Final exchanges between Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Will Wokeism die?

January 3, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I should be paying more attention to the Letter site, in which two people go back and forth, debating and discussing a single issue in a series of short exhanges. Have a look: there’s some good stuff on there. In fact, I’m likely to do one in the near future, but more on that as plans proceed.

It appears that Sarah Haider and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, after five letters (three by Haider), have wound up their conversation, which you can read at the link below. I’ve already posted twice about their earlier exchanges (here and here), but in the future will wait until a series is done before summarizing and evaluating it.

In the first two letters, we learned that Sarah was pessimistic: she thought the culture war was lost and the Woke had won. Ayaan, on the other hand, was more optimistic. Did either of them change their mind?

Yes, I think Sarah did, becoming more optimistic about Wokeism’s end than she was at the outset. And I think the telling part was when Hirsi Ali told her that, ultimately, any ideology which rejects the facts and embraces its own “false facts”, as does Wokeism, is doomed. I agree.

At any rate, I think that when discussing the origins of Wokeism, Haider might have cited the analysis of where Critical Theory originates outlined in Pluckrose’s and Lindsay’s recent book Cynical Theories. So while Haider is close to being correct in what she says below, it’s not true that Wokeism seeks only to destroy. It also wants to create an authoritarian and Orwellian society that ultimately rests on postmodern tenets:

Wokeism is, perhaps, an anti-ideology—a will to power that can be identified not by what it values or the future it envisions, but by what it seeks to destroy and the power it demands. This makes it especially disastrous. For, when an existing organizing structure is destroyed with no replacement, a more brutal force can exploit the resulting power vacuum. In Iraq, the defeat of Saddam paved the way for ISIS. In Iran, naive socialists helped overthrow the authoritarian power, hoping to create a more just world—instead, the Ayatollah took charge and promptly executed and jailed his former allies. Once liberal institutions have been delegitimized by the woke, what will replace them?

But while its philosophy is empty, the psychology of wokeism is deeply satisfying to our baser instincts. For the vicious, there is a thrill in playing the righteous inquisitor, in mobbing heretics and demanding deference—brutal tactics that keep the rest of us in line, lest we be targeted next. Meanwhile, the strict social hierarchies of the woke are reassuringly simple to navigate: one always knows one’s place.

Certainly Wokeism is driven by thirst for power, but its philosophy isn’t really empty, just repugnant. And I don’t fully agree with Haider that “liberalism flies in the face of human nature”. (She says this to account for the displacement of liberalism by Wokeism.) In fact, as Pinker points out, liberalism has slowly been making inroads over much of the world, and that’s because human nature is attracted by science and empirical success, repelled by oppression and mistreatment.

But the important issue is whether Wokeism is on the wane. At the end of this letter, Haider bends a little and suggests that, as she has done in her work with ex-Muslims, the death of Wokeism lies in appealing to the youngest rational folks you can find—those who can think but are still on the fence. She gives an interesting example of someone who, she thinks, has the right approach:

Instead of aiming our efforts on those already captured by wokeism, perhaps we should focus on the next generation, whose values are still in active formation, who will relish standing up to the empire of the woke as a function of youthful idealism.

In my work with ex-Muslims, we persuade curious, intelligent young people to stand up against the religious totalism that has destroyed so much of the Muslim world.

. . . Jordan Peterson’s approach provides a good model. Though I have reservations about his specific message, he addressed the anxieties of young people and guided them through the culture war skirmishes. We must do the same.

We shall see how big Peterson’s influence in destroying Wokeism will be, but at least the man has the guts to push back against the Woke. He’s not afraid of being called a racist or a misogynist. Conquering the fear of disapprobation is, to be sure, the first thing we have to do.

But, says Hirsi Ali—and I now think she’s right—Wokeism will die from its own petard, for it ultimately rests on assertions that are either wrong or untestable, and so, like Communism, is doomed. I may not be around to see it, but I think Hirsi Ali’s most important point is this:

What is baked into modernity is self-perpetuating, not self-destructive. Many young people may have their hearts and minds captured for now, but the facts of physics and mathematics will remain what they are even if their detractors insist these fields must go “woke” (the controversy surrounding mathematician Abigail Thompson shows these fields are not immune from ideological pressures). Sooner or later, these young revolutionaries do have to realize that, for real progress to be made, they will need to base policies on objective realities. If they want to go to Mars one day, it is not the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that are going to get them there.

You don’t even have to aspire to go to Mars: the same can be said if you aspire to equal opportunity for people of all groups. Critical Race Theory won’t create that.

And, as Ayaan notes, the failure of the “blue wave” to appear in November suggests that, as she says, “[Americans] retaliated against the woke.” Perhaps the dissolution is on its way.

