Home/Rod Dreher/Why Wokeness Is A Big Deal

Why Wokeness Is A Big Deal

'This way to social justice and social ruin, comrades!' (Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A reader wants to know why I write so ofter about wokeness at Baylor University — as distinct, I take it, from other universities. There are a couple of answers to that question.

First, I used to live in Texas, and developed a number of friends and acquaintances at Baylor. I have a network there, even of people I never met, but who inevitably know someone I do. People leak things to me. Nobody is leaking things to me from other universities like they leak to me from Baylor.

More importantly, if they were, I would probably be less inclined to write about it. It’s not news when a public or private university embraces wokeness. It’s not even really news when a Catholic university does. It is news, however, when a big Baptist university deep in the heart of Texas does. This is particularly so when well within my own memory — in the first decade of this century — Baylor’s leadership at the time aspired for it to become a bastion of Christian orthodoxy in higher education. This was so attractive that some Catholic scholars told me back then that they preferred teaching there. Tom Hibbs, who moved to Baylor around 2003 to run the Honors College (and who recently became president of the University of Dallas), said at the time that he felt far more free to be an orthodox Catholic at Baptist Baylor than he did at his previous institution, the Catholic Boston College. I was a big public champion of Baylor’s vision and mission back then.

So it has been really striking — and dismaying — to watch the university transform itself so swiftly into an oasis of wokeness. I get the main reason why this happened: the Baylor football sexual assault scandal, which ran from 2011 to 2016, and cost the university president, Ken Starr, his job. It’s hard to make a plausible case for conservatism on campus when the conservative administration let that happen. Mind you, it’s not logical to blame “conservatism” for what happened, much less to claim that progressivism/wokeness is the cure. But that’s where we are. Anyway, I watch what’s happening to Baylor as a rare case (well, the only one I can think of) in which a Christian university that only the day before yesterday sought to establish and maintain a conservative-ish identity, now flipping overnight to embrace the opposite. This week, I spoke to a conservative white Evangelical, age 23, doing graduate work, and he told me it’s mind-boggling how many of the conservative white Evangelical professors at his undergraduate alma mater are now embracing Critical Race Theory, and seeing no conflict with their morals, politics, or philosophy. Something big is happening, and it’s happening all over.

I received the following letter last night from a reader, who gives me permission to publish it so long as I take his name off. He identifies himself as a lawyer and Baylor alumnus. It was a challenge to me, made honestly and graciously; I accept it. First, here’s what he wrote:

Today I read — with great interest — your piece, “‘Equity’ is Not ‘Equality’, Comrade.”   I received a link to the article from a Baylor professor with whom I share many laments about the school’s direction, albeit on different grounds from those expressed in your recent commentary.  If you don’t mind, I would like to share some thoughts and respectfully pose a challenge.
For all the fine points you make, I truly see a chasm between what you and your youngest readers see as obvious truth.  I am among the readers whose ears do not find terms such as “whiteness” to be jarring, but I nevertheless listen to your concerns without understanding the arguments for why such terms are so threatening and conjure imagery of tyranny and soviet socialism. Why must one lead to the other?
Many millennials, myself included, have spent a majority of our adult lives adjusting to academic settings and polarized political environments dominated by the terms and attitudes contained in Baylor training manual. I submit that the concepts it contains are hardly specialized.  Wokeness is no longer the exclusive domain of the progressive activist or the left-leaning Twitter mob. It actively thrives in everyday circles and even dominates the discussions of professionals, shaping the decisions of professional and public institutions. In that sense, I imagine that most working millennials who read your article experience the adoption of these new terms as other good or inconsequential. I am relatively conservative and worry about free speech much more than the prospect of my fellow citizens deciding to adopt socialism if they so choose.
Although you and I probably agree on a lot of things, I am not clear on how we get from a recognition of something like racial injustice and the desire to remedy it to the dystopia you seem to warn about.  At the risk of oversimplifying a task that would require some intellectual heavy lifting, I would propose a chart showing three things, each in their own vertical column: (1) a woke/progressive value; (2) why it is mistaken; and (3) how it directly leads to the consequences you believe it will have. Alternatively, a chart or narrative showing the logical steps from correct values, to erroneous values, to socialism.  Would you please consider making some of these connections for some of your readers?
For example, why is allyship problematic? An employee who objects to forced allyship should capitalize on the freedom they have in this country to seek employment elsewhere. It is a longstanding truth that you are not required to agree with what your government on everything it stands for, and those whose beliefs pose an irreconcilable conflict that keeps them from performing essential job duties or feel unwelcome should work elsewhere. I know many private businesses whose values align perfectly with such a conservative, Christian worldview and would gladly welcome such people among their ranks.  Christians such as you and I do not need to feel welcome, or even tolerated, everywhere.  So why does allyship, or even whiteness, portend such dire consequences? Is it simply because ideas with which conservatives disagree will soon have the force of law?
I have attached an example of a type of chart that could show how an argument might proceed, not that you need it from me.  I took the time to make it because I know you are a serious intellectual and I want to hear more of your arguments.
But respectfully, you might consider showing exactly how you arrive at your end point.  Your conclusions and predictions may very well be right, but I do not yet see it clearly.  To use the below attachment as an hypothetical example (not reflecting anything I’ve heard you argue), how do we proceed from step to step? Does the progressive takeover of educational institutions guarantee changes in that the voting majority will be progressive? Does a progressive worldview of the voting majority necessitate a progressive public policy, not to mention one that is upheld as constitutional?  Without recognizing the immense barriers progressive ideas would have to destroy in order to create the dystopia you suggest, potential consequences of perceived destructive ideological danger are purely speculative (however logical they may be).
I hope I do not presume to tell you your business, seriously misunderstand your column, or show myself a fool for not clearly seeing a cause-and-effect between progressive values and an American dystopia. Whatever progressive path Baylor or our country takes, I pray it evolves into an opportunity not for fear, but to discover truth, and allows good people who share our faith to act as witnesses to the love God has for all people.
Regardless, I look forward to enjoying your new book and will continue to read your columns.
Here’s the chart the reader made:
I appreciate the tone of the reader’s letter, and the chance to explain myself more clearly.
I’ll start by saying something that Millennial and Gen Z readers probably don’t appreciate, because it happened before their time. It is hard to overstate the degree to which people of my generation (I’m 53, Gen X) were saturated with Martin Luther King-style race liberalism growing up — the “not the color of your skin, but the content of your character” stuff. It was true, and received like gospel by many of us — even though, as fellow white Southerners can tell you, it caused conflict with older Southern relatives. We were told about the evil of segregation and Jim Crow, saw the injustice of it, and saw the solution to it as doing away with all structures and practices that treated people differently on the basis of skin color or ethnic origin.
This led a number of us — conservatives, anyway — to oppose affirmative action on the principle that you do not battle the effects of unjust discrimination by imposing unjust discrimination. This gets to a deeper principle that separates conservatives from liberals on these matters. Generally speaking, conservatives believe justice requires equality of opportunity; liberals believe it requires equality of outcome.
So, on the conservative view, if a city’s population were, say, 30 percent black, but the number of blacks on an office team made up only five percent, that fact alone would not be evidence of racism. It might be a sign of racism, if there were indications that people of color faced barriers to being hired in that firm, but it’s not dispositive.
But this is not at all what today’s antiracist ideology holds. As Coleman Hughes writes in his review of Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be Antiracist:
If the book has a core thesis, it is that this war admits of no neutral parties and no ceasefires. For Kendi, “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea,” only “racist ideas and antiracist ideas.” His Manichaean outlook extends to policy. “Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity,” Kendi proclaims, defining the former as racist policies and the latter as antiracist ones.

