New reply from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Sarah Haider

Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are discussing the topic “Is the culture war lost?” on the Letter site. (The “war” is between traditional liberals and the extremist wing of the Left known as Wokeism.)

When Sarah wrote her first email, arguing that yes, the culture war has already been lost to the Woke, I featured her thoughts in a post. Now Ayaan has responded, and is not as pessimistic. Click on the screenshot to read her response:

I won’t quote it in extenso, but I will say that Hirsi Ali mentions her own experience of being canceled for her criticisms of Islam, and argues that now Western sentiments are turning in her favor. (She compares Wokeism to Islamism as forms of religious ideology.) Here are two short quotes, and then you must read the rest for yourself:

My understanding is that you and I mistook many of the woke for true liberals when in fact they are anything but.

I found and still receive abiding support from true liberals. Some are world famous like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. You may even recall that Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work to help bring about the emancipation of Muslim women. There are many other true liberals—too many to name here—whom I met over the years in various countries whose views are completely aligned with yours and mine.

I bring up the distinction between the true liberals and the woke because I believe this is the reason you are wrong when you argue that the woke have won—that they are the empire now, and the rest of us are the underdog rebels.

As long as there are true liberals out there, I do not think the woke are anywhere near any kind of victory. The key thing to remember is the resilience of the philosophy of liberalism—the sheer strength of the institutions that evolved based on those principles and the strength of the ideas and ideals of universal human rights, individual freedom, the sanctity of life, the rule of law and property rights, the democratic process, free inquiry, science, and free markets.

and the ending:

It seems to me that the more the woke turn their fire against true liberals—for example, the author J.K. Rowling—the more they reveal the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of their cult, and the more they encourage other true liberals to cease the appeasement of wokeism that has characterized the past decade or so.

In short, I am more optimistic than you because I believe both battles—against the Islamists and against the woke—can be won. And the latter are in fact the much weaker foe.

Note that this dialogue will continue for a while, so check back at the site to see what’s happening, as I may not call attention to all new posts.

As for me, I think the war is lost, at least for a long time, as there are few “true liberals” in the mainstream media (Nick Cohen is one) compared to the Wokeists who run the New York Times, the Washington Post, all magazines with “New York” in the title, nearly all American and British colleges and universities, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a host of other influential organs and organizations. We’ll know the Woke have lost when we can look at the New York Times and not see the entire front page derived from Critical Theory. We’re a long way from that day.


  1. merilee
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    VERY interesting conversation between those two.

  3. dd
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    The vast majority of people are unaware of this change and what it will mean in their life. How do I know? From conversations with people…including some who think of themselves as progressives.

    Case in point: a friend’s nephew applies to Harvard. Has perfect SAT, grades, extracurriculars and on and on. The family was shocked that he didn’t get in.

    Understand, they are all big progressives. So, it fell to me to let them know that his nephew’s being white, straight, male, meant that he had 0-adjacent, on a great day, chance of getting in. Even with stellar credentials.

    They were stunned by my explanation. I am not going into more details….but even many gays, supposedly affluent and educated soigne dernier cri gays, don’t get what’s going on.

    • Richard C
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Pardon my skepticism, but your friend’s nephew really got a perfect 1600 SAT on top of a 4.0 GPA, and has ultra-impressive after-school credentials, and was rejected by Harvard?

      Their largest undergraduate demographic is still white males at 23% (, followed by white females at 18%.

      Since Harvard also only admits 1 in 20 applicants, is anti-cis-white racism really the only possible explanation?

  4. AST
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    There is no reason to be optimistic. Actually
    there is a reason for being very fatalistic about all of this: the Woke have already won. The likely next VP, Harris, is a champion of identity politics. She was even chosen because of her identity. And given Biden’s age, she may very well become president in the next four years. The first woke president.

    The reality is that identity politics is not a fringe idea. Who are we kidding? It’s mainstream in the Democratic Party. It’s mainstream among the cultural and academic elite, among the media networks and also in the economic elite (not because they really believe it but just for profit). It’s mainstream in the istitutions, in public education and in the tech industry. The cultural war, if there ever was one, is obviously lost.

    We can say goodbye to the Enlightenment ideals.

    • Historian
      Posted October 9, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I find it curious that in your analysis you neglect the biggest identity group of all: white identity politics. It has brought us Trump and Trumpism. It has brought us the threat to democracy and a regime that is anti-science, corrupt, racist, theocratic oriented and profoundly illiberal. I do not know what your politics are, but they aren’t important. Wittingly or unwittingly you are a mouthpiece for those who represent the greatest threat to Enlightenment ideals since the rise of communism and fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. As such I dismiss your analysis as at best a warped and dangerous understanding of reality.

    • Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t call Harris a champion of identity politics at all. Her gender, race, and party make her a reluctant standard bearer for the Woke. She doesn’t want to alienate them for obvious reasons. At the same time, she really is proud to run as a female Black candidate that is one step away from the presidency. I think she does talk about that way too much. Hillary Clinton had this problem. While people will vote for her based on her race and gender, it is wrong for her to run on that basis. It puts her own personal status above policy and the voters. And if I hear her tell her origin story one more time, I’ll puke.

