"Woke Me When It's Over"
My recent article in Persuasion calling for a new ideological coalition of "liberals" from across the political spectrum brought me some interesting responses, particularly from readers I might not normally reach (which is why I wanted to publish it there).
One response was from a recovering leftist podcaster named Meghan Murphy, and you can hear our conversation here. I don't know much about Murphy, but it seems she was "canceled" for questioning the current transgender dogma, marking her as a "Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist," or TERF.
(I seem to be putting a lot of words in quotes today: "liberal," "canceled," "woke," etc. We live in an era of invented words for dubious concepts—and words, like "antiracist," that are used for the opposite of their real meaning.)
One of the questions that was clearly weighing on Murphy's mind, and I think on a lot of other people's minds, is: When will the madness of the "woke" orthodoxy recede? Is this just the permanent future, a new religion (as John McWhorter keeps arguing) that is just beginning its own thousand-year orthodoxy?
Let's just say I have my doubts about its longevity. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of the "woke" left and its racist "antiracist" orthodoxy is that so many people know that it's wrong and distorted and destructive, yet they don't seem able to figure out how to do anything about it. But that doesn't mean they are never going to figure it out. Eventually, the dam will break, as it does with every restrictive orthodoxy, and people will find their way out.
I certainly think it's going to be with us for a while, and I generally agree with the conclusion Bret Stephens gives in a recent column where he mentioned the latest Orwellian excess—and I mean "Orwellian" literally, because this story tears a page directly out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which our protagonist works at a job where he maintains the dogmas of the regime by falsifying all records of the past. Now this practice is being adopted by...a cooking magazine?
What Bon Appétit blithely calls its "Archive Repair Project" is, according to The Associated Press, an effort to scour "55 years' worth of recipes from a variety of Condé Nast magazines in search of objectionable titles, ingredient lists, and stories told through a white American lens."
This is Orwell as self-parody. Stephens concludes:
A friend of mine, a lifelong liberal whose patience is running thin with the new ethos of moral bullying, likes to joke, "Woke me when it's over." To which I say: Get comfortable.
So yes, this will not disappear easily or all on its own. But the fact that so many of us have friends and acquaintances from all across the spectrum who are sick of it—and in my experience, the ones who are still blowing it off as unimportant just haven't encountered it directly yet—indicates that there is a vast reserve of resentment ready to be mobilized into active resistance.
Let's take a look at some of the many ways in which "wokeness" is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
First, there is the fact that it is almost entirely an elite phenomenon: the dominant creed of a college-educated, upper-middle-class, politically engaged, and "extremely online" minority. That gives it a lot of influence over big institutions that are desperate not to anger this elite: universities, newspapers, big corporations, and the Democratic Party leadership. But below that, it has a lot less appeal and is actually driving people away
According to progressive pollster David Shor, it's time to face the facts: The cultural views of very highly-educated, very left-leaning white people are toxic for many nonwhite voters who would otherwise support the Democratic Party.
"I don't think a lot of people expected Donald Trump's GOP to have a much more diverse support base than Mitt Romney's did in 2012," Shor told New York magazine in a recent interview. "But that's what happened."
Shor pointed to two specific associations—socialism and the "defund the police" movement—that appear to have tarnished the Democratic Party in the eyes of minority voters.... "We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on," said Shor. "And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who'd been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites."
Donald Trump has not been a good spokesman for the anti-PC cause, because he so obviously validates the caricature they would like to paint about what their opposition looks like. Yet I have observed that for precisely this reason, he emboldened and unhinged the woke left—and it looks like this is going to backfire on them by mobilizing opposition among the very racial and ethnic groups for whom they claim to speak.
It is also backfiring on them in other ways. Charlie Sykes points out one of the persistent patterns of the woke dogma: It is harshest on its own adherents.
You probably missed this story from Madison, Wisconsin, because it's not really a big deal. But it's a weird tale about the various tripwires of performative wokeness. The story also exposes an under-appreciated aspect of the woke wars: the targets are not always retrograde conservatives. In woke precincts, it is actually far more likely that the targets will instead be other progressives who are insufficiently woke.
