 2017 or 2018 he has totally disappeared on this issue, as if he knew that nothing he ever did afterward could possibly live up to the hype. A blog post about his disappearance describes the old Coates frenzy accurately.
"The kind of critical acclaim Coates had received before he left The Atlantic was very strange. The fervor of a lot of Coates fans—most prominently, white liberals—suggested that his writing achieved something superhuman, something akin to levitating or seeing the future....
"In educated white liberal circles, reading Coates and, more importantly, sharing his texts and talking about Coates, is the premier badge of commitment to antiracism. As Lozada puts it, '"Did you read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates piece?" is shorthand for "Have you absorbed and shared the latest and best and correct thinking on racism, white privilege, institutional violence, and structural inequality?"' Coates is conspicuous consumption for identitarian liberals, a kind of currency that shows investment in the fight against racial oppression."
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because this is the racket now run by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. I have to say that I respect Coates for stepping back from this. Perhaps for him it wasn't just a racket.
The second inflection point in 2014 was the strange case of the comet shirt guy, a British scientist who was pilloried by an online mob and reduced to a tearful apology for wearing a shirt that was suddenly and randomly deemed offensive. (It was also about this time that we all started hearing the word "woke.")
I noted recently that what stands out about 2014 is the strong feminist angle, which would persist up through the #MeToo movement. That started out with legitimate complaints about predatory sexual behavior by powerful men, which was tolerated even though "everybody knew"—a phrase that kept popping up in these cases. But the overreach was inevitable, and by 2018, #MeToo charged off to find new offenses in the "grey areas" of human life.
Yet looking back now, what strikes me most is how much feminism and the concerns of women have been sidelined and subordinated, particular under the rubric of subordinating women's concerns to the demands of transgender activists. As I observed recently, "It may seem ironic that our woke moment began with denouncing a War on Women and ended by waging one. But it is not a contradiction at all when you realize that the essence of wokeness is constant tribal conflict, and it's only a matter of which tribe has clawed its way to the top of the 'intersectional' hierarchy at the moment."
In retrospect, the feminists reached their peak at the top of the hierarchy in 2018. Since then, race took over as the top issue, heralded by the advent—and at this time of year, the religious connotation of "advent" seems appropriate—of the 1619 Project. As I argued at the time, most people didn't quite realize that this was the 1619 Project's specific purpose: to create a kind of racial-ethnic hierarchy in which African-Americans are at the top, not just relative to white people, but relative to all other minorities. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) is not just an acronym. It's a pecking order.
This was all made not just official but ubiquitous by 2020's signature slogan, "Black Lives Matter," coupled with furious attacks on anyone who said, "All Lives Matter."
This came out of the intensification of a culture of ideological conformity on college campuses, which spilled over to apply to everyone. As I observed last year, by 2020 this was prompting a backlash against wokeness, not among hidebound conservatives, but among left-leaning intellectuals.
In one of the products of that backlash, a new publication called Persuasion, I noted the irony of mainstream center-left types finally experiencing what many non-conformist intellectual have been dealing with for decades.
When was the first time you were called a Nazi for saying something ordinary and reasonable? Nazis are the one universally accepted symbol of evil in our culture, so you tend to remember it. For me, it happened in 1987, when I was a college freshman advocating free markets (which, for the record, the Nazis were not in favor of)....
So when I see center-left liberals worrying that the culture has a problem with political intolerance, I think: Welcome to our world.
To be sure, mainstream concerns about censorious wokeness, or what we used to call political correctness, have been bubbling below the surface for a long time. But for many on the center-left, this did not become a personal crisis, and therefore did not seem such a high priority, until the last year or two—when the crocodiles decided to eat them next.
I then proposed more conversation between classical liberals from the right and old-fashioned liberals from the center-left—or rather, to stop thinking in terms of left versus right and start thinking in terms of "liberal" versus "illiberal." That's a project I have been encouraging this year in my own new publication, Symposium. (Among many things I have published there is Helen Pluckrose's clear and readable overview of exactly what "wokeness" is.)
This history sets the context for where we are in the culture war now, and the ways in which the anti-woke backlash is building.
And Then They Came for the Tiki Bars
One of the things driving this backlash is the sheer insanity of the ever-evolving woke orthodoxy.
I try not to get too caught up in this. As I wrote in August:
I have decided not to cover every little outrage of wokeness as it happens, because at some point it gets old.
