Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Manias upon Manias: The Rise of the Counter-Woke Collective

By Kevin Hockmuth

For those charting the intellectual mood of the mainline American left, it is hard to avoid sensing that a specter is haunting liberal sensibilities—the specter of wokism. Indeed, a stream of anecdotes highlighting this foreboding development has been frequently relayed and expounded upon in the pages of prestige publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. Similarly, The Economist weekly has joined the fray using its September 4 cover to warn of the burgeoning ‘illiberal left’ and its pernicious designs. It does seem that this term, illiberal, has come to signal an allegiance with a particular form of derision towards contemporary activism while avoiding the more pedestrian (and perhaps Don Jr.-sullied) terms, woke or wokism. Even so, lest we engage in yet another exercise of linguistic sanitization, let us employ the terms woke/wokism since they are the very words that have, for better or not, come to shape and define the debates at hand. In this vein, I hope the reader will allow me to coin just one more derivative term to capture the emergent left-wing-adjacent critique of what they deem to be an ‘illiberal’ contamination of civil society, namely counter-wokism.

Certainly, this singular term glosses over the diversity of its adherents, from John McWhorter to Anne Applebaum to Bill Mahr to whoever creates The Economist’s cover. However, despite these differences, the counter-woke collective shares the view that social and political discourse in the U.S. is being curtailed to appease a rapidly metastasizing mob of woke (or illiberal) activists. As Applebaum surmises in her October 2021 feature in The Atlantic, the illiberal mob is a realm governed by “rapid conclusions [and] rigid ideological prisms” that “favors neither nuance nor ambiguity.” Without a doubt, Applebaum’s denunciation of “modern mob justice” in her counter-woke manifesto captures the mounting antipathy towards the form and content of left-activism in the internet age. Beyond the well-honed prose one is accustomed to finding in her work, this piece is praiseworthy by dint of its simultaneous invocation of the Puritans, Hawthorn’s parable of the Scarlett Letter, Easter European Communist regimes, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in weaving a foreboding tapestry of internet activists gone wild.

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