by Victor Davis Hanson
Wokeism has become our most popular secular religion—at least for a moment dethroning climate change. It reduces all of the past and present into puerile binaries between “whites” and “non-whites.”
Its aim is for the present generation to rewrite our history—whether by The 1619 Project and cancel culture or iconoclastic statue-toppling and Trotskyization of names and places. Wokeism becomes a child’s morality tale of noble non-white victims versus villainous white victimizers. Erasing the past and its language supposedly fuels a recalibration of the future, all in the here and now, a holy Year Zero
In the process, wokeism has done a lot of damage to America, and will do even more if left unchecked. Here are its chief characteristics.
Elites vs. Elites
First, remember that wokeism is a top-down phenomenon. It started in academia with “critical race theory” and “critical legal theory.” These are bastard offshoots of harebrained “critical theory,” which arose from a demoralized and adrift Europe after the cataclysms of two devastating European-spawned world wars.
These ‘theories” are merely adolescent delusions that norms, customs, traditions, laws, and rules are just arbitrary “constructs.” Thus they should have no authority over those whom they “oppress.” These relativist props are the tools of the white male hierarchy to gain and consolidate their “power.” So they can only be resisted by rejecting all these insidious “norms,” whether the canons of physics and math, jurisprudence, standardized test scores, or the idea that police keep the “peace.”
Outside of the campus, the media, the entertainment industry, the corporate boardroom, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, thousands of rank-and-file social justice warrior demonstrators are not demanding, for example, to enroll women in Special Forces combat units. Grassroots America does not insist on subsidized transgendered surgeries.
Instead, leftist Washington politicos and bureaucrats pressure the Pentagon brass, in quid pro quo fashion. The subtext is that those who promote woke policies are assured of promotion and future exemption from audit of lucrative retirement consulting for defense-related corporations.
The people—that is, 51 percent of America—is not organizing for more cancel-culture censorship on Facebook, or even greater percentages of college admissions determined largely by race. Inner-city residents are not clamoring for less police patrolling. Defunding law enforcement is an elite obsession of those who do not live in insecure places.
Whether in the corporate boardroom or in Hollywood casting meetings or in the campus president’s office, race-based obsessions mostly reflect intramural wars between elites for the lucrative spoils of the one-percent’s news anchorships, roles in TV shows and commercials, diversity deanships, and admissions quotas to the Ivy League.
As a result, class considerations have vanished. They are replaced by absurd racial reductionism. For example, CNN mediocrity Don Lemon, by virtue of his race-mongering, can pose as a multimillionaire victim. The anonymous white deplorables at Walmart, caricatured as smelly in the Lisa Page-Peter Strozk text trove, are his proverbial anonymous oppressors.
Apparently, we can only prevent the tragedy of thousands of young black males killing each other and hundreds of innocent bystanders each year in our major cities—if Oprah, at her $90 million estate, conducts a series of TV interviews with Meghan Markle (denizen of a $15 million mansion) about the psychodramatic slights she feels she received from the Royal Family, or if Black Lives Matter founder and Marxist Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac gets her $35,000 new fence around her new Topanga Canyon home, in an era when “walls don’t work.”
The elite Woke are now obsessed about race because of leftist failures in the past to galvanize a permanent class of victims of the grasping rich—given the upward mobility and expanding economy of the United States.
Race, in contrast, is deemed immutable. The Left sees it as permanent proof, a stamp of victimization and thus deserving of reparatory government action. LeBron James may be worth $1 billion, but he will always be a needy voice of the helpless given his race. Or so the woke would have us believe.
Performance Virtue Signaling
Second, given its elite origins and spread, it is no surprise that wokeism is a psychological mechanism that exempts the privileged by virtue signaling and performance grievance-mongering in lieu of meaningful real action. Wokeism is neither consistent nor logical. Its self-serving selectivity means Hunter Biden’s serial use of the N-word is not inconsistent with his father’s lectures that the deplorables pose an existential racist threat to the nation.
America’s inner cities are unsafe, violent, often dangerously unclean, and characterized by terrible schools, plagued by terrible municipal administration, and suffering terrible housing. Yet wokeism never holds the mayors, the district attorneys, or the city councils of these urban failures accountable for the misery they inflict on the non-white and poor.
When a shrill Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) produces a selfie video about the planet burning up in 12 years, or claims “racism” explains efforts to ensure that immigrants come in legal fashion, she believes that she is then exempt both from doing anything concrete about urban crises, and from any guilt about living a privileged lifestyle.
Kicking “racist” Donald Trump off social media apparently means Mark Zuckerberg does not feel too bad about building a monstrous 57,0000-square foot mansion on a pristine Hawaiian island site. The social justice warrior and Facebook billionaire might as well have been a 15th -century Florentine Catholic sinner, ponying up 1,000 golden florins to gift a few blocks on the rising Duomo to ensure he could indulge himself on his $12,000 electric surfboard, and that his future stay in Purgatory would be short, and in Paradise long.
Before being pre-COVID-19 woke, Colin Kaepernick of mixed racial ancestry, was a so-so multimillionaire NFL quarterback. He was known mostly for being suspended for using a racial N-word slur. Kaepernick was raised by white parents and apparently worried whether he was authentically one of the oppressed.