It would probably be good for my career if I did so. There is a good living to be made from continually having your hair on fire about the issue that one side of the political debate has decided is currently the big issue, and to butter your bread with the Outrage of the Day. But I got my hair on fire about this all the way back in 2014, and at some point it becomes repetitive and no longer intellectually engaging.
Then again, this was the way I cleared my throat before offering some "Scenes from a Moral Panic." It's also important to recognize that while many of us may want to move on to something more intellectually interesting, for the average person, this still seems like one crazy thing after another, from Jeopardy Jerks hyperventilating about the imaginary secret significance of the "OK" gesture, to the latest: a crusade against Tiki bars.
"[A]midst all this supposed fun, there have been lingering questions about the genre. For example, is the whimsical use of Pacific Island terminology and iconography—particularly religious imagery like tiki carvings and moai, Easter Island statues—in these establishments sufficiently respectful of actual Polynesian cultures? And does this lighthearted take on Oceania inappropriately gloss over the more uncomfortable aspects of the region's history and modern-day reality?...
"In the wake of the George Floyd police murder and renewed calls for addressing past and present racial injustices, tiki venues have come under increased scrutiny, with some people arguing that the format may be irredeemably flawed....
"According to Eater, criticism of tiki as a genre with 'racist and colonialist baggage' by Berry and others at the annual Chicago Style cocktail conference..., led to the cancellation of the event. 'The myth making of tiki...is white supremacy at the expense of Polynesian and Pacific Islander traditions,' Berry told the website."
(What makes this particular article worth reading is that the author interviews actual Polynesian-Americans, not just a handful of woke activists, and gets much more nuanced and tolerant reactions.)
I'll say this for the woke—they sure know how to sweat the small stuff. But precisely for that reason, it is a system so cloying and puritanical that soon people are desperate to voice their defiance of it.
The Anti-Woke Vote
Voters got their opportunity to do this in November in Virginia's off-year governor's election, and that shows us where push really comes to shove.
What really provoked a broad electoral backlash is that the culture war came for our kids. It filtered down from college campuses into high schools and then into elementary schools, and parents had enough of it.
I saw this building as early as March, when I described "a vast reserve of resentment ready to be mobilized into active resistance." That included several elements that turned out to be harbingers of the future, from a Democratic political analyst warning that wokism is dragging the party down, to rebellions among parents of students at prestigious private schools.
I tracked this throughout the year, particular the spread of the rebellion to include parents of minority students in the public schools, and broadsides against wokeness by prominent black intellectuals.
Combined with lingering resentment against public schools for extended closures as they failed to adapt to the requirements of the pandemic, all of this boiled over at the ballot box. This potential had been masked in 2020 by independent voters' rejection of Donald Trump. But what happened when he was not on the ballot?
There is one big lesson we can take away from Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin's upset victory in Virginia's election for governor: If you give people a clear opportunity to vote against 'wokeness,' they will....
[T]here was a specific trigger in Virginia, a particular moment at which public opinion moved against Terry McAuliffe and moved strongly. In a September 28 debate, he proclaimed, 'I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.'... McAuliffe's gaffe seemed to sum up the attitude of arrogant officialdom....
On top of that base of general dissatisfaction was piled the increasing political indoctrination in schools, driven by the Great Awokening that has taken over elite cultural institutions. Consider a couple of vignettes from one reporter's conversations with voters leaving the polls.
"As you probably know by now, Youngkin's message that 'parents should have a say' in schools resonated with a ton of voters.
"'I kind of like the old style of school,' one stepdad of school students said. 'I still believe in the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance & God.'
"A Latina mom who plans on sending her 4-year-old to private school to avoid public school education about race, which she believes motivates bullying: 'Parents don't really have a choice.... They are adding new things to history that children her age don't really need to know.'
"A black dad who's homeschooling two of his kids said his older son recently brought home an assignment on Abraham Lincoln that troubled him, though he couldn't say why. 'I'd like to not vote for the guy who said it's not the parents' responsibility to take care of their kids.'"...
You can go through a lot of trouble to deny this is happening, to describe this issue as totally invented, and that's what many Democrats are now doing. But you're not going to fool anyone.
I also noted that "politicians love nothing better than a successful formula they can imitate," so we already see Georgia Governor Brian Kemp running for re-election on it: "With Stacey Abrams in control, Georgia would have shut down, students would have been barred from their classrooms, and woke politics would be the law of the land and the lesson plan in our schools."
To be sure, there was more at stake in November than just the schools.
