Review of “LEFT IS NOT WOKE” by Susan Neiman

Buy the book.

Scattered among the 140+ pages of Susan Neiman’s new book Left Is Not Woke is an urgent and persuasive 35-40 page essay on the intellectual and moral depredations of today’s social justice warriors, as well as their stultifying impact on liberal democratic institutions. Unfortunately, to get at those crucial 35-40 pages, you have to wade through lots of lazily partisan score-settling.

Neiman is a self-identified progressive. She believes that socioeconomic and cultural progress is possible and has a clear notion of what it looks like: greater equality of outcomes, across a wide range of indicators, for historically marginalized groups. This, of course, isn’t the only way to gauge progress; another measure is collective prosperity—on the theory that more prosperity, even if it is not equally enjoyed, trickles down (to use that ignorantly-mocked phrase) to substantially improve the living and working conditions of even the worst off among the have-nots. But you can also measure progress by fewer constraints on individual liberty… which cuts directly against Neiman’s notion of progress because talent and determination are never evenly distributed, so increasing individual liberty will inevitably undermine equality of outcomes.

That said, greater equality of outcomes isn’t an irrational way to measure progress. Neiman’s book, Neiman’s rules. What, then, is her beef with Wokeism? For one thing, it’s tribal. The Woke persistently focus on equality of outcomes for their tribes—“equity” is their byword for such equality—rather than equity for the broader masses. They may fancy themselves a general liberatory movement and pay lip service to a kind of Cliff’s Notes Marxism, but a concept like “intersectionality” gives the game away. Theirs is a struggle against rather than a struggle for. Woke activism is inspired by real and imaginary enemies: white supremacy, systemic racism, heteronormativity, capitalism, Judeo-Christianity, objectivity, empirical science, and reason itself. To sustain the movement, activists must thus operate in perpetual crisis mode. Our enemies are coming for us! This works well enough when their enemies are in fact coming for them, when their enemies are actively politicking against, for example, the right to marry same-sex partners. But what happens when their enemies get on board, when same-sex marriage is not only legalized, but a social consensus gathers that it’s commendable? Oh, yeah… well then, you over there, yeah, you with the John 3:16 sign in your window, bake us a wedding cake!

The greatest enemy of Wokeism, in other words, is indifference. Once you realize that, you can see how the performative excesses arise. You don’t care if a man walks around in a dress? Not good enough! You have to agree he’s really a she! You’re open to revising history to highlight the suffering of historically marginalized communities? Not good enough! You have to concede that racism lurks at the heart of every major and minor development in US history—since the only possible objection to making that concession is your own racism!

The difficulty with staking out such positions, and employing such strategies, is twofold. First, they fly in the face of reality. Men don’t become women by believing themselves so, and not every event in US history involves race relations. Second, and related to the first, they fly in the face of the Enlightenment values of rational inquiry, socioreligious tolerance, and individual human rights—and it’s here that Neiman’s deeper quarrel with Wokeism lies. Contra Neiman’s title, Wokeism is universally acknowledged as a movement of the political left, yet the political left, or at least the philosophically literate cohort of the political left—a group that certainly includes Neiman—conceives itself (rightly) as bound to the intellectual and moral values of the Enlightenment. Without those values, the left as we now know it would not, indeed could not, exist. But those values were advanced mainly by dead, white, European, Eurocentric males of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries… the very cast of characters the Woke rail against. Central among Woke dogmas is the belief that the demographics of a thinker determine the truth content of what he thinks—and the Woke don’t like dead white guys. The Enlightenment, therefore, has to go. Neiman is having none of it:

I have argued that the ideas that created those new realities [i.e. the more equitable world we currently inhabit] were born in the Enlightenment. The world changes whenever certain ideas are established as norms. To deny the reality of progress is to deny reality—as foolish when thinking of progress as when we think of the ways we reject it…. Looking down occasionally at the shoulders we stand on is a way of gathering strength, for if we fail to acknowledge that real progress has been made in the past, we will never sustain the hope of making more in the future.

The Woke quarrel with the Enlightenment is not a minor glitch in their worldview. It’s a tell. It shows that their demand for social justice is more a verbal tic than a thought-out objective. The “social justice” they seek is a universal willingness to embrace their fictions. The problem is you can’t pursue that unless you’re ready to heave-ho the Enlightenment since the combination of rational inquiry, socioreligious tolerance, and individual rights tends to corrode our collective fictions. More to the point, the Enlightenment now serves as the de facto dividing line between civilization and barbarism. The West’s ongoing struggle against Islamist totalitarianism is properly understood as a contest between reason and will, between informed conscience and ritual submission, between Thomas Jefferson and Sayyid Qutb. Notably, there is no controversy over transgenderism in Iran.

Nieman lays much of the blame for Woke excesses at the feet of several of the more execrable philosophers of the last century, principally Carl Schmitt and Michel Foucault. There is, to be sure, a great deal of bastardization from source to street theater. Nevertheless, the origins are present if you know where to look. From Schmitt, the Woke absorbed the notion that you are defined by your enemies. Tell me who and what you’re fighting against, and I’ll tell you who you are. From Foucault, the Woke learned that the expectation of, and reliance on, reason in public disputes in unreasonable; it reinscribes yet another in an endless series of arbitrary hierarchies. Why, Foucault would ask, is reason more respectable than passion as a catalyst for change? According to Neiman, however, “Schmitt’s categories of political history are not only childish…. Viewing politics through the lens of the friend/enemy distinction takes us back to prehistory. For Foucault, every attempt to make progress entangles us in a web that subverts it.”

