Thirty years ago I read and reviewed James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. A sociologist at the University of Virginia, he reported that Americans were deeply divided over such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and public school curricula. On both sides (folks he labels “orthodox” and “progressive”) there were passionately committed individuals. Those committed to “orthodoxy,” Davison said, shared an allegiance to “an external, definable, and transcendent authority” whereas those committed to “progressivism” embraced modernity and tended “to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.” Whereas the orthodox defined “freedom” economically, the progressives defined it socially (e.g. permissive sexuality); the orthodox defined “justice” socially (criminals should get what’s due them) while the progressives defined it economically (welfare should provide all for all).
The primary “fields of conflict” included: family; education; media and the arts; law; and electoral politics. Hunter detailed the struggles going on in these areas and concluded: “the culture war is rooted in an ongoing realignment of American public culture and has become institutionalized chiefly through special-purpose organizations, denominations, political parties, and branches of government. . . . . In the end, however, the opposing moral visions become, as one would say in the tidy though ponderous jargon of social science, a reality sui generis: a reality much larger than, and indeed autonomous from, the sum total of individuals and organizations that give expression to the conflict. These competing moral visions, and the rhetoric that sustains them, become the defining forces of public life.”
What Hunter described three decades ago is more ominously explained and analyzed by Christopher F. Rufo in America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything (New York: HarperCollins, c. 2023; Kindle Edition). “This book,” he says, “is an effort to understand the ideology that drives the politics of the modern Left, from the streets of Seattle to the highest levels of American government,” and its lesson “is a serious one. There is a rot spreading through American life” (p. xi). It clearly began spreading in 1968 when the world was jarred by nihilistic “student uprisings, urban riots, and revolutionary violence that has provided the template for everything that followed” (p. 2). Subsequently, the revolutionary ideas unleashed in the ‘60s have shaped our world.
The most influential “father” of the revolution was Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher who sought refuge in America when Hitler took control of his country. Rather than embrace the country that gave him refuge, he worked to destroy it, supporting radical groups such as the Weather Underground (led by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who later helped Barack Obama) and the Black Revolution Army. While teaching at the University of California San Diego, Marcuse gave a lecture in London in 1967 urging hearers to launch a counter-culture fomenting a cultural revolution to upend Western Civilization. In the audience were black militants (including Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis) who quickly responded to Marcuse’s revolutionary rhetoric, joining students around the world marching to slogans celebrating “Marx, Mao, Marcuse” and calling for seismic changes needed to usher in a communist utopia.
This “New Left” would generally cite racial injustices, feminist woes, and environmental concerns rather than economic inequities to promote the cause. Early abandoning hopes of waging guerrilla warfare a la Che Guevara, they would use “critical theories” to foment the revolution. Rufo effectively shows how we now live “inside Marcuse’s revolution,” wherein he “posited four key strategies for the radical Left: the revolt of the affluent white intelligentsia, the radicalization of the black ‘ghetto population’ the capture of public institutions, and the cultural repression of the opposition.” In Rufo’s opinion: “all of these objectives have been realized to some degree,” thus instantiating the “‘transvaluation of all prevailing values’ that Marcuse had envisioned” (p. 11). In setting forth a “cultural” Marxism, Marcuse envisioned a “dictatorship of the intellectuals” rather than Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”—putting folks like himself and his university-trained devotees in charge of things. Writing to Rudy Dutschke, a leader of of Germany’s “new left,” he declared that the “long march through the institutions” was the way to effectively orchestrate the revolution. And the primary institution to be taken captive would be the universities and through them the public school systems.
