Many, perhaps most, Americans are just now waking up to the meaning of “woke.” What does “woke” have to do with looting, bricks, fires, and blood in Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis? One asks oneself, “Am I woke (good)? Or not woke (evil)? How woke is woke, how much wokeness is enough, and who decides?”
In short, woke implies a new state of elevated, more highly evolved moral consciousness. As such, wokeness requires a new vocabulary to express its new concepts.
Woke language is full of terms such as “toxic” (even “catastrophic”) masculinity, “whiteness,” “white privilege,” “white fragility,” countless new pronouns and genders, “systemic racism,” “cancel culture,” “social justice,” “gaslighting,” and “de-platforming,” most of which are casually or arbitrarily defined, if at all.
Wokespeak also includes some old chestnuts from the ‘60s and ‘70s: “white supremacy” (kind of hard to square with the election and re-election of Barack Obama), “off the pigs” (kill the police), “police brutality,” political rants against segregationists like “Bull” Connor and George Wallace, and new complaints about previously sanitized-and-approved commercial images of long-suffering “Aunt Jemima” and “Uncle Ben.”
Moldy slogans from 1965 lend wokeness a gauzy, almost nostalgic atmosphere—but pay heed. One thing wokeness does not tolerate is humor. Another is memory.
Like COVID-19, the emergence and ubiquity of wokeness this year may have seemed sudden, but the Left has been seeding university curriculum with woke terms and concepts for years. Yet, unless you hang out in college lecture halls, you may find yourself struggling with this new political vocabulary. Clearly, we need a guide to help us understand Wokeland. Who better than someone who once was woke but then became an apostate?
Michael Rectenwald is such a guide, a lapsed Marxist and former NYU professor, who gained Twitter fame as “@AntiPCNYUProf.” His latest book, Beyond Woke, collects 22 essays and speeches that help explain this reigning leftwing obsession.
Rectenwald defines “woke” as “the political awakening that stems from the emergence of consciousness and conscientiousness regarding social and political injustice.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because woke and social justice are quasi-religious concepts. “Woke” evokes epiphany while “social justice” is best thought of as a whole new (god-free) religion, complete with original sin, confession, saints, and martyrs.
Our author explains:
Like the saved Christian, the social justice woke becomes penitent about previously unacknowledged sin, sin for which they must atone. Under social justice, sin is having acted carelessly from a position of privilege, without sufficient recognition or concern for those whose lack of privilege makes one’s privilege possible.
Beyond Woke plumbs the origins of woke social justice in the new religion’s sacred texts from Marx and Nietzsche to Popper, Foucault, and Marcuse. Rectenwald knows them well, having been a Marxist for 15 years.
Then, one bright cold day in April, as the clock struck thirteen times, he committed woke heresy. He posted anonymous Tweets mocking the common college classroom practice of asking students to choose or invent which gender they are and which pronouns must be used to refer to them.
When @AntiPCNYUProf disclosed his identity, the woke mob descended. Rectenwald was shunned, harassed, and investigated. A final denunciation came from NYU’s Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group, which concluded that “The cause of his guilt is the content and structure of his thinking.”
This chilling sentence sounds as if it were lifted from 1984. Orwell called it “thoughtcrime;” NYU calls it “liberal.” Clearly, there is no longer any doubt that American higher education is to leftist ideology what the Wuhan Institute of Virology is to pandemics—a factory of disease, infection, and chaos.
And speaking of factories, the gargantuan California State University system (23 campuses) just decided to mandate an Ethnic Studies/Social Justice graduation requirement. That’s nearly 500,000 student blanks lined up for stamping in the leftwing woke mill.
Besides the replacement of ideas, questions, and knowledge with cant, obedience, and indoctrination, what are the educational consequences of wokeness?
To be accepted at most brand-name universities, an applicant must first convey a sufficient temperature of wokeness. For example, in “Congratulations!” Rectenwald notes that Ziad Ahmed, a 2017 applicant to Stanford University, responded to the application essay prompt “What matters to you, and why?” by typing “#Black Lives Matter” 100 times.
In a satirical letter, Rectenwald imagines the Stanford Office of Admissions telling Ahmed to “Think of Stanford University as a social justice warrior incubator. Our mission is to produce students who will repeat social justice phrases without hesitation, who will refuse to listen to differing perspectives, and who will serve as carriers of this ideology to the wider society.”
In spite of Ahmed’s non-essay loyalty oath, he was accepted by Stanford but opted for Yale instead. Ouch! Apparently, nobody told him about Elihu Yale’s involvement in the slave trade, or the Justice Department’s conclusion that Yale’s admissions policies discriminate against white and Asian applicants.
Yale’s policies supposedly serve “diversity.” In “A Critique of ‘Social Justice’ Ideology: Thinking Through Marx and Nietzsche,” Rectenwald explains how wokeism, diversity, and social justice rely on “standpoint epistemology.” Originating with philosopher Georg Lukacs, standpoint epistemology contends that one’s social position affects one’s perception of reality. Rectenwald writes:
The notion of standpoint epistemology was then siphoned through other identity filters and inflected by postmodernism. In the hands of postmodernists, it came to suggest an absolute epistemological relativism, the belief that truth was a function of the standpoint of any particular persons, but particularly subordinated ones. Further, each group or individual had their own exclusive access to their own truth, and no one else could possibly understand their truth. This is the form it takes in social justice ideology. I call it an epistemological solipsism.
That, then, is the finality of woke. One no longer can be said to have an opinion on reality. In wokethink, opinion literally creates reality, and only one opinion is permissible.
So what lies “beyond woke?” Woker? Post-woke? Will anyone ever be sufficiently woke? Will woke ever be “over?” Rectenwald suggests that “beyond woke” might mean being “hyper-woke to the woke world.”
I would add that if woke means being sensitive to racial or other discrimination and injustice (even if it’s fictional, imaginary, or contrived, as so much of it is in 2020), “beyond woke” implies a state of mind surpassing sensitivity to embrace action that will destroy the perceived injustice. In 1964, Malcolm X said it was ok to do so “by any means necessary.”
Rectenwald provides a valuable guide through the philosophical origins of woke social justice, and he also provides a cautionary glimpse of where the bedlam is heading and why. In “Totalitarianism with Communist Characteristics,” he explains why corporate giants and tech moguls are suddenly genuflecting to the woke left’s crusade for social justice:
Contemporary woke leftism hastens the dissolution of heretofore stable social ontologies, such as gender identities, the family, social hierarchies, historical memory, inherited culture, Christianity, and the nation-state. It also aims at a one-world monopoly of government. Thus, woke-leftist politics align almost perfectly with the global interests of monopolistic corporations.
If he’s right, maybe parsing the tangled skein of woke and social justice rhetoric is simple. Perhaps the woke virus isn’t novel at all. Thomas Sowell noted in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, “Envy was once considered to be one of the seven deadly sins before it became one of the most admired virtues under its new name, ‘social justice.'”
Maybe all the holier-than-thou sanctimony and bafflegab of wokeness and social justice is actually just smoke and mirrors meant to conceal good old envy, sloth, anger, and greed.
David Clemens is a professor of English at Monterey Peninsula College in California, where he teaches five courses including one on critical thinking.