The Woke, Neiman argues, insist they are on the side of progress, but in the final analysis they are enmeshed in theoretical posturing that cuts against the possibility of progress:

Most woke activists reject universalism, and stand by discourses of power, but they’re unlikely to deny they seek progress. It would be easier to believe them if they were willing to acknowledge what some forms of progress had achieved in the past. Showing how each previous step forward led to two twisted steps back can be intellectually dazzling. There are enough instances of injustice to unmask so that several lifetimes won’t suffice to do it. But without hope for putting something else in its place, such unmasking becomes an empty exercise in showing your savvy. You won’t get fooled again.

Again, the thrust of Neiman’s critique is true. But does it draw blood? Isn’t the obvious Woke response to Neiman that her critique is merely logical?  If you are engaged in a debate in which your interlocutor denies that reason is the arbiter of that debate, there’s nowhere to go… except disdain.

Disdain is not lacking in Neiman’s argument. But it is directed, by and large, at the political right rather than at the Woke themselves. “Many who can reel off sites of once-forgotten racial crimes have no idea how deeply most American historical narratives suppressed the memory of the political terror which, from 1946 to 1959 and beyond, destroyed a vibrant, interracial, socialist movement in the name of anticommunism.” The phrase “political terror” in this context is hyperbolic. If you invoke it to describe McCarthyism, what are you going to use to describe the genocides of the last century in the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia? Getting publicly shouted down by powerful politicians or losing your livelihood because of unproven accusations is an exceedingly bad thing… and something like McCarthyism is going on today in college classrooms, faculty lounges, and even corporate boardrooms. But no one’s hands are getting fed into woodchippers. Nevertheless, Neiman can’t let go of the hyperbole; it’s too delicious since it connects her adversaries on the left (the Woke) with her adversaries on the right (conservatives): “…the woke themselves have been colonized by a row of ideologies that properly belong to the right.” This is both wrongheaded and puerile. Conservatism takes as axiomatic the fixity of human nature and defines truth as a correspondence between belief and reality; it prizes tradition, is wary of unintended consequences, and is thus resistant to change for change’s sake. These things are poisonous from a Woke perspective. Even a cursory glance at history, furthermore, reveals that bad thinking is not indigenous to either the left or the right, nor do the terms “left” and “right” even connote the same thing in all locations and times. To be a conservative in the US or UK clearly means something very different than it does in Iran.

Neiman repeatedly indulges in this sort of caricature. I can’t read her mind, but I was struck by the thought that in order to go after the specific target of her book, she felt obliged to double down on her progressive bona fides. “W.E.B. Dubois,” she writes, “is remembered as the great black intellectual he was; but, as in the case of his friend Albert Einstein, the great socialist intellectual has been quietly quarantined. Those who have internalized the view that communism and fascism are identical cannot countenance the thought of tarnishing their heroes.”

No literate person, left or right, thinks that communism and fascism are identical. On the other hand, you need to work up a considerable know-nothingness to ignore their operational similarities and fanatical commitments to teleological daydreams. One way or another, the shallow graves get filled.

And then there’s Trump. Like many on the political left, Neiman regards Trump as a reactionary figure and a fascist to boot. But insofar as Trump has a governing ideology—he’s more a cash-and-carry guy than an ideologue of any sort—it is center-right. “With apologies to Lincoln, he functions as a license to act according to the worst devils of our nature. The baleful fascination he exerts over the many who loathe him is a result of his singularity: it’s perpetually astonishing to observe a human being who behaves so differently from the rest of us.”

Neiman is right to observe the mesmerizing effect Trump has on his adversaries, but the idea that he is a “singularity” is howlingly mistaken; he is closer to a dime-a-dozen. He’s your loud uncle at the holiday dinner table, the unruly guy at the end of the bar cursing because his drink took too long to come, the retired grandmom who waits on hold for a half hour after calling CSPAN in order to share her conspiracy theory about Jews running the world. There is nothing unprecedented about Trump’s character or impulses. What’s unprecedented is that someone like him was elected president of the US. Trump is unfit for that office, obviously. But so are most of us. Imagine Al Sharpton or Eminem or any of the ladies of The View behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Their policies will be mostly a crapshoot, predicated not on reality or even Constitutionality, but on the advice of whoever whispered in their ear last. Their enemies will go ballistic. Hijinks will ensue.

As of this writing, the Woke tide seems to be receding slightly in the US and UK. Not so much because the arguments against it have proven decisive, but because the demands of the Woke themselves—principally, in the area of transgenderism—have become so offensive to common sense that only a full-on intellectual coward (or a career-minded academic) could take them seriously. Still, a great deal of shoring up needs to be done. The more voices like Neiman’s that enter the fray, the sooner the silliness will pass. The arguments of old conservative farts like me are easily dismissed as hackery. Given her unimpeachable progressive credentials, as well as her standing in academic circles—she is a recipient of the prestigious Spinoza Prize—Neiman will have much to say in how long this debate continues. My only wish, going forward, is that she focus on one adversary at a time.