It’s a shame that The Economist doesn’t allow authors of its articles to give their names (I’ve written for them), for then we’d know whether this analysis of American Wokeism comes from England or the U.S. (The site has offices in both places.) But it doesn’t really matter: the longish article is quite astute and also depressing, as it sees no end to the movement it defines as “Wokeism” (see below). It also traces the history of Wokeism, why it’s spread so far in America, and what’s next on its agenda.
Click on the screenshot below:
Since you can get slammed for using Wokeism, as I do, as a pejorative word, it’s important to separate it from classical liberalism. Here’s how The Economist does it:
. . . a loose constellation of ideas that is changing the way that mostly white, educated, left-leaning Americans view the world. This credo still lacks a definitive name: it is variously known as left-liberal identity politics, social-justice activism or, simply, wokeness. But it has a clear common thread: a belief that any disparities between racial groups are evidence of structural racism; that the norms of free speech, individualism and universalism which pretend to be progressive are really camouflage for this discrimination; and that injustice will persist until systems of language and privilege are dismantled.
It also is characterized by certain psychological attitudes (see below). This is certainly not classical or even centrist liberalism.
Why did this become so popular? The Economist attributes the spread of Wokeism to three factors (my emphasis):
How did this breakout happen? Three things helped prepare the ground: a disaffected student body, an academic theory that was malleable enough to be shaped into a handbook for political activism, and a pliant university administration. Let’s take them in order:
A Disaffected Student Body
How did American college students become so querulous and captious? The article refers to a book we’ve discussed before, and one well worth reading: The Coddling of the American Mind by Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. If you read this site, this is one of several books you should have under your belt (including Cynical Theories, How to be an Antiracist, White Fragility, and The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. These cover both sides of the issue. John McWhorter’s October-issued book, Woke Racism, is also on the to-read list.
Lukianoff and Haidt trace Wokeism back to overprotective parenting, which has its own sociological explanation. This parenting has caused three mantras to be instilled in young people, and they persist throughout college and then as young adults.
1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”
2. “Always trust your feelings”
3. “Life is a battle between good people and evil people”.
This makes a lot of sense. Of course Lukianoff’s theories are untestable (the attitudes above are; whether they account for Wokeism is not). But can see these attitudes instantiated in every act of Wokeism I write about. People are fragile and should remain so, complaining about everything that offends them; feelings trump facts, and “lived experience” overturns all data to the contrary; and above all, Wokeism has a Manichaean view of politics and the world, expressed succinctly in Kendi’s view that if you’re not antiracist, you’re a racist.
You can see the rise of college Wokeism in the chart below, which I assume The Economist took from FIRE’s “disinvitation database”. It shows not only the rise of Wokeism over the last two decades, as reflected by the number of college speakers deplatformed or disinvited, but also, as I’ve emphasized repeatedly, the fact that in American colleges the Left engages in this censorship far more than the Right:
An Academic Theory That Was Malleable Enough to be Shaped Into a Handbook for Political Activism
The Economist implicates, as do many, postmodernism and “critical theory”, which have now been diluted far beyond their original construal:
Many students latched onto a body of theory which yokes obscurantist texts to calls for social action (or “praxis”) that had been developing in the academy for decades. In 1965 Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist, coined the phrase “repressive tolerance”, the notion that freedom of speech should be withdrawn from the political right in order to bring about progress, since the “cancellation of the liberal creed of free and equal discussion” might be necessary to end oppression. Another influence was Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (published in English in 1970) advocated a liberatory pedagogy in the spirit of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in which “the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation”.
The emphasis on race, of course, comes from the two avatars of anti-racism, Ibram Kendi and Robin Di Angelo.
A Pliant University Administration
If you have anything to do with a campus, you’ll be getting inundated daily with diversity, equity, and inclusion material, invitations (or mandates) for diversity training, and you’ll hear or read about student demands for huge changes in the college in response to incidents that are either trivial or not even real. (Some incidents, of course, do prompt righteous anger.) Colleges don’t want to be seen as nonresponsive to student demands (and remember that the three student mantras above come from parents), and so schools wind up with a bloated and expensive bureaucracy to enforce Wokeism, sometimes even including speech codes and ways to report “bias incidents.”
The embrace of this ideology by students and professors might have remained inconsequential had it not been for the part played by administrative staff. Since 2000, such staff in the University of California system has more than doubled, outpacing the increase in faculty and students. The growth in private universities has been even faster. Between 1975 and 2005 the ranks of administrators grew by 66% in public colleges but by 135% in private ones. As their headcount grew, so did their remit—ferreting out not just overt racism or sexual harassment but implicit bias too. The University of California, Los Angeles, now insists that faculty applying for tenure include a diversity statement. [JAC: I think this is true of all University of California branches, and it’s spreading across the U.S.]
In 2018 Samuel Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College, published data showing that these administrators are even more left-leaning than the professors: liberals outnumber conservatives by 12 to one. For writing about this, Mr Abrams faced a campaign by outraged students aiming to revoke his tenure. Campaigns by a vocal minority of activists have cast a pall on campus life, he says. “Large numbers of people hate this. They just don’t know what to do,” he laments. “They don’t want the mob coming to them.”
