September 21, 2021 - 12:34pm

Will wokeism rule the world? That’s an interesting (i.e. terrifying) question asked by “the decidedly un-woke” Tyler Cowen.

Writing in Bloomberg, Cowen asks “whether the U.S. will be able to deploy this new intellectual tool for exporting American cultural influence. Put another way: if there is going to be an international progressive class, why not Americanize it?” He continues:

Wokeism is an idea that can be adapted to virtually every country: Identify a major form of oppression in a given region or nation, argue that people should be more sensitive to it, add some rhetorical flourishes, purge some wrongdoers (and a few innocents) and voila — you have created another woke movement.
- Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

He’s optimistic about the prospect, and suggests that:

French culture and society will emerge just fine from this engagement with wokeism. Most of all, wokeism is a way of spreading ideas from a relatively feminized American culture to a world less supportive of women’s rights…It doesn’t much matter who controls the English department at Oberlin College. But it would be nice if the Saudis moved to allow more rights for women.
- Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

I am also decidedly un-woke, I think it’s fair to say, and I’m not sure its influence will be beneficial to America. Firstly, I get the sense that there has been a marked change in Britain in attitudes towards the United States this last year, with many British conservatives starting to see it as the Great Satan. Whether this view spreads across the western world in years to come I don’t know, but it’s not like they’re going to become less insufferable any time soon.

More importantly, I don’t think it will have the same global effect as liberalism. Liberalism has indeed had a positive influence where it has spread, and also furthered American interests, but then liberalism is fairly exportable because it’s the McDonald’s of political philosophy — a one-size-fits-all package in which certain rights are universal (conservatism, in contrast, differs from one place to another, and is happy with that difference). Liberalism doesn’t work everywhere, but with some adaptions it’s worked in a lot of places, because it’s consistent and coherent.

If wokeism was just an accelerated form of liberalism, then its influence might be mildly beneficial to Frenchwomen and extremely so to Saudi women. But wokeism differs in that it has conflict and difference built into it, and makes no attempt to be consistent. Not only is it illiberal in its hostility to free speech and difference of opinion, but it is also motivated not by freedom but by equality of outcomes — not between individuals but groups. That is the core point, and is why it has division built into it.

The movement ties up its contradictions with an appeal to sacred victimhood, directed at groups in need of protecting — primarily black people but also women, transgender people and some other racial minorities, depending on where they sit in this hierarchy. It succeeds because in some western countries there are strong taboos about the dignity of oppressed groups, an obvious hangover from Christianity (wokeism’s emergence at the exact same time American religion is in freefall is hardly some obscure esoteric mystery).

Outside of areas where western Christianity has evolved into white guilt, I’m not sure Arab, Indian and Chinese elites will be sold on sacrilising their minorities and truly embracing wokedom. They might show support for BLM, but that won’t be the same thing — in some ways rather the opposite.

While Al-Jazeera Arabic remains solidly conservative, its tweeny English language offshoot AJ+ is on Teen Vogue levels of wokeness, but wokeness in this sense means not just being progressive on gender issues but also anti-American, portraying the country as inexorably wicked and built on oppression. But then this is what high-status American thought leaders have been saying for decades.

Even if this is a perverse form of American psychological colonialism, I can’t see it making America stronger. At home, the Great Awokening has coincided with increased polarisation that has clearly weakened the country, but it must surely be damaging its reputation internationally, among both friends and enemies. Whereas liberalism has often meant exporting American values, wokeism is arguably exporting pathological anti-Americanism.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable