As previous Chronicles (e.g., nos. 35, 247, 344, 497) have made clear, I retain a certain sympathy for Francis Fukuyama’s thesis, first expressed in a famous article (“The End of History?” The National Interest, Summer 1989) composed just after the Western “victory” in the Cold War, that this demonstration of the superiority of Western civilization and its system of liberal-democratic governance as exemplified by the USA, including its mechanisms for self-modification, corresponded to Alexandre Kojève’s version of Hegel’s “end of history”—and that henceforth, no more effective sociopolitical structure was conceivable. However naïve I found the idea of an “end of history,” I tended to agree with Fukuyama that this victory showed that among presently conceivable social orders, Churchill’s “worst system with the exception of all the others” had no real competitors. And however poorly this system may have functioned over the thirty years that followed, the one thing that remains unchallenged is that Western-model societies remain the only really successful ones. These societies alone attract voluntary immigrants seeking a better life and offer the civilized a choice of habitation. Edward Snowden may well be Russia’s only recent voluntary immigrant.
The logic of Fukuyama’s position would imply that with this triumph, the epistemology of resentment, or victimary thinking, whose challenge had driven the evolution of Western society throughout the modern era, should lose its power. Yet this ideology of the Left, which had not ceased to gain power since the end of WWII, has only accelerated since 1989, in the face of an ominous decline in the West’s relative military power and above all in its internal self-confidence. Although no one denies that there is no nicer place to live, the rest of the world has been moving away rather than toward the Western model. Close to home, the countries of Latin America have persistently courted “socialism,” with disastrous consequences in Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, whereas liberal democracy has had few if any lasting successes.
Spreading from the USA throughout the West, Wokism is the latest and most extreme development of the epistemology of resentment, at the culmination of what Rudi Dutschke called the “long march [of revolution] through the institutions.” Assuming that we continue to cherish our liberal democratic system, how can GA help us to understand, and to persuade others, that this way of thinking, whose only real triumph was the 18th-century abolition of the Old Regime caste system that determined one’s place in society by birth, can no longer serve as a guide to social evolution, even when it seeks, as does Wokism, to leap beyond the abolition of economic classes to the imposition of “equity” among ascriptive racial and social groups?
The Woke argument differs from earlier modes of Leftist thinking in claiming that, even if we accept that economic inequality may be justified by the economic advantages it provides to the least fortunate, there can be no justification for, e.g., the incarceration of proportionally over twice as many blacks as whites. Nor can we avoid judging the “objective” scoring of the SAT and similar examinations, which favors whites (and Asians) over blacks, as other than an indirect discriminatory procedure, which must be corrected by means of “affirmative action”—in French, discrimination positive. For, given the races’ moral equality, the fact that blacks commit proportionally more crimes than whites must be blamed on defects in the social order rather than on the individuals involved; similarly, it is the responsibility of the society, not the parties themselves, to eliminate the racial disparity in aptitude measured by examination scores.
The beauty of these arguments from the standpoint not merely of the elite, but of all those who benefit from the market economy, is that they do not condemn economic/social inequality per se, merely its “inequitable” distribution among ascriptive groups. Relocated from economic class to the ascriptive domain, the opposition between privileged and unprivileged is assimilated to “inequity”: how, if “all men are created equal,” can we justify a privilege statistically attached to unchangeable qualities that are not related a priori to vocational ability?
The associated multiculturalist claim that “all cultures are equally valid” makes explicit the End of History vision that lies behind Wokism: in today’s post-colonial, post-Communist world, with the universal triumph of Western modernity, social evolution must be considered to have run its course. This being the case, any further developments must be strictly monitored to preserve and compensate as far as possible the less advanced cultures affected by them, albeit without attempting to restore their former domains.
Seen as the final triumph of the Western market system and its liberal-democratic political counterpart, in contrast to the radical transformation of the social order called for by previous revolutionary ideologies, the Woke demand of a combination of subjective repentance and “affirmative” compensation is arguably the least socially perturbing manner of reconciling liberal democracy’s guarantee of the individual “pursuit of happiness” with universal moral equality, which, even if we cannot strictly enforce it without sacrificing the advantages of modernity, we must nonetheless not cease to regard as our ideal. How otherwise could we claim that modern society, in its quest for material comforts, had not abandoned our sacred solidarity with our fellows? Wokism offers a compromise that lets us all profit from the advances of modernity while paying our spiritual dues to the principle of equality whose strict observance we have been forced to compromise. Whatever the causal justification of White Guilt, there is a rough justice in the balance between elite repentance and the justified resentment of the victimary classes and cultures.
