NB: I began this Chronicle before the recent rioting in the Capital and the CCP-like reactions it has provoked in the woke community. I will leave this subject for a later Chronicle, remarking only in passing the ominous signs of convergence of the two “world-systems.”
As someone who lived through and even participated in the activities of the New Left during the 60s, when I was a member of SDS and its “senior” affiliate, the New University Conference (NUC), I am struck by the vast difference between that movement and “wokeness,” which, although it can hardly be called a movement in the traditional sense, has penetrated the society far more deeply than anything the New Left in its heyday would have dreamed possible.
Wokeness is the apotheosis of the victimary thinking that has been gradually gaining strength over the past thirty years or so, beginning before the end of the Cold War. It has now reached the point where the House of Representatives has voted to eliminate “father” and “mother” from its vocabulary.
Wokeness cannot easily be compared to any previous movement, either political or religious. Its mentality is as totalitarian as that of the Chinese Communist Party, and its ideas are disseminated ad nauseam on both social and mainstream media. People commonly speak of it as a “revolution” or the aggressive side of a “civil war.” Yet no one can identify its leadership. How many can even name the leaders of BLM? Let alone Antifa, which Democrats such as Biden get away with calling “an idea.” No one confronted by the Nazis or the Bolsheviks or the Chinese or Vietnamese communists would have had any trouble identifying not just a but the leader of these movements.
Those who are in fact identified as spokespersons for the movement are quite different from Lenin, Mao, or Fidel. AOC’s prominence reflects not only her youth but her unimposing physical presence and, dare I say, her cuteness; similarly, Bernie Sanders’ now-fading popularity was that of an eccentric old man. It is no small matter that not one person in the prime of life with an impressive physical and/or oratorical presence can be found among those in any way associated with woke leadership. Nor did the recent Democratic primaries bring forth a single powerful personality—on the contrary, Biden was seemingly deliberately chosen for his senescent mediocrity.
This is not meant to imply that the movement is unorganized. The activist groups do not lack management nor, what is surely of greater importance, “angels” who supply them with funds. The MSM never discuss such things, but all these people “demonstrating” day and night cannot live on nothing, nor supply themselves with hoods and black clothing and various kinds of weapons. The name of George Soros is often mentioned in this context, but he is not holding rallies, nor are the managers of the billion-dollar foundations and corporations that happily finance the activities of woke groups and enforce their moral precepts.
The woke movement’s lack of strong leaders or theoreticians—or to put it another way, the pathetic level of its “critical” theorizing and the undistinguished nature of its leadership—is less a weakness than a strength.
The movement’s acephalous state corresponds to the status of the human community that emerged from the hypothetical originary event, the very same originary egalitarianism to which previous revolutionary movements claimed to be seeking to return. Moral egalitarianism is identified with the “moral model” we all share intuitively, even if, in the Dark Ages before GA, we did not think to view it as a trace of the founding event of humanity.
No doubt the possibility of such a movement is logistically enabled by the existence of the Internet and social media. For the activism associated with the woke movement is not oriented toward spectacular events so much as toward creating a cultural atmosphere in which its values are enforced.
And it is particularly striking how little resistance it meets with. Although the movement is not just radically critical of many traditional values and customs, but demands major changes to them, in most cases its efforts have met with virtually no organized resistance. To mobs tearing down statues have responded scholarly commissions removing them. The Woodrow Wilson fellowship I received in 1960 will soon have another name. Although those who identify as woke are generally young, their elders offer little or no opposition to their efforts.
There remain, even on university campuses, conservatives who disagree with woke ideas. But all understand tacitly that, however new and shocking, not to say ill-founded, they may appear, it is a settled matter that it is disagreement with them that will be stigmatized rather than the reverse. If a new taboo appears, it is obeyed almost without question by the personnel of most “socially responsible” institutions; resistance is often met with reprisals, and almost never with reversal.
Woke behavior may appear coerced, yet there is no well-defined body exercising coercion. Its source is the principle, accepted without question, that “white” Western society is saturated with racism, the “privilege” of the white population over “people of color,” and the model for many other forms of ascriptive discrimination such as sexism, ableism, transphobia…
The Awokening has no need for charismatic leaders, for its failure to encounter organized resistance reflects a quasi-consensus predisposed in its favor. And the events that spark new accesses of fervor are not meetings and speeches but random incidents selected to demonstrate the saturation of the American soul by racism.
The George Floyd video, seen by millions, was near-unanimously accepted as proof of what most of its spectators were all too ready to believe: the persistence of murderous racism under the superficially race-neutral surface of American society and its forces of order.
Instead, had anyone dared publicize a video featuring a black assaulting a white, under any conceivable circumstances, the mainstream reaction would have been that this too was an egregious example of racism: the deliberate choice of an image designed to reinforce white supremacy and hatred of blacks.