At the end of her last letter, Haider entertains the notion that yes, Wokeism may disappear. But she thinks the cause won’t be the intellectual vacuity of a fact-free ideology, but simply Wokeism’s hegemony, which quashes criticism:

So I wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is not an outright rejection of liberal, Enlightenment values, but a symptom of deep ignorance and privilege—an inability to comprehend the value of something many here have never lived without.

As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals.

“The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors,” wrote Mill. But if our success really is to blame, then we have cause for hope. It is possible that the challenge posed by the woke will serve to invigorate us, to wake us out of what Mill calls “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” And that awakening—or shall I say awokening?—cannot happen a moment too soon.

If there is an “inevitable decline” of Wokeness, I think it will represent more than just the unavoidable death of ideas not questioned.  After all, Wokeism by its very nature precludes questioning, and that’s one reason it’s so successful. The reason Communism declined (and this is just my amateur’s take) is that it didn’t work—it did not produce a society palpably superior to ones based on at least some capitalism and freedom of speech and thought. Wokism won’t work because its tactics aren’t based on empirical data, and it rejects any data that contradicts its ideology. Ultimately, I think, that will bring it down. And it can’t come soon enough for me.

So in this exchange of letters between two very thoughtful (and civil) people, we have seen some movement. Sarah started out beefing about how Wokeness was here to stay, and in the discussion she wound up becoming not only more optimistic, but musing about what we can do to rid our house of ideological termites.


Some lagniappe: an article tweeted recently by Ayaan about the intellectual vacuity of critical gender theory:

Tonight: The University of Chicago’s world famous Latke-Hamantash Debate

December 17, 2020 • 10:45 am

The famous Latke-Hamantash Debate of the University of Chicago, now copied by a lot of wannabee schools, takes place tonight. (It started here in 1946.) I’ve been to it a couple of times, and it’s always a hoot. The premise is that local scholars, using only data and analyses from their own academic fields, debate the merits of the two Jewish foods latkes (potato pancakes) and hamantashen (triangular cookies filled with prune or apricot paste, usually eaten during Purim). The debate continues the classical disputations of Judaism, and, like those, cannot be settled.

The debaters, nearly always Jewish, are required to wear academic gowns.

Here’s the entire debate from 2016—the 70th debate. As usual, it begins with a musical piece, and then an introduction. Then the real fun begins: the arguments. They were good that year. Shadi Bartsch, a classical scholar, is also married to our University’s President.

This year, sadly, it’s a virtual debate, but the show goes on, as it has yearly since 1946, but I’m sure it’ll be as funny as ever. You can read about this year’s debate here, which begins tonight at 7 p.m. Central (Chicago) time, and you can register here for a free webcast link, and learn who the three speakers will be. Usually there are at least six speakers, and the debate always ends in a tie. Afterwards, the audience and speakers repair to the nearby refectory, where the two items at issue are served to all.

Latkes (with applesauce, though sour cream is a popular topping as well:

The estimable hamantash, here in the classic prune-filled version:

The post-debate nosh in years past:

Images from the 65th Latke Hamantash Debate at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago on November 22, 2011. (Photo by Jason Smith)

Lip-synched Presidential debate

October 29, 2020 • 2:15 pm

This video came from reader Ken, who added, “These were popular in 2016, but this is the first debate lip-sync I’ve seen this election cycle”. It’s pretty funny, and, at any rate, it’s funny enough to bring to a close a pretty mediocre day. (I’ve started cutting way back on feeding the ducks, which makes me sad, but it’s necessary to make them move on.)

Tonight’s Presidential debate

October 22, 2020 • 5:30 pm

The debate between Biden and Trump, with the innovation of silenced mikes (not mics) will start at 9 Eastern US time (8 Chicago time) and last for an hour and a half.  You can watch it nearly anywhere; as the NYT notes:

  • The debate will be televised on channels including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, Fox News and MSNBC.

  • Many news outlets, including ABCCBSNBCPBSFox News and C-SPAN, will stream the debate on YouTube.

The links right above take you to the livestreams.

I’m providing this post for you to comment live, and, if you’re one of the people on this site who seem to like Trump over Biden, you’re welcome, too, though I will try to watch at least half the debate and may make ascerbic comments.

May the best man Democrat win!

SNL does the Trump/Biden debate

October 6, 2020 • 2:00 pm

Several readers sent me a link to SNL’s spoof of the recent Trump/Biden debate. Chris Wallace is played by Beck Bennett Trump by Alec Baldwin, and Biden by Jim Carrey (I didn’t recognize Carrey at first!) I’m not sure who plays Kamala Harris, as I almost never watch Saturday Night Live. When I have seen it, I can only compare it to the early glory days with John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, and the other greats.

