In undermining universalism and moral progress, “wokeism” is inherently reactionary.
“This book couldn’t wait, it was too urgent and necessary,” the American-German philosopher Susan Neiman tells me in her hotel in Ghent. She is doing a tour across Europe to launch her latest book Left is Not Woke. Neiman was born and raised in Atlanta, but has spent most of her adult life in Germany, where she’s the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. She has written several books about moral responsibility, about ethics and Enlightenment, and about how Germany has tried to atone for the Nazi atrocities. Her most ambitious work to date, Evil in Modern Thought, is a new history of modern philosophy seen as a series of responses to the problem of moral evil. She was preparing another philosophical tome, Heroism in an Age of Victimhood, but the rise of woke ideology got her so worried that she decided to squeeze in this slimmer volume. “My publisher rushed the book and it’s coming out very quickly in other languages as well.” She didn’t write the book for her Fachkollegen, she admits. “This is one of the reasons why I’m committed to the Enlightenment. They were not writing for their graduate students either, but for the general audience.” And this Enlightenment—with its universalism, belief in progress and justice—is being undermined today by intellectuals and activists who falsely profess to be on the “left.” During the interview, we take a walk along the medieval canals in Ghent, to the site of the old monastery where she’s about to give her talk. Philosophizing while strolling about, that’s how the founding father of Western philosophy Aristotle—another one of those dead white males—had originally intended it.
Maarten Boudry: Many left-wing people believe that the danger of “wokeism” is just a figment of right-wing imagination. Why did you think it was necessary to attack woke ideology from an explicitly left-wing angle?
Susan Neiman: For the last two years I’ve been sitting with friends in many different countries who would bring up—but quietly and only among friends—some incidents of woke overreach or somebody being canceled for ridiculous reasons, and these people would tell me, morosely, “I guess I’m not Left anymore.” But at a certain point I begin to say: no, they are the ones who are not left anymore, the woke crowd. So I wanted to break down this binary between the so-called woke Left and the Right, untangle the confusion and reclaim certain positions for the Left, such as universalism and belief in moral progress. The shortest version of my argument is that wokeism, while fueled by all kinds of progressive emotions, such as sympathy for the underdog and indignation on the part of the marginalized, ends up with very reactionary ideas.
Categories: Political Correctness/Totalitarian Humanism