Has the tide turned against Wokeness?
Some see green shoots. I see fields of weeds
‘Today, the tide has turned, we are destroying them.’ So spoke that great master of modern communication, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, better known in the west as Comical Ali or Baghdad Bob. Right to the end, as American tanks rolled past him, Saddam’s spokesman gave the impression that all was well, saying of the Coalition forces that, as ‘soon as they reach Baghdad gates, we will besiege them and slaughter them.’
I think of the heroic Iraqi PR wizard whenever conservatives or moderate liberals declare that the tide is turning against wokeness. Surely, they say in the DM groups where all Twitter conversations moved to years ago, the reaction has started: people will no longer tolerate a situation where rapists are put in women’s prisons, or a sex offender reads to children while dressed in drag.
There are certainly signs of a backlash. In the American Conservative Scott McConnell provides an excellent analysis of why the Great Awokening has come to a halt this year and even suggests that things may be reversing. He writes:
‘Wokeness may well advance to the point where many of its goals become as institutionalized and naturally accepted as the abolition of slavery. (Some of the woke elect left style themselves as abolitionists). More likely it will be rolled back, its practitioners and cultural preferences first widely mocked and then ignored, its victims rehabilitated and in some cases honored. November 2 marked the first hint of a real electoral pushback against wokeness; hopefully it will prove as pivotal as the battle of Midway.’
McConnell’s essay gets to the essence of what wokeness is, at its core the sacrilisation of blackness by white liberals, sometimes to a quite weird degree.
‘On one side it is given to displays of performative submissiveness. While fires from the George Floyd riots were still smoldering, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer led Democratic members of the House and Senate to the halls outside the congressional visitor’s gallery, where they donned kente cloth and knelt before the cameras; similar, if less striking, quasi-religious enactments continued throughout the summer. A few weeks later the New York Times announced it would henceforth capitalize black when it referred to race (white would remain lowercase) as its standard style, inevitably evoking the Bible’s capitalization of pronouns referring to the deity. Virtually every national news organization followed suit.
‘On the other side of wokeness is a kind of paternalism, which sees black Americans as people without much agency or control over their lives, defined by the past injuries of slavery and segregation and still burdened by chains of structural racism which are seldom specified but so pervasive that standards of achievement and conduct appropriate for other Americans must be suspended for them.’
McConnell believes the movement to be a paper tiger, and ‘when confronted directly, as wokeness has seldom been in the past seven years, its popularity and power prove less than meets the eye.’
The most obvious sign of a reaction is the recent parental revolt against Critical Race Theory and the subsequent election of a Republican governor in Virginia. The response, at least from some, was that CRT wasn’t even being taught and ‘that the whole issue was a racist “dog whistle” cooked up by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and others. This denial was echoed repeatedly by nearly every mainstream media outlet covering the election.’
If Critical Race Theory is an unpopular idea with the public, then it comes from a fine progressive tradition. Historically, socially liberal activists have had to slowly take the public with them, by disseminating ideas through the media and academy until they are accepted (by which point they are legal fait accompli). Before that the end goal is obscured, either because progressives themselves did not foresee it, or because they knew it would provoke a hostile response.
The arc of history doesn’t always bend their way, and not every part of the 1960s cultural revolution took off; many progressive ideas about teaching had been abandoned by the mid-1990s, because so many parents had done everything possible to avoid the schools that followed them. In the US, at least, the practice of lighter sentencing had also come to be reversed within a generation, following an explosion in crime.
But the fact that wokeness is very unpopular doesn’t mean that it won’t win. The Civil Rights movement was not widely liked at the time, nor was Martin Luther King, who a generation later was the closest thing America had to be a patron saint. Richard Nixon famously won in 1968, yet the year is correctly seen as the start of a new era in which his kind are viewed in the same way as vicious pagans are in Christian history.
Christopher Caldwell wrote in The Age of Entitlement that ‘For all their pious sentiments about desegregating the South, whites opposed every single activist step that might have brought de- segregation about, and every single activist who was working to do so. In 1961, they thought, by a margin of 57 to 28 percent, that the black students staging sit-ins at North Carolina lunch counters and the “Freedom Riders” occupying segregated buses between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans “hurt” rather than “helped” the cause of civil rights. In 1964, on the eve of the Civil Rights Act, only 16 percent of Americans said that mass demonstrations had helped the cause of racial equality — versus 74 percent who said they had hurt it. Sixty percent even disapproved of the March on Washington, at least in the days leading up to it, while only 23 percent approved.’ A poll from 1964 found that ‘37 percent of whites less sympathetic to blacks than they had been a year before, with only 15 percent more sympathetic.
Similarly, the sort of feminist ideas that are now almost unquestioned were then the preserve of a tiny minority. ‘In October 1971, it asked women how often they felt that “being a woman has prevented me from doing some of the things I had hoped to do in life.” Only 7 percent said “frequently”; 12 percent said “occasionally”; 79 percent said “hardly ever.” As for what women thought of feminists, the results were chastening. Twenty-two percent respected the journalist Gloria Steinem, versus 4 percent who did not. But 65 percent had never heard of her. Sixty-three percent had never heard of the author Germaine Greer, and 64 percent had never heard of the theorist Kate Millett. For most women, the “problem that has no name” was not a problem.’
But deeply unpopular ideas, if supported by a small but impassioned minority with an outsized voice, can become popular, mainstream and eventually orthodoxy.