In New York City, Eric Adams won the Democratic primary, and then the general election, in part by promising not to eliminate the gifted and talented programs, and generally by not signing on to woke priorities of the left. In particular, as a former police officer, Adams was definitely not the candidate of Defund the Police.
Defund the Police was actually put on the ballot in a referendum in Minneapolis, epicenter of the George Floyd case. It was voted down, as were candidates across the country who were associated with the Defund the Police cause. In Seattle, for example, an election for city attorney decisively defeated a Defund the Police candidate who "wanted to reimagine the City Attorney's Office and how it prosecutes offenders," which is code for not putting criminals in jail.
The most substantive loss this year for wokeness is the collapse of the "Defund the Police" movement as today's liberals, like the liberals of old, get mugged by reality (and possibly just mugged). The latest news on that is a new law-and-order crackdown announced by San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
Noah Smith, a left-of-center commentator who swings between being refreshingly heterodox and annoyingly orthodox, recently pointed to the case of Hispanic voters, who are trending to the right because they embrace the American Dream, which the woke left has rejected. Smith also points out that pretty much everybody except the woke still loves the American flag.
As I just pointed out a few days ago in Symposium, "Opposition to left-wing wokeness is becoming, not just a successful political cause, but a bandwagon. That's cause for a certain amount of celebration, but also for caution, because where there's a bandwagon, there are bandwagon-jumpers. Some of them are going to try to take the energy and momentum of a broadly appealing anti-woke coalition and try to divert it for much narrower purposes of their own—or break it all to pieces."
That's the introduction to a warning against a kind of anti-wokeness mission creep in which nationalist conservatives try to take over the cause to impose their own form of political correctness.
If the problem with wokeness is specifically that it quashes debate—that it delegitimizes all dissent—then the way to oppose it is to advocate for open debate, with many different viewpoints being heard. But if wokeness is just a catchall for any ideas held by supporters of a rival party or faction, then the way to oppose it is to oppose any expression of your opponents' ideas.
This is another story I've been tracking throughout the year. In March, I worried that "the real future of the post-Trump GOP" could be "heralded by a young Republican representative named Madison Cawthorne, who told his colleagues, 'I have built my staff around comms [communicatons] rather than legislation.' In other words, the legacy of the Trump era for Republicans is that they don't care about policy any more, just publicity."
I also amplified David French's warnings about the right's legal and legislative efforts against 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."
Particularly revealing here is the how the right has turned against corporate free speech, in tandem with, and as a consequence of, their growing hostility toward capitalism.
But the weirdest and funniest example of this is a Catholic writer's case for "Klingon Integralism."
We're used to bad, tendentious attempts to appropriate the Star Trek franchise on behalf of the "woke" left. Now the theocratic right wants us to hold their beers while they have a go at it. The result, published in a Jesuit magazine, has to be read to be believed.
"The future imagined by Star Trek, which starts the second half of its current 'Discovery' season this Sunday, is post-religion at its core.... The Federation's ethos is controlled economic abundance married to unbridled individualism—and, being Americans, we tend to think that these are the good guys....
"On the other hand, there is a large polity in the Star Trek canon in which technological modernity is more integrated with religious and moral traditions, in which the individual is considered a valuable and meaningful component of a larger community from birth until death and in which there is a internal order and robust relations that bind individuals together. I refer of course to the Klingon Empire.
"The Klingons are governed by a council composed of hereditary community leaders and distinguished citizens, ruling under the auspices of an emperor who derives his power from religious mandate and is subject to the social obligations that mandate imposes....
"If Star Trek wishes to cater to the religious viewer, the writers might dwell on Klingon integralism and its viability as an alternative to the atomism and oppressive freedom of the Federation."
This isn't even good Treklore, because if you wanted to explore a positive portrayal of religion in the franchise, you'd have to start with the Bajorans.
At any rate, I concluded that this is a reminder "that the anti-woke right are, in many cases, most definitely not our allies." That's a story we should be watching for in the next year, because as the backlash against wokeness grows, so will the gap between those who oppose it in the name of freedom and those who oppose it in the name of a rival religious authoritarianism.
This is just a sampling of my coverage of this issue over the last year. I had to leave out much more than I included. Suffice to say that subscriber had a lot of information and analysis that would have helped them anticipate and understand important events as they developed. Make sure you have that advantage next year by subscribing or renewing. Also consider sharing this with someone you value by giving a gift subscription.