Wokeism: The movement that dare not speak its name
Part two of Christopher Hitchens in the 2020s
The most successful political movements pretend they are not political movements at all. They want the public to believe their goals are not ideological but common sense and common decency, and who could possibly object to that?
Nowhere is the denial of the political more strenuously proclaimed than on the “woke left” – or, if you do not like the term, “the social justice left”. The confusion about names is symptomatic. Because the movement denies its existence, it can say that the right and, indeed, the far-right has conjured up wokeness as a phantom menace.
Widespread hilarity and relief therefore greeted the failure last week of a US conservative author called Bethany Mandel to explain what she meant when she used the term “woke,” while discussing her new book “Stolen Youth,” despite the fact that it accuses liberals of targeting children with “woke indoctrination.”
Mandel’s inability to define her terms supposedly proved that today’s liberal-left is no different from its predecessors.
The best retort I have read recently comes in a new book from the American writer Matt Johnson How Hitchens can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. Johnson offers more than an examination of Christopher Hitchens’s life and thought. His research takes him from the controversies about the Russian Revolution to today’s culture wars. No one reading it can deny that there has been a jolting cultural change in the US left over the past 10-15 years. I cannot see why progressives would deny it, unless they want to place their ideology beyond the normal bounds of debate.
Two ideas can be true simultaneously. A new and distinct “woke” ideology developed after 2010 in American academia, and boorish right-wingers use “woke” to mean “whatever I don’t like”.
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Here is my map of how the left-wing thought shifted and four reasons why the movement may have passed its peak.
The policing of dissent
It has never been true that only states with access to prisons and police officers censor. Employers and political and religious communities have always limited free thought. Writing in his preface to Animal Farm in 1945, George Orwell said that “the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark without the need for an official ban”.
He might have been talking of the 22 UK publishers who rejected Hannah Barnes’s careful and rigorously sourced expose of the scandal at the Tavistock gender reassignment clinic . The subject was too “sensitive,” they told her. Authors on their books and junior staff didn’t want it discussed. The British state wasn’t trying to silence Barnes. Publishing houses were attempting to enforce a quieter but no less effective form of censorship.
The web has intensified the power to censor since Orwell was writing. It can persuade you that debate is pointless. However conclusive the evidence on, say, the existence of climate change, you can always find cranks ready to deny it. Indeed, the ideological police on your side want to highlight the tweets of cranky opponents to show you that your enemies are dangerous fools.
The fragile belief that good arguments will triumph in the marketplace of ideas weakens with information overload.
And, of course, and notoriously, social media allows an ideological group to threaten heretics with ostracism, public shaming, and character assassination.
The aversion to open argument could well mean that the social justice movement will be incapable of adapting to changed circumstances.
The changing nature of fear
From the Ayatollah Khomeini’s order to assassinate Salman Rushdie in 1989 to the early 2010s, the darkest fear of publishers in free societies was not of punishments from western governments but of Islamist retaliation for “blasphemous” coverage. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten tested whether Islam was as open to satire as Christianity was by publishing cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad. Islamist groups and Arab dictators looking to divert their subject peoples, presided over protests in which dozens died – a death toll that emphatically answered Jyllands-Posten’s question for it.
When Hitchens discussed the violence on CNN, he was not in the least surprised that the station refused to show the cartoons. CNN was not censoring to spare the feelings conservative Muslims, he told the host, but “because you’re frightened of retaliation and intimidation”.
Astonishingly, the host agreed. I cannot overemphasise how rare it is to hear admissions of fear. Journalists, writers and artists of all kinds want to pose as truth-tellers. They do not admit that fear drives them to self-censor. The first and hardest task in fighting censorship is to admit that censorship exists, and they regularly fail it.
Instead of facing reality, the liberal media of 20-years ago accepted a justification from the regressive left.
In the 1990s/2000s, exposing an ultra-reactionary Islamist movement was “punching down,” it said. Satire or indeed sober secular critiques hurt the feelings of religious conservatives in the UK or US and inflamed racism. There was truth in this, the far right of the day did indeed begin to target Muslims above any other minority. But the regressive left of the time showed virtually no concern for the interests of secular people of Muslim heritage or of the victims of the theocracy in Iran and Afghanistan, whose oppressors were men with terrifying power. (Punching them could not plausibly be described as “punching down”.)