The fact that the 2014 incident that gave BLM its start, that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, involved a black criminal rushing to attack the policeman who shot him in self-defense, as revealed at the trial by black witnesses in the neighborhood, had little or no effect either on the BLM organization or on the effectiveness of similar incidents. Conservatives such as Heather MacDonald who have pointed out not only that statistically such white-on-black police behavior was very rare, but that white criminals were more likely to be shot by police than blacks, have been ignored by all but their own limited audience. Even many conservatives have felt obliged not just to sympathize with George Floyd, but to condemn the officers in advance, describing their behavior as atrocious, horrific, murder…
This reaction, which can be triggered by any exemplary incident, is dependent on the implicit acceptance of an a priori ethical norm denouncing the US, and Western civilization in general, as inherently a system of racial oppression. If “white” nations are better off than others, it is not a mark of moral superiority but the reverse. Western hegemony is not just guilty of “excesses”; it is to be condemned en bloc—without, however, ceasing to enjoy its benefits.
What must be emphasized, as a prerequisite to the cynical exploitation of wokeness, is its undeniable moral power. The Awokening as a strategy for dealing with “white” firstness is experienced by most as a genuine revelation, a previously neglected self-evidence. It is as though the USA, and by extension the entire West, by the very fact of its evident historical superiority, not necessarily in native intelligence or talent, but in accomplishment, were wholly vulnerable to the accusation of “privilege.”
What is most striking of all about this anomalous ethical situation is that its anomalousness is virtually invisible. In the small, if I get the highest grade in the class, people will congratulate me, and I will have modest boasting rights. Yet because “my” civilization has contributed a disproportionate share to world welfare, it is stigmatized and its historical conduct condemned in principle as granting those like myself an unfair privilege. Merely stating the fact that Western culture has provided virtually all the components of the modern world is sure to be taken as an assertion of “white supremacy.” The West’s moral imperfections are weighed neither against its positive contributions nor against the crimes of other peoples; the mere fact of dominance suffices to condemn the entire enterprise.
Yet the key to wokeness’ triumph is that the Awokening is as if designed to allow us to enjoy the fruits of Western civilization, all the while vigorously denying its legitimacy. The important thing is to accept any opportunity to denounce our own and other “white privilege,” and above all never to defend it. In cases for which this opportunity is not given, we can afford to ignore it. Purchasing goods manufactured by, e.g., Chinese slave labor is no problem, for its connection with American merchandising is not publicized by the media.
Wokeness appeals to what might be called our moral subconscious, a set of values we “awaken” to as though they were always there but had been repressed. Which GA explains very simply as corresponding to the moral model that first emerged in the originary scene of human language.
The question, then, is not where the woke came from, but how had it been suppressed throughout history, save in isolated revolutionary outbreaks, and why it is only now capable of maintaining itself over a substantial period within a (still-) functioning social order.
If morality regulates the relations between humans independently of any context other than the fundamental one of originary reciprocity, it is ethics that apply as soon as the other aspects of the context cannot be bracketed as inessential. It is here that we encounter the problems of social privilege, or firstness, and the necessity of mediating between them and originary moral equality.
The ethical mediation between firstness and reciprocal morality had traditionally been the domain of religion. From an anthropological standpoint, bracketing claims of supernatural sources, the contents of the Bible and other reports of divine revelation can be understood as anthropological models. These models have traditionally served as foundational sources of ethical conduct, on the assumption that the human culture that has received a given revelation is worthy of perpetuation until such time as the divine will may decide to end it.
But although religious revelations may be compared, often favorably, with the speculations of anthropologists, they must be either witnessed or received; they cannot be imposed through rational argument.
The decline of religion in the West can be explained from many perspectives, but what appears to be the final blow is that given to it by digitization, and which is most simply explained as the impossibility, in a truly global world, of a single shared revelation. (The alternative in the global world to Western de-religioning is that chosen by Islam, which cannot rest until all humanity accepts its revelation. But although Islam might possibly blow up the world, it is most unlikely to convert it.)
The Internet has created willy-nilly a world culture and a world-wide conversation. The old term “PC” is rarely heard anymore, but it is a trace of the origin of the woke in what can be seen as an extension of the exigency of politeness. In a private conversation, one is averse to saying anything that might offend any member of the party.
But if the “party” is one attended by the entire population of the world…? At that point, it is no longer even necessary to say anything explicitly offensive to make some participants, as they say nowadays, “feel unsafe.” The mere unapologetic attendance of representatives of “white” Western civilization is a tacit offense to those peoples it formerly colonized or enslaved, and that, even today, it may dominate economically and politically.
What wokeness attacks is the implicit privileging, detected beneath the surface of ostensibly neutral criteria of behavior, of the demographic at the origin of Western civilization, in a word, of Whiteness. This is experienced as a violation of fundamental moral equality that trumps any ethical distinctions. Whence the urgent need to address this moral deficiency before considering other matters—such as the scandalous differences in income and wealth the digital revolution has generated.
Thus it becomes clear why virtually all of the wokeness revolution’s beneficiaries are glad to turn our attention from the material inequities formerly denounced by the Old Left to concentrate on that of “white privilege.” For this privilege can be presumed to be most egregiously flaunted, not by society’s enlightened elite, but by the benighted white middle class, clients of Olive Gardens and Holiday Inns (see https://townhall.com/tipsheet/leahbarkoukis/2021/01/08/anderson-cooper–olive-garden-n2582808 ), oblivious to, or even secretly proud of their participation in the shameful heritage of racism that our millionaires and billionaires have at least the grace to regretfully acknowledge.
The result of the Great Awokening is that, without any real self-consciousness as an organized movement, wokeness has gone forth from the campuses to become the effective social religion of the establishment.