Here's what happened: Two members of the "Sustainable Madison Committee" resigned in a cloud of performative indignation after two of their colleagues made "clearly racist statements." The abhorrent comment? "God bless George Floyd."
The details of the story are insane and not terribly important, because none of this should be a surprise. Wokeness is, in its essence, a totalitarian ideology, and totalitarian systems always impose their rein of terror on the party apparatus first, usually with accusations of ideological nonconformity serving as a cover for internal power struggles.
All of this is to say that the woke reign of terror, by its nature, creates its own resistance.
Here's another example of that: a startling article by Bari Weiss about the woke takeover of elite private schools. Weiss makes it clear that this is driven by the woke takeover of the elite universities.
These schools are called prep schools because they prepare America's princelings to take their place in what we're told is our meritocracy. Nothing happens at a top prep school that is not a mirror of what happens at an elite college....
"The colleges want children—customers—that are going to be pre-aligned to certain ideologies that originally came out of those colleges," says a STEM teacher at one of New York's prestigious prep schools. "I call it woke-weaning. And that's the product schools like mine are offering."
But the most interesting part of this story is the underground parent networks that are forming in an attempt to resist the woke trend.
The dissidents use pseudonyms and turn off their videos when they meet for clandestine Zoom calls. They are usually coordinating soccer practices and carpools, but now they come together to strategize. They say that they could face profound repercussions if anyone knew they were talking....
They say that their children tell them they're afraid to speak up in class. Most of all, they worry that the school's new plan to become an "anti-racist institution"—unveiled this July, in a 20-page document—is making their kids fixate on race and attach importance to it in ways that strike them as grotesque....
The parents...say that for every one of them, there are many more, too afraid to speak up. "I've talked to at least five couples who say: I get it. I think the way you do. I just don't want the controversy right now," related one mother. They are all eager for their story to be told—but not a single one would let me use their name. They worry about losing their jobs or hurting their children if their opposition to this ideology were known.
As someone who spends a fair bit of time among this social strata in a left-leaning university town, I can tell you that this is absolutely true. I am particularly aware of this because, as someone who is very open and public about his views and finds a reasonably wide audience for them, I'm the guy fellow parents quietly pull aside to share their frustrations. I feel a little like Victor Laszlo, they guy who knows the name of everybody in all of the underground resistance cells. And the thing is that the people who run these organizations tend to have absolutely no clue that such an undercurrent of resentment even exists, because everybody is afraid to talk to them about it. Wokeness produces its own form of authoritarian blindness.
This is particularly true of schools. Arguing with strangers on the Internet is one thing, but people tend to want to avoid conflict and acrimony in areas close to their everyday life. Will they debate politics with their neighbors? Maybe. With their co-workers? These days, probably not. But the place people are most eager to avoid any kind of conflict, and the risk of getting a reputation as the bad guy, is in their kids' school. So that's where you tend to get the paradox of a "silent majority" that is afraid to confront a minority of zealots.
Does this remind you of anything? One of the most poignant lines from Bari Weiss's report is this: "One private school parent, born in a Communist nation, tells me: 'I came to this country escaping the very same fear of retaliation that now my own child feels.'" Yet this shows us the way out. Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe because of this same illusion of unanimity. Hardly anybody still supported the system, but everybody felt they had to fake enthusiastic support. That made Communism look totally invulnerable right up to the moment when the fear vanished and the whole thing fell apart overnight.
How does the fear vanish? Well, first you need some courageous dissidents who are willing to take the brunt of the outrage, suffer the consequences, and still survive—which will be far easier to do with wokism because it is not supported by an actual dictatorship—and this then emboldens others to resist.
I'm looking to the parents to do this, but over the longer term, I'm also going to be watching the kids. In the 20th Century, resistance to Communism was fueled in part by former Communists who became disillusioned and wrote exposés of the movement. In fact, the late 20th-Century conservative movement was formed in significant part by ex-Communists from the Red Decade of the 1930s.
