Andrew Sullivan suggests that Wokeness is already on the wane. Is it?

September 11, 2021 • 11:15 am

I’ve just taken Andrew Sullivan’s new collection of writings out of the university library; I was surprised that they had it, already bound in library covers, since it came out only a month ago. I haven’t read it yet, as I’m taking it to Boston with me next week as my travel book.

(By the way, I finished Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peronby Nicholas Fraser and  Marysa Navarro, and recommend it very highly. It’s a biography embedded in a political history, and her life is so fascinating and ambiguous that, by the end, you don’t know whether to love her, despise her, or, like me, have both feelings at once. But you must learn about her, as she played—and continues to play—a substantial role in the history and politics of Argentina.)

But I digress. The main part of Andrew’s column this week (click on screenshot) is his optimistic analysis that Wokeness may be on the wane. He sees at least eight signs of this, which I’ll list (he doesn’t enumerate them), and though I’m not as optimistic as he, I’ve already posted on this website about several of these. At least we can say that some pushback against Wokeness is emerging.

Click on the screenshot to read (and please subscribe if you read regularly):

Here are Sullivan’s eight incidents that he sees as the beginning of the Decline and Fall of American Wokeness.

1.) The new The White Lotus HBO miniseries on t.v. (The scene he discusses is here on YouTube, and you can watch the first episode for free at the title link.) What Sullivan likes about it is that some of the people are woke, but they’re also flawed—the show is, as he says, “humane”.  I haven’t watched the episode, but here’s a few words from Sullivan:

Mike White’s “The White Lotus” is a tragicomic exposé of our current moneyed elites and the psychological dysfunction they labor so mightily under.

. . . And the most repellent characters are two elite-college sophomores, Olivia and Paula, packed to the gills with the fathomlessly entitled smugness that is beginning to typify the first generation re-programmed by critical theory fanatics.

. . . “The White Lotus” is not an anti-woke jeremiad. It’s much subtler than that. Even the sophomores seem more naïve and callow than actively sexist and racist. The miniseries doesn’t look away from the staggering social inequality we now live in; and gives us a classic white, straight, male, rich narcissist in the finance jock. But it’s humane. It sees the unique drama of the individual and how that can never be reduced to categories or classes or identities.

Well, I’m not that heartened by this show and the scenes I watched, and it looks a bit like Sullivan is grasping at straws, hoping for a sign from god that the Zeitgeist is changing. But the other seven bits are more heartening.

2.) and 3.) Articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker (!!) that, explicitly and implicitly, criticize wokeness:

Both The Atlantic and The New Yorker have just published long essays that push back against woke authoritarianism and cruelty. Since both magazines have long capitulated to rank illiberalism, this is encouraging. And since critical theory is an entirely elite-imposed orthodoxy, it matters when the ranks of the elite crack a little.

Anne Applebaum links the woke phenomenon to previous moral panics and mob persecutions, which is where it belongs.

I wrote about Applebaum’s article in The Economist about a week ago, and you can find the link and my analysis here.

The New Yorker article (free if you didn’t exceed your clicks there) was a real surprise becayse it presented a fair and sympathetic view of behavioral geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden, a University of Texas professor who is a social-justice advocate but at the same time a person who sticks to genetic data. And that data says that many of the traits variable among individual people, including IQ, have a substantial genetic basis. I was going to write about this but I was so taken aback that I couldn’t (just kidding). Harden has a book coming out that you’ll want to read:

This fall, Princeton University Press will publish Harden’s book, “The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality,” which attempts to reconcile the findings of her field with her commitments to social justice. As she writes, “Yes, the genetic differences between any two people are tiny when compared to the long stretches of DNA coiled in every human cell. But these differences loom large when trying to understand why, for example, one child has autism and another doesn’t; why one is deaf and another hearing; and—as I will describe in this book—why one child will struggle with school and another will not. Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”

That’s incendiary for the New Yorker. Differences in achievement based on genetic differences??? As Sullivan notes:

At some point, this will require a measure of rethinking, a moderation of the left’s absolutist blank-slatism just as the evidence is finally disproving it once and for all. The Successor Ideology, remember, holds that genetics play no role in human society, and that all inequalities are a function of the environment. Take that absolute claim away — which is to say to subject it to empirical testing — and it crumbles. And The New Yorker just took it away.

But the Woke will just ignore Harden or revile her, as they’ve been doing, even though she’s somewhat of a Social-Justice warrior. She’s fiercely smart and someone to admire.

4.) The Economist‘s two articles criticizing Wokeness. I discussed them separately, here and here, and those posts give the links.  Remember, folks: you read it here first!