Nonetheless, the principle of Wokeness reveals its dangers to the world social order in two domains where it extends the ideal of moral equality beyond the traditional ascriptive categories within a given national unit.
The more striking if less significant of the two is the seemingly anomalous attention currently devoted to what may be called auto-inscriptive sexuality—“gender-bending.” The Woke mentality insists not merely on tolerating what were formerly stigmatized as sexual deviations, but on granting them full normality from children’s first entry into the public sphere on entering school, in the face of parents’ traditional right to raise their offspring free of such external influences. It also seeks to impose as widely as possible such conditions as permitting “transwomen” with penises to compete in women’s sports and even to share their toilets and showers.
My impression is that these claims are a step too far and will soon be scaled back or withdrawn altogether. The changing mores of a society that today accepts homosexual relations and even marriage can most fairly be evaluated by the electoral—rather than the judicial—system. The democratic process is the only reasonable means of arriving at a consensus modifiable as our history progresses, and I have some confidence that “women with penises” will not long be free to share ladies’ rooms—nor to have the free run of women’s prisons; and I believe the same can be said for “drag-queen story hours” in kindergarten.
In contrast, the second extension of Wokeness truly threatens the West, and the entire world, with catastrophe. Whatever the ultimate truth about “climate change,” we cannot deny the essential futility, not to say hypocrisy, of the West’s search to prevent global warming by the exemplary turning-away from fossil fuels, and, in Germany, even from emission-free nuclear power. Thus Biden’s suspension on taking office of all new and pending fossil fuel projects—leading to his seeking fuel supplies in such places as Venezuela—placed fidelity to the long-term project of eliminating these fuels altogether above any considerations of Realpolitik. The mode of Wokism in which Earth/Gaia is treated, like the former “Third World,” as an exploited colony of Western civilization includes a naïve appeal to the non-Western powers to join with us in a one-world attempt to “save our planet”—even as a few of these powers are accelerating their unbridled use of all forms of energy in an effort to overturn the West’s long-resented hegemony.
If our turn toward repentance for the West’s civilizational superiority in the large and its residual injustices in the small may be praised for emphasizing the unity of global humanity, as forerunners of Wokism such as Barack Obama claimed to be doing, it is because this recalling of humanity’s originary distributional equality remains focused on establishing equilibrium among humans. But the insistence on defending Gaia from human depredations, although nominally aimed at improving the quality of human life for future generations, all too easily morphs into a crusade against humanity’s original sin against Nature, from which we can rid ourselves only by radically diminishing our “footprint”—while the resentful powers waiting in the wings feel no such compunctions.
Ominously, the current world situation appears to be moving in a similar direction to that which provoked WWII: Western liberal democracy, challenged by the Woke drive to post-colonial/Jim Crow self-flagellation, is defending itself ever less effectively from the current versions of Leninist authoritarianism. Once again we seem to be reaching the point at which the open marketplace of democratic politics may pose a greater obstacle to self-preservation than the rigor of despotism.
Thus I must insist, and I think we all must agree, that the bottom line of maintaining for the foreseeable future the postwar peace within which all nations may eventually reach prosperity requires maintaining the West’s and above all the USA’s military superiority over our potential enemies.
This demands of us the collective will to mobilize in defense of national security, and ultimately, the consent of our citizenry to put their lives on the line. As Joshua Mitchell pointed out in his July-August First Things article (see Chronicle 746), our military has shown as yet little sign of recognizing and preparing for the possible immanence of a major showdown. After three generations of postwar softness, it is no longer clear that the US, let alone the nations that have flourished under its security umbrella, are capable of mustering the necessary determination, in opposition to the powerful desire motivating Russia and China to avenge what both perceive as national humiliations, experienced by the first with the breakup of the USSR and by the second beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.
We must therefore conclude that the Woke insistence on inequity and atonement, whatever virtues it may have in maintaining our society’s internal equilibrium in the digital age, is clearly incompatible with the confident world leadership that alone can guarantee a lasting world peace and the promise of eventual global harmony.