The anti-wokist is a dog

by Chris Bertram on December 1, 2023

Another week another tedious attack on “wokery” in the New York Times. This is by the conservative David Brooks, but I’ve seen it endorsed by “class-struggle” anti-wokists. Anyway, Brooks helpfully lists the characteristics of wokery in bullet-points, enabling some immediate commentary:

“We shouldn’t emphasize what unites all human beings; we should emphasize what divides us.”

I have no idea what this means, concretely, since it seems sensible to “emphasize” both, depending on the purpose and context. Climate change, to give an obvious example, both unites all human beings since it threatens us as a species and divides us since its immediate impact falls on the poorest and most vulnerable people, often living in poor countries, and not wealthy Americans, like Brooks.

“Human relations are power struggles between oppressors and oppressed groups.”

The history of all hitherto-existing societies and all that. Not all human relations, obviously, but it seems futile to deny the pervasiveness of this kind of conflict. Often it is class-based, but nobody sensible denies that racial, gender and other oppression mark much of human history. Some crude Marxists, of course, think that these other conflicts as just epiphenomenal and that they would go away in a classless society. Well maybe they would, I’d note only that more sophisticated Marxists have thought we need to consider other identities non-reductively alongside class.

“Human communication is limited. A person in one group can never really understand the experience of someone in another group.”

I dunno. What is it like to be a poor black woman? No doubt she can tell me of her experience and I can empathize, but I don’t think I can fully reproduce her first-person perspective. It just seems obvious that we need to hear from the oppressed themselves rather than just relying on how we represent them in our political theories.

“The goal of rising above bigotry is naïve. Bigotry and racism are permanent and indestructible components of American society.”

This just seems to be a contingent claim about American society, rather than about every human society. It might be true, and if so, so much the worse for “American society”, which would need to be replaced by something else. The evidence so far doesn’t give much hope to those who think that bigotry and racism are going to disappear from that society. Obviously that’s bad news for American liberal nationalists, but they strike me as naïve (yes that was Brooks’s word) utopians anyway.

“Seemingly neutral tenets of society — like free speech, academic freedom, academic integrity and the meritocracy — are tools the powerful use to preserve their power.”

Again, not always, not only, but surely sometimes, and particularly when those “tenets” are articulated thoughtlessly by the likes of Brooks. Perhaps he could pay some attention to who gets to speak and who doesn’t; which voices are silenced and which not. And “meritocracy”? It seems he is even unaware of the satirical origins of the word.

The basic lesson is that Brooks, like other “anti-wokists” such as Mounck, attack implausibly strong versions of “wokery” in order to avoid having to take seriously the embarassing insights that they wish to deny. The other point to make about them is that, while trumpeting the claims of “universalism” against particular divisive identities, they fail to notice that their own American nationalism is a thoroughly anti-universalist identity and ideology. So it goes.