As I told Meghan Murphy, I'm waiting for the inevitable confessions and inside stories from the ex-woke, from the kids raised and marinated in this new ideology who finally break their minds free and tear the lid off the whole thing.
In the meantime, this is going to be up to the adults, if we can find any.
Check out a crazy first-hand account from Donald McNeil, an award-winning lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic who got fired by the New York Times for the crime of talking like an adult to a bunch of spoiled woke kids from a prestigious private high school. Nothing could better sum up the insane priorities of our current moment. To heck with accurate coverage of the pandemic. McNeil had to go because Times staffers in the 20s were upset on Slack. (For those who have mercifully escaped it, Slack is basically Twitter for the workplace, which is as bad as it sounds.) And I am not exaggerating.
As I remember it, Dean [Baquet, executive editor of the Times] started off by saying, "Donald, you had a great year—you really owned the story of the pandemic...." As soon as I realized he was talking in the past tense, I became tense and started taking notes.
"Donald, I know you," he went on. "I know you're not a racist. We're going ahead with your Pulitzer. We're writing to the board telling them we looked into this two years ago."
"But Donald, you've lost the newsroom. People are hurt. People are saying they won't work with you because you didn't apologize."
So young writers at the New York Times, one of the most prestigious and sought-after positions in journalism, apparently feel sufficiently entitled to dictate to their executive editor what assignments they will or will not accept. That is a testament to the intoxicating power of wokism—and the cowardice of leaders like Baquet who won't stand up to it by saying the simple word, "No."
Similarly, another older, established journalist, Peter Savodnik, has written a blistering blog post describing the new creed as a "Möbius Strip of Hate."
The new radicals—the most vociferous of whom were rich children from big cities—were bound together by three animating forces: antiracism, anti-Semitism and opposition to any debate about the new radicalism, which was reflected in their hostility to free expression. These three threads were not arbitrary. They were woven together, and the one could not be disentangled from the others. They comprised a Möbius strip of hate.
Read the whole rant, but I particularly love his conclusion.
The olds, the people whose job was to make sure this inanity never came to pass, are useless. What is needed are new olds—new stodgy, crusty, cranky people imbued with wisdom and perspective, those who came before, those who are not good at Twitter, those who have no idea what it means to signal or "read the room," who will say what must be said, which is, "That's enough—that's not how we do things."
I am fully qualified for this job and hereby volunteer. More important, I am not the only one.
It is hard to judge the essence of an era when you are in the middle of it. Sometimes what seems to be the dominant trend of a particular time turns out, in retrospect, to be the wave of the past. I pointed out some time ago that the rejected artists in the Salon of the Refused turned out to be far more influential than the prize-winners of the official Salon. The 1930s were the Red Decade, but they were also the decade in which Ayn Rand started writing The Fountainhead (and it also saw the rise of the other two "founding mothers" of libertarianism, Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane). The 1960s are associated in the public mind with the hippies, but they also saw the beginning of the Objectivist movement and the start of a hugely creative period for the American right, in which most of the venerable institutions of today's right were either formed or expanded.
Forty or fifty years on, some of those institutions now look a little faded, both in ideology and in vitality and impact. But that should encourage us to see the current era as an opportunity to start new institutions—and that is just what is beginning to happen. I'll have more on this soon, but I want to point you just to one example. Helen Pluckrose, who has made a name for herself by analyzing the "critical theories" behind woke ideology has started a new organization called Counterweight that is specifically dedicated to helping people who are in danger of being "canceled" for showing intellectual independence. This includes "facilitat[ing] the formation of action groups within certain professions and help them develop their own networks to push back against [Critical Social Justice]."
It's a good idea being implemented by good people. Please consider giving them your support, and tell Helen I sent you. If there is a "silent majority" of the non-woke, then this is part of the effort to rally that majority in its own defense. And it will not be the only such effort.
This is why the woke creed won't last. Its very oppressiveness is already summoning into existence a powerful undercurrent of resistance.