Salvo 04.05.2023 12 minutes

Malice in Wonderland

Wonderland background. Mad tea party

Diving down the woke rabbit holes of the therapeutic and postmodernism.

An acquaintance of mine recently remarked over a cup of coffee, “It’s crazy, some of the things I see on the news about what those woke people want to do these days. You just can’t believe it.” To ordinary citizens there is an Alice in Wonderland quality that pervades the ongoing culture war. You may recall that in Lewis Carroll’s fable, Alice plunges down a mysterious rabbit hole and confronts a bizarre alternate reality where the normal qualities and definitions of life have been turned on their head. She tries to keep her bearings by noting skeptically, “One can’t believe impossible things.” But the Queen reassures her, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed six impossible things before breakfast.” Increasingly, progressive pronouncements on an array of issues, particularly gender and racial radicalism, reflect this same surreal quality.

In America’s woke Wonderland, astonishing things transpire and, like Alice, we are left rubbing our eyes. The Mad Hatters of the Left tell us men can become women simply by saying so, and vice versa, and that human beings come packaged in a variety of gender identities: transgender, genderqueer, gender-fluid, gender nonconforming, agender, gendervoid, omnigender, pangender, and countless permutations. On racial matters, they proclaim that William Shakespeare is a primary architect of “whiteness” in an oppressive Western tradition and that mathematics is a racist reflection of “white supremacy culture” because its demand for correct answers reinforces the idea of perfectionism (that students shouldn’t make mistakes) and paternalism (teachers or other experts can and should correct mistakes). To regular folks, these head-scratching positions turn everything in American society upside down. They seem to defy not only reason but reality itself.

Where has this progressive Wonderland, with its fantastic formulations and bizarre claims, come from, and what fuels it? Certainly not from the hard-nosed trade union tradition of the Democratic Party nor the egalitarian, equal-rights tradition that brought the women’s vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor from Marxism, though conservatives blame it, too.

Instead, true to the dictum that “politics lie downstream from culture,” it stems from two bodies of thought dominating progressive political circles over the last few decades: a therapeutic culture that has exploded in American life since the mid-twentieth century; and postmodernism, an intellectual current prevalent in the humanities and social sciences since the eighties, which has proselytized a gospel of linguistic radicalism. The therapeutic Left and the postmodern Left have converged to shape a mindset among contemporary woke activists—largely college-educated, privileged elites in the Democratic Party—that awards transformative powers to feelings and words. Its advocates believe that a fusillade of emotions and language can deconstruct long-standing social structures and beliefs and remove all impediments to self-realization. With a combination of hubris and magical thinking, they vow to vanquish reason and reconstitute reality itself. 

The Therapeutic Tragedy

The movement promoting therapeutic self-fulfillment emerged in the early 1900s and swept through the nation’s institutions and values by mid-century. As historians and critics have observed—most famously Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic—the development of an urban, consumer, bureaucratic society gradually produced “psychological man.” This modern character type, a successor to the self-reliant, hard-working, aspiring individualist of an earlier age, grew preoccupied with personal growth, self-esteem, and an unceasing quest for a state of emotional well-being. Increasingly unmoored from religious restraints and enticed by visions of an abundant life in a new consumer economy, psychological man jettisoned morality for therapy as a guide to living the good life. In this new cultural calculus, mental health replaced character formation and self-fulfillment surmounted self-control as ideals for individual development. In the words of Christopher Lasch, a leading analyst of this trend, the result was a modern American culture awash in “fantasies of total gratification.” 

The quest for individual fulfillment triggered an explosive growth of the “helping professions”—therapists, counselors, bureaucratic agencies, child-rearing experts—who institutionalized the new cultural impulse. It was taught in influential bestselling books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which combined “sound pediatrics with sound psychology” to construct a modern child-rearing paradigm of emotional health to anxious parents.

This ascendancy of the therapeutic culture encouraged an obsession with identity, generating an internal struggle to shape a fluid, malleable self into a form conducive to achieving happiness. The modern individual, in Lasch’s words, seeks fulfillment through “the ability to play a variety of roles and to assume an endless variety of freely chosen identities.” The therapeutic revolution also encouraged an obsession with victimization, promoting the notion that each of us is emotionally beset by forces beyond our control and awarding victims an elevated moral standing. Finally, the therapeutic mindset encouraged an obsession with feelings. Seeing human beings as fundamentally creatures of emotion, it insisted that the claims of mental health and the constant need for “feeling good about yourself” far outweighed the demands of reason. 