This bit is pretty good, but not outstanding, which exemplifies the whole show to me these days. The last two minutes, however, aren’t half bad.

The Biden/Sanders debate: weigh in

March 16, 2020 • 9:45 am

I was too dispirited last night to watch the Biden/Sanders debate, and I haven’t watched many of the Democratic debates anyway. I had called several of my friends, who were also dispirited, and decided to have half a bottle of cava and the leftover carnitas I ate for lunch on Saturday. If there’s one silver lining in this pandemic, it’s that Trump’s hamhanded reaction seems to have made his reelection less likely. Or so I hope.

The New York Times did it’s usual “what’s-the-debate-take-of-our-columnists” article, and, to my surprise, Biden was declared the winner by a narrow margin. You can read the story by clicking on the screenshot.

Last night the average score of Biden (on a 10-point scale of increasing performance quality) was 7.6; that of Sanders was 7.1.  Apparently Biden said he intends to name a woman as his vice-presidential candidate, which I think is fantastic. That, according to the Times columnists, boosted his score. Plus Biden didn’t commit any gaffes, reassuring people that he’s not demented.

A few words from the Times, and the history of the candidates’ scores (Bernie has generally been ahead):

Throughout the long Democratic primary process, Opinion columnists and contributors have ranked each candidate’s debate performances. Now, after the 13th and potentially final Democratic debate, we’re presenting the results.

Overall, Bernie Sanders had the most consistent performance, according to our columnists and contributors, winning one contest and scoring 7 out of 10 overall. Joe Biden fared worse than Mr. Sanders in most debates, but he finally placed first in our rankings with Sunday’s debate.

And three opinions on each candidate (the article gives many other takes):


Nicole Hemmer (9/10) — The smartest move Biden made in the debate — other than committing to a female running mate — was tying revolution to disruption. At a moment when the world’s been turned upside down, he offered to flip it right side up, not shake it up more. His reassurances send a powerful general-election message — and why he won the debate.

Peter Wehner (8/10) — In a shrewd political move, Biden ensured that the only thing people will remember about this debate is his promise to pick a woman as vice president. It was also his best political debate. He was fairly sharp and focused, empathetic and crucially he didn’t fade. Biden should have focused a lot more on Trump and a lot less on his record, Sanders and the 1980s. Still, from coast to coast, Democrats are breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Mimi Swartz (7/10) — Who knew? Joe Biden saved the Western world while he was V.P.! Yes, he was substantially better debating one person instead of a basketball team. He was as usual better at the beginning than the end, and convincing and calming on his plan to fight the coronavirus. His tack to the left was less convincing. Promising to put a woman on the ticket was a good move. “Results, not revolution” will be the mantra until the convention, whenever that will be.


Elizabeth Bruenig (8/10) — What’s odd about Sanders is that he’s simultaneously the ideas candidate — unlike Biden, he has a philosophical brief against the excesses of American individualism — and the practical, materially focused candidate, worrying over how low-wage workers will survive this crisis financially. That breadth of interests came through strongly in this debate, and the no-audience format suited him well.

Jamelle Bouie (8/10) — If Biden tried at every turn to make the debate a question about what to do now, Sanders tried to turn the conversation to structural problems — to the larger dynamics that have produced the present crisis, whether it’s the devastating effects of coronavirus or climate change. It’s his most favorable terrain and he was strongest on that ground. Also, he seems much more vibrant than Biden, despite being a little older.

Gail Collins (7/10) — If you like Bernie Sanders, he was just fine. But he didn’t do what he’d promised: to set up a progressive ideological standard that Joe Biden couldn’t match. I suspect most voters who were listening thought these guys were pretty much on the same wavelength. But one has already been vice president. So that’s a huge win for Biden.

Now is the part where you weigh in. Did Biden look as if he were compos mentis? Were you reassured by his performance? Did you change your mind?

And, of course, who do you think will be the female v.p.? I’d like Elizabeth Warren, as it would give her a springboard to the Presidency, but she’s also needed in the Senate. I like Stacey Abrams but her experience is limited. And of course there’s Amy Klobuchar. . . . also in the Senate. If there’s a woman on the VP slate, which one would you prefer?

Debate discussion: chime in

February 20, 2020 • 8:15 am

As I said this morning, I didn’t watch last night’s Democratic debate, but I’m watching it now as I work (from the ink below). But it’s distracting, and I may have to stop.