Every policy? That question was posed to Kendi by Vox cofounder Ezra Klein, who gave the hypothetical example of a capital-gains tax cut. Most of us think of the capital-gains tax, if we think about it at all, as a policy that is neutral as regards questions of race or racism. But given that blacks are underrepresented among stockowners, Klein asked, would it be racist to support a capital-gains tax cut? “Yes,” Kendi answered, without hesitation. And in case you planned on escaping the charge of racism by remaining agnostic on the capital-gains tax, that won’t work either, because Kendi defines a racist as anyone who supports “a racist policy through their actions or inaction.”

This is not only unjust and unrealistic, but completely unworkable as a policy to run a society or an institution. But “antiracism” has been embraced uncritically by many universities and other institutions. Baylor University, for example, is teaching antiracism to its undergraduates. It’s a good example, in fact, of how these radicals use language to conceal the radicalism of their claims.

What is the opposite of antiracist? Pro-racist? Racist? Nobody wants to be on the opposite side of antiracism. So if you are presented with the opportunity to endorse antiracism, unless you really understand what’s going on, you are likely to do so. Besides, who is going to be the brave Baylor freshman who stands up in the “cultural humility” class and dissents from the antiracism doctrine the instructor is proclaiming? Who is going to be the brave employee to out himself as a potential racist in the eyes of his company by saying he doesn’t buy this stuff?

My correspondent said he didn’t understand why this stuff made people like me think of totalitarianism. Here is a passage from my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, in which Pawel Skibinski, a Warsaw historian, talks about how totalitarians use language in a particular way to manipulate others:

Skibiński focuses on language as a preserver of cultural memory. We know that communists forbade people to talk about history in unapproved ways. This is a tactic today’s progressives use as well, especially within universities.

What is harder for contemporary people to appreciate is how we are repeating the Marxist habit of falsifying language, hollowing out familiar words and replacing them with a new, highly ideological meaning. Propaganda not only changes the way we think about politics and contemporary life but it also conditions what a culture judges worth remembering.

I mention the way liberals today deploy neutral-sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives. And they imbue other words and phrases— — hierarchy, for example, or traditional family — with negative connotations.

Recalling life under communism, the professor continues, “The people who lived only within such a linguistic sphere, who didn’t know any other way to speak, they could really start believing in this way of using of words. If a word carries with it negative baggage, it becomes impossible to have a discussion about the phenomenon.”

Teaching current generations of college students who grew up in the postcommunist era is challenging because they do not have a natural immunity to the ideological abuse of language. “For me, it’s obvious. I remember this false use of language. But for our students, it’s impossible to understand.”

I would say to my correspondent: “Do you see how the very term ‘antiracism’ as it is used conditions and manipulates the discussion of racial conflict, racial discrimination, and how to discuss it? If you object to anything that the self-described antiracist educators propose, you open yourself up to accusations of being racist.”

Many of those same woke terms work in the same way. They frame the discussion in a way that leads to particular conclusions.

The reader brings up “whiteness,” another common term and concept in woke discourse. There is nothing in principle wrong with studying the social construction of the concept of what it means to be white. For example, there was a time in this country when Italians were not thought to be white. How did that change? What does it mean? This is certainly fair to study, as is “white supremacy,” which historically refers to the apartheid-like social and legal system of the pre-Civil Rights South.

