From the editor’s desk
Two recent books, both published by Broadside Books, delve into the roots of today’s woke ideology to describe its origins and march “through the institutions” as Antonio Gramsci called for: The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and The Triumph of Identity Politics by Richard Hanania ($39.50, 270 pages) and America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything by Christopher Rufo ($39.50, 340 pages). Taken together, they are an excellent anthropology, sociology, and psychology of how, it seems, every loci of power seems to have been taken over by woke social justice warriors – a species of exquisitely politically correct busybodies or official straighteners (as C.S. Lewis derisively called them). If they have not taken over a bureaucracy, corporation, or NGO, the woke mob can still exert immense power over them by public shaming that leads to Soviet-style struggle sessions or outright cancellation.
Rufo is a journalist and activist who has almost single-handedly forced Critical Race Theory onto the political landscape with his exposes of school curriculum and speakers promoting racial grievance schemes to impressionable students from elementary schools to the university. More recently, he has spearheaded a reform of the New College of Florida, excising the worst elements of post-secondary education by eliminating the school’s Diversity, Inclusivity, and Equity program and its gender studies department.
In America’s Cultural Revolution, Rufo takes a broader approach, less reporting single outrageous instances than examining the intellectual roots of the woke ideology. It matters, he says, because this “new ideological regime that is inspired by … critical theories and administered through the capture of bureaucracy” – whether it be the state, schools, or corporations – has its tentacles everywhere. It is not merely that the radicals became tenured; the 1960s radicals have now taught a couple generations of students and unleashed them on the public. Discussions of “structural racism” are no longer confined to sociology classes and their related fields of black studies and whatnot. The radical, Rufo argues, is now mainstream, or mainstream enough to have a significant influence on those who wield power. (I’m not sure that Rufo does enough to differentiate the true believers in this hokum and those who feel the need to go along with it, not that it necessarily matters.)
The Cultural Revolution began in the academy where, Rufo says, four crusaders had an outsized influence: the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, the black power evangelist and prison abolitionist Angela Davis, Marxist pedagogist Paolo Freire, and black legal scholar Derrick Bell. Rufo explains the extremism of each thinker and how their thought began to take over their respective disciplines.
Critics of Rufo who assert that few students who made their way through American teachers’ colleges know who Freire is ignore the fact that the Brazilian educator’s ideas about teaching are so widespread in teacher’s college that they no longer trace directly back to Freire but are taught as fact. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed mainstreamed subversion through a vision of perfect education that, in Rufo’s words, “deconstructs society’s myths, unmasks its oppressors, and inspires students to ‘revolutionary consciousness’.” To mix two metaphors: this opened a whole can of pedagogical worms that returned to roost.
Rufo traces the expansion of Freire’s ideas through education reformer Jonathan Kozol and education professor Henry Giroux. They spread the Brazilian’s ideas about how schools should be run with Giroux explaining “that pedagogy should become more political and the political should become more pedagogical.” Education would itself become an intense and conscious struggle against oppression. They influenced Barbara Applebaum, a scholar in “critical whiteness studies” which teaches that white people are blind to the oppression they cause and that education “begins with confession,” as Rufo puts it. The three Rs have been replaced, as the joke has it, with racism, reproduction, and recycling.
Rufo explains the main ideas of Marcuse (“repressive tolerance” that undermines true freedom), Davis (“the spirit of racial revolt”), and Bell (the rise of Critical Race Theory); how these ideas spread; how they influence education and other institutions that hold power in the United States (and elsewhere). “The most sophisticated activists and intellectuals of the New Left initiated a new strategy,” Rufo writes, “the ‘long march through the institutions,’ which brought their movement out of the streets and into the universities, schools, newsrooms, and bureaucracies,” transforming “almost invisibly, into a structural revolution that changed everything.” In other words, it is a “revolution from above.” America’s Cultural Revolution is a remarkable work of intellectual history and quite unlike the journalism readers might be familiar with from him.
Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke has only two mentions of Marcuse and completely ignores Bell, Davis, and Freire, yet it is no less impressive in its scope. Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, also locates the roots of today’s woke culture in the 1960s and the civil-rights movement’s influence on law and politics. He seems to reply directly to Rufo’s intellectual history, writing, “Intellectuals tend to put a great deal of faith in the importance of ideas,” which Hanania argues is misplaced. He thinks the “marketplace of ideas” is a “myth.”
Hanania argues against the notion that woke was incubated and birthed in the academy, saying, instead, that schools and universities had identity politics foisted upon them by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, most notably HEW’s requirement that schools “adopt quota-based faculty hiring during the early 1970s.” Hanania takes a purely power-play approach to the imposition of woke ideas on institutions that would later influence a new generation of students and the leaders of tomorrow.
He writes that “wokeness has three central pillars”: “The belief that disparities equal discrimination,” “speech restrictions,” and “human resources (HR) bureaucracy.” The first of these pillars manifests in “equalitarianism” and the second pillar in “cancel culture.” Both are well covered by centre-right and traditional liberals in mainstream and mainstream-adjacent publications and websites. (Rufo writes for City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute think tank.) Thus, Hanania focuses on “how wokeness is enforced at an institutional level.”
Without getting into the details, suffice it to say that Hanania argues that the enforcement of woke ideology “came from decisions made by and negotiations between the courts, big business, and the federal bureaucracy” (most notably the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). He impressively catalogues the decisions that foisted racial- and sex-based thinking upon institutions. Hanania writes: “President Calvin Coolidge famously said that ‘the chief business of the American people is business.’ Today, one might say the main business of the federal courts is social engineering.” Woke ideology is imposed on businesses, schools, other levels of government, and the non-profit sectors through the regimes of affirmative action, disparate-impact law (differences in outcomes are proof of discrimination), and anti-harassment law. Woke human resources bureaucracies in businesses and schools are merely institutional responses to the directives of courts and state agencies. Cooperating with these decisions requires a growing clerisy of experts in what can only be described as a grift. Hanania explains and exposes all this.
I don’t think Hanania’s critique is broad enough, but he does a masterful job explaining how judicial and bureaucratic decisions impose race consciousness, racial preferences, and racial grievance on a wide range of institutions. This volume delves deeply into that important and underappreciated aspect of the spread of woke ideology. Hanania is correct to insist “understanding the role of the state can explain much of what is puzzling about wokeness as a cultural phenomenon.” But his book, on its own, is too narrow.
These books should be read in tandem, explaining very different phenomenon responsible for the Great Awokening. Superficially, they are incompatible, but a understanding of the complexity of society and its institutions suggest it is entirely possible that the intellectual capture from within occurred at the same time as schools and other institutions were being saddled with federal mandates that ultimately rewarded the elevation of the ideas of Bell, Davis, Freire, and Marcuse.
What should be done about the expansive takeover by woke ideology of the institutions? I side more with Hanania’s critique of centrist anti-woke writers who complain that things just went too far with identity politics, although he himself does not raise the issue of transgenderism even in a chapter titled “Government as the Creator of New Races and Genders.” Hanania as a critic of woke ideology is either blind or susceptible to how vast official Correct Think is in our modern institutions. I do not share Rufo’s confidence that “there will be a reckoning,” based in part based on Marcuse’s inability to see “beyond the abyss” that would be created by the success of his and his co-conspirators’ ideas, but I do share his enthusiasm for fighting back and using the levers of power to socially engineer the other way; he only implies but correctly so, that liberal proceduralism, that is neutral rules with a level playing field, are no longer sufficient to ward off an imperious ideology than demands subservience or imposes a steep price for resistance. Hanania calls for a conservative legal framework and political agenda to genuinely rollback affirmative action, disparate-impact law, and anti-harassment law, but if Rufo is correct and the ideology infects all manner of institutions, the chances of success for Hanania’s project are slim.