Feature 09.25.2023 13 minutes

Refusing the “Great Refusal”

‘Days Of Rage’ In Chicago

An anti-woke manifesto.

As the disciples of the New Left gained purchase over the great bureaucracies, they advanced the revolution through a process of relentless negation; it gnawed, chewed, smashed, and disintegrated the entire system of values that came before it. And their strategy was ingenious: the capture of America’s institutions was so gradual and bureaucratic, it largely escaped the notice of the American public, until it burst into consciousness following the death of George Floyd.

— Christopher F. Rufo, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything (Broadside Books, 2023)

To paraphrase Karl Marx, a specter is haunting the United States and the Western world more broadly: the specter of woke despotism. Most disturbingly, its epicenter is in the United States, a land once gloriously immune from the ideological and totalitarian temptations that so haunted and deformed European politics in the 20th century. As Christopher Rufo demonstrates in his indispensable new book, America’s Cultural Revolution, the woke revolution has been gaining traction for a very long time and is now on the cusp of “controlling everything,” from our universities and corporations to the prestige media to the increasingly censorious network of “social media” that stands in for civic discourse in the United States today.

The summer of 2020 brought the nihilistic face of this cultural revolution into the open by means of its frontal assault on what was left of the Old America. Statues of the great and good (among them Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, St. Junípero Serra, Teddy Roosevelt, and Quaker abolitionists) were toppled or defaced, as were those of men deemed hopelessly evil—foremost among them the Confederate generals who, while fighting for an unjust cause, often displayed impressive courage and personal integrity. Cities burned as radicals, much of the political class, and almost all the Democratic Party demanded the “defunding” of the police, an idea at once preposterous and profoundly immoral because of the harm it wreaks on the weak and vulnerable. The United States was denounced as “systematically racist,” as fundamentally unjust and indeed genocidal, and thus beyond political repair. Civic courage to confront this scandalous falsehood was in woefully short supply as intellectuals, journalists, and politicians competed to mouth revolutionary slogans worthy of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, excusing violence and mayhem on a mass scale. Too many who knew better remained silent.

As a result, what I have called a “culture of hate” replaced what was left of the old civilities, and national self-loathing became morally obligatory. As Rufo powerfully illustrates, educated suburban women, corporate executives, and our colleges and universities (with only a few exceptions) succumbed to the “Great Refusal” originally heralded by the likes of Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, and the revolutionary New Left in the 1960s. The existing order, they had insisted, must be rejected root and branch in the name of “democratic communism,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. In the summer of 2020, tedious ideological clichés long ascendant on college campuses, such as the aforementioned “systematic racism,” “white supremacy,” “male supremacy,” “neocolonialism,” “genocidal capitalism,” and “heterosexism,” became current in the mainstream. The Great Refusal was underway in high gear.

Black Lives Matter, an insidious organization founded by militant “trained Marxists,” admirers of Mao and Che who denounced the bourgeois family and biblical religion in the shrillest terms, was celebrated by craven, self-hating elites. Ideological fanatics (and grifters) were massively funded by a corporate establishment trying to buy protection, one whose own political and cultural inclinations had already been warped by exposure to woke ideology during their college years. In a word, America’s collective nervous breakdown during the summer of 2020 was preceded by a 60-year “war of position,” theorized by Marxist Antonio Gramsci and famously described by student activist Rudi Dutschke as a “long march through the institutions.”

Douglass or Bell?

This “long march” of civic and intellectual subversion is richly and amply documented in Rufo’s book. We see how revolutionary agitprop took pedagogic form in the influential writings of the Brazilian activist Paulo Freire, whose writings paved the way for coercive “consciousness raising” in our schools and a frontal ideological assault on “Eurocentrist,” “white supremacist,” “heteropatriarchical,” and “homophobic” modes of thinking and discourse. The White Man, and Western civilization more broadly, became the Enemies par excellence. The bleak and angry nihilism of Derrick Bell and his students from Harvard Law School (who fanned out to teach at our leading universities and law schools) denied “people of color” any meaningful agency in a “system” that was monolithically repressive and racist to its core. These racially-obsessed activist-scholars willfully denied the significant progress in race relations and racial justice in the United States that was there for all to see. In doing so, they helped poison civic and intellectual life, sowing hatred and suspicion instead of mutual respect and mutual accountability.

Blacks who appealed to America’s “color-blind” principles of liberty and equality, and who affirmed our common humanity under “Nature and Nature’s God,” were derided by Bell and his disciples as “minstrels” and racists in disguise. Closer to our day, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project portrayed the United States as little better than Nazi Germany, substituting our slave plantations for Hitler’s death camps and crematoria. Lincoln was derided as an incorrigible racist who did little or nothing to free the slaves (the new historiography risibly claims that they liberated themselves with no help from the Union Army). This toxic mixture of race hatred, historical mendacity, and deep and abiding pessimism and despair offers no hope of a constructive future for black Americans. Critical Race Theory—and sundry other radical doctrines—systematically deprives them of dignity and agency, both moral and civic. They are thus encouraged to bask in resentment and despair, or to war with an evil “system.”

Contrast these corrosive attitudes with those of Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, orator, writer, and diplomat of the nineteenth century who fought first slavery, and then race prejudice and discrimination, with rare determination and eloquence. He was a virile man who had no time of day for those who saw black men as helpless “victims.” Though he often disagreed with Lincoln, he admired him, and he praised the U.S. Constitution as a “Glorious Liberty Document.” He encouraged black Americans, including ex-slaves, to cultivate a spirit of resilience, pride, and self-help. He admired above all boldness, personal integrity, and independence of spirit. He was a critical but proud citizen of an American republic, whose principles he admired and whose practices he worked to redeem.

What better heroes do Americans have than Lincoln and Douglass—two noble human beings, one white, one black, who stood up to chattel slavery and in doing so vindicated the honor of the American republic? Their friendship, rooted in profound mutual admiration and respect, is testament to the promise of America. Both would agree that virility, not passivity or subjugation, self-critical patriotism and not nihilistic self-loathing, is the spirit of the free man and the free American—especially when mixed with a dose of humility before the Most High. In contrast, hatred and resentment enervate souls and tear apart the bonds of civic friendship that unite free men and women. Without gratitude for the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, our republic is cast off from its moorings.

Winning the Language Game

Woke despotism has not yet won the day. There is still time for resistance, reversal, and reclamation. The woke spirit may have infiltrated the “commanding heights” of American society, as Rufo and others have said. That indeed poses a most daunting task. But among our resources is the very fact that nothing constructive or enduring can be sustained by the seething resentment, anger, and repudiation that it so recklessly promotes.

Let me now offer some advice for salvaging and renewing the spirit of American republicanism. In general, it is predicated on the thought articulated so well by George Orwell concerning the necessary hygiene of language. Ideology always seeks to commandeer and command language, to twist its meaning for its own perfidious purposes.

Therefore, those who love our principles of justice—equality of rights, equality under the law, merit and responsibility—must not be taken in by the alluring homonyms that give old and precious words radically new and pernicious meanings. As John O’Sullivan has written, those homonyms subvert “liberal democracy as it was understood by, say, Winston Churchill or FDR or John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.” This counterfeit version of liberal democracy “is not really open to institutions and policies that run counter to is ‘liberationist’ instincts.” It thus grows ever more hostile to fundamental freedoms in the name of “social justice,” “equity,” and a conception of “democracy” that runs roughshod over the self-government of a free people.

As endlessly evoked by woke ideologues, “social justice” has nothing to do with equal rights, equal opportunity, or the recognition of a common human dignity. “Social justice warriors” are not interested in the careful weighing and balancing of the rival claims of the rich, poor, and everyone in-between. Instead, they wish to tear down, to level, to “equalize” in a way that necessitates the harshest tyranny. Truth be told, that ubiquitous phrase from the summer of 2020—“Black Lives Matter”—had nothing decent, humane, or universalist about it. In Orwellian fashion, the phrase meant to convey that only some black lives mattered—black lives that could be weaponized, but not those murdered in Seattle’s occupied CHAZ zone. Nor those of the victims who died as a direct result of “defunding the police,” nor those who die every weekend in the murderous gang-laden slums of Chicago. A movement that forbids us on pain of cancellation from proclaiming the noble principle, inseparably biblical and American, that “All lives matter,” is insidious through and through.

Likewise, the increasingly obligatory alphabetical agitprop must be resisted and challenged. These include DEI—the insidious acronym that justifies the new tyranny of coerced and bureaucratically-imposed slogans, doctrines, and programs required by Critical Race Theory. They include also our new LGBTQIA++ regime, unremitting in its obsession with “queerness,” “transgenderism,” and sexual “fluidity.” Again in classically Orwellian fashion, “diversity” demands absolute ideological uniformity. Blacks and women, and gays for that matter, who think independently or challenge the new “fissionism” (as the sociologist Peter Baehr calls it), which denies any normative sexual differences rooted in biological nature between men and women, are relegated to the category of traitors to their race and gender.

Similarly, the once noble word “equity” has been distorted beyond all recognition. No longer connoting fairness, balance, an effort to adjust a discrepancy, or an exception not covered by the letter of the law (as in Aristotle’s Ethics or the Anglo-American common law tradition), it now demands a perfect equality of outcomes for every race or ethnic group. As the journalist Barton Swaim has put it, progressives who invoke this ideological reinvention of equity “believe…against all evidence, that any variance in success among individuals of different races must be the result of conscious or unconscious racism.” So understood, “equity” wars with human nature, and would require draconian tyranny if it were to be truly applied in practice. It has also led to patently unfair results—witness the quotas that minimize admissions for Jews and Asians in elite institutions. Nothing good can result from equity so construed except injustice, tyranny, and racial and social conflict, a new “war of all against all.”