Progressives found much to savor in the therapeutic vision of personal growth. In the early 1900s, reformers launched the mental hygiene movement to transform schools, courts, prisons, industry, and government into institutions guaranteeing the mental, as well as socioeconomic, health of citizens. In 1962, the “Port Huron Statement” of the Students for a Democratic Society saw participatory democracy as a pathway to “self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity…finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic…. [Overcoming the] Loneliness, estrangement, isolation [that] describe the vast distance between man and man today.” In the nineties, Bill Clinton emoted, “I feel your pain,” and convened a group of psychological experts at Camp David to tender advice at several moments of crisis in his administration. Hillary Clinton embraced a “politics of meaning” that diagnosed America as suffering from “a sleeping sickness of the soul” and offered a solution through “redefining what it means to be a human being in the twentieth century.”

By the early 2000s, the therapeutic Left marshalled its troops in universities. Drawn from the psychologized world of therapy and encounter groups, campus radicals demanded “safe spaces” where oppressed groups and their traumatized student supporters would be shielded from words and ideas that made them uncomfortable. They cuddled with “therapy dogs,” raked soothing designs in sandboxes, and practiced “mindfulness” and “self-care” exercises. They insisted on “trigger warnings” for academic subjects that might prompt emotional trauma and denounced “microaggressions” as a species of assault. 

In law enforcement, activists have proposed replacing the police with squadrons of mental health experts who could supposedly defuse the vast majority of lawbreaking crises. Progressives endorse “restorative justice,” a model that replaces retribution in the legal system and discipline in schools with a therapeutic approach. They pursue emotional healing through “restorative practices” such as “peace circles, peer mediation, community conferencing, and trauma-informed approaches.” 

“Social-emotional learning” (SEL) has reimagined the mission of America’s primary and secondary schools as fostering values, emotional states, and mental health. According to the influential Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the goal of SEL is to teach students “the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships” as the teacher takes on the role of therapist, social worker, and surrogate parent. 

Jettisoning reason for the twin goals of mental health and social equity, the therapeutic Left issues a steady stream of psychological bromides—“We all deserve a voice,” “Everyone needs to feel safe,” “Let everyone be who they really are.” They endorse a radical racialism that dismisses equality under the law and equality of opportunity and instead stress qualities that supposedly accrue to one’s racial identity such as “white supremacy” or “black pain.” They promote a gender radicalism holding that the individual can transform into any kind of sexual being as a function of self-fulfillment. The therapeutic Left champions a democratization of feelings where everyone is always entitled to happiness, as well as pathologizing democracy, where private baggage is transported wholesale into the public realm. Workaday Americans should keep a sharp eye out for a rabbit hole marked “therapeutic culture” lest they find themselves suddenly adrift in woke Wonderland.

The Postmodern Turn

A second entrance descending into woke Wonderland is marked “postmodernism,” a philosophical tendency toward the absence of meaning that employs bewildering jargon that makes it all but unintelligible to non-specialist readers. (“Speak English!” said the Eaglet in Alice in Wonderland. “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!”) But those with the fortitude to hack through the verbal underbrush discover that postmodernism insists that logic, knowledge, empiricism, and truth are but the products of power relations and must be deconstructed in the name of liberation.

The postmodern perspective rests upon several defining principles. First, its followers insist that language is the key to human endeavor. Arguing that the relation between words and the objects they signify is arbitrarily constructed and dominated by powerful groups in society, postmodernists see an ongoing struggle to establish linguistic control over the meaning of words, ideas, and expressions.

This leads to a second postmodernist principle: all categories of human endeavor are “socially constructed” according to hierarchies of power. For postmodern radicals, gender roles pivot on the linguistic construction of male and female; education is a cultural process embedding certain modes of discourse; race is a social construct embedding a language of supremacy; politics is a semiotic battleground over privileging certain discourses of power. 

A third postmodernist conviction posits the centrality of “binaries” in the struggle for linguistic liberation. In the words of one postmodernist, “discursive categories constitute sites of oppression,” and Western societies express them through binaries that embody privilege: man/woman, white/black, master/slave, order/chaos, sanity/madness. Deconstructionists such as Derrida envisioned liberation as reversing traditional binary significations while Foucault proposed a “principle of reversal” to rescue and elevate what had been stifled in Western discourse—his favorite conceptual victims were madness and sexual deviancy—to clear the path for radical reform.

All of this has produced the final element in postmodernism: a strong relativism. The disciples of postmodernism deny the objective nature of reality, dismiss the possibility of objectively true or false statements about that reality, reject the notion of absolute moral truths, and scorn any suggestion of superior or inferior social forms, values, and cultures. All such matters are constructed by discourses of privilege. “Enlightenment rationality” is but a mask hiding oppressive, patriarchal, racist, even violent structures.

