In the summer of 2005, hundreds of recent college graduates gathered in a giant auditorium in Houston for a lesson in “diversity, community and leadership”. At 20 years old, I was the youngest of the bunch. The organisation Teach for America — the US equivalent of Teach First — was about to parachute us into classrooms set in the nation’s poorest inner-city and rural areas. But not before immersing us in a bath of race and gender theory.
The training began with a corny short film, featuring a number of justly forgotten D-list actors. The central action revolved around a middle-aged white guy with a moustache struggling to come to terms with diversity. At work and in his neighbourhood, vexing new identity-based demands confronted him. He figured it sufficed to treat everyone fairly and without prejudice. He didn’t hate anyone, but neither did he think he owed anything on account of his own identity.
The middle-age white guy just didn’t get it. Luckily, his United Colors of Benetton cast of colleagues were prepared to gently guide him to the truth: that behind his “colourblind” assumptions lurked his enormous “privilege”; and that fairness and old-fashioned decency just weren’t enough, not with all the racial abuses marring Western history and still racking society.
At first, he resisted, spluttering angrily about “affirmative action” and “reverse racism”. But gradually, our protagonist came to recognise how much hurt his words inflicted on his minority (and female) colleagues. He resolved to do better, starting by acknowledging his privileges and consciously checking them. In short, he learned a new ethic for a new America.
This was the first time I ran into the tangle of ideas now known as “woke”. And back then, I dismissed them as a silly sort of therapy-cum-spirituality for young adults, much as the Columbia University linguist John McWhorter does in his best-selling and hotly debated new book, Woke Racism. I was wrong then — as McWhorter is now.
All the elements of wokeness McWhorter identifies were present, in embryonic form, in that Houston auditorium 17 years ago: the grievance-mongering; the reduction of complex problems to an obsession with language; the denial of agency to victim groups; the corollary duty of whites to pursue social change, mainly by seeking individual self-improvement; the thrill of a higher gnosis.
It was useful for elite, mostly white grads to give some thought to how their backgrounds might help or hinder them in “majority-minority” school districts, such as the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, where I was headed. But the sessions went far beyond that, staging by-now-familiar confessional routines (“for each privilege point the chart gives you, please take one step forward from the line….”) and ultimately seeking to mould a new type of person.
I found the whole thing contemptible, partly because I saw in the proto-woke worldview a bowdlerised version of the critical theories I had studied — indeed, adored — in college. And partly because I fell into the interstices of the official oppressor-oppressed categories. I could have brought home an Intersectional Olympics medal, as a Muslim-born immigrant in post-9/11 America. But I wasn’t, in fact, besieged by prejudice, and it would have been risible for a son of Iran — literally, “land of the Aryans” — to claim “POC” victimhood.
Others were enthusiastic. There were transports of tears, ecstatic hugs after heated exchanges, tedious self-criticisms. It all seemed to give them solace, of a kind that I, then a proud atheist, didn’t think I needed. Today, judging by social media, more than a few of my fellow Teach for America alumni are zealots who force everyone around them “to spend endless amounts of time listening to nonsense presented as wisdom, and pretend to like it”, to quote McWhorter.
They’re everywhere, of course, not just in Teach for America. In a very few years, public life in the Anglosphere has devolved into one giant diversity session. McWhorter, who is black, is justly alarmed by this. He doesn’t want his daughter to grow up thinking of herself as a permanent victim, nor to believe that she carries some immutable racial essence that defines who she is more than anything else about her.
More immediately, McWhorter has had it with progressive inanities, which he dissects with great wit and gusto. A table supplied early in the book shows how the woke — whom McWhorter labels “the Elect”; more on that shortly — demand that white people simultaneously believe pairs of diametrically opposed propositions. “Silence about racism is violence,” we are told, but also: “Elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.” Heads they win, tails we lose.
McWhorter addresses persuadable New York Times readers, who sense that such rhetoric is sinister but are cowed by progressive bullying, which is often backed by corporate power. The hope is that such sceptical liberals will finally “stop being afraid of these people” and “stand up” to them. Amen. But such calls to courage have been issuing from anti-woke liberals like McWhorter (and Bari Weiss, Douglas Murray, Bill Maher and James Lindsay) for some time. Why isn’t it working?
For McWhorter, “the Elect” win by duping well-intentioned modern people into adopting a malignant worldview. Wokeness, in this telling, is just a set of bad ideas. Bad religious ideas, to be precise, which assail the rational, individualistic pillars of the “post-Enlightenment society we hold dear”. If that’s the case, the “solution” is for the rest of us to double down on secular individualism. We, the non-Elect, should simply recognise that we’re dealing with faith-based fanatics, people who can’t be reasoned with, and “work around them”.
The author is less than clear on what this might mean in practice, other than answering progressive claims with a resounding “No”: No, we won’t apologise. No, we won’t recant. No, we won’t mouth your inanities.
There is much that is sensible here. It’s especially commendable for a black, liberal intellectual, for example, to warn that the quest to extirpate all racist thoughts, once for all, is quixotic and dangerous.
But I’m afraid his diagnosis, and the treatment that follows from it, are woefully lacking. For one thing, the anti-woke liberals, who trend heavily toward Christopher Hitchens-style New Atheism, badly misunderstand religion, McWhorter especially so.