But social justice discourse uses the concept of “white” in a specific way. James Lindsay’s essential “Translations From The Wokish” dictionary explaining, in plain English, the meaning of social justice jargon, in this entry explains what these activists mean by things “white.”

I don’t want to get into the specifics here — spend some time on Lindsay’s dictionary, and you’ll learn a lot about the way we speak today — but I simply want to point out that the discourse the social justice/Critical Race Theory people use is a tool for redistributing power on the basis of identity, and manufacturing consent of those to be disempowered by manipulating the way they think and speak. If you are familiar with Marxist-Leninist terminology and discourse, you will be all too aware that that form of totalitarianism saw people not in terms of individuals, but in terms of group identity.

Which brings us to this passage from Live Not By Lies:

One imagines an entry-level worker at a Fortune 500 firm, or an untenured university lecturer, suffering through the hundredth workshop on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and doing their very best not to be suspected of dissent. In fact, I don’t have to imagine it at all. As a journalist who writes about these issues, I often hear stories from people—always white-collar professionals like academics, doctors, lawyers, engineers—who live closeted lives as religious or social conservatives. They know that to dissent from the progressive regime in the workplace, or even to be suspected of dissent, would likely mean burning their careers at the stake.

For example, an American academic who has studied Russian communism told me about being present at the meeting in which his humanities department decided to require from job applicants a formal statement of loyalty to the ideology of diversity—even though this has nothing to do with teaching ability or scholarship. The professor characterized this as a McCarthyite way of eliminating dissenters from the employment pool, and putting those already on staff on notice that they will be monitored for deviation from the social-justice party line.

That is a soft form of totalitarianism. Here is the same logic laid down hard: in 1918, Lenin unleashed the Red Terror, a campaign of annihilation against those who resisted Bolshevik power. Martin Latsis, head of the secret police in Ukraine, instructed his agents as follows:

Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.

Note well that an individual’s words and deeds had nothing to do with determining one’s guilt or innocence. One was presumed guilty based entirely on one’s class and social status. A revolution that began as an attempt to right historical injustices quickly became an exterminationist exercise of raw power. Communists justified the imprisonment, ruin, and even the execution of people who stood in the way of Progress as necessary to achieve historical justice over alleged exploiters of privilege.

A softer, bloodless form of the same logic is at work in American institutions. Social justice progressives advance their malignant concept of justice in part by terrorizing dissenters as thoroughly as any inquisitor on the hunt for enemies of religious orthodoxy.

This, to answer my correspondent’s question, is what is wrong with “allyship.” What does it mean to declare yourself to be an “ally” of, say, a gay colleague? You wish to identify that you support him. Fine and good. I am an Orthodox Christian, but if I worked in an office, I would strive to support all my co-workers in our common project. But what if I believed that declaring that I was an “ally” violated my conscience, by coercing me to appear to endorse homosexuality itself? Is it not possible to be committed to supporting my gay co-worker, and treating him fairly, without publicly endorsing everything about him? In fact, anyone who declined to declare themselves to be an “ally” of someone for any reason — sexuality, race, whatever — would immediately be suspect.

Why won’t you sign? Are you a bigot? If you’re not a bigot, then why won’t you sign? And so forth. It’s a form of coercion, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with being a good co-worker or fellow student. Imagine that you are an office worker or student in the 1950s, as the Cold War was raging. Your office requires all workers to attend a course on “100 Percent Americanism,” and at the end, requests that everybody sign a Pledge of Loyalty to America, and wear an American flag lapel.

What if you love your country, but dissent from some of the claims in the 100 Percent Americanism program? Like, what if the program’s manifesto claimed that American democracy was a perfect form of government. That’s not true, you think; look at legal segregation, and how it treats black citizens. Besides, you think, what does any of this have to do with what we do at this factory: make widgets?

Or what if you simply resent being manipulated and coerced like this? So you don’t sign the Pledge, and you don’t war the flag pin on your lapel. Now you have to worry that all your co-workers will wonder if you are secretly a Communist. After all, if you loved America, why would you refuse the Pledge and the pin?

You see the point?

It was helpful to me that the Baylor alumnus wrote that

Wokeness is no longer the exclusive domain of the progressive activist or the left-leaning Twitter mob. It actively thrives in everyday circles and even dominates the discussions of professionals, shaping the decisions of professional and public institutions. In that sense, I imagine that most working millennials who read your article experience the adoption of these new terms as other good or inconsequential.

I have been saying for some time that what had been confined to campuses has become far more general. It is a very bad sign, though, that “most working millennials … experience the adoption of these new terms as [either] good or inconsequential.”

They are neither. That this comment came from an educated Millennial professional, making it in good faith, makes me hopeful that Live Not By Lies will be useful in combatting this ideology. From the book:

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.”

See his point? Marxist discourse was confined to academics for a long time, until suddenly it wasn’t. Ordinary people found their lives controlled by concepts that had only decades earlier been confined to professorial journals and discussions. Similarly, now that wokeness has spread like wildfire through elites and their networks, we are going to have to deal with it, and the destruction it causes, for a very long time.

If it provided a truthful and accurate view of the way the world worked, that would be one thing. But it is an ideological system loaded with malicious assumptions, though, like Marxism, it aims to rectify injustice. Bo Winegard, an academic who was “cancelled” for his heretical opinions, quotes Kendi to make an important point here:

The NBA example is a good one. No one wants the NBA to “look like America.” So why aren’t the professional antiracists concerned about the NBA? Where is the moral consistency? If there’s no moral consistency, you might wonder if the wokeness/antiracist ideology is not really about “social justice” and “fixing the original sin of racism,” and is really about something else. More deeply, I invite my correspondent to consider that some of the problems of racial injustice cannot be fixed without destroying valuable liberties, and leaving everybody worse off. This was exactly the experience of peoples under Communism. As I wrote above, they began with a certain ideal of social justice, and ended up oppressing, impoverishing, imprisoning, and even exterminating millions in their quest to eliminate inequality. Good intentions and worthy goals to not grant moral absolution.