For all the cowardice and evasions, a pattern was set: liberal institutions would accept arguments for censorship that could plausibly be cast in leftish language.
Move forward to 2020. After printing numerous articles praising the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and calling for the police to be defunded, the New York Times provided an alternative view from the right-wing Senator Tom Cotton, who wanted to deploy the military to prevent rioting and looting.
The paper’s staff went wild. They claimed their editors were putting black staff in danger, and forced the comment editor to resign. His successor, Kathleen Kingsbury, then issued out one of the most abject statements in the history of the free press.
“If staff see any piece of Opinion journalism — including headlines or social posts or photos or you name it — that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.”
All good political writing will offend someone. Christopher Hitchens will live on as much on YouTube as in print, and it’s worth enjoying the marvellous moment in the video at the top of this post when he explained the heresy-hunter’s restless desire to find fresh targets to an opponent, who was arguing in favour of compromising with men who wanted to ban cartoons.
“When Dr Samuel Johnson had finished his great lexicography, the first real English dictionary, he was visited by various delegations of people to congratulate him including a delegation of London’s respectable womanhood who came to his parlour in Fleet Street and said ‘doctor we congratulate on your decision to exclude all indecent words from your dictionary’. And he said, ‘Ladies I congratulate you on your persistence in looking them up’.”
The fear that drove the New York Times to grant a veto to anyone determined to find offence was not a fear of an assassin planting a bomb in the office but of denunciation from “their side”. Kingsbury’s predecessor had lost his job because the New York Times had breached a new tenet of progressive philosophy that severely limited debate. Once liberals believed that speech should be free unless it was a direct incitement to crime: a demagogue whipping up a mob outside a mosque or synagogue, for instance.
In the 21st century, as the protesting New York Times journalists showed, “liberals” were willing to ban any statement or article that, however indirectly, might lead to violence or prejudice. There was a theoretical possibility that if the US army was deployed to quell riots, and if a racist soldier saw a black New York Times reporter, he might open fire. Fortunately, if unsurprisingly, nothing of the sort happened.
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Again, you can see the seeds of the woke movement’s passing. It has no argument against the right and far-right when it uses its power to censor and control as Ron DeSanits is doing in Florida today. As significantly, heresy hunting leads the left to devour its own. Radical feminists, who once demanded the banning of pornography, have learned the hard way in the Terf wars that the sanctions you want to inflict on others may one day be inflicted on you.
Class prejudice and cultural imperialism
The best side of wokeism is its determination to finally draw a line under slavery. The best way to view it is as a reformation of morals by the educated American bourgeoisie to ensure that racism is expunged from their country. And if the movement is occasionally priggish and authoritarian, what else do you expect in a nation founded by puritans?
The argument would stand up well if the movement were not indifferent to cultural and class differences.
The cultural power of America remains so dominant that many in the UK elite fail to understand their own country, and imagine that they can effortlessly transplant American ideologies. The National Health Service picked up the American woke acronym BIPOC - Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour - and offered special “BIPOC” support services to UK minorities, when the only indigenous people they could plausibly “reach out to” was the Welsh.
It stirs my patriotic heart to see UK politicians fall on their faces when they import culture-war politics from the US. Tory MPs and journalists tried to cancel Gary Lineker for criticizing the government’s asylum clampdown, and succeeded only in generating an enormous public backlash. A similar blowback helped knock Nicola Sturgeon out of politics after she took gender theory to its logical conclusion and tried to house a rapist who said he identified as a woman in a women’s prison.
The most relevant difference between the US and Europe is that the US never had a mass socialist party. Class matters more in Europe. The failure of American progressives to think about class is a great weakness. You see the ignorance manifested in their awkward academic language and insistence on coining neologisms that exclude working people, and in their willingness to drive workers from their jobs. Anyone brought up in a trade-union tradition instinctively defends workers against management. The woke movement will use the power of management to discipline and fire to secure its ends. The modern phenomenon of woke capitalism is not an oxymoron. It is the terminus of a movement that believes it can co-opt corporate power to enforce its values.
I can’t see the future and am not an American, but my best guess is that the next movement on the US left will react against the woke failure to take class seriously.
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