“It’s been a long time comin’/ It’s going to be a long time gone” — Crosby, Stills & Nash
In general I try to avoid culture-war topics on this blog. But wokeness — the collection of social justice movements, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 2010s — is too interesting and too important not to write about. In many ways it defined the culture of America in the 2010s, and it continues to be a prominent political issue in the 2020s. We almost have to understand it in order to understand where our country is, and where it’s headed.
People argue to death about the definition of “wokeness”. Just this week, that argument has erupted yet again, after a conservative pundit failed to produce a definition off the top of her head when challenged. Personally, I think that it’s not so useful to define social movements in short, pithy phrases; a million useless arguments about what constitutes true socialism stand as a testament to the advantages of connotative definitions over rigid ones. But if you want a definition of “wokeness”, I can give you several useful ones. Each of these is obviously incomplete, but together they at least roughly capture what I think are most of the essential features of what I mean when I use the word:
But more important than the definition, in my opinion, is the connotation. Some progressives think of the word “woke” as an insult, or even a slur. And some conservatives have taken to using “woke” to describe practically anything they don’t like about modern American culture. But personally, I don’t use the word pejoratively or disparagingly. I certainly don’t agree with or like every single thing about wokeness, but I think that it has important positive aspects, without which American society would be barely recognizable. And so far, polls show that the American people generally agree with me:
Instead of wielding the word “wokeness” as a culture-war weapon, I’d rather think about where it came from, why it emerged when it did, and where it’s taking our country. So over the past two years, I wrote a series of posts in which I tried to think about this social and cultural movement from a variety of different angles.
Here are all those posts, in chronological order. The last two remain paywalled, though I plan to unpaywall them eventually.
Wokeness as respect redistribution
For a very long time, I’ve had the idea that America was an extremely disrespectful society, riddled with social hierarchies in which rank was enforced with constant expressions of disrespect. As the country became more diverse and women became more equal in the workforce, the respect deficit only grew more glaring. It felt like something had to break; eventually, anger at the continual slights of daily American life was going to boil over. And in the 2010s, it did.
Wokeness as old-time American religion
Many of wokeness’ opponents believe that it’s a foreign transplant, like communism — an ideology brought here by European leftists. But in fact, the wokeness of the 2010s has very strong parallels to crusading social justice movements that erupted in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s, the early 1800s, and during the American Revolution itself — and to a lesser degree, at several other times as well. I see wokeness as a fundamental part of American culture — a home-grown Protestant-derived quasi-religion that reemerges from time to time.
It’s not Cancel Culture, it’s Cancel Technology
This post wasn’t originally part of the wokeness series, but I think it probably belongs here. The rise in the use of social media to denounce people and to attempt to ruin their reputations is widely seen as a core weapon of the woke movement. But in this post, I argued that “cancel culture” is much more general than that — it’s the inevitable intersection of old practices of social ostracism with the new technological capabilities of social media. And it won’t be solved if the country gets less woke — it’ll only be solved when we learn more reasonable ways to use the new technological tools we’ve invented.
Who can push back when wokeness overreaches?
In this post, I listed some ways that I thought wokeness had overreached — a common worry in 2021, and one that I think was justified. I argued that the anti-woke movement was not helping push back against that overreach, but instead was becoming its own lighting rod for negative polarization, ironically helping to cement wokeness’ influence. Two years later, I still think I was broadly right about this; most of the useful pushback against the excesses of wokeness have come from liberals and moderates, not from the people who made battling wokeness their life’s work.
Wokeness as prairie fire
Whereas wokeness seemed effervescent with youthful momentum in 2021, by 2023 some of the fire seemed to be going out of the movement. In this post, I offered a theory of where wokeness was headed. Even as enthusiasm for cultural upheaval flags among college students, the online youth, and the media, the ideas and customs that the woke era promulgated in the 2010s are being ensconced and institutionalized at university administrations, nonprofits, and government agencies. My metaphor was of a “prairie fire” that burns out at the center even as the flames spread at the edges.
Wokeness as mainline orthodoxy
Continuing where the previous post left off, I speculated about how institutionalized wokeness might become a sort of post-Protestant orthodoxy — a modern Episcopalianism that defines a set of rules that educated Americans follow in order to be considered (and to consider themselves) morally upright citizens. I also theorized that institutionalized wokeness could act as a conduit for the educated children of immigrants to emulate and assimilate into the culture of educated, predominantly White liberal Americans.
Anyway, I think this is all I’m going to write about wokeness for a good long while. I think I’ve added most or all of what I can to the discussion, and harping on the topic past that point would just degenerate into useless culture-war slapfights. My plan is to wait a few years and revisit the topic near the end of the decade; hopefully you will still be a Noahpinion subscriber by then!
If you doubt what “woke” governing has caused simply look at what has happened to Portland, San Francisco or even relatively conservative, midwest Chicago in the last ten years. The governance of the Democratic Party (my lifelong party) has failed to deal with rising crime as criminals took the obvious hint that liberal prosecutors were not going to prosecute shoplifters who stole less than a thousand dollars worth of goods. The gangs descended. The spillover to skyrocketing carjackings and even murder rates is obvious. Walmart has abandoned Portland and Chicago’s Michigan Avenue has become a boarded up shadow of its former self. The homeless are in charge of what the downtowns of these cities have become because the adults supposedly in control refuse to enforce any of the necessary standards of urban life. Their schools are afraid to discipline students who disrupt the education of tens of thousands resulting in plummeting achievement levels while worthless DEI bureaucrats flourish. The Biden administration appears totally blind to what is happening opening the door to the return of equally insane Trump or Trump lite leadership. Democrats like JFK, LBJ or Scoop Jackson would be appalled.
I'm separately going to opine on Woke. Noah provided the absolute best analyis anywhere anytime. I said in my earlier post.
As a liberal 68 yr old businessman, a former retired conservative, my woke thoughts:
A. Lincoln was woke. Even had the "Wide-Awakes"
B. My counter to the anti-woke mob is that they tend to be pro-hate. A generalized that is on average accurate, but imprecise.
C. When people cry about DEI at their place of work, I say.... leave. Find another job
D. Further I infom people that they have absolutely zero right to co-manage their management
E. Business and institutions had examples of subtle, not subtle suppression of women and blacks who clearly had equal value to that institution. This was was when "Woke was Silent" I say.
F. Conservative anti wokers do not comprehend that businesses meet needs, of customers, and manage culture for that success. If they decide that DEI and being woke help their entity, thats business.
Anyway, Ive seen this battle like everyone. One thing I've seen Conservatives do more of, subjective analyis, is take extreme examples and make them the common average. That's disingenuous as I see the world.