But after joining the church of wokeism, he became an approved voice of the victimized. And so he began lodging collective grievances against the supposed sins of America while building a fortune hawking Chinese-approved products.
So wokeism is so often an empty indulgence for the elite that enjoys exemptions it never extends to others.
When Individuals Disappear
Third, Wokeism destroys individualism. We cease being persons and instead become categorized peoples. What does it matter that Al Sharpton was a racist demagogue, that Jesse Jackson a skilled shakedown artist of corporate America, that Bayard Rustin, in contrast, a brilliant civil rights strategist, or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ecumenical believer in the inherent goodness of a flawed America of his times—once they are all to be reduced to being just black, and therefore just equally victims?
In the same manner, did Robert Kennedy, Lester Maddox, Hubert Humphrey, and Bull Connor equally suffer from “whiteness”? Wokeism, then, is a nonstop tribal warfare that reduces everyone on one side into uniform victims, despite their naturally varying morality, and on the other into cookie-cutter victimizers, although some were and most were not.
Racist obsession strangles individual character and renders everything irrelevant in comparison. Are we now to stop watching “Saving Private Ryan” because most of those who died on Normandy Beach were white? Thus what does it matter that some soldiers were braver than others? And what did it matter in a larger sense that a mostly white majority America defeated an all-white Nazi Germany? Were Churchill and Roosevelt, and Stalin and Hitler, just a bunch of old white people, given it was irrelevant that the former were democratic leaders who saved Western civilization and the latter were mass murderers?
Racism Everywhere—and Thus Nowhere
Fourth, race is not unimportant, but it is not the only catalyst of history or arbiter of life in the present. Cancer couldn’t care less about the race of the cells it warps. COVID-19 is not a white or black pandemic, for all the efforts to make it so. Google “racism” and learn that everything from gluten allergies to robots are now products of racism.
Segregation of the U.S. military was a travesty during World War II, and had grave implications of abject hypocrisy for a democracy at war, but it was still not the central issue that explained the global conflict, at least not in comparison to the 6 million dead of the Holocaust, or the 20 million killed on the Eastern Front, or the 15 million whom Japan butchered in China. To the extent racism drove the death count of World War II, by the numbers it was mostly a matter of the Japanese intersectionally slaughtering supposedly inferior Asian Chinese and Germans exterminating white, supposedly non-“Aryan” Jews and Russian “Untermenschen.”
Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the Magna Carta, and the Declaration of Independence can be appreciated apart from race and gender. In contrast, wokeism takes every event of the past and present and warps it into a racial litmus test, and thus a banality of oppressor and oppressed, as if history is always third-grade melodrama rather than complex tragedy.
Merit is Racist
Fifth, wokeism’s existential enemy is merit. Critical Race Theory claims that meritocratic criteria are rigged or “constructed” in subtle ways to reflect the dominant hegemonies of the white male heterosexual hierarchy. Thus physics has no innate laws across time and space. There are no race-neutral skills or lack of the same in a United Airlines pilot.
We know the wages of such woke relativism. Indeed, we have seen the pernicious effects when sex or religion or race or ideology in the past has been used to calibrate talent in lieu of merit, whose measurement can transcend how we look or in what faith we believe.
Wokeism dictates that if the “oppressed” are “underrepresented,” it is because of society’s rigged rules of exploitation. So the woke’s remedies trump considerations of quality and excellence. Yet we know what happened when ideologues in 1930s Germany purged university departments, when commissars overruled Soviet officers in World War II, when Jim-Crow white racists found ways to ensure talented blacks could not go to college, or when brilliant female law graduates were offered only secretarial work in prestigious law firms: Society at large suffered from unscientific, crackpot -isms that knowingly warred on talent for purposes of political control.
The ancient American idea is now dead that if a group was collectively underrepresented in particular fields and professions, the remedy was simply twofold: organize to ensure equality of opportunity, and then when a fair shot was guaranteed, prepare, study, and sacrifice to ensure quantifiable excellence to capitalize on the opportunity. All that to the woke is now “racism.”
The final irony of wokeism? Its efforts to intrude on private lives come right out of the pages of 1984 and Animal Farm. Its racism is a more sophisticated form of Confederate one-drop racial lunacy. Its methodology operates according to the rules of the Spanish Inquisition. And its cancel culture mimics the system of Soviet commissars.
How did such collective madness infect a once pragmatic and commonsensical America?
Nascent wokeism went viral during the terror of COVID-19, our first global pandemic in a century, the first ever national quarantine, the first ever self-induced recession, the most destructive riots in U.S. history after the death of George Floyd, and the first ever election where well over 60 percent did not vote on election day. And the country went stark-raving mad in response.
As the virus fades, the lockdown becomes porous, pent-up demand fuels an economic recovery, the absence of law enforcement becomes far more deadly than its omnipresence, violent crime spikes and seeps into the suburbs, and the people resist the Left’s unconstitutional hijacking of state protocols of voting, then what happens?
Do we revert to the norms of the civil rights movement where the content of our character alone matters, not the color of our skin?
Or have we sunk so deeply into the woke quicksands, that we cannot thrash our way up to the air, and thus suffocate from the ancient pressures of the bog that have always destroyed civilizations?
– – –
Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004.