Reviews | What it means to be awake
This week, conservative writer Bethany Mandel experienced the kind of moment that can happen to anyone who speaks in public for a living: While promoting a new book critiquing progressivism, she was asked to define the term “awakened” by an interviewer – a reasonable question. , but the one that made his brain freeze and his words stumble. The virus clip, in turn, has given rise to a flood of arguments about the word itself: can it be usefully defined? Is this just a right-wing pejorative? Is there a universally accepted label for what he is trying to describe?
The answers are yes, sometimes and unfortunately no. Of course, there is something real to describe: the revolution within American liberalism is a crucial ideological transformation of our time. But unlike a case like “neoconservatism,” where a critical term was then accepted by the movement it described, our climate of ideological enmity makes an established nomenclature difficult.
Personally, I like the term “Great Awakening”, which evokes the roots of the new progressivism in Protestantism – but obviously secular progressives find it condescending. I appreciate how the British writer Dan Hitchens acknowledges the difficulty of definitions by calling the new leftist politics “the thing” – but that’s unlikely to sit well with truly believing Thingitarians.
So let me try a different exercise – instead of a pithy term or definition, let me write a sketch of the “awakened” worldview, working out its internal logic as if I believed in it myself- even. (To the unwary reader: These are not my real beliefs.)
What is America, at its best? Equality and freedom. What is the left, at its best? Transforming these ideals into lived realities.
But this project comes up against limits, disappointments and failures. Everywhere you look, terrible disparities persist. And that persistence should compel us to look deeper, beyond attempts to win legal rights or redistribute wealth, to the cultural and psychological structures that perpetuated oppression before law and politics began to play a role. role. This is what academy terminology has long tried to describe – how generations of racist, homophobic, sexist and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves, not just on our laws, but on our very psyches.
And once you see these forces in action, you cannot see them – you are, well, “awakened” – and you cannot accept any analysis that does not recognize how they permeate our lives.
This means rejecting, first, any argument about group differences that emphasizes a force other than racism, sexism or other systems of oppression. (Indeed, the very measurement of difference—for example, through standardized testing—is itself inevitably shaped by these oppressive forces.) Even differences that seem most obviously biological, such as the differences between male athletes and feminine, or the bodies that people find sexually attractive, should be presumed to be primarily culturally inscribed – for how can we know what is truly biological until we are done freeing people from the crushing constraints of gender stereotyping?
It also means rejecting or modifying the rules of liberal proceduralism, because under conditions of deep oppression these so-called freedoms are themselves oppressive in nature. You cannot have an effective principle of non-discrimination unless you first discriminate in favor of the oppressed. You cannot have true freedom of speech unless you first silence some oppressors.
And all this is necessarily a cultural and psychological project, which is why school, the media, pop culture and the language itself are the essential battlegrounds. Yes, economic policy matters, but material arrangements are downstream of culture and psychology. Socialists have only softened capitalism, environmentalists have simply regulated it. If you want to save the planet or end the reign of greed, you need a different kind of human being, not just a system that assumes racist patriarchal values and tries to keep them on a leash.
Do you think that’s too utopian? Let’s take a proof of concept, which we’ve seen before with gay rights. There the left overthrew a system of deep heteronormative oppression by establishing a new cultural consensus, in academia and in pop culture and only in the end in politics and law, using argument but also shame , social pressure and other “illiberal” means.
And look what we’ve learned: that once homophobia subsides, millions and millions of young people begin to define themselves as who they really are, as a form of LGBTQ+, finally escaping the shackles of heteronormativity. This is why the backlash against the spread of transgender identification among children must be defeated – for it is the beachhead, the testing ground for total emancipation.
If you find much of this narrative persuasive, even filtered through my conservative mind, then whatever “woke” describes, it probably describes you.
If you back down, welcome to the ranks of the unawakened.
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