The path back requires new confidence in the face of today's dominant delusions and doctrines.
The Will to Kneel
Our intellectual elite would break us by demanding our assent to the absurd.
Opponents of “Wokeness” devote much more energy to cataloguing its specific lunacies than to understanding its underlying psychology. What links (for instance) a belief that the major threat faced by black people is murder by racist police with a belief that one’s “gender” is entirely a matter of choice? Anyone who has ever attempted to engage in a rational debate with someone holding such views—views contradicted by easily discoverable empirical evidence—will have found themselves up against a kind of will to believe: an intellectual equivalent of a Berlin Wall. What is fuelling the spread of this reality-denial through the fabric of Western civilization? .
There is a tendency to see Wokeness as a new phenomenon but it has deep roots. Our 21st century woke intelligentsia resemble in many ways the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set with their disdain for the conservative social mores of the common man, their confused melding of socialism and snobbery, the uptight and the louche. Radicalism, then and now, is all about identifying classes of perceived victimhood—whether proletarian or ethnic minority or sexually dysphoric—and signalling that, in relation to these victims, you personally are one of the broad-minded, virtuous, and sophisticated ones. By protesting and voting Left you are doing your utmost to correct each and every social injustice.
Mentally walled off from this romance is the pesky fact that social injustices—such as “inequality” or “inequity”—persist in spite of the utmost that left-wing politics has been doing for more than a century now. Mentally walled off too is the paradox that your piety looks an awful lot like a contempt for the supposed atavism of your unwoke fellow man. And it is one of the great ironies that the emergence of our West-hating, capitalism-hating intelligentsia as a leisured class was only made possible by the engine of the industrial revolution and the huge increase in wealth (and general societal welfare) that it afforded.
One key aspect of the Progressive mindset is the faith invested in political activism. Few people would now question the heroism of Rosa Parks or the early suffragettes. But the template of “protest” demands reappraisal; does it still apply to the self-engrossed student activist or the opportunistic feral looter or the queer pride marcher having a really pleasant (and entirely unthreatened) day out? Progressives see a campaigner for social justice as motivated simply by a desire for …social justice. Egalitarians just want everyone to be equal. Queer, Feminist, and Anti-Racism campaigners are dovish souls just wanting to be accepted for what they are. Conservatives on the other hand think they notice the champagne in the socialist, the thought-policeman in the “Pride” marcher, the racist in the anti-racist, the coquetry in the celebrity feminist.
From a conservative perspective the seeds of all this are sown in schooling. Anyone who has taught in a school or a university will know that the failure to hold Progressive views is seen as a regrettable form of atavism. This has been true for so many decades now that generations of young people have subliminally absorbed a Progressive world view long before they are able to assess—from an adult perspective—its provenance as a world view.
Humanities, social sciences, and civics courses in particular have long acted as a kind of soft-left sheep dip. And in recent decades things have got dramatically worse with an exponential growth in the absorption into school and university curricula of the study of grievances presented not as political agendas but as matters of fact. Critical Race Theory is just one instance of a whole emerging pseudo-pedagogy being nurtured in the privileged sinecures of university humanities departments. If ever subjected to rigorous, public interrogation, its bogus intellectual foundations would dissolve. But an enduring sense of elite universities as being at the pinnacle of civilization remains largely unchallenged in wider society.
Most people will be only vaguely aware of the victimhood-grievance concentrates that have been distilled in university humanities departments. But the politico-obsessives have won the day nevertheless, because they have (and in the space of just a few years) radically shifted the ground from gender dysphoria being of interest only to the small number of people actually affected by it to now being universally acknowledged a major issue in society, requiring complex legislation and mission statements from virtually all institutions, both public and private.
Every large organization jumps at the chance to burnish its anti-discrimination credentials. The inherent dreariness of the bureaucratic modus vivendi makes each new social justice fad, however absurd, a reason to get excited. To resist going with the flow may have uncomfortable, even painful, consequences You may risk spending the next chunk of your life trying to prove that you are not in fact racist or sexist or in the grip of a phobia. This, for most people, is just not worth it. Amongst the college-educated middle class it has virtually become a matter of common good manners to opine—when the occasion demands—that one inhabits a land which is failing in its duty to minorities of various kinds (especially racial and sexual).
