Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Great Awokening

Drawing by Carl Newman (1858-1932), Smithsonian Museum of American Art via Wikimedia Commons.

Headline courtesy of Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, who has decided to take on the job of defining "woke" ("What It Means to be Woke") in a style that really looks intended in a kind of admirable way, attempting to get inside the viewpoint of people who might be called "woke" themselves, of "the left" with its traditional aims of transforming the ideals of liberty and equality into "lived realities", and with a certain amount of initial respect. It's just a fantasy, of course, he isn't asking any members of the "woke left" to tell him what they think, he's just making it up out of his own expert punditry, but does sound as if he means to understand it: 

...this project keeps running into limits, disappointments and defeats. Everywhere you look, terrible disparities persist. And that persistence should force us to look deeper, beyond attempts to win legal rights or redistribute wealth, to the cultural and psychological structures that perpetuate oppression before law and policy begins to play a part. This is what the terminology of the academy has long been trying to describe — the way that generations of racist, homophobic, sexist, and heteronormative power have inscribed themselves, not just on our laws but our very psyches.

And once you see these forces in operation, you can’t unsee them — you are, well, “awake” — and you can’t accept any analysis that doesn’t acknowledge how they permeate our lives.

There's a big assumption in that formulation, though, lifted out of the context of the political philosophy tradition from Hobbes to Marx, vulgarized into the Andrew Breitbart slogan that "politics is downstream from culture", in that notion of cultural and psychological structures from "before law and policy", as if law and policy weren't themselves cultural artifacts.  

As if it wasn't within the context of systems of laws and policies that anti-Black discrimination, to take the most obvious example, grew in North America as an institution in its own right alongside Black chattel slavery, where it was legal for one human being to own another as private property, but only if the owned one was of sub-Saharan African descent. 

It didn't come out of some hypothetical "state of nature", but out of 250 years of practice, very much like the medieval western European contempt for the Black Sea peoples, Bulgars and Ukrainians, kidnapped and sold by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traders in slave markets from Al-Andalus to Venice between the 9th and 14th centuries or so, to which we owe the modern European words for "slave", esclave, schiavo, from "Slav". That prejudice mostly died away (though it animated Hitler in the 20th century and may have inspired his most fatal error in judgment).

Douthat, meanwhile, is not only in the grip of the Breitbartian theory himself, but believes that the "woke left" is too, and constantly working to apply it to its aims, which are literally radical, aimed at the roots; since the systems of patriarchal oppression are so much deeper than the systems of law and government, so is the task of the "woke"—not to create new institutions, but to create a new humanity. Because, why is the project of the left of bringing the ideals of liberty and equality into reality so continually frustrating? Because that's just the way humanity is! It's human nature! And if you want to fix these, it won't be enough to change the system, you've got to change human nature itself:

If you want to save the planet or end the rule of greed, you need a different kind of human being, not just a system that assumes racist patriarchal values and tries to put them on a leash.

And the way to achieve that  is by starting upstream, using "schools, media, pop culture, and language itself", as was done, Ross suggests, with the case of homophobia, where "the left" succeeded, according to him, in making an enormous change in human nature, with the aid of the brutally "illiberal" forces of private colleges and universities, ABC-Disney, and "cancel culture":

There the left overthrew a system of deep heteronormative oppression by establishing a new cultural consensus, in the academy and in pop culture and only at the end in politics and law, using argument but also shaming, social pressure and other “illiberal” means.

And look what we’ve [we in the "woke left", in whose voice Ross is still speaking] learned: That once homophobia diminishes, millions upon millions of young people begin to define themselves as what they truly are, as some form of L.G.B.T.Q.+, slipping the shackles of heteronormativity at last. Which is why the backlash against the spread of transgender identification among kids must be defeated — because this is the beachhead, the proving ground for full emancipation.

Ron DeSantis and Uganda's parliament have figured out what we're up to, you see: making it OK to "say gay" is the way to make it OK to be gay, or to think you might be, and that's how we've gotten our young people to start doing that, or at least playing with it, 21% (according to research Ross was citing last April) of Generation Z in contrast to 10% of Millennials, 4% of Gen Xers, and 3% of Boomers. Which suggests to me mainly that the Millennials are the best-adjusted and most self-aware, since their 10% corresponds to a sort of generally accepted number for the general incidence of same-sexer behavior as opposed to self-reported identification—but then the Zoomers are working with a much expanded and much more fluid list of categories than we've had before (in the long run maybe everybody is "non-binary"). So they have to stop everybody from "saying gay". And those Ugandans are going DeSantis one better: they'll not just have people fired for "saying gay" but actually put them in prison (if Museveni signs the bill, which it's not certain he will do—homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda anyway, though that seems not to have stopped it from existing). They believe they are doing this for the kids' "mental health". ("What we need now," Ross wrote, "is probably more emphasis on biology, normativity and reconciliation with your own maleness or femaleness, not further deconstruction." That unsupported "probably" is a trick borrowed from David Brooks.)

