Wokeness as mainline orthodoxy
From permanent revolution to small-town moralizing.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about how to think about the social justice movements and culture that have come to prominence in the U.S. over the last decade. The others are “Wokeness as respect redistribution”, “Wokeness as old-time American religion”, and “Wokeness as prairie fire”.
When I wrote the first two posts in this series back in 2021, it felt like I was writing about a movement that was still up-and-coming — out of its early revolutionary phase, perhaps, but still full of vitality. In 2023, I feel like I’m almost starting to write about wokeness in retrospect.
Of course, to think that the social justice movements and culture of the 2010s are a thing of the past would be absolutely absurd. Just this week, the internet erupted in anger over Puffin Books hiring sensitivity readers to edit the classic works of Roald Dahl. Some of the changes were absolutely ludicrous, such as removing the descriptions of black-colored objects like the cloak of the Big Friendly Giant, as if the color black itself were inherently offensive to Black people.
But while three or five years ago this might have created a heated debate along traditional battle lines, this time the condemnation from intellectuals associated with antiracism and the cultural Left was near-universal. The contrast was striking — public voices who were once popularly considered the vanguard of wokeness decrying the mutilation of a beloved traditional work of art, while the people doing the mutilating were faceless minor functionaries buried within the bowels of a smallish publishing company. It’s a perfect illustration of my “prairie fire” thesis — that even as institutions at the periphery of American intellectual life discover a passion for 2010s concepts of social justice, the appetite for a total cleansing of American culture has guttered out among intellectual trend-setters.
Nor is it the only such sign. Musa al-Gharbi has a recent article with quite a bit of data showing that journalistic and academic attention to the topics of diversity, bias, privilege, and so on seems to have peaked, while “cancel culture” incidents have decreased on campuses and in corporations, and political opinions on various social issues have moderated a bit. Anecdotally, corporate interest in DEI seems to be waning as well. Other observers like Tyler Cowen have noticed the trend. (Update: Here’s another Cowen post with some good data and links. And here is a David Rozado thread suggesting that wokeness is shifting its tone from anger to positivity.)
Wokeness isn’t dying at all — it’s simply beginning to return to its normal quiescent state, from which it will re-emerge one day when America decides it’s needed again. But its slow retreat is leaving behind what Eric Hoffer called the “inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap” — a system of morality around language and social interaction that will define life in many American institutions for years to come. This is not a Marxist “permanent revolution”, but rather a modern version of the Protestant morality that once dominated town and village life in early America.
And one surprising effect of that post-Protestant village morality, I think, will be to provide a path to cultural assimilation for the educated children of immigrants.
Wokeness as elite assimilation
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