“Wokeness – An American Cultural Revolution?”


"The problem with wokeness is that it doesn't inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation - building a wall between you and the problem - not a solution." ~ David Brooks ~

It may seem hyperbolic and overly provocative to refer to the "wokeness" that has permeated our society as a cultural revolution; for it brings to mind China's Cultural Revolution that lasted ten years and caused, perhaps, twenty million lives. On the other hand, it may prove to be longer lasting but less deadly, more like the Romanticists of the 19th Century, who questioned the intellectual foundations of Enlightenment-derived, reason-based western culture. Like then, todays "woke" have abandoned liberalism and objective truth for narratives and stories based on the belief we live in a Marxian world of oppressors and oppressed.

Wokeness: noun, a state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality. (Definition provided by the Cambridge English Dictionary.) That definition sounds harmless. We should all be concerned about social problems, helping the needy, playing fair, being respectful and applying the Golden Rule. But wokeness steps across the line. It takes its ideology from "critical theory," a social philosophy that stems from Karl Marx and the 1930s Frankfurt School. Critical theory offers social justice in place of real justice. It challenges traditional power centers; though it does not permit challenges to its own structure. To be woke, in this sense, is to be awake to the concept that what matters is diversity of identities, not ideas - that, for example, all blacks, all gays, all women should express ideas based on identity, not individual thought. Individual opinions are seen as oppressive. Black conservatives are anomalous, in that it is claimed they support white oppression. (I suspect, however, if one asked Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell, Alveda King, Clarence Thomas, Candace Owens, Tim Scott or scores of other Black conservatives if that were true, the accusation would be denied.)

Wokeness divides people into victims and victimizers. Black failure, therefore, is due to "systemic" racism, not individual shortcomings. Qualities that lead to success, such as hard work and two-parent households, are said to be examples of a white-dominant culture, not universal truths. Wokeness is a philosophy of denial, in that it shuns individual accomplishments and failures. It is, in fact, a reactionary philosophy. Andrew Sullivan of The Weekly Dish recently described it: "liberalism [classical] can include critical theory as one view of the world worth interrogating. But critical theory cannot include liberalism, because it views liberalism as a mode of white supremacy that acts against the imperative of social and racial justice." Those who claim "wokeness" say their decisions are based on science, but when facts do not accord to prescribed narratives they are not open to disagreement or debate. For example, in the climate wars, they accuse opponents of ignoring science, yet it is they who shun debate. These same tactics have been resurrected during the current pandemic. "Unfettered dialogue isn't a liberal-arts luxury," wrote Vivek Ramaswamy in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal; "it is a necessity for science and democracy."

What we are witnessing, while discomfiting, is not new. As mentioned above, it has ancestral roots in 19th Century Romanticism, which was, in part, a backlash against the Enlightenment - against reason, in favor of mysticism and emotion. As well, in his autobiographical book, A Personal Odyssey, Thomas Sowell foresaw in 1969 what we see today: "Where there is little attention paid to reasoned arguments about legitimate problems and a total capitulation to force, 'moderate' or 'rational' leadership cannot deliver the results that more uninhibited leadership can deliver." What is new (and scary) is the rapidity with which corporate America, professional sports, Hollywood, the media, the entertainment industries, unions and politicians from both political parties, in a desire to be seen as woke, have jumped on board this illiberal bandwagon.

There is hypocrisy in this virtue signaling. Keep in mind, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors described herself as a "trained Marxist." In their statement of belief, they say they are "self-reflexive and do the work to dismantle cisgender privilege" and "disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure." Yet our lives have improved because of capitalism, and most of us who are white never realized that being cisgender or being raised in a traditional two-parent family was white privilege. Goldman Sachs, in refusing to take public any company that does not have at least one minority board member, sets itself as the sole arbiter as to who counts as diverse. Nike claims wokeness, yet they employ 600 or so Uighurs working in forced labor camps in China.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a first-rate intelligence "is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time." For example, slavery was a sin of American history, yet it is also true that the 13th Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, abolished "slavery and involuntary servitude." Over 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War to end slavery. Jim Crow laws ended with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. have been repealed for over fifty years. Public approval of interracial marriage rose from 5% in the 1950s to 80% in the 2000s. Mixed-race marriages were less than one percent of all marriages in 1960; today they represent over 15 percent. We may have further to go, but progress has been made. Being woke ignores such advances - that no matter historical facts, their claim is we remain a systemically racist nation. Being woke means not allowing opposing ideas. It is a pessimistic view of the future. In the same op-ed quoted in the rubric, David Brooks wrote: "...it's a blunt fact that most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat."

The most striking thing about "wokeness" is how illiberal it is. In its essence, it is Marxist. Like Black Lives Matter, it sets one group of people against another, and it tolerates the violence of Antifa. It requires followers to hew to a preordained narrative, spouting Orwellian truths. It subscribes to "cancel culture," removing from the historical record that which is not supportive of its aims. It provides the false security of "safe places" and denies politically incorrect speech, for fear that free speech might inspire the curiosity of the inquisitive. It arose in universities and now, within a frightening short time, is consuming our lives, in a bedlam of virtue signaling, letting science and universal truths sink into the abyss of a new dark age. Is this a true cultural revolution? Where will it lead us? Will democracy withstand it? How will it end?

Sydney Williams

August 9, 2020