The Bizarre Nature of The Liberal Backlash Against Woke Culture

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New Republic - November 2019

"The foot-stamping insistence on individual rights obliterates what should be a tension between those rights and the well-being of the community as a whole. This is all the more relevant at a time when the political implications of unbridled individualism, represented by capitalism’s self-made man, have never been clearer. There must be a way to express oneself while also ensuring that others aren’t silenced, oppressed, and forgotten. There must be a way to protect the individual while addressing dire problems that can only be fixed collectively, from environmental collapse to systemic racism and sexism. To err on the side of solidarity, even against one’s strongest emotions, is not to sacrifice our individual humanity. It is to accept what Elizabeth Bennet finally learned: that the truth will set you free."

There is a certain kind of liberally inclined writer who sees Donald Trump’s America as a nation in crisis. At every turn, in every tweet, she is confronted by the signs of an ongoing catastrophe, from which it may be too late to escape. An ugly, vicious intolerance spread on social media; the collapse of norms once considered sacred; a crass narrow-mindedness surreally celebrated by some of this country’s most powerful institutions—these are all elements in the gathering storm of a new, distinctly American fascism. The twist is that this crisis has its source, she contends, not in the person of Trump, but in his frothing-mouthed opposition: the left.

That, roughly speaking, is the thesis of a group of writers who, since Trump’s election in 2016, have chastised the left for its supposedly histrionic excesses. Their enemies extend well beyond the hashtag resistance, and their fire is aimed, like a Catherine wheel, in all directions, hitting social justice warriors, elite universities, millennials, #MeToo, pussy hat–wearing women, and columnists at Teen Vogue. Everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates down to random Facebook commenters is taken to task, which makes for a sprawling, hard-to-define target. These writers might call their bugbear “woke culture”: a kind of vigilance against misogyny, racism, and other forms of inequality expressed in art, entertainment, and everyday life.

The title of Meghan Daum’s new book—The Problem With Everything—conveys just how far she believes the woke left has overstepped. Its publication follows similar works of polemic recently by the novelist Bret Easton Ellis (White) and the journalist and essayist Wesley Yang (The Souls of Yellow Folk). Together they constitute a school of thought of sorts, distinct from the usual howling condemnations of wokeness from the right. These three writers, after all, don’t fit the profile (straight, white, male, conservative) of the average anti-P.C. crusader. Daum insists that she is a feminist; Ellis for a long time struggled with his public identity as a gay man; and Yang made his name as an astute chronicler of Asian American life. Yet, in styles ranging from anxious foreboding to visceral contempt, they each oppose what is at its heart a movement for equality.

At their worst, these writers’ critiques of contemporary culture suffer from the flaw Lionel Trilling once found in conservatism: that it does not express itself in ideas, but in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” At their best, they offer a rousing defense of individuality and the right to express oneself, no matter what society might demand. It is a liberal vision, but a cramped one, emphasizing one sort of freedom over all others: the freedom to be wrong, to be offensive, to be exempt from any obligation to anyone else.

I should note at the outset that I am not unsympathetic to the concerns of these liberal (or liberal-ish) writers, although none of them shows a particularly firm grasp of the thing they are rejecting or its history. The writer Kashana Cauley has traced the use of the term “woke” to unionized black workers in the midcentury and to the civil rights movement. In her childhood in the 1990s, wokeness was “a command to keep ourselves informed about anti-blackness, and to fight it.” The last five years have seen more and more people take up this mantle, as Black Lives Matter called for sustained protest against systemic racism, and the election of Trump laid bare the depth of the white patriarchy’s enduring power. To be woke in 2019 is, in part, to be a critic; whether recognizing the subtle sexism in a TV show or celebrating the political messaging in a music video, it is a form of close reading that has always been aligned with activism. ...
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