May 11, 2023

What is Woke?

By: Rodney Rios

Recently, there has been a growing trend in liberal circles to deride conservative anxieties about Wokeism as a fake issue. In other words, after wokeness rose in our political awareness and leftists noticed it becoming an electoral burden, they have tried to minimize it and pretend that conservatives cannot even define what it is and that Right-wingers use the term to cudgel whatever they dislike. To prevent this ideology’s spread, it is necessary to define it. 

As was reported by Vox back in 2020:

Woke has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as a shorthand for political progressiveness by the Left and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.

Regardless of the origins of the term woke, the reality is that the social views this vision tries to convey have deep roots in Marxism. Perhaps that relationship between “wokeism” and Marxism is what is meant when its critics talk about cultural Marxism. A short definition of Marxism is the belief that society is organized for the benefit of dominant classes, which build institutions ( a “superstructure”) to maintain power over the oppressed classes. In other words, religion, law, culture, morality, capitalism, etc., are merely a way for the dominant class to keep power.

As part of the Marxist model of operations, it is necessary to make the oppressed realize their oppression so they can organize, overthrow the dominant class, establish a dictatorship of the proletariat, and eventually achieve utopia in a world without private property or any inconvenience. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau coined one way of neatly summing up the Marxist view of the human condition in the phrase, “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” Therein we see the reasons for the Leftist obsession with “educating children, attacking the institution of the family as insufficient to educate and rear children in the world’s complexities, its love of rule by experts, contempt for the common man, etc. It seems the Left was frustrated in its attempts to recruit the adult working class. After all, as the European journalist Odette Keun said, “Labor in America is conservative. It is one of the most flabbergasting discoveries I have made.” So they decided to go for college students and, increasingly, kids.

Though the traditional narrative of Marxism was, I think, defeated when America won the First Cold War in 1989, the thoughts and methods of Marxism long survived, mutated, and adapted to attack our social and cultural institutions. As Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) discussed recently at a speech at the Heritage Foundation, “The Soviet Union may have lost the Cold War, but Marx lived on—in the English departments at American universities, and in the law schools. In places like these, a new ideology took root over the last fifty and sixty years that trashed American society as fundamentally corrupt and oppressive.” There is the root of our present madness. Additionally, Hawley explained that “This virus found a welcome audience in these new places in part because the new Marxists altered Marx to suit their own ends. This wasn’t about fighting economic oppression anymore. It wasn’t about the proletariat. It was about cultural revolution. The new Marxists decided economics wasn’t destiny after all. Culture is. And they aimed to transform American culture.”

Having understood these points, we can define “Wokeism”/Cultural Marxism. Wokeness is a series of social, cultural, political, and economic policies which seek to deconstruct established institutions in favor of historical minorities and marginalized groups to achieve equal outcomes (equity) through the coercive power of state action. In other words, oppressed classes seeking to overthrow their oppressors. The classic Marxist view, but with a new twist. This is best defined by Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racism advocacy, which can be summed up as the belief that  discrimination against majority groups is good if it’s to favor minorities. However, discrimination is bad if it is done by a “dominant” group.

It also has another aspect, a vision of the human person at its heart, which is problematic. Wokeness is also a social vision. It believes that all structures and institutions that limit the choice of the absolutely autonomous individual will provoke unequal outcomes and, as such, oppress minorities. Once existing power structures are deconstructed, the Left believes, we will achieve utopia. This is the philosophical goal of the Left, revolution in the name of equity. It is what Senator Hawley called “The Great Awokening.” This ideology has real-world consequences, perhaps the most famous and disastrous of it being the “defund the policemovement. 

As Dan McLaughlin explained at National Review, Leftist groups have sought to deny the existence of a term they once celebrated. Although the Left now eschews wokeness, Abe Greenwald has demonstrated that the Left itself defined and created the term they now deny. For example, Philip Bump minimized the use of the phrase woke by alleging that “Woke’ simply describes anything that is inherently alarming to the right.” Nonetheless, as McLaughlin responded, “Wokeness is a real ideology that makes everything revolve around hierarchies of identity groups. Anyone who says it can’t be defined is hiding something.”

All this, of course, has dealt mainly with the problem of how to define wokeism and does not deal with how to fight it. A clue to defeating Wokeism is, perhaps, found in this quote by the conservative philosopher Russell Kirk when he said, “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.” This truth is also found in Rod Dreher’s book, Live Not by Lies, in which he describes how to defeat this revolutionary ideology by cultivating cultural memory.

We are suffering through a spasm of madness in which all established things are being assaulted and delegitimized in the name of equity. As Victor Davis Hanson says, “We are in a Jacobin Revolution of the sort that in 1793-94 nearly destroyed France.” Our current historical moment is a cultural revolution in many ways. Yet, there is always hope. As the Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said long ago, “These fashions simply do not last.” As such, the silent majority must resist the lies of Cultural Marxism until such time as the fashion passes and soft totalitarianism is defeated. How long will that be? No one knows. But someday, it will be so.

We have suffered spasms of insanity before, such as the counterculture of the 60s and 70s. As the writer Jonah Goldberg explained in his history of the American Left, “Western Civilization was saved when the barbarians were defeated, at least temporarily, in the early 1970s. We should be not only grateful for our slender victory but vigilant in securing it for posterity.” It is now time to defeat them once again.

In short, the ideas of Marxism survived even if its narrative didn’t. Those Marxist views were applied to our society and culture with the rise of critical studies and deconstructionism in our academic institutions. As Rod Dreher has written written, campus radicals didn’t outgrow their views; they began injecting them into the culture, especially our education. The results for society have not been good. A recent Wall Street Journal-NORC poll found that traditional values such as patriotism and religious faith are “receding in importance to Americans.” The rise of amorality and relativism. And, as the philosopher Peter Kreeft has noted, there has never been a relativist civilization that has lasted for very long. As such, the very preservation of Christian Civilization is at stake in the culture war.