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Is Wokeness a Paper Tiger?
Religions are Lindy, modern ideologies depend on state power
Earlier this year, NS Lyons wrote a piece on why wokeness is here to stay. I’d like to focus on his first of twenty reasons, as I think he likely considers it one of the most important.
1. One does not simply walk away from religious beliefs. What is called “Wokeness” – or the “Successor Ideology,” or the “New Faith,” or what have you (note the foe hasn’t even been successfully named yet, let alone routed) – rests on a series of what are ultimately metaphysical beliefs. The fact that their holders would laugh at the suggestion they have anything called metaphysical beliefs is irrelevant – they hold them nonetheless…
I could go on, but the real point is that these are faith-beliefs, and ones capable of wielding an iron grip on the individual and collective mind. And they have a strong civilizational resonance, because they are in fact not arbitrary but deeply rooted in a metaphysical struggle that effectively stretches to the very beginning of Western theological and philosophical thought. In other words, “Wokeness” is much more than just a political program.
I’m going to ignore the part about the “metaphysical struggle that effectively stretches to the very beginning of Western theological and philosophical thought.” Whenever people make arguments like this – holding that there is some deep philosophical reason behind some modern phenomenon – I find myself unable to even think of the kind of empirical evidence that would either confirm or falsify it. Theories that say “Wokeness is just Protestantism/Catholicism/Gnosticism” strike me as untestable, and therefore unscientific.
Rather, I would like to focus on the analogy between wokeness and religion, which Lyons is not the first to make.
I think the analogy works on one level but not another. I’d argue that the definition of religion has two key pieces, and both are necessary to consider. First, religions are of course distinguished by what Lyons calls “a series of what are ultimately metaphysical beliefs.” But the second part of the definition, and the one Lyons ignores, is that religions are distinguished from other belief systems by their proven ability to survive across generations under a wide variety of conditions.
My family is Christian and has been for probably a thousand years or more. The Christian faith does not mean that much to me, and as an individual my pro-free market views and opposition to foreign interventions are much more important. Are those then my new “religions”? I’d argue not. The probability that my descendants one hundred years in the future will hold similar views and consider them important to how they see the world is pretty small; they’re more likely to be believing Christians if history is any guide. The odds are even lower that they will be part of a community of like-minded individuals based on such views.
There’s just something fundamentally different about a belief system that can survive across centuries or millennia and one that has shown no such ability. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. are Lindy. They have survived through historical eras in which they have been supported by the state, oppressed by it, or treated with indifference. As they have remained strong after an endless number of stress tests, we can conclude there is something very deep in human nature that causes many to find each of the major world religions appealing.
Compare this to modern ideologies. Nazism and communism have survived as major forces in the world as long as there have been Nazi and communist governments. Officials that believed in Jewish conspiracies and the importance of race science under Hitler became democrats after the Second World War. According to a report commissioned by the German government, as of 1957, 77% of senior officials in the West German Justice Ministry were former Nazi Party members. The Soviet government simply stopped believing in communism in the late 1980s and then disbanded itself, while in China they remain communist in name only. The CCP deals with protests for democracy in Hong Kong by only closing some publications and arresting a few individuals, while to root out conservative Islam in Xinjiang it has to operate on a more industrialized scale. Baathism emerged in the Arab world as a modernizing faith that was in opposition to sectarianism and Muslim extremism. It took power in two Middle Eastern countries but now exists only as a zombie doctrine in one of them while Islam remains strong across the Arab world.
Nationalism is something in between real religions and 20th century ideologies. Its rise has historically been tied to the modern state, which usually finds it useful. But sometimes nationalism emerges in opposition to existing power, as happened near the end of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Soviet empires. At the same time, people can assimilate to a new country pretty quickly and forget their old loyalties.
The key thing to realize about wokeness is that it has never faced a real stress test. As I argue, its fundamental tenets have been law in the United States for over half a century. Practically every major non-religious institution in the country is forced to be conscious of race and sex, censor the speech of its employees in the name of sensitivity, act as if disparate outcomes are a sign of discrimination, and employ an internal bureaucracy to enforce these rules.
Wokeness has no history of surviving without state support. In fact, even with state support, and practically unlimited rhetorical backing from elite institutions, it still struggles to win hearts and minds. Wokeness remains mostly a political loser for the left, which is why it obfuscates on issues like Critical Race Theory and the fact that civil rights law in its current form all but requires speech restrictions and racial quotas. Wokeness, unlike religion, does not appear to be able to motivate its adherents to make the extreme kinds of sacrifices that are the hallmark of true religious faith. It can’t even convince liberals to keep their kids in inner city public schools.
Of course, just because something hasn’t proved itself to be Lindy yet does not mean that it won’t in the future. If I was going to make the steelman case for wokeness eventually doing so, it would be based on the idea that it taps into something deep in human nature by appealing to the tears of women, so something like it was inevitable after they came to play a larger role in public life. One secret to the success of religion, however, is that it offers something to both sexes, which allows for family formation, intergenerational transfers of faith, and ultimately the building of communities. Wokeness gives very little not only to most men, but also to the still substantial numbers of women who want to be primarily wives and mothers rather than careerists.
That being said, it’s possible that once you undo the excesses of civil rights law, the doctrine that it makes mandatory will remain as strong as ever and eventually show itself to be just as capable as major world religions of long-term viability and the intergenerational transfer of belief. I doubt it, but let’s run the experiment and find out.