“Inclusion” is equally dishonest and also insidiously Orwellian: Those who believe in the color-blind constitution, who do not loathe their country, and who believe in the old verities and morality are not welcome in the woke university, law firm, corporation, or media outlet. The woke “community” is in truth as exclusionary as it gets. More broadly, DEI is a classic example of what the anti-totalitarian dissidents behind the Iron Curtain in the days before 1989 called the “ideological Lie.” Every letter and word in their political nomenclature is a lie. Those who choose to live in its fictive “Second Reality” quickly lose contact with the most elementary realities. In the end, they risk losing the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, to see what even an open-eyed child can see.

No Compromise, No Surrender

This brings me to the final and most essential point. Every decent American must reject the quintessentially ideological move of locating evil exclusively in suspect groups who are said to be guilty for who they are and not what they have done. That was tried by the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Nazis with murderous consequences. Nor are some racial or “gender” categories composed exclusively of “innocent victims” bereft of sin and any capacity for wrongdoing. We are all capable of being “victims and executioners,” as Albert Camus reminded us after the Second World War. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke liberating truth when he wrote that “the line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” That is the path of moral sanity and political decency recommended by both the Christian Solzhenitsyn and the unbelieving Camus. To believe otherwise is to utterly falsify the human condition and to succumb to ideology and fanaticism.

Thus the ideological Lie in its new woke instantiation must be rejected as the crucial first step toward overcoming the aspiring despotism of our woke tyrants. We do not yet face a full-scale totalitarian or ideological state, but the logic of totalitarianism has been institutionalized throughout government as well as civil society. The hour is indeed later than we would like to think. In this new situation, we must resist—courageously and self-consciously—a cruelly censorious cancel culture and the intoxication of brutal Twitter mobs. We must resist, but not emulate. We must not partake of or repeat racialist lies (whether by the dwindling band of old-fashioned racists or from the more pernicious and numerous new ideological ones) or repeat ideological lies we know to be false and destructive. We cannot become Havel’s “Greengrocerers” who unthinkingly mimic ideological clichés. To be sure, we are not required to scream the truth in the city square on a daily basis. Prudence and even elemental common sense must dictate how we exercise our civic and moral integrity. But civic courage, and no small dose of Churchillian fortitude, is today a prerequisite for moral and civic recovery, for winning our country back from the ideologues who so disdain it.

Rufo is right: our real choice is to be thoughtful, principled, and spirited “counterrevolutionaries.” We must not fight black racialism with an equally misguided white identity politics. Instead, we must take our stand with the principles of ’76, the majestic courage of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the Christian gentlemanliness of Robert Woodson, who rightly insists that “1776 Unites,” and the concern for stubborn facts that animates the great black social scientist Thomas Sowell, who rightly teaches that disparities are not coextensive with discrimination.

As this litany indicates, our attachment to 1776 and everything it represents cannot be simple-minded or naïve—we must renew the wisdom of our forebears in light of the challenge of a thoroughgoing nihilism they could hardly have imagined. In this vein, we must recognize and acknowledge that we are more than a “propositional nation,” even if we are a nation that should remain dedicated to noble “self-evident truths.” We are also a territorial democracy, with a history that is uniquely our own and with borders that demarcate us as a self-governing nation. As the political scientist Carson Holloway recently observed, in recent decades “Marriage has been redefined, public education has been used to indoctrinate the young in radical sexual ideologies, and religion has been marginalized—all while propositional-nation conservatives have been unaware that the nation’s character has been marginalized.” That will not do.

One final note. In refusing to bow before woke ideology, especially the madness of gender ideology which wars against God’s creation and the natural order of things, there is no better path to follow than to reaffirm the oldest and deepest truth, the bedrock truth of all political order and moral good sense: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

A serious conversation, lively and respectful, must be inaugurated among all those who wish to preserve moral and political sanity in our country today, a true coalition of the brave. In doing so, we must remain at once spirited and moderate, conservative and counterrevolutionary, manly and humane. At the same time, we must not confuse high prudence and genuine moderation, always to be cherished, with the “false reptile courage” that Edmund Burke warned against among false friends of liberty who refused to stand up to the “armed doctrine” of Jacobinism in his own time. There is in truth no middle way between the Great Affirmation and the Great Refusal. Our work is all the more difficult since this self-hating Refusal has now more or less become public orthodoxy. But the battle can and must be fought and won.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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