Radicals such as Angela Davis (one of Marcuse’s most devoted disciples) would find positions in America’s finest universities. Davis herself would teach at UCLA, Vassar, and ultimately (for many years) at the University of California Santa Cruz. Weather Underground terrorist Bernardine Dohrn became a professor of law at Northwestern University. Her husband and fellow terrorist, Bill Ayers, joined the faculty at the University of Illinois as a professor of education. They found intellectual ammunition in Paolo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed became a manual for revolutionaries. Praising Lenin, Mao, Guevara, and Castro, the Brazilian Marxist’s book “sold more than one million copies and is now the third-most-cited work in the social sciences. It has become a foundational text in nearly all graduate schools of education and teacher training programs” (p. 145). Freire’s devotees in America began publishing books and finding positions in universities. In the 1980s “the critical theorists of education began methodically deconstructing the existing curricula, pedagogies, and practices, and replacing them, brick by brick, with the ideology of revolution” (p. 162).
To illustrate the radicalization of the schools Rufo devotes a chapter to the “Child Soldiers of Portland.” The city has few minority residents, but “it has become the headquarters of race radicalism in the United States. The city has elevated white guilt into a civic religion. Its citizens have developed an elaborate set of rituals, devotions, and self-criticisms to fight the chimeras of ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy.’ The ultimate expression of this orthodoxy is violence: street militias, calling themselves ‘anti-racists’ and ‘anti-fascists,’ are quick to smash the windows of their enemies and burn down the property of anyone who transgresses the new moral law” (p. 188). Just as Bolsheviks recurrently set forth “five year plans,” Portland’s “government has adopted a series of Five-Year Plans for ‘equity and inclusion,’ shopkeepers have posted political slogans in their windows as a form of protection, and local schools have designed a program of political education for their students that resembles propaganda” (p. 189). By asserting “America is fundamentally evil, steeping children in the doctrine of critical pedagogy and lionizing the rioters in the streets, the schools have consciously pushed students in the direction of revolution” (p. 189). Thus the city’s “child soldiers” occupy and vandalize downtown Portland!
Though the radicals first targeted the schools their ultimate objective was political, gaining control of the country. To do so “critical race theory” proved pivotal. After a distinguished career as a civil rights attorney, Derrick Bell became a Harvard professor of law and wrote a “thousand-page casebook called Race, Racism, and American Law, outlining ‘critical race theory.’ At the same time, he was intimately connected to the left-wing radical milieu: Bell had provided legal support to Angela Davis at her murder trial, studied the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, and maintained a close relationship with Black Panther Party members such as Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Eldridge Cleaver” (p. 205). At Harvard he spent little time with colleagues but enlisted zealous students hungering for his “left-wing racialist ideology” and attuned to “the rhetoric of elite grievance.” He rooted his position in the works of Antonio Gramsci (an Italian communist) and Paulo Freire, setting “the stage for the racial politics of our time” (p. 206). His followers, claiming to be “critical race theorists,” would assail “the founding principles of the country, making the argument for dismantling colorblind equality, curtailing freedom of speech, supplanting individual rights with group-identity-based entitlements, and suspending private property rights in favor of racial redistribution” (p. 207). They rapidly found positions in the nation’s elite law schools and courts, as is evident in Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan.
The ever-insightful “conservative black economist Thomas Sowell, whom Bell had attacked as a race traitor, offered an explanation of Bell’s predicament. ‘Derrick Bell was for years a civil-rights lawyer, but not an academic legal scholar of the sort who gets appointed as a full professor at one of the leading law schools. Yet he became a visiting professor at Stanford Law School and was a full professor at Harvard Law School. It was transparently obvious in both cases that his appointment was because he was black, not because he had the qualifications that got other people appointed to these faculties,’ Sowell said. ‘Derrick Bell’s options were to be a nobody, living in the shadow of more accomplished legal scholars—or to go off on some wild tangent of his own, and appeal to a radical racial constituency on campus and beyond. His writings showed clearly that the latter was the path he chose.’ And this path, in Sowell’s view, was a tragic turn. Bell’s ‘previous writings had been those of a sensible man saying sensible things about civil-rights issues that he understood from his years of experience as an attorney. But now he wrote all sorts of incoherent speculations and pronouncements, the main drift of which was that white people were the cause of black people’s problems’” (p. 227). Sadly enough, Sowell concluded: “’He’s turned his back on the ideal of a colorblind society and he’s really for a getting-even society, a revenge society” (p. 231).
Bell’s influential followers (including Kimberlé Crenshaw, who would set forth the notion of “intersectionality”) substituted race for class in Marxism and embraced some of “the most acidic parts of modern thought, beginning from the assertion that ‘objective truth, like merit, does not exist,’ continuing to the Derrick Bell–style posture of ‘deep dissatisfaction with traditional civil rights discourse,’ and ending with a call for a ‘war of position’ against whiteness, colorblindness, private property, and traditional constitutional theory” (p. 233). Citing postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, they insisted “truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group” and rejected the natural law tradition basic to America’s founding. “They wanted to replace the old system of colorblindness, equality, and individual rights with a new system one might call a theory of ‘racial reasoning’” (p. 235). Rather than reason logically from propositions to conclusions, they substituted “lived experiences,” anecdotes of oppression, allegations of victimization. Consequently: “personal offense becomes objective reality; evidence gives way to ideology; identity replaces rationality as the basis of intellectual authority” (p. 237).
“Critical race theory,” Rufo says, “was never designed to reveal truth—it was designed to achieve power. The real history of the discipline is not a story of its intellectual discoveries, but of its blitz through the institutions” (p. 249). Its success is best evident in the widespread emphasis on DEI (Diversity; Equity; Inclusion) throughout much of America. Embraced by virtually all universities, it’s now spreading through the nation’s public schools and is fully endorsed by the National Education Association. The Obama Administration, implementing the Dodd-Frank bill, created Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion in numerous federal agencies, so bureaucracies such as the FBI and EPA now require employees to sit through training sessions designed to insure DEI throughout their ranks. So, following the unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, “the National Credit Union Administration told employees America was founded on ‘white supremacy.’ The Department of Homeland Security told white employees they have been ‘socialized into oppressor roles.’ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosted a thirteen-week training program denouncing the United States as a nation dominated by ‘White supremacist ideology’” (p. 255).
The nation’s preeminent corporations—especially those needing governmental support—have fallen in line. “Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense firm, sent white male executives on a mission to deconstruct their ‘white male privilege.’ The instructors told the men that ‘white male culture’ and the values of ‘rugged individualism,’ ‘hard work,’ and ‘striving towards success’ were ‘devastating’ to minorities” (p. 256). Conducting the training sessions are folks like Johnnetta Cole, a Marxist “scholar-activist” with a history of leading communist organizations such as Venceremos Brigade (a pro-Castro group) and the July 4 Coalition (an ally of the Weather Underground). She is now hired to conduct training sessions for federal bureaucrats. Fixated on slavery, Cole holds all whites responsible for it inasmuch as they benefit from “a system that’s based on racism.” Even “good and decent [white] people” stand guilty for the “racial terrorism” still harming the nation. Blacks, she claims, suffer from “post-slavery traumatic syndrome” and the “deep emotional and physiological toll of racism.” Earlier she had championed the Soviet Union and served on the editorial board of the journal Rethinking Marxism. “Now she was promoting it as an official contractor of the United States government. After fifty years, the long march had been completed. The radical Left had finally won its Gramscian ‘war of position’ and attained ideological power within the American state.” Illustrating this ideological victory, “on his first day in office, President Joseph Biden issued an executive order seeking to nationalize the approach of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ and ‘embed equity principles, policies, and approaches across the Federal Government.’ In business, every Fortune 100 corporation in America has submitted to the ideology of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’” (p. 265).
Concluding his study, Rufo says: “The story of America’s cultural revolution is one of triumph. The critical theories have become the dominant frame in the academy. The long march through the institutions has captured the public and private bureaucracy. The language of left-wing racialism has become the lingua franca of the educated class” (p. 269).
But he hopes for “counter-revolution” will restore health to this nation. In part this is because the “the radical Left cannot replace what it destroys” (p. 275). History shows this. The 1789 French Revolution collapsed into the abyss of the Thermidor; the revolutions throughout Europe in 1848 were quickly co-opted by the much-maligned bourgeoisie; the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution fell rapidly into Stalinist tyranny. All these revolutions were essentially nihilistic, bent on destroying. We need a counter-revolution of hope, a positive commitment to enduring values and just political systems. Who might lead it remains to be seen!
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Joanna Williams is an English journalist who has taught in universities and published in prestigious newspapers and journals. She has recently written How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason (London: John Wilkes Publishing, c. 2022; Kindle Edition). Jonathan Haidt, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind says: “This book is the essential guide for our era of confusion and incoherence as moral revolutionaries tear down statues, institutions and widely held values. With clear thinking and gripping storytelling, Williams explains how a minority of the elites in Britain and America were able to intimidate the rest of the elites into silence or complicity, imposing a ‘revolution from above’ that is anti-democratic and cruel. Anyone who wants to restore sanity, beauty or simple humanity to our public life should read How Woke Won.”
After sketching a short history of “wokism” Williams surveys the current “cultural wars” and finds it firmly established in powerful English-speaking institutions. That “Woke has conquered the West” became clear when President Joe Biden, in his first day in office, “signed an Executive Order permitting boys who identify as girls to compete on female sports teams and enter female changing rooms” (p. 14). To be “woke” means to be conscious of and committed to overcome racism and social injustice. The word gained currency following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when activists proclaiming “black lives matter” urged folks to “stay woke” and dismantle the nation’s racist establishment, which will be done through identity politics. Woke folks especially stress proper words enabling them to identify folks as oppressors and oppressed. So one must say “people of color” rather than “colored people, “Latinx” rather than “Hispanic,” and “sex assigned at birth” rather than “male” or “female.” For those of us who are puzzled by these continually-shifting phrases it’s nice to know that woke language is generally “convoluted, indecipherable and alienating” (p. 35).
However convoluted their language, woke writers rigorously censor their predecessors for linguistic sins, so the “battle for the past” looms large in the culture wars. They disdain traditionally celebrated virtues such “as stoicism, courage, resilience, duty, sacrifice and self-control” and celebrate victimhood as the most admirable and coveted attribute. Statues of Winston Churchill must be torn down because he supported the British Empire. One of the finest novels of the past calling for tolerance and racial justice—Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—is now dismissed as “problematical” for featuring a white protagonist and thus espousing a “white saviour motif.” Contemporary writers, including the fabulously successful JK Rowling, must be censored for supporting women-only athletics and spaces. Wokists have effectively reshaped the educational systems in the English-speaking world, establishing inflexible speech codes, as illustrated by a law student in a Scottish university who faced expulsion for “stating, in the context of a seminar on gender, feminism and the law, that ‘women have vaginas’” (p. 119). Without doubt “‘correct’ speech—be it declaring pronouns or pledging allegiance to Black Lives Matter—is compelled” (p. 120).
Summing it all up, Williams says: “Woke has won. It has won because its fundamental assumptions have become so widely accepted among the cultural elite that they are considered not just uncontroversial but common sense. Woke has won because its values have been adopted by members of the professional-managerial class, who have allowed woke thinking to take root within public institutions and to shape policies, practices and laws. Woke has won because it has become embedded in schools and universities. Teachers and lecturers cultivate woke attitudes in children and young adults who take for granted that what they are taught is factually accurate and morally correct. After graduation, they carry the lessons imbibed back out into the world. Woke has won because its leading advocates appropriated the rhetoric of the civil-rights-era struggles for equality” (p. 267).
What we who oppose it can do remains to be seen. Perhaps seeing it as it is is all we can do!
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