An upheaval in mass communication accelerated the trend. On Twitter, a determined minority can be amplified, and an uneasy centre-left can be cowed. . .
Now that colleges are seen as stores that serve customers, and The Customer is Always Right, student demands are rarely rejected. But it happens. The University of Chicago refused to even consider student demands to defund the campus police, and Swarthmore College, whose president is a black woman, also refused to cave in to a long list of student demands. In general, though, colleges tend to accept even the most untenable demands, for the students are liberal, and if they cause a lot of attention by protesting and calling a college racist, it endangers the college’s reputation and (more important) its income.
The nature of the spread. The Economist discusses four area to which Wokeism has spread. First, the media:
Newspapers are a prime example. The digital revolution has devastated local newspapers and crowned new online-only champions. As newsrooms adapted by aping the upstarts, hacks who had risen through the ranks thanks to shoe-leather reporting were replaced by younger staffers stuffed with new ideas from elite universities. One prominent journalist argued for replacing “neutral objectivity” with “moral clarity”—making unflinching distinctions between right and wrong.
Changes in newsrooms were also related to efforts to increase demographic diversity, on the assumption that this is the only authentic way to give voice to minorities. But the campus zeal for deplatforming voices deemed offensive and defenestrating those found guilty of violating the ethos has also been imported. (James Bennet, who resigned as editorial-page editor of the New York Times after one such row, now works for The Economist; he was not involved in this article.) Non-journalists on the staff of newspapers, including young engineers, can be even more activist in campaigning against colleagues judged to be producing content at odds with the new vision of social justice.
Second, to the Democratic Party itself. The two graphs below show how white liberals have changed their views over time, the first being about whether blacks are “mostly responsible for their own condition” versus “they can’t get ahead because of racial discrimination.” That question is ambiguous, because racial discrimination in the past is largely why blacks are held back now, and though racism still around, of course, the conditions in which blacks start with grossly unequal opportunity was caused by racism over the past two centuries. As for “structural racism now”, not so much, but the question remains ambiguous. Regardless, a lot more people now think that racial discrimination rather than self-responsibility is the reason why blacks are held back. I just don’t know what to make of this graph:
The graph below also reflects the views of white liberals (the bottom also gives data from moderates and conservatives), and shows, surprisingly that a higher percentage of white liberals than of blacks agree that blacks should be given “special favors” (i.e. forms of affirmative action), even if other minorities didn’t get them. Remember, this graph shows the percentage that disagree with the need for affirmative action:
Third, corporations, which the article indicts for their hypocrisy in being so quick to embrace the woke message. The hypocrisy comes, says the unknown author, from the conflict between capitalism (despised by the woke but a mainstay of corporations) and the Woke message in other respects:
“Corporate wokeism I believe is the product of self-interest intermingled with the appearance of pursuing social justice,” says Vivek Ramaswamy, a former biotechnology executive and author of “Woke, Inc.”. He argues that Big Tech pursues corporate wokeism because appearing to embrace social justice suits such firms’ commercial interests—both in terms of recruitment and appeal to their customers. It performs allegiance to identity politics while simultaneously rejecting the left’s critique of capitalism. “A lot of Big Tech has agreed to bend to the progressive left,” he says, but “they effectively expect that the new left look the other way when it comes to leaving their monopoly power.”
Such hypocrisy is increasingly prevalent. The founder of Salesforce, a tech behemoth based in San Francisco, is known for championing social-justice causes like a surtax to fund homelessness services in the city. Yet the firm itself paid no federal taxes on $2.6bn in profits in 2020.
Fourth and last, Wokeism is spreading to the classrooms, a battle we see fought right now in overheated squabbles about the teaching of critical race theory, attempts to dismantle meritocratic grading and ranking, and changes in curricula, infusing even the most rigorous sciences with antiracist propagandizing:
Wokeness’s next frontier, with the greatest potential to make a mark on the future, will be the classroom. In California’s recently approved ethnic-studies curriculum, which may become a high-school graduation requirement, one lesson plan aims to help students “dispel the model-minority myth” (the idea that to dwell on Asian-American success is wrong). Roughly one-sixth of the state’s proposed new maths instruction framework is devoted to social justice. It approvingly quotes from studies suggesting that word problems about boys and girls knitting scarves be accompanied by a debate about gender norms. Last month the governor of Oregon signed a bill eliminating high-school graduation requirements of proficiency in reading, writing and maths until 2024—justified as necessary to promote equity for non-white students.
As for the future, the article notes some backlash in the form of members of San Francisco’s board of education being under threat of recall elections. But the author concludes, as do I, that there’s no foreseeable end to wokeness given the liberal nature of students, the conformity of people in general, the entry of young college graduates into elite professions, and the bloated bureaucracy being installed in colleges to maintain Wokeism, a bureaucracy that of course will never dismantle itself. The author concludes “America has not yet reached peak woke.”
Perhaps true, but the real backlash against Wokeism may come in the next two elections if centrists, fed up with the excesses of “progressive leftism,” try to re-elect more Republicans or, Ceiling Cat forbid, someone like Trump.