Ed West wrote last week about how much he misses the Before Coronavirus (BC) culture wars, in which elites got themselves worked up about minor things. Is Friends racist? Is reality transphobic? The BC version of social justice, he argues, represented a situation in which ‘the white blood cells of society’, political activists, ran so totally out of real problems that they turned on society itself.
All this, he suggests, took place against the backdrop of rising material comfort built on trading relationships with a Chinese regime that practices levels of surveillance autocracy straight out of a sci-fi dystopia. But this is all old hat now: “Now society faces an actual threat, and meanwhile our devil’s alliance with China has been irreparably damaged, it all seems so dated”.
I fear Ed may have called it too soon. The recent replacement of BC-style culture wars with social media coronapanic may look superficially like the end of the woke era. But the recent relative silence of the activists should be read as a temporary ceasefire, not a defeat. Witness this webinar above, posted on Saturday by the African American Policy Forum and featuring the grandmother of intersectionality herself, Kimberlé Crenshaw.
The pandemic is interpreted as holding a unique animus for groups typically depicted by intersectionality as victims. When Crenshaw asks what we should be doing right now to address the pandemic, Professor Dorothy Roberts responds that in the first instance ‘we should be condemning the current racial-capitalist system that caused the spread of this pandemic’. That is, racism and capitalism is responsible for spreading coronavirus ‘to everyone who is vulnerable in the United States’. Far from being a neutral threat to all of us here, coronavirus is more or less explicitly framed as a vicious attack by the evil oppressor, specifically directed at ‘the vulnerable’. Her next suggestion is that to make things better we should abolish prisons and free all the prisoners.
What is striking about the video is the way humane policy suggestions are batched in the same breath as ideas — such as prison abolition — which would likely be furiously opposed by the very working classes for whom the activists and academics in the video claim to advocate. It appears that the US needs European-style social democracy, but not because people are basically decent and all in it together, but because there is an evil Them out there who is ranged in malice against the noble, downtrodden Us.
Far from being dead, Critical Social Justice is recalibrating. It is waking up to the political opportunity presented by the pandemic and beginning to shift its lens from the relatively trivial business of cancelling 1990s sitcoms to genuinely emotive topics such as treatment of healthcare workers. As Ed himself argued in his excellent recent book Small Men On The Wrong Side of History, progressivism is basically ‘Christianity 2.0’. And in moments of great social crisis, religious feeling tends not to fade but to intensify.
What we see in this video is that social justice activists are regrouping, mustering the institutional power they already have and seeking more. Though I wish Ed were correct, I suspect that once the initial corona-noise dies down we will hear plenty more from the Critical Social Justice. I also suspect that when we do, their arguments will have not less, but considerably more impact than they did Before Coronavirus.