Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Could MLK Give A TED Talk Today?

Not without an internal struggle. Why wokeness is not dead. And why that matters.

Sep 29, 2023
(Generated by AI using the Freeway app)

We are past peak-woke. Look: even the Republican candidates aren’t using the word anymore. Ibram X Kendi’s $43 million “antiracism” center at Boston University has imploded, and produced virtually nothing. A huge murder wave in the wake of BLM has dented the appetite for defunding the police. Some red states have stopped indoctrinating children in critical race, gender, and queer theory. Many blue cities are experiencing the chaos and degeneracy that woke governance generates. The election will be fought over the economy, crime, immigration, and Trump. Time to move on.

It’s tempting to believe this, especially if you’re just as irritated by anti-woke diatribes. And there is undeniably a vibe-shift away from the moral panic over “white supremacy” in 2020. Crude, reductionist, unfalsifiable doctrines bore even the faithful after a while. But virtually nothing has changed in higher education; public high schools are still teaching the core concepts of CRT; kindergarteners are still being told to pick a sex and a pronoun; children with gender dysphoria are still having their bodies irreversibly altered. The Democrats are still on board. So is corporate America, as we saw with the cringe overkill of Pride Month. As for Boston University, its response to the Kendi mess is that it will “absolutely not” abandon his dumb-as-a-post concept of “antiracism,” or the center devoted to it.

Some other examples from just this week. The brilliant and pathologically civil writer, Coleman Hughes, was put through the wringer at TED, and had his talk suppressed, because it echoed Martin Luther King Jr’s goal of color-blindness in society. A panel at the American Anthropological Association was suddenly canceled because it was about the remaining salience of biological sex in the discipline. A panel on a Harry Potter production in London at Comic Con was canceled after a transqueer hissy fit. And a Bloomberg study of corporate hiring in 2021 found that only 6 percent of jobs that year went to whites, while 94 percent went to “people of color.” Even accounting for generational shifts in demographics, that’s an indicator that Kendi’s dictum — “the only remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination” — was taken very seriously.

When I’m told that these incidents are trivial, or marginal, I have a simple response. Ideas matter. They matter more in the long run than the most powerful individuals; ideas shift the minds of people in ways that change society more profoundly than anything else. Kings and presidents and regimes come and go — but ideas last. Once obscure scribblers like Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Marx, or Nietzsche created the world we live in. And when you swap one set of ideas as the basis for society for another one entirely, it is not just an intellectual exercise. It’s a life- and world-changing one. If you haven’t experienced the effect of this in the last few years, you need to get out more.

And the philosophy that underpins the stymieing of Hughes’ speech and so many other appalling incidents of intolerance over the last few years is a real one, constructed quite recently. And the leaders of this movement, unlike its more winsome critics, really believe, as I do, that ideas matter — which is why, since the failure of 1960s campus activism and domestic terrorism, they have worked from the universities outward to control and change the world. And triumphed!

Christopher Rufo’s new book America’s Cultural Revolution is a useful, often excellent account of the emergence of this triumphant illiberalism, and how it came to power in the US. Leave aside for a minute Rufo’s polarizing nature and the book’s attempted solutions, which are highly contestable; and its omissions (there is barely any treatment of critical gender and queer theory). Note too that a broader account of wokeness would incorporate the prescience of Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, and an account of how neo-Marxism merged with the culture of narcissism and therapy.

Focus instead on the radical thinkers Rufo cites: Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire and Derrick Bell. Read them yourself.


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