I gather from the media reports that it was pretty fractious, with everyone going after Bloomberg and Sanders. I’m still amazed that Sanders is the front-runner, which seems to derive solely from his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, tiny states that are nearly all white. I’ll vote for him in November if he’s nominated, but he’s not my favorite candidate. (In fact, no candidate gets my juices flowing, and so I’m not sure who I’ll vote for in the Illinois primaries.)

The New York Times columnists and contributors have discussed the debate performances and ranked them on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Here are their rankings and scores:

Elizabeth Warren, 8.4
Bernie Sanders, 7.2
Pete Buttigieg, 6.9
Joe Biden, 6.2
Amy Klobuchar, 6.0
Michael Bloomberg, a bottom-scraping 2.9!

I see you can watch the full debate (1 hour, 38 minutes) at the NBC News site (click on screenshot):

So, since I’ve only watched a few minutes of the debate (and am already cringing), I’m sure most American readers have, and so weigh in below with your take. Did Bloomberg shoot himself in the foot? Is Sanders unstoppable? If so, can he beat Trump? This is all prognostication, of course, and it’s not pleasant to see the Dems attacking each other this way, but hey, there are big stakes and they have to distinguish themselves from the other Dems.

Reader Pliny the in Between’s take on the debate:

Tonight’s debate

July 31, 2019 • 7:48 pm

I watched half an hour—all about healthcare—and I give up. Harris won’t admit that she’s banning employer-sponsored healthcare, nor tell us where the money for her plan comes from. Biden is being overly polite. And Americans care about other stuff, too. It’s dispiriting.  Something about an internecine squabble, necessary thought it may be, makes me think that Trump is sitting back, waiting to use some of this stuff when he finally is forced to debate.

Anyway, by all means discuss your impression below. I’m done, and am going to work on my lectures for Antarctica.

David Brooks on the Dems

June 28, 2019 • 2:30 pm

Read this op-ed by David Brooks in today’s New York Times (click on screenshot) and see if you disagree with it. His fear, which is also is mine, is that the Dems, by moving ever further left in an effort to out-woke each other, will improve the prospects of Trump:

An excerpt (Brooks is a centrist):

According to a recent Gallup poll, 35 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent call themselves moderate and 26 percent call themselves liberal. The candidates at the debates this week fall mostly within the 26 percent. The party seems to think it can win without any of the 35 percent of us in the moderate camp, the ones who actually delivered the 2018 midterm win. . .

The party is moving toward all sorts of positions that drive away moderates and make it more likely the nominee will be unelectable. And it’s doing it without too much dissent.

First, there is health care. When Warren and Kamala Harris raised their hands and said that they would eliminate employer-based health insurance, they made the most important gesture of the campaign so far. Over 70 percent of Americans with insurance through their employers are satisfied with their health plan. Warren, Harris and Sanders would take that away.

According to a Hill-HarrisX survey, only 13 percent of Americans say they would prefer a health insurance system with no private plans. Warren and Sanders pin themselves, and perhaps the Democratic Party, to a 13 percent policy idea. Trump is smiling.

Second, there is the economy. All of the Democrats seem to have decided to run a Trump-style American carnage campaign. The economy is completely broken. It only benefits a tiny sliver. Yet in a CNN poll, 71 percent of Americans say that the economy is very or somewhat good. We’re in the longest recovery in American history and the benefits are finally beginning to flow to those who need them most. Overall wages are rising by 3.5 percent, and wages for those in the lowest pay quartile are rising by well over 4 percent, the highest of all groups.

Democrats have caught the catastrophizing virus that inflicts the Trumpian right. They take a good point — that capitalism needs to be reformed to reduce inequality — and they radicalize it so one gets the impression they want to undermine capitalism altogether.

Third, Democrats are wandering into dangerous territory on immigration. They properly trumpet the glories immigrants bring to this country. But the candidates can’t let anybody get to the left of them on this issue. So now you’ve got a lot of candidates who sound operationally open borders. Progressive parties all over the world are getting decimated because they have fallen into this pattern.

Fourth, Democrats are trying to start a populist v. populist campaign against Trump, which is a fight they cannot win. Democratic populists talk as if the only elite in America is big business, big pharma — the top 1 percent. This allows them to sound populist without actually going after their donor bases — the highly educated affluent people along the coasts.

. . .The debates illustrate the dilemma for moderate Democrats. If they take on progressives they get squashed by the passionate intensity of the left. If they don’t, the party moves so far left that it can’t win in the fall.

Right now we’ve got two parties trying to make moderates homeless.

There’s more; read the whole piece. And then weigh in.

I, of course, will vote for any Democrat over Trump; I haven’t seen one who wouldn’t get my vote in such a contest. But I also want Trump gone for good in the next election.