Convinced that language can set you free, postmodernists have embarked on a crusade to reshape texts, revamp discourses, and revise narratives. Stanford University recently vowed to eliminate “harmful language” such as the word “freshman” because it “lumps groups of students using masculine language into gender binary groups that don’t include everyone.” Or consider the diversity training program at Lockheed Martin which aims to deconstruct “white male privilege” by characterizing terms that support it (e.g., “founding fathers,” “rugged individualism,” “work ethic,” etc.) as “devastating” to women and minorities.

Postmodern leftism fuels the transsexual movement’s demands for the use of appropriate pronouns and non-binary phrases. This ubiquitous campaign to replace the standard English “he/him” and “she/her” with a generic “they/their” or a bewildering array of invented options—“zie/zim,” “zir/zis,” “ey/em,” “eir/eirs,” and others—reflects the deconstructionist impulse to revamp discourse as a liberationist tactic. BetterUp, a diversity and inclusion operation catering to businesses, explains that revising pronouns is necessary to “un-trench the gender binary” and provide “a way of affirming identity.” More extreme demands for non-gendered language include using “birthing person” instead of mother, “non-birthing parent” instead of father, “Doddy” for a combination of mommy and daddy, “Sibster” instead of sister, “Sibter” instead of brother, and “Mx.” instead of “Mr.” or “Ms.” as an honorific.  

The progressive war on words is not simply an authoritarian tactic to silence opposition but an attempt to manipulate language as an instrument of emancipation from oppression. But instead of positing the superiority of feelings as a way of knowing and being, the postmodern Left dismisses reason outright as a fraud, if not an impossibility, because of its fatal connection to the uncertainty of language.

This mélange of therapeutic/postmodern leftism has sent Americans tumbling down a rabbit hole into a progressive Wonderland where woke March Hares and Cheshire Cats reject the dictates of reason and blissfully ignore the restraints of reality. Education radicals administering 18 Virginia school districts refuse to notify winners of prestigious National Merit Scholarship commendations because it would “hurt the feelings” of students who did not win.  A university professor demands “Black bereavement leave” for minority teachers who are emotionally overwhelmed by episodes of violence involving African Americans. A publisher engages “sensitivity readers” to remove offensive words—including “fat,” “ugly,” “black,” “crazy”—from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A new edition of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers receives a similar ideological cleansing to eradicate racist and sexist language. In the name of mental health, progressive school “counselors” rename and re-clothe students claiming “trans” status without the knowledge or permission of their parents.

The end game for therapeutic/postmodern leftists is to shut down all opposing ideas in order to protect their sacred feelings. Like the Queen of Hearts, they shout, “Off with their heads!” at the slightest provocation. This strategy encompasses not only speech codes and social ostracization but shrieking mobs of progressives that actually squelch debate. A few weeks ago, radicals at Stanford Law School shouted down a federal judge under the imprimatur of a DEI dean. In prepared remarks after commandeering the podium at the event, she mouthed a series of therapeutic platitudes justifying the action as an idealistic attempt “to create a space of belonging for all people” and lauding protestors as seeking “Just to be free, to be themselves.” She also granted that while free speech guarantees might be valuable, “I understand why people feel like the harm is so great that we might need to reconsider those policies.”

Leaving Our Woke Wonderland

In the contemporary culture wars, principled defenders of America’s liberal, constitutional order must stand resolute. The Founding Fathers, inspired by Enlightenment thinkers, created a system wherein divided government and a civil society of citizens guaranteed the expression of interests and opinions while working to control the passions of both factions and individuals. Both therapeutic culture and postmodernism undermine this rational, realistic arrangement with their rejection of reason and denial of reality. So while it is fair to grant the important, but not determinative, role of emotions and language in human endeavor, thoughtful citizens should uphold the Enlightenment standard of rational examination; they should defend the notion of a lived reality that is ontologically independent of our words and our feelings.

Moreover, principled citizens must act to practice, to live these principles. They must use intellectual and financial resources to challenge woke educational agendas. They must oppose, through their voting and buying, government and corporate attempts to impose woke standards that strangle free speech and consecrate feelings. They must, in their everyday speech, refuse to bow to the tyranny of pronouns and the exorbitant demands for sensitivity.

Failure means submitting to an extended incarceration in this woke Malice in Wonderland. Alice, trapped in her disorienting dream journey, exclaimed, “it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!” But eventually, of course, she awakened from her disturbing reverie of upside down experiences and returned to the real world. We may not be so fortunate.

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.

Suggested reading

to the newsletter