The same thing was true of the late 1980s, when the cultural revolution went through its second burst of energy, a movement known as ‘political correctness’. Again, this was unpopular, Caldwell citing a poll showing that, by a margin of 59 to 24 percent, Americans thought it a bad thing.
‘In early press accounts, the enforcers of P.C. appeared as hate-filled and totalitarian,’ he wrote: ‘They reminded the Berkeley philosopher John Searle, who covered various campus battles for the New York Review of Books, of Nazis. “The objective of converting the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation” he wrote, “. . . is the very opposite of higher education. It is characteristic of the major totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century—leftist and rightist.” The correspondent for New York magazine called P.C. “more frightening than the old McCarthyism” and likened it to apartheid. Others brought up the Spanish Inquisition.’
One newspaper declared that ‘the tide is turning’ against PC, while another headline declared that ‘Trendy Movement Is on Its Last Legs’.
But it wasn’t. People stopped talking about ‘political correctness’ not because it went away, but because it succeeded. The language and attitudes it promoted are, a generation later, accepted across the spectrum.
Political correctness was many things, but chiefly it was both a form of political politeness and also a means of using social sanctions – ostracism or the threat or unemployment – to silence dissenting opinions. In academia it meant the enforcement of ideological purity, and with it came a huge decline in dissenting, conservative voices from the 1990s onward, something that only became apparent when the Great Awokening was in full flow.
But PC was also the noisy background music, and more extreme element, of a wider cultural change, the 1990s seeing a huge shift in attitudes, perhaps bigger than the 60s. In 1987, 74 percent of British people had said that same-sex relationships ‘were always or mostly wrong’; by 2016 only 16 percent believed this. In 1983, ‘only 41 percent thought it was right for a homosexual to teach in a school’ and just over half for one ‘to hold a responsible position in public life’ which by 2012 were 83 and 90 percent respectively.
Most of us would think that change in attitudes a good thing, just as many conservatives are quite happy with the politeness element of PC. We just think that the cultural changes brought about from the 60s through to the 90s came with huge costs, too.
Maybe, then, wokeness will follow the same trajectory. Maybe it will, but the main difference is that wokeness, being the third great wave of progressivism, is a movement of diminishing marginal returns.
If the first wave was aimed at removing segregation and giving women career opportunities, and the second was about real equality for gay men and women, and making casual racism socially unacceptable, what is the Great Awokening aimed at? Its two main goals, equality of outcome between races and the effective abolition of sex differences as categories, face insurmountable obstacles. The former comes straight from a western utopian tradition that has always, without exception, ended in hatred, failure and violence; the latter is an idea obviously unscientific and absurd, and only backed by the threat of ostracism, unemployment and sometimes violence.
Wokeness might seem silly to non-believers, both on the surface level and under deeper analysis, with all of its ideas stemming from the blank slate. But ideas can remain in power for a long time if they are backed by taboos, and the fear of breaking them.
And it’s not just a matter of cultural norms; one reason the Woke revolution probably won’t be reversed is that, as Caldwell makes as his central argument, it is the law. The concept of equality of outcome – which is the essential core desire of Wokeness – is already enshrined in US law and has been for decades. Wokeness has much revolutionary fervour but what its proponents are demanding is that society does more of it what it already does, and that societal norms – anti-racism in particular – are enforced harder. The first wave of progressives were fighting against the man, while the second, PC-era cohort were in a still-contested cultural arena, but the zealots of the Great Awokening are protesting for what are already established norms. As Scott Alexander once put it, they’re not dissidents shouting ‘Down with Stalin!’ They’re demanding: ‘We need two Stalins! No, 50 Stalins!’
In part that explains the anger and frustration of young activists, who feel disappointed that, after five decades of progressive dominance in most areas of American and British life, their goals have not been completely achieved. Because they can’t be in an imperfect world.
Will there be a Great Deawokening? Conservative backlashes tend to come as a response to violence, one reason why the middle-aged Bill Clintons of this world were more successful in the 1990s than in their adolescence. The fear of assault or murder triggers peoples’ basic conservative instincts.
The approved folk memory of the Civil Rights era is a of a struggle in which racial justice overcomes bigotry; it’s the A Bronx Tale version of events. But for many Americans, especially working-class residents of northern cities, their overriding experience was a terrifying and unprecedented rise in violent crime; New York’s homicide rate trebled in the 1960s, as did Chicago’s. Millions fled, millions more voted for Nixon and ‘liberal’ became a dirty word in the States in a way it never was in Britain.
The progressivism of the 90s, in contrast, went hand in hand with a Democratic president overseeing a huge expansion in the prison system, during a period when American inner cities became liveable again, populated by a new generation of hipsters whose comfort and quality of life was paid for with by an enormous level of black incarceration.
Considering the historical precedent, last year’s murder surge may well see a reaction, since no amount of media obfuscation can disguise the fact that it was clearly linked to the George Floyd protests.
Wokeness is also largely a white thing, and as McConnell observes, the increasing proportion of Asians and Hispanics in American life may help it become less relevant. Perhaps that is true, but then perhaps also that is what gives wokeness its prestige, which is why ambitious young Asian-Americans are becoming woke as they integrate into the higher echelons of society. PC 2 might be largely disliked by the population at large, but it has also become a status symbol, and the benefit of a political opinion becoming a class indicator is that it is at least open to all. The big downside is that, since it’s all a competition, highly-ambitious upper-class Americans will continue to push the ideology to further extremes. For now at least, I think it’s safe say that the tide has not turned quite yet.