January 29, 2021

The height of political madness is to be consumed by frivolity while everything is crashing around you. Nero, at least to his enemies, played music while fire consumed his city; Himmler invested time and money in researching fairy-tale horses as the Red Army pulled closer to Berlin; the Tory Government, while thousands were dying each day, launched a “war on woke”.

The Government knows who its enemies are: Housing Minister Robert Jenrick has attacked the “woke worthies and town hall militants” trying to remove statues, while Jacob Rees-Mogg has criticised the “woke brigade”.

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But what do they mean by this very overused four-letter word? I imagine most people, when they hear the word “woke”, rather feel like King Théoden after a day of Wormtongue whispering in his ear. It’s a boring, overused, culture-war term used to denote people arguing over nothing. Even the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to know. When asked if there was “nothing wrong with being woke”, his spokesman said: “I’m not sure what you mean specifically.”

Some Tories certainly don’t see being woke as a problem. Lord Vaizey, once MP for Alfred the Great’s home of Wantage, has labelled the whole War on Woke “pathetic”, adding for good measure: “Maybe I’m not good enough or noble enough to be woke. I want to be woke.” Rather than getting excited by statues, Vaizey said, the Government should “lean in” to issues of social and racial justice, and be more like Joe Biden — “woke in the best way” — by celebrating both tradition and diversity.

Because it isn’t clear what it means, woke has become synonymous with either “leftie”, “liberal” or just “nice”. And that is why it will win – just as happened with its ideological forerunner in the 1990s.

One of the reasons that “political correctness” eventually proved successful, or at least overcame the initial disdain and contempt it inspired, is that a less important aspect of it was more attention-grabbing than its central component. PC was, in one respect, a form of political politeness, the desire to use language that was more inclusive and forgiving. But it was also — more importantly — a way of enforcing political orthodoxy, a belief that certain ideas should and could be made unsayable, even unthinkable, with enough social pressure.

Theodore Dalrymple called PC “communism writ small”; it emerged out of radical left American academia in the 1960s, and had certain similarities with the stifling orthodoxy of Soviet Russia. But it might better have been described as a mutation of Christianity, another successful form of behavioural enforcement with a long history of intolerance towards unbelievers, especially heretics.

Woke is not “kindness”, nor is it even “political correctness” — although it is rooted in that ideology. To be woke is to believe particular things about human society and human biology, and with a zeal that is often described as religious. One of the most useful definitions was made by the brothers Bo and Ben Winegard, who identified some of the main credal points of the woke Left, including the idea that “bigotry is pervasive” in America (and the West), that “almost all disparities among demographic groups are caused by bigotry”, that “if we all work really hard, we can create a more just, multicultural society” and that “diversity is almost always a good thing.”

Unlike political correctness, however, woke — originally an African-American term to mean “awake” to social justice — is primarily about race, although gender is a secondary issue. To be woke in particular means to believe in “equity” rather than equality, that is equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunities between groups.

The term has been around since at least the 1970s but grew in use and salience during the “Great Awokening”, the name for the seismic, radical shift in American upper-middle-class opinion from around 2013. The link between the smartphone and the Great Awokening is as clear as that between printing and the Reformation – and, thanks to social media, this period saw a dramatic shift in attitude towards racial injustice, diversity and immigration.

Social media encourages conformism, which was most visible last summer when huge numbers of people around the world displayed black squares on their Instagram pages following the death of George Floyd. Yet most people know fairly little about US homicide rates and statistics; they imitate the belief systems of their friends, colleagues and people they look up to, and will adopt beliefs if they appear socially desirable or moral.

This can include some quite implausible beliefs that would not survive rigorous scientific analysis and, if the roles were reversed, would resemble conspiracy theories. It is now taken as given that “systemic racism” prevents some minorities from achieving equity in terms of education, income or imprisonment rates, while the fact that other minorities far exceed that average is left unspoken. Indeed, some of the most vocal supporters of the idea that the United States is overwhelmed by systemic and systematic racism come from groups who outperform white Americans on any metric.