5.) A “nuanced” review by Jesse Singal in the New York Times Book Review about a new book by Helen Joyce on trans ideology. I hadn’t read this, but have now (see it by clicking screenshot below),

Singal, who himself has criticized the view that you are whatever sex or gender you declare yourself to be, is sympathetic to Joyce’s views. From the review:

Joyce is no conservative hard-liner, nor is she seeking some reactionary rollback of trans rights — she favorably cites the United Kingdom’s status quo on these issues, which balances legally enshrined protections for trans people with exceptions that allow for truly single-sex spaces in some settings, such as rape shelters. She also opposes legislation that strictly polices trans people’s access to bathrooms.

But she does believe that biological sex matters, that females have a right to truly sex-segregated spaces (with some compromise-oriented exceptions), and that gender-identity ideology threatens these ideals. Treating transgender people with dignity and respect and accommodation, Joyce says, does not require embracing a worldview she describes as fundamentally anti-scientific. Here she appeals directly to liberal ideals of religious tolerance: “I demand the same freedom to reject and oppose gender-identity ideology, and in return gladly accept that others have the right to preach it and live by it.”

Many of Joyce’s arguments boil down to the idea that trans people aren’t the only ones with skin in the game here. Where self-ID reigns, she writes, other vulnerable groups potentially suffer. Cisgender women, for instance, lose full access to truly sex-segregated realms that offer protection and other benefits, such as locker rooms, sports teams and prisons, because the primacy of gender identity within this ideology renders the concept of biological sex fundamentally irrelevant.

. . . “Trans” is a compelling, overdue argument for viewing self-ID more critically. Even those outraged by Joyce’s positions would benefit from understanding them, given that, as she notes, self-ID polls quite poorly when its actual tenets are fully described to Americans and to the British.

Again, I’m surprised at the NYT publishing Singal’s positive review. Had it appeared on Science-Based Medicine, Novella and Gorski would have removed it immediately, as they did with Harriet Hall’s positive review of Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier. Another crack in the wall.

6.) The New York Times adding John McWhorter as a twice-a-week columnist. As you know, McWhorter does not conform to current Woke ideology on race, but he’s annoying the hell out of the Woke because he’s a liberal black man with contrarian views. If you subscribe to the NYT, you can get his columns emailed to you for free; sign up here. But the columns show up on the regular pages a day after they’re emailed, so you can read them all here a bit late. His latest, “What should we do about systemic racism?“, reprises the reasons he sees for the black/white achievement gap in academic performance. You’ve probably read his arguments in these pages as they were adumbrated in McWhorter’s now-defunct Substack posts.

7.) People accosting Sullivan to tell him that they’re sick of woke behavior. His quote:

And then there’s a purely anecdotal reflection, to be taken for no more than that: all summer, I’ve been struck by how many people, mostly complete strangers, have come up to me and told me some horror story of an unjust firing, a workplace they’re afraid to speak in, a colleague who has used antiracism for purely vindictive or careerist purposes, or a hiring policy so crudely racist it beggars belief. The toll is mounting. And the anger is growing. The fury at CRT in high schools continues to roil school board meetings across the country. Some Americans are not taking this new illiberalism on the chin.

8.) Finally, Peter Boghassian’s resignation from Portland State University on the grounds that it was so woke they harassed him constantly for questioning Accepted Woke Ideology.  I wrote about this here, and you can read Peter’s resignation letter at Bari Weiss’s Substack site. Sullivan says this shows how far the rot has spread.

Taken together, these eight episodes hearten Andrew, who says, “It’s clear to me that the antibodies to this new McCarthyism are beginning to propagate, and a calmer, middle way will at some point emerge.  Which is another way of saying: as long as the First Amendment is intact, hang in, and know hope.”

I’m not as sanguine as Sullivan, and don’t know much hope. After all, the colleges and universities of both Britain and America are solid bastions of wokeness, and their young, elite graduates are beginning to take over the mainstream liberal media. Yes, that MSM will publish pushback, as we see above, but to expect, for instance, that American universities will eventually dismantle their Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, or take down their ridiculous “bias reporting incident” sites, is to hope for too much. So long as liberals fear being called bigots and racists—and most still do—the Offended will always have the power. But, as I always say, I urge everyone to fight the madness, push back, and push back forcefully and not anonymously. When that happens, maybe the wall will start tumbling.

30 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan suggests that Wokeness is already on the wane. Is it?

  1. “The White Lotus” was very good. But if you want to see a more direct “attack” on woke stuff and cancel culture, do check out Netflix’s “The Chair” (Sullivan should look into this series). A summary: “At a major university, the first woman of color to become chair tries to meet the dizzying demands and high expectations of a failing English department.” Here’s the trailer:

    1. I watched 3 episodes of “The Chair” but couldn’t get past Sandra Oh’s hang-dog expressions. Totally mis-cast, IMO. Too bad, because the writing was above-average.

    2. I was going to bring up The Chair, which clearly shows the poorer behavior of woke ideology in a pretty bad light. I watched the entire 6 episode series, and thought that #6 was especially good.

      1. Although The Chair does show “the poorer behavior of woke ideology”, it was not in a sufficiently bad light in my opinion. The students were portrayed as much more innocent than their real-life counterparts. Their self-righteousness and angry bullying was somewhat underplayed. The show didn’t seem to take a position on the controversy as far as I could see.

  2. It’s probably too early to jump to conclusions – and our host’s point that “to expect, for instance, that American universities will eventually dismantle their Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, or take down their ridiculous “bias reporting incident” sites, is to hope for too much” is certainly very true. I think we’ll have to wait and see, with our fingers firmly crossed.

    As a side note, I’ve recommended Helen Joyce’s excellent Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality below the line here before and don’t hesitate to do so again.

    1. “Trans” is indeed excellent. To me, the most horrifying part is the description of how young boys are being railroaded into a sequence of social transition, to puberty blockers, to hormone treatments and surgery. This in spite of the evidence that the majority will otherwise stop wishing to change gender and mature into gay men.

      1. Absolutely. The originally well-intentioned use of puberty blockers to provide a “pause” during which the prepubescent can “work through their feelings” is discredited now and should be stopped. Of course, merely collecting the data or pointing to those which already exist is tarred as “transphobia”…

  3. I am utterly gobsmacked (ain’t the English great at slang?) that so many are willing to dismiss genetics as a science of any importance. The article about Harden was quite reasonable and illustrates the deliberate, and willful blindness of those who find it inconvenient to their politics. I am sure I am unusual here in that when I bought The Bell Curve at the time of publication I found it a measured and justified exploration of genetics and life outcomes. It says none of the things that ballistic-spittle-ejectors cavil at in their reviews. Murray has continued to make salient points about genetics, race, and culture in reasonable ways that are worth listening to, even if one disagrees. The point is that he should be read and carefully considered, not dismissed as beyond the pale without being heard. After all, do we not believe that the proper corrective to a wrong argument is a better argument?

    1. And I cannot argue with Harden’s final conclusion: “in the end you end up becoming yourself.” Nature and nurture summed up appropriately.

    2. I read the Lewis-Kraus review of Harden’s book and look forward to reading the book when it becomes available. I have had similar arguments with friends, family, and colleagues. As a geneticist in the agricultural sciences, I have often been surprised that my colleagues readily accepted the results of plant and animal breeding/selection both physiologically and behaviorally (e.g., the Russion fox studies), but rejected any implication of genetic effects on human behavior. And I have had great difficulty persuading some family and friends of any genetic relevance to human abilities and futures. Partly this is due to the liberal concepts of endless possibility for personal improvement and achievement, given the will (the young are constantly abjured to “follow your dreams” and “you can do anything if you want it enough” and adequate resources. The arguments for personal autonomy are also strongly embedded, not just in religion, but culturally. One of my father’s favorite poems was Henley’s Invictus (“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Even I still find it stirring and inspirational, although i am a firm determinist. There has also been an unfortunate tendency to draw a firm and, i think, unjustified line between humans and other animals, so that fully supported genetic and behavioral science results are not translated into the human realm, for many people (and the Christian religion encourages this view).

  4. I would ordinarily defer to Andrew Sullivan in classifying cultural trends, but I am inclined toward pessimism too. The trouble I see is that the trend in question is probably deeper than Mr. Sullivan realizes. It is a trend in the direction of narcissism, starting before “wokeness” was recognized as a thing, and more widely distributed along the ideological spectrum.

    Most of the recent undergraduate blame-campaigns are based on claims of offended feelings, often as ludicrous as the the 2015 Yale tantrum against Erika and Nicholas Christakis. The obsession with the use of chosen personal pronouns, and the incessant hunt for “microaggressions”, both hinge on raising private feelings into a near-religion. The DiAngelo bleating about “whiteness” and “white fragility” is still another, transparently narcissistic discourse. The attacks on meritocracy are at least partly based on the feelings of those who do not achieve. And the “1619 Project” insistence that mistreatment of Black people should be the center of attention in discussing anything that has ever happened in North America, represents a form of group narcissism for African-Americans.

    These examples could be expanded, but there is obviously no need to fill up more space. The trend toward narcissism is by means limited to the Left, as our cartoonish last Republican president demonstrated. So do his followers who claim to rank personal autonomy far above public health. In short, narcissism is found deeper and more broadly in current culture than just wokeness.

    This should be no surprise, inasmuch as Christopher Lasch (“The Culture of Narcissism”) and Robert Hughes (“The Culture of Complaint) diagnosed it in 1979 and 1993, respectively. The harder question—what caused this cultural development?—remains an unsolved mystery. Was it a change in family dynamics? Some post-60s development in the technological basis of culture? Was it due to pot, or something in the water? Whatever it was, a few thoughtful articles in The Atlantic, welcome as they are, won’t cure it.

  5. I’d be interested in seeing The White Lotus if it’s anti-woke. It’s from filmmaker Mike White who made the wokest movie I’ve ever scene. In Brad’s Status, Ben Stiller plays a documentary filmmaker who questions his life choices when he learns that his friends from college are financially doing much better than he is. He prioritized making a difference over making money.
    While he’s taking his son on a visit to his elite alma mater, he’s lectured by two students (both Asian women) there, who explain that he can’t be depressed because he has white privilege, also he’s racist and objectifying them. Brad accepts this, confesses his sins, and finds happiness.

    1. I watched all of White Lotus and had pretty much the opposite view of it that Sullivan had. Not sure if I am reading the title wrong, but I think it is a metaphor for privileged, fragile, very rich, white people. There were parts of it that were quite funny, but overall I didn’t really like it.

    2. To appreciate a show or film must you agree with its politics? Assuming you are a non-believer, does religious content spoil fine art and music for you?

      1. The worst a girl is boring agitprop. If you enjoy being reduced to a type, condescended to, and lectured to, knock yourself out.

        1. I don’t “enjoy being reduced to a type, condescended to, and lectured to[.]” But I am able to appreciate a work of art even if I disagree with its politics. I can watch D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and appreciate how they advanced the art of filmmaking even though I abhor their politics. I can also watch GwtW and — okay, I much care for the film, but i appreciate it as spectacle.

          For that matter, although I find Mel Gibson abhorrent, I can appreciate a good performance or directorial effort from him (and even thought he played a passable Hamlet). I’ve also very much like some of Clint Eastwood’s movies, some of which I’ve watched numerous times, even though I disagree with him politically (and thought he made an ass of himself addressing an empty chair on stage at the 2012 RNC).

  6. I wouldn’t go as far as Sullivan does but we’re definitely at an inflection point in our battle with Wokeness. What’s happened is that the battle has been taken out of universities and corporate HR departments and gone mainstream. The biggest single reason for this is CRT’s push into public education. Before this, wokeness only affected its direct victims. Now parents are involved. The MSM have realized that there is an actual controversy that they must report. Before, they saw themselves mostly as enlighteners on the subject of CRT. In their minds, the only opposition were those caught doing woke crimes.

  7. I wonder if the recall election in California is down to Woke dogma run amok? Or at least if the fact that it is such a nail-biter is.

  8. I think it’s wise to take Boghossian with a grain of salt and not accept at face value what he wrote in his resignation letter. Ophelia Benson expands:

    And his detachable Conceptual Penis paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, it was published in a flypaper journal but admitting that wouldn’t be an effective way to own those wacky libs.

    Paul Campos further deflates B:

    1. I read the post you linked and all it really complains about is Boghossian’s characterization of the speakers he invited, calling one an author instead of a philosopher. It also complains that he gets to teach philosophy even though his degree is in education. How exactly does that put his resignation letter in a bad light?

  9. I think it is going to get worse before it gets better. Much of what will be destroyed will not easily be replaced.
    But it will get better. Most of the tenets of wokeness are not just provably false, but obviously so to even the casual observer.
    Such beliefs have to be constantly reinforced, because even a true believer who is exposed to reality will backslide as soon as they start looking around a bit.
    The whole system is horribly counterproductive. Literally. It cannot be sustained except like a parasite feeding on a wealthy and productive society. The people it raises to sainthood are often people who have accomplished nothing and have neither work ethic nor any useful skills.

    It also seems to me that the woke lack any mechanism for self regulation. They always double down and go too far.

    1. I would really like to hope you are right. But I was struck by the realization that if we replace the word “wokeness” in your 4th sentence with “Christianity/Islam/any other religion” your argument likewise applies. (“Most of the tenets … are not just provably false, but obviously so…. beliefs have to be constantly reinforced….cannot be sustained except like a parasite…,” and your characterization of saints also works.)
      And we’ve seen what happened in those instances.

      1. The religious terms were used deliberately. I clearly was not the first to note the parallels, but I was an early adopter.

    2. I think you’ve captured some really important points. I don’t know when it will happen, but I think the demise of performative wokeness will come rather suddenly, even though it will probably leave some stragglers. The buildup of resistance will exert much force.

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