This post is a diatribe against the dominance of culture war in public discourse, facilitated by literary intellectualism.
The occasion is a recent essay in the conservative Chronicles Magazine by its editor, Paul Gottfried, entitled “Why Wokeism is not Marxist.” In it, Gottfried respectfully disagrees with his woke-hating fellow traveler, Yoram Hazony, who has argued the position that wokeism is Marxist.
You’ll understand by the end of my post why I am loath to legitimize the debate by analyzing its intellectual content, but let me nevertheless try to briefly summarize Gottfried’s narrative. Gottfried concedes Hazony’s point that Marxism and wokeism share a notion that groups (or, “collectives”) can oppress other groups. But, he asserts, Marx did not invent that idea—how about the ancient Israelites, for example? Gottfried also concedes that wokeism emerged out of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, embodied particularly in the 1960s by social theorist Herbert Marcuse. But this New Left movement abandoned the working class and focused instead on identity politics, and thus is no longer Marxist in any important sense.
Wokeism, says Gottfried, has taken over academia and the media, and does not tolerate dissent. Liberalism (in the classical sense) was supposed to protect dissent from orthodoxy. Gottfried observes, however, that “For decades, that attenuated liberalism excluded the right, except for a moderate centrist version of it that would not upset leftist gatekeepers.” And today, for all intents and purposes, liberalism is dead.
Gottfried’s underlying beliefs and motives are revealed via offhanded remarks like:
The left is driven by hate against traditional Americans with fixed gender roles, communal hierarchies, and some form of inherited religious faith.
Wokeism privileges those with deviant sexual appetites, anti-Christian and antiwhite fixations, and repugnance for bourgeois institutions…
Still, Gottfried does make some fair points, e.g. that the left frequently abuses the term “fascism,” and that its understanding of “oppression” has expanded over time from mere material exploitation to include emotional repression.
* * *
The term “political correctness” feels dated, to the point that no one wants to use it. But I say there is no meaningful difference between political correctness and the new “woke.” Yes, semantically, the former refers to language rules and the latter to an attitude. Fine: so, those who are willing to conform to PC language usually are alert (awoken) to racial and sexual discrimination; and those with the woke attitude are highly attentive to the language that people use in this realm. Still, however, a propagandist like Christopher Rufo would insist that “woke” is different, that it “seeks to reengineer the foundations of human psychology.” Well, political correctness also wanted to change how people thought about race and sexuality, no?
Regardless, decrying “PC” or “woke” amounts to a flimsy attempt to claim victim status. But wokesters aren’t trying to hurt whites, nor to discriminate against religion. And is acknowledging your advantages, looking at different elements of history, or letting LGBTQ folks live their lives going to kill you?
Propagandists may move on to a new label in a few years. Whatever it’s called, though, I am certain that political correctness will be a permanent stalemate. (Not necessarily a useless one.) Marginalized and disadvantaged groups will forever demand rights and respect; reactionaries and parochial bigots will resent it; and public institutions will find little reason to resist the left’s rules. Why would any of this ever change?
Gottfried is unwilling to acknowledge that the demand for rights and for dignity is exactly what the liberal project is about. Liberalism isn’t dead: rather, it is slowly reaching a new, more advanced stage of evolution. Is everything in the woke agenda right on the mark, and is all of it realistic? Anyone claiming they know that it is would, I think, be guilty of hubris or extravagance. But it is certainly attempting to address onerous social problems that have not been fully addressed.
Evidently, for Gottfried the only relevant dimension of liberalism is unfettered freedom of speech. Free speech is not in fact being prohibited in academia or media, though counterspeech attacks against un-PC speech can sometimes be vicious. But would he like to outlaw that? That’s liberalism, too.
We may as well acknowledge that frustrated paleoconservatives have few good political cards in their hand. An authoritarian solution might work, but they can’t say that out loud. Aside from that, pushing wedge issues to inflame the electorate might be the best tactic available.
* * *
I bristle whenever I see words such as “cultural Marxism,” “liberalism,” “Frankfurt School,” “critical theory,” “postmodernism,” “Trotskyism,” “transgenderism,” “intersectionality,” “neoliberalism,” and other scary “ism” words injected into public discourse. All they do is inflame culture wars and crowd out sensible democratic discourse. Who cares whether CRT is Marxist or not?
“Sensible” means respecting that there are serious religious differences among citizens, and insisting upon mutual tolerance and multiculturalism and basic rights, and leaving it at that. Public discussion should be focused on stuff like proposals for raising prospects for the middle class, and fixing democratic institutions that aren’t working well.
Instead, we mostly get outrage entertainment. A large proportion of public discourse is implicitly about whether such-and-such statement goes “too far,” and where the precise boundaries between political correctness and tolerance “should be.” It sucks the energy away from other topics. It’s all shadowboxing, it’s sport. And since participants never act in good faith, compromise or even agreement on terms is impossible.
I can imagine a rejoinder from literary intellectuals like Gottfried. “But, David, you simply do not understand the import here… Ideas determine history, and we face a fundamental dilemma for human civilization,” etc. Nah, not really… society has evolved to a point where government has been mostly rationalized/managerialized, and extreme ideologies of the right, left, and otherwise are widely known and discredited. A bigger current threat is that, with the recent evolution of media, politics has become a circus that keeps Congress from governing.
Of course there is a place for dispassionate analysis of ideologies in history departments, and perhaps also in Political Linguistics. But Gottfried’s literary intellectualism, pretending to be dispassionate, is really just a form of propaganda, relying almost exclusively on the cheap tactic of demonizing the other side, and helping to supply a flow of arms to mass-media propagandists like Christopher Rufo, Matt Walsh, and Ben Shapiro.