Surveying the past seventy years or so reveals the liberal democracies are now several decades deep into an era of systemic “anti-racism”. But few would now dare to opine that redressing past racial injustice towards people of black ethnic origin has gone about as far as is reasonable or desirable and that improving black outcomes should now largely be in the hands of people themselves. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the BLM riots in the summer of 2020 is how they served to obscure the story of millions of black people in America and elsewhere, living prosperous and successful lives in a country of which they are proud. Most black Americans are neither victims nor perpetrators of violence. The stereotyping of them as oppressed victims is one of the more dismal by-products of Western liberalism’s 21st century moral confusion.
There can however be psychological benefits in denying this. Reihan Salam at the Manhattan Institute, for example, sees in the psychology of the white liberal BLM supporter a form of interethnic “status jockeying,” where “those who see themselves as… upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites.” It can allow one to feel morally and intellectually a cut above the common herd whilst retaining the comfort blanket of one’s peer-groupthink. It can have the added benefit of allowing one to feel virtuous and caring in a way that is cost free; without any impairment to one’s ability to pursue one’s own unfettered self-interest same as before.
Were it purely a matter of such sticks and carrots, one would expect that ordinary non-woke Joes and Janes would grant only a sullen obeisance to the vanities of the politically correct elite. That this is not generally the case must mean that other factors are at play. The relentless, surround-sound victimhood narrative from cradle to grave—in school, on TV and smartphone—is clearly one of them.
Television drama (and the advertisements that fund much of it) has become a kind of super-spreader of the hyper-liberal virus. Much of British television for example now adheres to a strict scriptwriters’ tick-box convention: non-white person traduced but eventually revealed to be a surprisingly decent sort—Tick….seemingly respectable middle class white person eventually revealed to have a sinister dark side—Tick…nice gay couple included —Tick, etc., etc. In this way the cherished belief system of the hyper-liberal comes to be absorbed in insidiously diluted form by almost everyone. Those who do not live their lives obsessed by “the real issues” will probably just passively allow it all to wash over them.
Another contributor to the spread of distorted narratives of grievance is that it has, in the media age, become just too easy to have proxy off-the-shelf opinions; a sort of opinion inflation. Properly informing oneself on any subject requires an intellectual amalgam of curiosity and skepticism. It is relentless hard work which rather few people are up for unless it is an area of expertise that can be seen to offer them tangible benefits, like career advancement. An ability to put current affairs in perspective also requires a thorough grounding in history and, in my experience, it is a characteristic of truly well-informed people that their minds are not consumed by politics. This allows politico-obsessives to exert a hugely outsize power in popular discourse.
The second half of the 20th century saw a retreat from the Christian conception of the individual as an intrinsically flawed being, prone to sin and prone to error. But no mainstream politician or journalist would ever now dare challenge their voting or reading publics to examine their own individual consciences and consider which of them would escape whipping.
The general public is now by definition irreproachable. What Christopher Lasch famously called a culture of narcissism has become so hardwired into the Western psyche that it is now barely noticed. The significance of this cultural change is hard to overstate but modern conservatism generally has no more to say about it than Progressives do. A culture that acknowledges that most people are ineluctably less than perfect will be less susceptible to the sanctification of particular sub-sets as victims. And those designated as such would be less likely to feel it as a reason for abrogating any personal responsibility for the condition of their lives.
So what, if anything, can good men and women do to move the dial a little way back towards sanity? The best I can offer is this: Western civilization’s most fervent deconstructors paradoxically live (and often live well) in ivory towers, courtesy of the taxpayer. Conservative administrations—like the one currently enjoying its day in the sun in the UK—should surely be applying themselves, as their number one priority, to turning off the tap. Americans, for now, will have to seek remedies at a different level of government.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.