Diversity is a central part of the Creed, and while it clearly has some benefits, especially in restricted settings — such as science — there is also a vast literature on diversity’s negative impact on trust, political stability, corruption and various other social ills. But the mainstream conservative movement has largely given up on this issue, partly because the social cost of debating such a sacred idea is too high. A few narcissistic show-offs on the Right like to be hated; most of us don’t. And when conservatives are no longer willing to fight for their beliefs, they launch wars over symbols instead.

It seems bizarre for a government to flag up the issue of statues and street names while over 1,500 of its citizens are dying each day from a virus they failed to control. But statues and street names don’t actually matter. They are a proxy for the far more important issue of diversity and demography; perhaps people worry about statues of dead Englishmen disappearing from city centres because they worry about Englishmen disappearing from those cities.

America’s iconoclastic spasm is certainly related to the country’s transformation from an overwhelmingly European country to a multicultural liberal caliphate, a bold experiment which is yet to produce its end results. African-Americans, though small in number and in relative overall decline, are a totemic group for the multicultural “Blue Tribe”, and their all-American narrative of slavery and redemption echoes the country’s Christian ideals.

What we call “woke” has become the court religion of that Blue Tribe which, despite or because it is led by wealthy whites, has become obsessed with “whiteness” as a form of original sin. But this strange, apparently masochistic tendency also, perversely, acts as a form of elite justification, distracting from more material injustices and allowing the privileged to present themselves as part of the moral vanguard, protecting society from the bigoted masses. Beliefs can be genuinely held and at the same time be manifestations of class interests; it’s happened throughout history.

When conservatives liken current Left-wing ideas to religion, they are not doing so to undermine faith, only to point out progressivism’s power to create a strong belief-community — religio means “to bind” — glued together by rituals and creeds and without the need for empirical facts. The mostly peaceful protests we saw last summer, with white protestors washing the feet of black protesters, contained a goldmine for anthropologists studying the binding power of religious ritual — well, they would, if there were any conservative anthropology professors left.

The most obvious religious echo is with Calvinism, which holds that humanity is divided between the saved and the damned. In the 17th century, Calvinists would agonise over this issue, and in many cases it caused acute psychological distress, just as the desire for moral purity in the social media age does today.

Calvinists also believed that some people were more morally righteous than others, and that these Godly folk should make laws for the betterment of others. Overthrowing the natural hierarchy was an extremely alarming idea to more traditionally-minded Englishmen — and it was in response to this that the political philosophy of conservatism was born. As historian Jerry Z Muller put it:

“Conservatism arose in good part out of the need to defend existing institutions from the threat posed by ‘enthusiasm,’ that is, religious inspiration which seeks to overturn the social order. The critique of religious enthusiasm, which was central to [David] Hume’s conservatism, was later extended… into a critique of political radicalism.”

It is this “enthusiasm” that makes woke politics dangerous, because to its adherents their opponents really are bad people and, because there will always be inequality, this is a forever war. Equality of outcomes, a doctrine now so all-encompassing that it even enters the vaccine debate, might be theoretically desirable, but by definition it is also a zero-sum game. One group’s success is another’s failure, or injustice, and so it inevitably sets some minorities up against the weakest, poorest and least educated members of the majority, who have nowhere to turn except to Right-wing populists.

This is not just about things like censorship or quasi-blasphemy laws, although these are concerning; the American homicide rate increased 20% after the George Floyd protests, and an additional 3,500 are now dead as a result. These are real-world consequences.

Nothing that spectacular will happen in England, but the underlying ideas behind the Great Awokening will lead to endless bitterness and division, often ostensibly about the pettiest of issues but, deep down, about everything. And conservatives will lose because our own thought-leaders will convince the world that this is about well-meaning kindness vs the performative toughness — vice-signalling — that characterises so much Right-wing politics.

I’m not “anti-Woke” because I care about statues of slave-profiteers, or because of people using their pronouns in emails. I object to it because I think its ideas are fundamentally untrue and dangerous, just as our forefathers believed that “enthusiasm” was untrue and dangerous, as they did of Jacobinism and all the utopian ideologies of the 20th century, too. That is what conservatives believe — and if our own prime minister cannot even agree on that, then we really are damned.


Ed West’s Tory Boy: Memoirs of the Last Conservative is published by Constable