In fact, he admits early on that the book is likely to get pilloried for “disrespect[ing] religion.” But the problem isn’t so much his mean caricatures of traditional faiths as his sloppy definitions and the unaccountably sharp divisions he draws between religious and “secular” reason. These lead him to lose sight of the liturgical character of all political society, even the ardently godless.
Certainly, it’s hard to deny the religious characteristics of wokeness. The woke have their own liturgies (like the ones I witnessed in Houston). They believe in original sin (slavery, colonialism) and exalt themselves as a sort of secular Elect and excommunicate heretics (cancel culture). They’ve built a hieratic structure, composed of high priests (the UCLA critical theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, say), popular preachers (Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo) and ordinary pastors (your workplace diversity consultants). And because theirs is a messianic faith, they are hellbent on imposing it on the rest of us.
So far, so familiar. After all, it isn’t exactly ground-breaking to notice the religious dimensions of secular ideologies. The classic of the genre remains Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955), which exposed the messianic dimensions of Communist ideology. But where Aron was nuanced and sophisticated, and obviously learned when it came to a Christian faith that wasn’t his own, McWhorter is too often downright crude. Straight-faced references to The Da Vinci Code as a guide to understanding how believers think? Check. Blanket assertions that the Bible “makes no sense”? Check. Constant evocations of “the medieval” as shorthand for superstition and barbarism? Check.
Three millennia of Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology and philosophy? Poof! — all demolished by McWhorter’s equation of “reason” with Enlightenment empiricism.
Through it all, McWhorter never pauses to define precisely what a religion is. It’s a shocking lapse for a professional linguist. We owe “religion” to the Latin religio — “to bind”. And who was bound to whom, thanks to religion’s marriage of ritual and belief? In the classical world, religion didn’t just involve binding the human creature to God or the gods — but also the political subject to his earthly rulers. Politics and piety, in other words, were bound together, a fact made especially manifest in the Roman worship of the god-emperor.
As a matter of substance, religious experience could and did vary; some religious beliefs are more reasonable than others. But as a matter of form, religion was about orienting the community, rulers as well as the ruled, toward the highest goods of human life. And in that sense religion was — and remains — unavoidable. Hence, ancient writers’ insistence that man is among other things a religious animal, always seeking to erect his altars in public squares.
Today, our altar looks unquestionably progressive. Anti-woke liberals see themselves as the brave few who refuse to genuflect — rather like Roman elites who, following Constantine’s conversion, griped that worship of a would-be Jewish king had ruined the empire. Only, unlike the Roman religious dissidents, who were proud pagans, the anti-woke liberals refuse to recognise the religious character of their own beliefs.
They insist that their ideology is merely a gossamer framework for upholding pluralistic societies. Yet liberalism, too, offers a definite account of what should bind the individual to society, with its own pieties and liturgical practices. From French revolutionaries’ shrines to the goddesses of Reason and Liberty to today’s pantheon of civic saints, liberals render worship. And from the arch-liberal philosopher John Rawls’s infamous footnote excluding from the realm of “public reason” any “comprehensive doctrine that denied this right [abortion],” to the anti-woke liberals’ increasingly unvarnished hostility to those further to their Right, liberals excommunicate.
Meanwhile, their shoddy account of religion leads anti-woke liberals to separate the woke religio from material reality. McWhorter & Co. rightly mock and denounce the bad religio of the woke, but they give little thought to how the ideology might be legitimating a class structure.
McWhorter’s book is replete with hints, but he never connects the dots. Nearly all of the persecutors he profiles, and many of their victims, belong to the professional classes. He writes of teachers, professors, columnists, pollsters, corporate executives — people who, in one way or another, service the dominant classes under his cherished liberal order.
I’ve argued, in these pages and elsewhere, that wokeness might be the latest legitimating ideology for neoliberal capitalism: a way to bind its subjects, to motivate them and to discipline the wayward. If it were otherwise, if wokeness truly undermined the material interests of today’s corporate ruling class, it would be extinguished this very day. And the Walton family and every other mega-foundation wouldn’t be lining up to fund woke outfits, not least Teach for America.
Teach for America (and Teach First) are premised on the idea that the achievement gap between poor kids and their affluent peers could be closed if only a committed corps of teachers mounted heroic, McKinsey-consultant-style hard work. Now, it’s absolutely true that we could use higher expectations and more diligent teachers in low-income classrooms. But these organisations would deny larger, structural causes for the achievement gap: the white teacher, for instance, mustn’t dare judge illegitimacy rates and absentee black fathers. A ferocious focus on race, sexuality and gender, meanwhile, helps to suppress the question of class.
Rolling back wokeness, then, requires paying attention to the intersection of ideology and class conflict in liberal society. Anti-woke liberals aren’t prepared to do so, because finally they’re loyal to our current material order, however annoying or discomfiting they might find its cultural symptoms. Their critique doesn’t give rise to any political response. You rarely find them at the forefront of legislative efforts to limit race-and-gender theory in classrooms. Indeed, they often oppose such efforts, lest they threaten higher liberal idols, such as the “marketplace of ideas”.
A deeper critique would call into question the anti-woke liberals’ own deepest commitments, their own religio.