In December 2013, a PR executive named Justine Sacco was about to fly to Cape Town when she had a flash of inspiration. Not long before take-off, she pulled out her smartphone and tapped out a tweet and clicked “send”. It read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
By the time Sacco landed at her destination and regained access to the Internet, her life had been turned upside-down. She had been branded a certified Bad Person by almost the entire Anglo-Twittersphere, including a reality TV star named Donald Trump. She was ultimately dismissed from her job.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Looking back, Sacco’s tweet may be seen as a world-historical pivot, Ground Zero for the cultural developments that characterised the 2010s: the return of Nineties-style “political correctness”; the swift destruction of lives by online mobs; the instantaneous capitulation of employers ; above all, the obscuration of important sociopolitical and material crises by a pathological obsession with language and offence-taking. Sacco, in short, inadvertently called forth the Woke Moment.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Post-Woke Moment is here. It’s a tenuous achievement, to be sure, and the woke still wield enormous political, economic and cultural power. Still, there are unmistakable signs of “a vibe shift”. In Britain, gender ideologues have suffered major setbacks, as authorities crack down on the malpractices of gender clinics. In the United States, the teaching of ahistorical nonsense in schools has run up against a wall of parental outrage. Even Netflix has told its censorious culture-managers to shut up or find another job.
The question is where we go from here. The two most plausible paths are restorationism and radicalism. (Many of the potential “third ways” ultimately collapse back into one of the two.) By restorationism, I mean an effort to turn the cultural clock back to roughly where things stood before Sacco self-destructed her life and career in 52 carelessly typed characters. The fundamental instinct of this path is that the matrix of social, economic, and cultural policy and practice that prevailed roughly a decade ago was sound. Into that happy arcadia of free speech and free markets was suddenly and for no reason injected the virus of Left-identitarianism, which conjured as a reaction the even more dangerous virus of Right-wing populism. The battle, then, is between individualists and “collectivists” of various stripes. Now that wokeism is faltering, restorationists feel, individualism must reign again.
The restorationists are essentially cautious conservatives. They believe that the sex-liberationism and gender-nominalism that have characterised the last 20 years were fine — a healthy and organic development of classical-liberal doctrine — but then suddenly things went too far with the “gender stuff”. Likewise, the liberal censoriousness of that era was fine, but then the far-Left adopted the same methods and went too far with “cancel culture”.
The dividing line between the authentic fruits of modern society and its freakish excesses was always blurry, and remains so to this day. The bigger problem for the restorationists is that, to paraphrase Mitterrand on 1968, the pre-Woke Moment contained in it many of the elements that gave rise to the Woke Moment. Restoring 2013, even if it were possible, would mean restoring the same internal contradictions — not least an obscenely unequal society, in material terms, that desperately needed the fake egalitarianism of wokeness as a legitimating ideology.
The second path is radicalism. By this, I don’t mean extremism, but a cold appreciation for the fact that the Woke Moment was rooted in, rather than a departure from, the class rivalries and material conditions of modern society. The contradictions that gave rise to wokeness, in other words, won’t be resolved unless we work for a decent and more materially equal society — a process that will require political confrontation and compromise between the three major classes: the asset-rich few, the managers who service their affairs, and the asset-less many.
Both of the post-woke camps — the restorationists and the far less numerous radicals — must contend with a powerful woke remnant. Even more so than the restorationists, the woke are fundamentally conservative. As I have argued before, by changing how we talk about society, and altering its managerial hierarchies, they seek to preserve the existing power structure. Only now, with a backlash brewing, they must change tack.
Anand Giridharadas’s new book, The Persuaders, is representative of this subtle shift in the woke camp. In it, he aims to “reinvigorate the idea of persuasion” at a time when too many Americans view each other as “alien, menacing, and, therefore, unchangeable”. He says he wants to reverse these trends — but mostly ends up replicating their logic, in page after interminable page of saccharine prose that recalls nothing so much as a piece of corporate diversity messaging. Giridharadas is a wokester trying to strike a restorationist-liberal pose.
The book starts out promising enough, with a discussion of the Russian troll farms that many liberals to this day blame for catapulting Donald Trump to the Oval Office. For Western elites struggling to explain rising populism, it couldn’t be that Trumpers, Brexiteers, and Gilets Jaunes revolted over legitimate grievances with progressive rule. No, it must have been Kremlin mind-control that propelled them. Where once it was chiefly the politically uneducated prole on the street who unreasonably suspected elites of conniving with nefarious foreigners, today it’s as often elites who imagine the common people are foreign agents or automatons.
Observing the workings of the troll farms up-close, Giridharadas draws a different conclusion: that the Kremlin’s influence operations merely exploited existing social discord. “As tempting as it may be to view the Russian operatives as instigators,” he writes, “to witness these moves is to witness a mission of amplification.” Even in 2016, this should have been apparent to anyone with enough faith in Americans to question their susceptibility to St. Petersburg-hatched memes depicting the Lord Jesus hugging Trump. Still, that a former New York Times columnist is now prepared to voice the obvious signifies something.