Anyway, that's how Douthat seems the "woke left" program across the board, as a denial of nature, from biology to "liberal proceduralism", by which I think he means "rule of law", as he enumerates all the realities our wokeness requires us to reject :

first, any argument about group differences that emphasizes any force besides racism or sexism or other systems of oppression. (Indeed, the very measurement of difference — through standardized testing, say — is itself inevitably shaped by these oppressive forces.) Even differences that seem most obviously biological, like the differences between male and female athletes or the bodies that people find sexually attractive, should be presumed to be primarily culturally inscribed — because how can we know what’s really biological until we’ve finished liberating people from the crushing constraints of gender stereotypes?

It also means rejecting or modifying the rules of liberal proceduralism, because under conditions of deep oppression those supposed liberties are inherently oppressive themselves. You can’t have an effective principle of nondiscrimination unless you first discriminate in favor of the oppressed. You can’t have real freedom of speech unless you first silence some oppressors.

It's hilarious, obviously, that Ross thinks standards of sexual attractiveness are biologically determined without reference to culture—

Venus of Willendorf, cs. 25,000 B.P.

—but you notice how what he's mainly doing here is lining up the case for the prosecution, having completely forgotten his plan for a respectful investigation, setting out some of the central objects of rightwing panic

  • groups that score lower on the SAT than other groups and "taking my spot" at Harvard, where I wouldn't let my kids go anyway, because it's too woke there
  • trans women who may have decided to be women for the purpose of helping their sports career by putting themselves into a less competitive category, which probably happens constantly, because it's such an easy way to score a trophy 
  • the practice of "reverse discrimination" in general, where people might be given an advantage for no reason other than to compensate for a disadvantage, like a golf handicap (which Wikipedia informs me got started in the late 17th century, just like North American chattel slavery, can that be a coincidence?)
  • the practice of "cancel culture", which turns out to be another example of "reverse discrimination", where you tell people to shut up just because they already have a column in The New York Times

and ascribing them all to the same error, of denying natural law, which is just what you might have expected, the doctrine of the Roman church as Ross interprets it (who else has access to the eternal verities that are so eternal they were true before humans even existed?), including the law of hierarchical authority; "cancel culture" is when some nobody tries to cancel a person of importance, like a bunch of students protesting an appearance by Charlie Kirk, not the other way around. As Jordan was saying in the comments the other day (a long comment, but you probably ought to read it), 

My own theory, discussed many times here and elsewhere, is the conservative hatred of earthly authority. When God or the church (or “Judeo-Christian” religion), or big business (“the free market economy” and its “solutions”) or “families” (and their “family values,” meaning religion and consumerism) imposes agendas, it’s not an imposition; it’s “freedom” — even if someone else’s rights are being infringed (see the gay wedding cake court case): forcing someone else to comply to Christianity is protecting the conservatives’ freedom. The only people allowed to be proscriptive are those representing God or “freedom” (meaning, the “values” of traditional conservative thinking). Any laws or rules that comes from earthly thinking — even Enlightenment values like egaletarianism and virtue (which our nation were overtly founded on) — like Affirmative Action or workplace discrimination laws, are suspicious at best and “fascistic” at worst: how dare you mere academics and “do-gooders” (“social justice warriors”) dare to tell anyone else how to live

Indeed Douthat explicitly (and I think correctly) connects the "woke" rebelliousness to the Protestant Reformation, the historical moment when commoners began asserting the right to interpret Scripture for themselves:

I personally like the term “Great Awokening,” which evokes the new progressivism’s roots in Protestantism — but obviously secular progressives find it condescending.

Protestantism and the language of the Black church in particular, always focused on liberation rather than sinfulness. I don't find it condescending at all. I do object to the Monsignor trying to tell me in such elaborate detail what I think without asking me first.

Comical, though, how our own conservative white evangelicals have absorbed so much of what's worst about Catholicism along with the anti-abortion foolishness. Their Know Nothing popery-hating ancestors would be pretty shocked by all the deference they're showing nowadays to the Scarlet Woman.

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