  5. rickflick
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I tend to agree with Ali. I think the woke are a temporary thorn in the side of progress.
    I was curious by her inclusion of free markets as an element of the liberal tradition. Free markets can mean laissez-faire, which tends not to be particularly kind to more than the elite. Liberalism to me would be economics which leans toward material egalitarianism.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted October 10, 2020 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Whether the woke have won is moot, I tend to think they are indeed more of a temporary thorn, a hopefully passing fashion.
      Ali points out that Islamism is a much more formidable foe.

    • Posted October 10, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I’m with you. I think there is bound to be a huge backlash in the middle of wokeism’s power center, academia. Academic freedom is too precious for most to give it up, and wokeism as we know and don’t love it is absolutely hostile to academic freedom. Something’s gotta give.

  6. BobTerrace
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I always thought of myself as a progressive liberal and don’t like the term true liberal.

    I do like what and how Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks on this topic.

  7. Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    In this instance, I agree more with the gist of Ayaan’s letter, except for the JK Rowling part. The picture is more chequered.

    Wokism is a collection of sometimes entirely unrelated things that get linked up through a hyperpartisan Democrat subculture in the US, and generally through postmodernist “studies” students. In the US, add various adjacent movements and developments, antiracism, critical race theory and so on. While they make the elements of a woke person by family resemblance, its also a collection of separate things. On the internet, none of the Woke seem to have ever read as much as a second word by Kimberlé Crenshaw, after “intersectionality”. I place high confidence on the fact that they know generally nothing of Marx.

    Ayaan and Sarah are both ex-Muslims and understandably are most concerned with “islamophobia”. However, it’s not a particulary important aspect of the Woke.

    In that regard, the woke complete fade into hyperpartisan Democratic beliefs. If the Republicans are tough on immigrants (allegedly, they love cheap, powerless servants), the Democrat hyperpartisan loves evertything about them. When the Republicans embrace (fundamentalist) Christianity and hate everyone else, the hyperpartisan Democrat loves every different faith, except Christians. Republicans love red hats, the hyperpartisan Democrat hates them and so on. In a way, what we call Woke is often just a very bright virtual signal of anti-GOPism.

    A different aspect is inherited from the 1990s “postmodernist subculture”, as Barbara Epstein called it, which is an anti-western, anti-white-guy, anti-STEM kind of ideology that festered in certain corners of academia. This forms the foundation of subsequent feminist movements since the 3rd wave. This current, “intersectional” one is the fourth incarnation and some features are typical for HuffPo and EverydaySexism etc. They love astrology, non-christian woo, and are generally accommodationistic. The “islamophobia” screaming “regressive left” sits somewhere between all of this, and is fashionable with Very Online People who were socialiced on Tumblr. But are they important really? No.

    Ayaan is correct, and good to see that she isn’t accepting the typical right wing demagoguery about Islam accommodationism everywhere. It’s just not true.

  8. Posted October 9, 2020 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the war is lost at all. The fact that some major media outlets like the NY Times have become woke is more a reflection on their desperate pandering to retain relevance. They’ve been forced to the left by the right’s abandonment of truth in favor of Trump. They are just playing to their audience which is more left than ever. While their woke reporters and editors seem to have won for the moment, when the rest of the world turns sour on Wokeness, they will be dropped by the NYT ownership and management like hot potatoes.

    It will take some time but I predict that Wokeness has already reached its peak and will start to lose favor. Its bullying, total lack of fairness, and detachment from the truth will bring it down. We still have to fight, of course, but we will win.

    • Posted October 9, 2020 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      It’s not just the NYT, it’s every university in the US and UK save schools like Liberty University or Bob Jones. And those colleges will be producing the next generation of educated Americans.

      That’s how the NYT got woke: they hired those college grads.

  9. revelator60
    Posted October 10, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    One hole in Ali’s argument is that none of the “true liberals” are young. Wokeness is most virulent among those who came after Generation X and it blossoms on elite college campuses that generate the nation’s future intelligentsia and cultural elite.

    My feeling is that the woke will eventually eat each other as the Oppression Olympics continues. Factionalism is baked into Wokism.

    Additionally, once the Woke start having kids and grandkids of their own, the offspring will surely revolt. That’s what kids do with starchy parents.

    Also, if political polarization decreases and middle class affluence rises, this should calm the mood of the country and decrease the hysteria wokism feeds on.

    There also needs to be some kind of change in universities. Intense competition for academic positions helps foster competitive wokeness, while administrators now treat students as customers whose every demand must be satisfied.

  10. Hos Loftus
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr Coyne,
    We are indeed in a sad situation. I would like to add, maybe the wokes have “won”, but not by making a compelling case. Rather, they “won” in the sense they poisoned the well to the point, no one even cares about the truth any more.
    Case in point: as you have pointed out, the 1619 Project is a lie, and worse, it is now being used as school curriculum in many districts. On the other hand, one of its most outspoken critics, Sen Tom Cotton (one would think there is some irony in the name) of Arkansas, wants to ban this practice. That may be a laudable effort, but he justifies it by claiming “slavery was a necessary evil”. Well no, it was never “necessary”, except to line up the pockets of plantation owners. It definitively drove down the wages of working class whites, and that probably played a bigger part in its ultimate elimination than any moral consideration.
    But what chance do those of us interested in historical truth stand in such climate?

  11. Posted October 13, 2020 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I disagree that the conflict is between “Classical Liberalism”, or the “moderate left” and “the far left”. I think there is a substantial difference between those on the left who in various ways come out of the Marxian and other similar traditions and those who look to Nietszche, whether knowingly or unknowingly, for their inspiration.

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