Going back to the reader’s letter, I should clarify that I don’t really worry about economic socialism. I don’t want to live under it, but that’s not my primary concern in my writing about wokeness and social justice. I’m far more interested in the way this ideology stands to affect free speech, freedom of association, religious liberty, and racial discrimination. One reason that I particularly grieve the way it is taking hold at Baylor, a Christian university, is because I believe it is a counterfeit of true social justice, as I explain in this passage from Live Not By Lies:

The term social justice has long been associated with Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity (the term was coined by a nineteenth-century Jesuit), though now it has been embraced by younger Evangelicals. In Catholic social teaching, “social justice” is the idea that individuals have a responsibility to work for the common good, so that all can live up to their dignity as creatures fashioned in God’s image. In the traditional view, social justice is about addressing structural barriers to fairness among groups in a given society. It is based in large part on Christ’s teachings about the importance of mercy and compassion to the poor and the outcast.

But Christian social justice is difficult to reconcile with secular ideals of social justice. One reason is that the former depends on the biblical concept of what a human being is—including the purpose for which all people were created. This presumes a transcendent moral order, proclaimed in Scripture and, depending on one’s confession, the authoritative teachings of the church. A just social order is one that makes it easier for people to be good.

Peter Maurin, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, was a truly Christian social justice warrior. (Interestingly, Father Kolaković introduced Maurin’s writing to his Family in Bratislava.) Maurin distinguished Christian social justice from the godless Marxist view. For Marxists, social justice meant an equal distribution of society’s material goods. By contrast, Christian social justice sought to create conditions of unity that enabled all people—rich and poor alike—to live in solidarity and mutual charity as pilgrims on the road to unity with Christ.

In our time, secular social justice has been shorn of its Christian dimension. Because they defend a particular code of sexual morality and gender categories, Christians are seen by progressives as the enemies of social justice. Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby insightfully links sexual radicalism to the scientific roots of the Myth of Progress. He has written that “the sexual revolution is, at bottom, the technological revolution and its perpetual war against natural limits applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding.”

Without Christianity and its belief in the fallibility of human nature, secular progressives tend to rearrange their bigotries and call it righteousness. Christianity teaches that all men and women—not just the wealthy, the powerful, the straight, the white, and all other so-called oppressors—are sinners in need of the Redeemer. All men and women are called to confession and repentance. “Social justice” that projects unrighteousness solely onto particular groups is a perversion of Christian teaching. Reducing the individual to her economic status or her racial, sexual, or gender identity is an anthropological error. It is untrue, and therefore unjust.

Moreover, for Christians, no social order that denies sin, erecting structures or approving practices that alienate man from his Creator, can ever be just. Contrary to secular social justice activists, protecting the right to abortion is always unjust. So is any proposal—like same-sex marriage—that ratifies sin and undermines the natural family. In a 1986 encyclical, Pope John Paul II denounced a “spirit of darkness” that deceitfully posits “God as an enemy of his own creature, and in the first place as an enemy of man, as a source of danger and threat to man.”

Christians cannot endorse any form of social justice that denies biblical teaching. That includes schemes that apply identity politics categories to the life of the church. For example, answering calls to “decolonize” the church means imposing identity politics categories onto theology and worship, turning the faith into radical leftism at prayer.

Faithful Christians must work for social justice, but can only do so in context of fidelity to the full Christian moral and theological vision through which we understand the meaning of justice. Any social justice campaign that implies that the God of the Bible is an enemy of man and his happiness is fraudulent and must be rejected.

Any theory or scheme of social justice that holds out members of any group to be morally innocent or morally guilty by virtue of their membership in that group cannot be reconciled with Christianity. Period. Any social justice scheme that construes membership in a community solely in terms of power relations, absent factors like grace, mercy, solidarity, and sacrificial love, cannot be reconciled to Christianity.

So, to return before ending to the reader’s chart:

I contest the premises.

First, what do we mean by “disparate treatment, de facto or under law”? I don’t really disagree with this, but I think we should recognize that disparate treatment can be just under certain conditions. For example, the Supreme Court has rightly held that religious institutions, given their nature, have the right to hire only people who share a commitment to the ideals and practices of that institution. That is disparate treatment, but it’s a byproduct of laws guaranteeing religious liberty — an important principle of liberal democracy.

Second, I strongly disagree with the idea of “racial equity.” Nobody can deny that a history of disparate treatment has had material consequences for victims of these laws and practices. But this is a fact of complex human societies. The factors that lead to positive or negative outcomes for individuals are so vast and complicated that it is impossible to come up with a scheme to make outcomes more uniform.

Ibram Kendi believes that supporting a capital gains tax cut is racist because blacks are historically underrepresented among stockholders. Well, guess what: country people, both white and black, in south Louisiana are historically underrepresented among stockholders. So are Vietnamese immigrants. If a capital gains tax cut is immoral, it’s not because most black people, or Southern rural people, or Vietnamese immigrants, don’t own lots of stock. Kendi’s scheme is absurd.

Some people are born with natural advantages over others. Physically attractive people have a natural advantage when it comes to gaining film roles. Unusually tall people have a natural advantage when it comes to joining a professional basketball team.

Others are born to social advantage — their parents are wealthier than others, or better connected. But this is complicated stuff. Perhaps that social advantage comes from their parents’ way of life. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance talks about the chaotic life he had growing up poor and/or working class in Appalachia, and how that way of life conditioned him to fail at holding a job. If not for the US Marine Corps causing the seeds of discipline his grandmother planted within him to seed and ultimately bear fruit, he might not been able to finish college and become a success. Vance is white, but was born into a broken family without wealth, and to a mother who struggled with drug addiction. What does “whiteness” mean to him, and his success? Is the son of a wealthy black New Orleans lawyer disadvantaged by his blackness, and Vance, who grew up poor in Appalachia, advantaged by his whiteness?

It’s impossible to sort this stuff out. There are so many contingencies. Kamala Harris’s father was from Jamaica, as Barack Obama’s was from Kenya. Neither are the descendants of African slaves brought to America. How can they be considered disadvantaged for social justice purposes? Are they disadvantaged, while the successful children of my friends who immigrated from Ukraine two decades ago, arriving here speaking little English, with almost nothing in their pockets, considered advantaged, because of the color of their skin? When I lived in Dallas, I knew a young man whose skin was as white as mine. He was a Bosnian Muslim who came to America with his mom and dad as a little boy, a war refugee. They arrived penniless, and spoke not a word of English. He was a very hard worker, and a cheerful guy. He managed a restaurant when I knew him. I don’t know if he ever went to college, and in any case I imagine he must be nearly 40 today, but let’s say he ended up at Baylor today, a guy with his background. What does “whiteness” mean to him? How is he an oppressor of people of color — this Bosnian Muslim who arrived with nothing, not even a word of English?

Like I said, impossible to sort out. I believe that a just social order will provide for equality of opportunity, and maintain a structure that enables people who live fairly, with self-discipline, and work hard, to achieve reward for their efforts. I do not believe that guaranteeing certain outcomes for people on the basis of factors inherent to their identity (including, I should say, legacy admissions to elite colleges) is just.

So, to answer the question posed by my correspondent’s chart, Step 3 is wrong because it is based on a fatally flawed premise in Step 2. Put crudely, it requires robbing a man who came by what he has honestly to compensate a man who has less, perhaps through no fault of his own — but that doesn’t give him a right to the first man’s property.

What I strongly encourage people like my correspondent to do is to think very hard on the difference between equality and equity, and whether the loss of freedoms required to bring about a society that is equitable (not just in material terms) is worth it, or is even fair. And, I encourage y’all to meditate on the experience of the USSR and the Soviet bloc, and how badly the entire system ran because it allocated positions of responsibility not to those who knew how to do their jobs, but on the basis of ideology.

We will never create utopia on this earth. The best we can do is to tinker with the system to patch holes when we see them, and to find the best achievable balance between liberty and equality. This is not a heroic politics, but it is a livable one. What the people at Baylor, and everywhere that social justice ideology is proclaimed and instituted, are doing is creating more injustices, and communities riven by suspicion and resentment — and constant culture war. It is not only unjust, but it also does not work.

The fact that young Americans born and raised after the end of the Cold War have no idea what communism was, how it worked, and why it destroyed societies, is a grave error on the part of our educational institutions. I hope my little book Live Not By Lies helps to turn things around.

UPDATE: A reader responds:

Here is another way to respond that I think is worth considering: an analogy to Mark Regnerus’s Cheap Sex.
I’m assuming you have read the book (you have blogged on it right?) [Note: Yes, here. — RD] here so I’ll speak generally. Regnerus is showing how sex and the drive for sex is not just another desire among others, but rather it is a drive that is deeply rooted in us and which structures our society. It cannot simply be disentangled from our entire social order. We might have though sexual liberation would be an unqualified good–more sex and therefore more pleasure for everyone. But it didn’t work out that way. By messing with the natural order of sex, we have undermined society. And liberating sex has actually made is less pleasurable and we do less of it.
I think there is a critique of the Woke that is very similar only instead of sex for everyone, it is more like status/honor/power for everyone. But not status/honor/power the traditional way–earned via social contribution–but status/honor/power as being given. As though status/honor/power is this good that the state can divy up and distribute like money. Moreover, the status/honor/power is given according to a standard that represents an inversion of the value system that rewards competency: status/honor/power is achieved by victimhood status.
This is approaching Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. I think Nietzsche was criticizing a distortion of Christianity, but that is what wokeness is: a perverted interpretation of the “first shall be last”.
What are the social consequences of this inversion of values? Or “cheap status”? I think it will be ruinous in the same category that cheap sex has been and every bit as undermining of the social order.

UPDATE: The reader who posts under the name “Henry Clemens” can’t get Disqus to take his comment, so he sent it to me:

I am grateful that Rod is providing this analysis so that I, at 80, don’t have to think my way through these important points.

I know directly of one major company CEO who last week told his employees to be aware of and engaged by these current issues, and added that in his view the liberal side is the one which has the only reasonable argument — a deliberate attempt to provide political guidance, and how that will intensify and where it will end, we shall see.

Grew up in the segregated border south, and my father’s family were all decent people, responsible, as they saw it, for honest dealing and appropriate support of their fellow men, among whom and in a special category were the blacks they knew. And it is not irrelevant that my father’s family were two generations earlier also all slaveholders. For all their decency and charity, they did not believe in racial equality. They were not converted to MLK liberalism, but we, the next generation, were. Now time has passed, and my extended family has black, Mexican, and European-immigrant family members. We get along well because we all do believe that, while culture and background and religion are by no means irrelevant, race is and ought to be. How we would maintain a decent tone among ourselves if it were otherwise, I do not know.

Some time ago, one of the people on this blog quoted Lee Kuan Yew: “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.” It seems to me we are headed in that direction, and it may destroy us as a functioning democracy.

I know “Henry Clemens,” and can tell you that he has had a quite distinguished international career. He’s very far from just any old reader on the Internet.

Second, let me again apologize to you readers for Disqus. Every single day I find that the system has, for reasons I cannot fathom, marked as spam comments I’ve already approved. Just please let me know if this has happened to you, and I’ll free your comment.

Meanwhile, overnight I received an e-mail from the Millennial lawyer and Baylor alumnus whose initial e-mail to me inspired this post. He writes:

I spent the last few hours reading and contemplating your newly-posted response to my initial email. Thank you for taking my thoughts seriously and responding to them with the intellectual rigor that I hoped you would.

For the most part, your post gives me the answers I was looking for. As you might guess, I am not a left-winger, but do find myself almost completely alienated from the conservative side of the aisle (I know many young people of faith who feel this way). Your response definitely helps me understand concerns with the theories underlying woke ideologies, and I look forward to communicating them to my peers. Until conservatives can articulate their positions like you have, the left will continue to win the culture war.

The only major point of contention which, I believe, remains unaddressed from my original email is the sheer number of social and legal institutions and laws that would have to collapse to allow the type of totalitarianism that so many conservatives see looming. It’s easy to imagine a dissent into totalitarianism, but “MPC” points out in the last paragraph of his comment, are we truly faced with a concrete all-or-nothing choice? Do the changes in language and political goals doom us to ruin or are there goals which we can count as a happy medium (e.g. greater access to business capital for historically disadvantaged groups rather than outright reparations for slavery, or training police to not view themselves as soldiers at war with their own communities rather than defunding all law enforcement efforts)? Or do the social and traditional media feedback loops in which we live, when combined with the flaws of our educational system, pose an existential threat?

I’m not saying that the left is even open to the idea of compromise (they’re not), but I have failed to hear sound policy responses from the political right other than saying, “no, we don’t like that” or condemning the left by claiming, “you can’t do that. That’s evil.”

Thanks for this comment, and request to clarify. It’s a really important set of questions the reader asks, and I appreciate the opportunity to think this through in this space.

I sent the reader a link to a galley copy of Live Not By Lies to thank him for these provocative questions, and to give him a better idea of the kind of totalitarianism I see coming. I call it “soft totalitarianism,” because in my estimation, it is not going to look anything like Stalinism, or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — but it is going to be totalitarian, hence the designation “soft.”

Here, in this passage fromLive Not By Lies, is an instance of what I mean:

Consumerism is how we are learning to love Big Brother. What’s more, Big Brother is not exactly who we expected him to be—a political dictator, though one day he may become that. At the present moment, Big Brother’s primary occupation is capitalist. He’s a salesman, he’s a broker, he’s a gatherer of raw materials, and a manufacturer of desires. He is monitoring virtually every move you make to determine how to sell you more things, and in so doing, learning how to direct your behavior. In this way, Big Brother is laying the foundation for soft totalitarianism, both in terms of creating and implementing the technology for political and social control and by grooming the population to accept it as normal.

This is the world of “surveillance capitalism,” a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, a former Harvard Business School professor. In her 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff describes and analyzes a new form of capitalism created by Google and perfected by Amazon and Facebook. Surveillance capitalism hoovers up detailed personal data about individuals and analyzes it with sophisticated algorithms it to predict people’s behavior.

The aim, obviously, is to pitch goods and services tailored to individual preferences. No surprise there— that’s merely advertising. The deeper realities of surveillance capitalism, however, are far more sinister. The masters of data aren’t simply trying to figure out what you like; they are now at work making you like what they want you to like, without their manipulation being detected.

And they’re doing this without the knowledge or informed permission of the people whose lives they have colonized—and who are at present without means to escape the surveillance-capitalists’ web. You may have given up Facebook over privacy concerns, and may have vowed never to have a smart device under your roof, but unless you are a hermit living off the grid, you are still thoroughly bounded and penetrated by the surveillance capitalist system.

“This power to shape behavior for others’ profit or power is entirely self-authorizing,” Zuboff told The Guardian. “It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs.”


It is not at all difficult to imagine that banks, retailers, and service providers that have access to the kind of consumer data extracted by surveillance capitalists would decide to punish individuals affiliated with political, religious, or cultural groups those firms deem to be antisocial. Silicon Valley is well known to be far to the left on social and cultural issues, a veritable mecca of the cult of social justice. Social justice warriors are known for the spiteful disdain they hold for classically liberal values like free speech, freedom of association, and religious liberty. These are the kinds of people who will be making decisions about access to digital life and to commerce.

The rising generation of corporate leaders take pride in their progressive awareness and activism. Twenty-first century capitalism is not only all in for surveillance, it is also very woke.

Nor is it hard to foresee these powerful corporate interests using that data to manipulate individuals into thinking and acting in certain ways. Zuboff quotes an unnamed Silicon Valley bigwig saying, “Conditioning at scale is essential to the new science of massively engineered human behavior.” He believes that by close analysis of the behavior of app users, his company will eventually be able to “change how lots of people are making their day-to-day decisions.”

Maybe they will just try to steer users into buying certain products and not others. But what happens when the products are politicians or ideologies? And how will people know when they are being manipulated?

If a corporation with access to private data decides that progress requires suppressing dissenting opinions, it will be easy to identify the dissidents, even if they have said not one word publicly.

I also write at length about how the Chinese are pioneering a new form of totalitarian control through China’s so-called “social credit system.” With so much Chinese life and commerce having moved online, with closed-circuit cameras on every street corner, and with artificial intelligence software improving by leaps and bounds, it is easy for the state to track who knows who, who goes where, and so forth. China is building a system that automatically punishes or rewards citizens for certain behavior.

If the CCTV cameras, facial-recognition software, and/or GPS tracking identify you as having walked into a church, your social credit score automatically declines. This means that you may have certain economic liberties restricted — you can’t go into particular restaurants, or travel first class — until you get your social credit score back up by doing “pro-social” things (read: acts of which the state approves). If your score continues to decline, the punishments and restrictions become commensurably worse. You may lose your right to travel at all within the country.

Moreover, the state knows who is in your social network. They too will suffer declines in their social credit rating, simply because they know you. They will thus be incentivized to pressure you to conform, or to cut you out of their lives entirely.

This is not science fiction. This is happening right now in China. Mind you, China does have gulags (laogai) for political prisoners, and remains a police state. What’s happening to the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang shows what Chinese hard totalitarianism looks like. But as for the rest of China, the state has figured out how to use a technology in an advanced networked society to compel conformity without using the heavy hand of the commissar.

This is how it can — and I believe probably will — come to us. Ask yourself: if you aspired to work in big business, the law, medicine, academia, journalism, or any other non-working class profession, would you state online, using your real name, your opposition to Black Lives Matter, to LGBT activism, or to anything at all advocated by progressives? Would you dare to say it no matter how respectful and grounded in reason your objections might be? If you are a progressive who embraces these causes, but your best friend or sibling disagreed, and wanted to write a blog post or a social media post expressing his or her opposition, would you advise them not to do so?

See what I mean? There are no laws saying that you cannot publicly state that you oppose this or that expression of identity politics. But we now live under an informal social regime that effectively shuts down disfavored discourse by compelling people to fear for their livelihoods if they dissent from opinions that power-holders under the regime — non-state actors, mark you! — reject. You internalize the power-holders’ ideology, and police yourself.

One more bit from Live Not By Lies:

Beijing’s use of consumer data, biometric information, GPS tracking coordinates, facial recognition, DNA, and other forms of data harvesting has turned, and continues to turn, China into a beast never before seen worldwide, not even under Mao or Stalin. In China, the tools of surveillance capitalism are employed by the surveillance state to administer the so-called social credit system, which determines who is allowed to buy, sell, and travel, based on their social behavior.

“China is about to become something new: an AI-powered techno-totalitarian state,” writes journalist John Lanchester. “The project aims to form not only a new kind of state but a new kind of human being, one who has fully internalized the demands of the state and the completeness of its surveillance and control. That internalization is the goal: agencies of the state will never need to intervene to correct the citizen’s behavior, because the citizen has done it for them in advance.”

That internalization is the goal. That’s what’s happening here, too — though again, this is not being administered or directed by the state, but rather by corporations and private institutions. Anyone who wants to be a middle-class professional must fully internalize the demands of the ruling class and the completeness of its surveillance and control. People don’t realize it, but many universities and corporations do a social media search of applicants, looking for problematic material. You may never get into that school, or a job interview, because of something you said on social media years ago — and you won’t know why.

The wisest among us will say nothing — not even affirm progressive dogmas, because hey, you never know. An academic friend of mine who reads this blog told me a couple of years ago that one of his colleagues in the field is a racial minority, a woman, an atheist, and progressive. But she says nothing remotely controversial online, because she’s smart enough to realize that something she says today could, somehow, be taboo the day after tomorrow, but it will exist forever online. She has internalized the controls to such an extent that to preserve her professional viability for the future, she has become publicly mute.

Is this the kind of country we want to live in? If so, then let’s not pretend it’s a liberal democracy. And that, I think, is an important point to consider. No social order allows its members to say or do anything without consequence. Every social order has its “thou shalt nots”. Liberalism, though, has tried to maintain a relatively expansive view of what can and can’t be said and affirmed publicly. This is not only because liberals — both left-liberals and right-liberals — consider freedom of expression and association to be political goods. When people say, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it,” they are expressing a fundamental liberal principle — one that is necessary for self-government, by the way.

That is what we are fast losing — and not only losing, but throwing away. The lawyer writes:

Do the changes in language and political goals doom us to ruin or are there goals which we can count as a happy medium (e.g. greater access to business capital for historically disadvantaged groups rather than outright reparations for slavery, or training police to not view themselves as soldiers at war with their own communities rather than defunding all law enforcement efforts)? Or do the social and traditional media feedback loops in which we live, when combined with the flaws of our educational system, pose an existential threat?

This is a great point. Yes, the changes in language and political boundaries from the left make it increasingly impossible to find a workable compromise. I’m reading a book right now — Gerald Seib’s forthcoming book about the conservative movement from Reagan to Trump — that talks in one section about how conservative politics from Gingrich to the Tea Party (roughly, 1994-2012) changed to being a normal political party, which accepts compromise, to being a more ideological one that rejects compromise as a sign of weakness. It’s not just the left that is an enemy of moderation and compromise, though generally speaking, it’s the left that has made a strong ideology of it — and that has instantiated it within the Establishment (= nearly every institution that is not affirmatively conservative).