That something is, in a word, weakness: the yawning sense that despite their conquest of major institutions, progressives are alienated from broad swaths of the public. Big Tech and Hollywood, the HR department and the Central Intelligence Agency — all now speak in their vernacular. Yet comedians have begun to mock their inanities with impunity, the GOP is making electoral hay of the 1619 Project, and suburban moms are mobilising to defend the right of their sons to become merely gay men, rather than eunuchs.
That’s where Giridharadas comes in, bearing both a warning and a hopeful omen for progressives. The warning is that unless the Left changes rhetorical course, its language and purity-policing will leave it isolated from the masses, its political causes moribund. The good news is that the Left can overcome this obstacle by making accommodations for those less enlightened than themselves. “Persuasion,” in other words, is just a matter of cultural progressives being a little nicer to the benighted many.
That, supposedly, is the great achievement of Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American feminist who in the aftermath of Trump’s election helped organise the Women’s March. Viewed through the lens of social class, the Great Pussy-Hat Uprising of 2017 was a movement of gentry wokeism, by gentry wokesters, for gentry wokesters. I would venture to say that it “persuaded” not a single true-believing Trumpian. So why does Giridharadas single her out as an exemplary “persuader”? Well, you see, Sarsour and her Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory made “a bet that a lot of their fellow activists and movement allies might not have made”: namely, working with ignorant, all-too-privileged, liberal white women.
Sarsour & Co. had to contend with the fact that it’s “difficult to deal with these white women”. But they did it all the same — a great sacrifice. Trump’s rise had thrust “white supremacy” into the spotlight but, nevertheless, the magnanimous, committed Sarsour was prepared to work with white women. In doing so, says Giridharadas with unspeakable earnestness, she defied Audre Lorde, who had insisted that women of colour shouldn’t seek to “educate white women… as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival”. Doing so, the great intersectional sage taught, “is a diversion of our energies and a tragic repetition of racist, patriarchal thought”. Nevertheless, Sarsour & Co. persisted.
Likewise, we are supposed to cheer Sarsour for mildly questioning her fellow activists’ ruthless enforcement of gender pronouns. She told them:
“Everyone’s pronouns should be respected. But [for some of the activists] who are here, English is not their first language, and this is a very new concept for them. So I would ask for forgiveness, and I would ask if that would be something that maybe we’ll do next time when we’re together as we get these women through this process.”
Note that the pronouns themselves aren’t up for debate — or even a matter of persuasion. Everyone should adhere to the linguistic demands of gender ideology. It’s just that some people are new to these norms, and Sarsour’s great persuasive act lies in asking “for forgiveness” as she helps the ignorant “through this process” of mastering them.
Everyone is on a “journey” — a word that appears so frequently in Giridharadas’s text, it made me never want to leave home again. The destination is the same for all, but the author and his cast of characters are generous enough to allow that, for some, the “journey” might take longer or more circuitous paths. Giridharadas’s great persuaders are those brave few prepared to guide lesser beings to the higher gnosis of current Left commitments. Yet the rightness of the gnosis itself is never up for questioning. Thus, we meet another Left-wing activist who declares that masks are about keeping “my neighbours safe” (Giridharadas implicitly agrees, since he never introduces the slightest critical distance from his subjects). The activist’s “persuasiveness”, we are made to understand, lies in trying to find common ground with even those who don’t share this (unscientific) view of masking.
Another activist, a proponent of police abolition, encounters a woman of colour who wants more policing in her neighbourhood. She is not unusual: wider polling data shows that very few black and brown Americans want less policing in their neighbourhoods. Our activist, however, is held up as a model of persuasion because, rather than writing off the woman, she badgers her relentlessly, until she comes around to the view that maybe policing is bad.
Again, persuasiveness lies in “educating” the benighted, rather than genuinely listening to what they might have to say. Setting out to persuade progressives to be more persuasive, Giridharadas merely ends up ratifying the movement’s unbearable smugness. So much of what the author characterises as “persuasiveness” involves Left-liberals offering something like political-cum-psychological therapy to other Left-liberals. There is a camp, for instance — called Transracial Journeys, naturally — which offers guilt-ridden white parents a way to navigate their hang-ups over adopting black children (“I like to tell people that I’m a recovering racist,” confesses one mom).
Giridharadas’s account of persuasiveness reinforces the progressive tendency towards depoliticisation: contests over material conditions give way to therapeutic journeys for those at the top, with working-class people cast as the oafs and bigots in need of being coerced — if gently, as the author would have it — into enlightenment. It all ends up benefitting the culture-war Right and the restorationists, who are equally uninterested in improving the oiks’ material conditions, but at least don’t condescend to the many and call it persuasion.
This leaves it to the radicals to pursue a different politics, one that pays due attention to material reality and breaks through the culture-war deadlock. As one of the proponents of this approach, I admit that it is by far the more arduous alternative to merely restoring the status quo of 2013. Tech bros who think chief restorationist Bari Weiss talks good sense might be alienated and angry, but they’re not going to agitate against their own material interests. The suburban moms who are lacerating their woke school boards will never sign up for economic populism.
At best, the Post-Woke moment will be defined by a messy and unstable admixture of restorationism and radicalism, now countervailed by the regnant woke, now able to return the pressure with the help of pseudo-populist politicians — who would discipline Disney for pushing gender ideology, but not for underpaying its workers. As Justine Sacco no doubt did before her fateful flight, we would all be wise to buckle up.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe