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There Is No Good Wokeness

David Brooks's sanguine views on wokeness are badly misguided
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My pal David Brooks is a sunny, cheerful guy, but I think his natural optimism, and his personal politics, blind him to the seriousness of the crisis we face. His column today responds to an earlier response of mine to something he previously wrote, in which I said that he (David) was too optimistic. Specifically, David had written that he doesn’t get why conservatives are so pessimistic. I answered by explaining why, from my point of view.

Now he has responded back. I’m going to respond again — and by the way, I hate that we live in a culture where I have to say this, but David and I are friends, and we’re doing what friends do sometimes: disagreeing. This is normal. He felt the need to signal at the top of his column today that we’re friends. I appreciate that, but I regret that we live in a culture where people like him and me understand that that’s necessary. This is a conversation between friends.

Anyway, from David’s piece today:

I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.

The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.

But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts.

David, who is an acute observer of the rites and norms of the social elite, points out that there is a reason the fiercest controversies over wokeness are happening within elite institutions, like fancy coastal prep schools: because this is a battle among elites for status and power. He points out that the ridiculous CIA recruiting ad featuring the self-described cisgender intersectional Latina was really a way to signal to the best and brightest that they are still desired employees at CIA. David believes that the machinery of American success will co-opt and water down wokeness. More:

Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.

The economist and cultural observer Tyler Cowen expects wokeness in this sense won’t disappear. Writing for Bloomberg last week, he predicted it would become something more like the Unitarian Church — “broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment.”

This would be fine with me. As I say, there are (at least) two elements to wokeness. One focuses on concrete benefits for the disadvantaged — reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies. The other instigates savage word wars among the highly advantaged. If we can have more of the former and less of the latter, we’ll all be better off.

Read the whole Brooks column. 

As I see it, the core of our disagreement is over the effects of having a leadership class radicalized by wokeness. David thinks it’s not all bad, but it will fade in time. I think it is entirely bad, and that even if it fades — I’ve got my doubts — the damage it does in the process is going to be immense. Let me explain.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a white, Ivy-educated American journalist working on a story about the postliberal Right. She was trying to understand where people like me come from. As we talked about wokeness, she agreed (for the sake of argument, at least; I don’t know if this is what she really believes, or if she was just trying to draw me out) that there are excesses, but that these excesses come from an attempt to address real problems (e.g., racial inequality), and are more or less excusable on those grounds.

I pushed back strongly on this. I argued that this amounts to excusing and even legitimizing real injustice through moral abstraction. It is not wrong to look at the disparities in achievement among racial groups, and to want to do something to improve matters for black people. But it is wrong to treat others unjustly for the sake of meeting an abstract ideal of racial justice. Ibram Kendi, the neoracist guru who has elites worshiping at his feet, has the crackpot Marxist idea that justice (“equity”) requires a proportional outcome. In order to achieve this, the theory goes, people who are not part of a favored minority group must be discriminated against, on the grounds that their better qualifications are somehow tainted by privilege.

This is not an abstract issue to me. In 1997, I applied for a film critic’s job at the newspaper in Austin, Texas. I was engaged to marry a woman who lived in Austin, and wanted to move there to start our married life. The section editor to whom I had been talking raved about my writing, and indicated that my hiring was a mere formality. Until he stopped communicating with me. I persisted in trying to figure out what I had done wrong. I discovered that the publisher of the newspaper had sent down an edict that the paper needed to bypass me, a white male, and search instead for a woman or a person of color.

None of my writing mattered to this white man, the publisher. I was nothing more than a bearer of skin color and the male sex. I phoned him personally, and offered to pay my own way to Austin, and asked for five minutes with him. He said that he might be willing to have coffee, but that I shouldn’t think that this was in any way a job interview. I didn’t go.

Months went by. One day, I received a phone call from the section editor. He was cheerful. He said that the national search for a woman or person of color had turned up no one whose work was as good as mine, so the paper would like to bring me in for an interview. In one of those turns that felt like a movie, I received that call while standing outside the New York Post building in midtown Manhattan. The Post had just offered me a job as their chief film critic, and I had accepted. I wanted to tell the section editor to kiss my you know what, but he was a good guy who had always wanted to hire me, but had been overruled by the enlightened liberal above him. I can’t say for sure, but I doubt the white Baby Boomer male liberal who discriminated against me in hiring resigned from his job so a woman or person of color could have it. But that’s how it goes with our progressive elites: they administer a system that makes less privileged people pay for their own sense of moral righteousness.

Things worked out well for me professionally, but what if they hadn’t? What if the Post had not offered me that job? I’m grateful for the way things went, ultimately, but I still feel the humiliation of being told that no matter how hard I had worked to improve my writing, and no matter how hard my parents, who were both born into rural poverty, worked to make sure I studied hard, and valued hard work and achievement, none of it mattered because of my race and my sex. It was wicked to do that to racial minorities and to women in the past, and it’s wrong to do it now to whites and males.

There is no way to reach perfect justice in this world. Even in the purest meritocracy, there will always be some power-holder somewhere who gives a leg up to his college roommate’s dopey son. But we are better off striving toward a world that sees people as individuals, not abstractions, and judges them on the quality of their work and the content of their character. It is not a social injustice that the NBA is disproportionately dominated by black men. If the telos of a basketball team is to win games, then hiring players solely on the basis of their capacity for excellence is the highest form of justice. But then, nobody who cares about NBA teams tolerates losing games. The idea of “equity” applied to the NBA would be a pathetic joke. As a society, we are more serious about sports than anything else — even winning wars, as the US military is now being co-opted by the language and the concepts of wokeness. You now hear senior military officials (like the head of the Joint Chiefs recently) claiming that diversity is key to having the strongest military. If you’ve worked in corporate America, you have heard this before. I have seen it myself, in newsroom settings, invoked as an incantation to cover the fact that we were hiring people who are not capable of performing up to standards, unless we declared (this is an actual quote I heard back in the day) that “diversity is a component of quality.” These are not harmless lies. I saw with my own eyes how this principle in action hurt the quality of the product, and caused bitterness among other employees, who could see the double standard at work.

Anyway, I don’t believe in the slightest that the core of racial wokeness is “an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism.” I believe it is a naked attempt to exercise tribal politics, and to do so by (brilliantly) deploying moral language and victim status to disguise what is being done. It is a war on Deplorables justified by the same kind of linguistic chicanery that allowed, say, the Soviets to declare their subjection of Eastern Europe to be those countries’ “liberation.”

I truly don’t understand how my friend David can blithely hand-wave the effects of this poisonous ideology’s spread away, trusting that it will be co-opted by capitalism in the end. Has he not read Christopher Rufo’s stunning reporting documenting the imposition of this ideology on institutions, and the devastating effects of same? Does David not understand that teaching an entire generation of white kids to despise themselves because of the color of their skin is likely to spark a bitter racial backlash? The only people who believe that any of this is in “good faith” are those who already believe it.

What about teaching gender ideology to little children, as this program in Ontario does? Excerpt from their teacher guide:

The examples of this sort of thing are legion. These people — these gender ideologues — are malicious and insane, and they are destroying both young minds and the possibility of a stable society. There is nothing innocent, honest, or good faith about any of this. “We meant well” is the excuse that the Social Justice Warriors of the 1960s and 1970s made when their revolutionary plans produced destruction. Let’s say wokeness will run its course, and be co-opted by the establishment, and defanged. How long will that take? What will be its effects on the lives of real people?

I do call this “soft totalitarianism,” because this ideology’s proponents have to resort to totalitarian methods to impose it. David should ask himself how far someone would get in a university or corporation by challenging any of this, no matter how politely? For that matter, he should ask himself how far anyone would get in The New York Times newsroom expressing opposition to Critical Race Theory, gender ideology, or any of it. I told the journalist who interviewed me yesterday that I’ve been working for 32 years as a professional journalist, including in five newsrooms, and have written three New York Times bestsellers, but that I could not hope to be hired by a newspaper today. My opinions about race, gender, and sexuality — which are well within the American mainstream — have made me radioactive in media institutions. I can live with that, because I’m already established as a journalist, and have built an audience. But young conservatives — or not just conservatives, but anybody who rejects wokeness — should think hard before entering the journalism field. Contra David, you can’t separate the “good” wokeness from the “bad” wokeness. It’s all bad, and it is destroying liberal institutions.

David seems to believe that this is chiefly a problem that effects elites. But he’s too smart an observer of society to believe that its effects will be contained to elites. Let me quote a passage from Live Not By Lies:

In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”

This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who do not will leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”

This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy—functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence.

The social justice cultists of our day are pale imitations of Lenin and his fiery disciples. Aside from the ruthless antifa faction, they restrict their violence to words and bullying within bourgeois institutional contexts. They prefer to push around college administrators, professors, and white-collar professionals. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who were hardened revolutionaries, SJWs get their way not by shedding blood but by shedding tears.

Yet there are clear parallels—parallels that those who once lived under communism identify.

Like the early Bolsheviks, they are radically alienated from society. They too believe that justice depends on group identity, and that achieving justice means taking power away from the exploiters and handing it to the exploited.

Social justice cultists, like the first Bolsheviks, are intellectuals whose gospel is spread by intellectual agitation. It is a gospel that depends on awakening and inspiring hatred in the hearts of those it wishes to induce into revolutionary consciousness. This is why it matters immensely that they have established their base within universities, where they can indoctrinate in spiteful ideology those who will be going out to work in society’s institutions.

As Russia’s Marxist revolutionaries did, our own SJWs believe that science is on their side, even when their claims are unscientific. For example, transgender activists insist that their radical beliefs are scientifically sound; scientists and physicians who disagree are driven out of their institutions or intimidated into silence.

Social justice cultists are utopians who believe that the ideal of Progress requires smashing all the old forms for the sake of liberating humanity. Unlike their Bolshevik predecessors, they don’t want to seize the means of economic production but rather the means of cultural production. They believe that after humanity is freed from the chains that bind us—whiteness, patriarchy, marriage, the gender binary, and so on—we will experience a radically new and improved form of life.

Finally, unlike the Bolsheviks, who wanted to destroy and replace the institutions of Russian society, our social justice warriors adopt a later Marxist strategy for bringing about social change: marching through the institutions of bourgeois society, conquering them, and using them to transform the world. For example, when the LGBT cause was adopted by corporate America as part of its branding strategy, its ultimate victory was assured.

It took 70 years for Communism in Russia and her colonies to collapse. Here in Hungary, where I’m spending the late spring and summer, you see signs everywhere of its lingering effects, even thirty years after its collapse. A Hungarian friend, a Millennial, told me that Communism destroyed civil society here, and that Hungary still hasn’t recovered from that, because people still don’t trust each other. Communism taught them that to trust was dangerous. Similarly, I know people who are now afraid to socialize with people of other races, or with anybody not within a tight circle of trust, because they are afraid to inadvertently say something that triggers the liberal (white, black, or otherwise), who will spread it on social media, and get that person cancelled. This is not an abstract threat! The soft totalitarianism of wokeness is not going away anytime soon. Indeed, technology, especially surveillance technology that we in America have mindlessly adapted as part of our consumerist mentality, is going to make it easier for these totalitarians to tighten their grip. What kind of society does my friend David think the woke elites are going to create? Whatever it is, it will not be stable or harmonious.

I found out last night that my friend Antonio Garcia Martinez has been fired by Apple, which just hired him, after over 2,000 employees within the company went berserk over passages from his gonzo Silicon Valley memoir Chaos Monkeys. The Verge has the story. Here is a passage from his memoir that first triggered them:

Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence, but the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they’d become precisely the sort of useless baggage you’d trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel.

The context is describing a tough, strong woman with whom he was falling in love. But even that’s not good enough for these pissy totalitarians at Apple. The Verge reports:

“It’s so exhausting being a woman in tech; sitting opposite men who think because of my gender, I am soft and weak and generally full of shit,” wrote an Apple employee on Twitter, drawing attention to the quote. “It’s not even worth it to say I have worked relentlessly for every accomplishment I have.” The tweet also contained a screenshot of the passage in question.