This is because we have all moralized politics to an extraordinary degree. I don’t want to go back and forth over who is responsible for it, and what might have been different if Those People had done things differently. What’s past is past. For purposes of the lawyer-correspondent’s question, though, it’s easy for Millennials and others who were formed with liberal cultures (e.g., the culture of the university, of the legal profession) to miss how wokeness functions as a secular religion. And it’s easy for conservatives to miss how wokeness in part appeals to something decent and moral inside young people. From Live Not By Lies:

It’s possible to miss the onslaught of totalitarianism, precisely because we have a misunderstanding of how its power works. In 1951, poet and literary critic Czesław Miłosz, exiled to the West from his native Poland as an anti-communist dissident, wrote that Western people misunderstand the nature of communism because they think of it only in terms of “might and coercion.”

“That is wrong,” he wrote. “There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”

In The Captive Mind, Miłosz said that communist ideology filled a void that had opened in the lives of early twentieth-century intellectuals, most of whom had ceased to believe in religion. Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice.”

Wokeness is here in part because of the failure of the churches to pass along the Christian tradition. I can understand Millennials like my correspondent who say that they are not liberals but are also “almost completely alienated from the conservative side,” if their only experience of conservatism is wars, Wall Street, MAGA, and the Republican Party at Prayer. I’m alienated from that too, and have been since around the turn of the century.

I have said many times that we live in a post-Christian country. I have accepted that, and though as a believer, I hope and pray and work for conversion, I believe that as a political and social fact, we have to go forward within that reality. Though I hold traditional Christian beliefs about sex and sexuality, I believe it is a good thing that gay people don’t have to live in the closet. I have registered my strong objections to some of Black Lives Matter’s agenda, but I rejoice that we live in a country where racial discrimination is mostly a thing of the past. I do believe that we should all be working towards a social, political, and economic order that expands opportunities for all people (though it would be unjust to mandate outcomes), and one in which policing methods are less brutal. All of these are things that can be achieved through liberal democratic processes.

What we are in great danger of losing, though, is the ability of people to dissent without risking personal and professional ruin. We are losing the respect that a just order must have for outsiders. A social order that marginalized gays and drove them into the closet has not become more just because it has ended the closet, but also effectively forced traditional Christians into closets because they do not affirm the new reigning dogma.

It is a good thing that racial discrimination has become not only illegal, but taboo. It is a bad thing that people who do not agree 100 percent with whatever the most recent iteration of the racially progressive line find themselves terrified into silence because they fear being fired, or having their professional and personal reputation ruined, simply because they are a dissenter.

I would urge my lawyer correspondent to recognize that the kinds of compromises that he would like to see will become impossible under the standards and practices of wokeness. We have to protect dissenters, not only in law, but in practice. In his earlier letter, the lawyer said that someone who doesn’t like the woke practices within a company should just go find another place to work. Strictly speaking, that might be true, but just because something is legal doesn’t make it right, or prudent.

Do we really want to make it normative in ordinary workplaces (as distinct from, say, churches or activist organizations, where the mission depends on buying into certain beliefs) for people to have to affirm all kinds of things that don’t really have anything to do with their work, or give up their job as a matter of conscience? Do we want to have that approach become normative across professions? Or rather, isn’t it more valuable to preserve a strong distinction between public and private life? I may not like the fact that my co-worker goes to the Pride parade, or flies a MAGA flag from his porch, but so what? I would rather live in a world in which they felt at liberty to do those things without having to worry about losing their jobs than one in which they conformed out of fear.

I have conversations from time to time with people who complain about family members who won’t shut up about politics. I mentioned to my wife over breakfast this morning something a friend of ours told me this week about how one of his conservative buddies has become intolerable by working Trump and MAGA into every conversation. My wife said one of her friends told her that her elderly parents have become MSNBC addicts, and won’t shut up about Trump, Trump, Trump, but from the other side.

Is this the kind of country we want — where everything is political, and there is no escaping it? I’m not just talking about Trump/Anti-Trump, but rather the infusion of ideology into every aspect of life. That is what a totalitarian social order does. One more quote from Live Not By Lies:

One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.

Infusing every aspect of life with ideology was a standard aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. Early in the Stalin era, N. V. Krylenko, a Soviet commissar (political officer), steamrolled over chess players who wanted to keep politics out of the game.

“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” he said. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must organize shock brigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.”

A reader who is a professor sent me this statement that went out to his university faculty this week from its diversity commissar, along with an attached checklist that is a perfect expression of what you might call the Therapeutic Totalitarian ethos:

As you are finalizing the details of your courses this semester, leveraging the development facilitated by our colleagues in digital learning over the summer, many of you are also likely aware that our students will be joining us during this time of heightened awareness of race, identity, power, and inequality. As a result, many of us have been working over the summer to reflect on our professional work, educating ourselves to build an understanding of our role in reproducing inequality and how we can incorporate more anti-racist practices into the work that we do.
With that in mind, I’m reaching out to share an updated list of tips and strategies that you can incorporate into your syllabi, your curriculum, and your classroom practices to promote inclusion and help all of our students cultivate a sense of belonging in our classroom communities, whether gathering online or face to face.
The list is about how to transform your classroom into a factory for indoctrinating shock brigades of wokeness. I’m going to ask him if I can publish it in a separate entry here. It is an astonishing document: so kind, considerate, nice, and utterly transformative of pedagogy, along woke ideological lines.
This, I would say, is what is so important for Millennials and Gen Z folks to learn: how you are being manipulated and massaged by authority in the name of compassion, and to internalize an ideology that is inherently totalitarian.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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