The Anti-Woke Gyre
A binary devours some of our best and brightest
There was, in the 2010s, a palpable shift in the culture. Depending on your perspective, it was wondrous, a great awakening, or something much more unsettling. It began on college campuses and migrated outward, into the spaces where the college-educated congregate and wield their social capital. The writer Wesley Yang deems it “successor ideology.” Others call it social justice politics or “woke.” The impetus, ultimately, was well-meaning: a new way to help the marginalized, particularly those who have been oppressed in the United States of America. Until the 1960s, a system of racial apartheid governed the South and it wasn’t demonstrably better elsewhere. Interracial marriage was outlawed, gay life was effectively criminalized, and openly racist politicians like George Wallace could command many millions of votes in a presidential election. As the Civil Rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs helped to dismantle this system, racism and inequality inevitably persisted. Housing segregation did not vanish. The intergenerational wealth that middle and upper-class whites enjoyed was not forcibly redistributed. An obsession with over policing and prison-building in the 1970s and 1980s doomed many young Black men. The United States, a nation founded by slaveholders, is drenched in sin.
Yet the social justice politics of the 2010s, as I’ve written elsewhere, attempted to address all of this—this titanic sin—in the most depthless manner imaginable. Rather than work towards a material program that could fix American inequality and aid those suffering most, the proponents of this new politics chose to fixate on language and culture. They dismissed the First Amendment commitments that left-wing activists had championed for much of the last century. They fought their battles in DEI seminars and at Wonder Woman screenings. They made an affluent white woman absurdly rich and canonized a distressingly Manichean intellectual; he was made rich, too. They taught the most powerful and exploitative corporations on Earth that shallow identity gestures could be the way to manage their public relations and shield them from liability. Even the CIA turned woke.