How dare this dude say that women like me in Silicon Valley are soft and weak! His words wound me, and he should be fired!

Chaos Monkeys is not going to appeal to everybody, but the idea that this memoir poses any kind of threat to anybody at Apple is beyond absurd. Garcia Martinez, though, is impure. He has Thought Wrong Thoughts, he has Written Wrong Words. He has been cancelled. The richest company on the planet cannot tolerate his presence among its not-at-all-soft-and-weak staffers.

It’s infuriating. But look, these people have now made an implacable enemy in Antonio Garcia Martinez. He’s smarter than they are, and they’re going to be very sorry for it, in time. I haven’t talked to him about this, but my guess is that he will be one more person who has been burned by this madness, and will devote the rest of his life to bringing down this system.

Note well that this wicked social order is coming into being within the structures of liberalism. Amazon, for example, is free within our liberal democratic capitalist order to sell, or not sell, whatever it wants. But as I have written here, the company’s decision to stop selling books that criticize transgender ideology, while perfectly legal, is going to have the knock-on effect (given Amazon’s massive size and influence) of keeping future books criticizing transgenderism from being published. No publisher can risk coming out with a book that Amazon won’t sell. The media and the universities are becoming militantly monocultural and intolerant, and so are corporations — especially those like Apple, which attract educated elites.

People who would have been liberal ten or twenty years ago are now illiberal leftists. They hold almost all the power in American life today, and they are not afraid to use it to suppress dissent and solidify their control over American life. After talking for an hour with that reporter yesterday, she said, “But you’re liberal” — meaning, someone devoted to classical liberal principles. Yes, I told her, in principle, I am. But to be a classical liberal today, in the face of this powerful woke assault on liberal principles of tolerance, free speech, freedom of religion, fair play, and the like, is to be a sucker. Which is why the journalist was in my flat in Budapest interviewing me for a story about the postliberal Right. For all my criticism of classical liberalism, I cannot think of a better way to administer a pluralistic society. But I am being dragged kicking and screaming to the view that there is no longer any possibility for liberalism as we have known it — that the only real-world possibilities are on the illiberal Left (which holds hegemonic power within what used to be liberal institutions) and the illiberal Right. More on this in a future post.

None of this wokeness is innocent, or without meaningful effect. None of it. It could not possibly be, not when an ideology so illiberal and vindictive has seized the means of cultural production. In the 1930s, Communist propaganda painted Communists as “liberals in a hurry” — this, to try to make people less afraid of them. David doesn’t mean in it this way — he’s quite sincere — but I believe his column has that same effect: to make people less afraid of the serpents of wokeness. I predict that something terrible will happen to David — he is an unfailingly kind, generous, and good-hearted man, but he will get crossways the woke in some way he could not have anticipated — and they will set out to destroy him personally and professionally. The Jacobin mob within the Times newsroom will turn on him, and his weak, fake-liberal bosses will not have the courage to defend him. Then the scales will fall from his eyes, and he will join the rest of us in the Resistance.

(Look, I know a lot of you hate David Brooks. You’re wrong to do that, but I can’t stop you. What I can tell you, though, is that he is my friend, and if you criticize him in nasty personal terms in your comment, I won’t publish it. That’s a fact. Say whatever you like about his ideas, but leave the ad hominem out of it.)

UPDATE: A Catholic priest friend e-mails:

Really, they hate David Brooks?! I don’t think he fully  grasps the nature of the ideologies at work, the meaning of the long-term direction of Western and American cultures, or, most importantly, the truly malicious and corrupting power of evil, but he seems to me transparently honest, careful in making distinctions, benevolent in his interpretation of events and people,  authentically charitable in his treatment of friend and foe, and earnest in seeking and promoting the truth.  And he sticks to his approach in an increasingly intolerant age on both the left and the right.  Hate him? What’s not to respect, even admire, perhaps love? Sure, he doesn’t see or, maybe more precisely, weigh things as I do, but from what I observe I’d bet he will adjust when reality drives home its point–as I hope I will. If you hate David Brooks, you’ll be busy hating a lot of people.