The Case for Reading One Particular Book
The Origins of Woke as an Explanation, and a Roadmap
We’re days away from the release of The Origins of Woke. I’ve previously argued that you should preorder my book because you can help make it a success in terms of eventually leading to a rolling back of civil rights law, and more recently because it may destroy cancel culture. See here and here for updates on the attempted cancellation and how badly it has failed. Once again, here are the hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook.
All that being said, what I hope hasn’t gotten lost in everything else that’s been happening is that the book is actually good. Even if you don’t care about fighting cancel culture or dismantling civil rights law, my book is still worth reading.
There is an endless stream of works on why wokeness is bad and why it should end. If Origins of Woke were simply another book in that genre, it wouldn’t have been worth writing. But this is something different. I’m giving you a causal story of how we got from certain concepts in civil rights law to things like the abolition of standardized tests and HR suppression of speech throughout the workforce. I take issue with those who put too much stress on the world of ideas — laws and regulations were created by legislators, judges, and bureaucrats, and they set off changes in the ways institutions were regulated by government, which included more internal self-regulation.
All of this is shown through the use of data and what social scientists pretentiously call “process tracing.” If you want to blame wokeness on Marx or Adorno, you have to squint quite a bit to see the connection between their writings and contemporary identity politics. Yes, the ideas matter and to some extent they’re there, but you get a lot more mileage in understanding the world through a deep dive into the history of the law and actions taken by the state.
The typical anti-woke book will argue something like “Philosopher A said x, today corporations and the government do something that looks like x, therefore Philosopher A caused x.”
The Origins of Woke takes a different approach, one that typically goes something like this:
Government passed a law or regulation that said institutions must do x, often without anyone paying much attention. We can understand the motivations of the people behind mandate x; they were usually normie liberals rather than Marxist radicals, often just trying to please some aggressive activists.
Over time, we see pressure on private and public institutions to do x, via direct government command or lawsuits. The fact that the law says to do x alone makes it bad publicity to not do x, and at the very least forces you to collect the data that may show you are guilty of not doing x.
People without a stake in the wokeness debate — including industry observers and academics without an obvious axe to grind — point out that the law made institutions do x, and document the process of how this happened. I cite their work and build on it through my own research, synthesizing what we know into a broader theory of societal change.
People misunderstand all of this because everyone has an incentive or psychological inclination to attribute x to the world of ideas. Liberals want to defend the status quo when it comes to wokeness as law, while critics find it much more fun to talk about philosophy than obscure executive orders and what’s in the Code of Federal Regulations.
I’ve told you to set the bar high for which books you read. Most simply aren’t worth it. I made three exceptions to this rule.
Books of historical interest (the Bible, Plato, etc)
Genius takes you on a journey
It’s probably unsurprising that I think The Origins of Woke fits into at least two of those categories, and hopefully eventually all three. As a work of history, you will read the book and not simply understand why wokes are bad, but how they took over everything. It’ll give you the key decisions made on civil rights through every administration from Johnson to Trump, in addition to the major legal doctrines that have developed over the last half century or more. I explain the assumptions under which government officials were working and the political constraints they faced.
The book moves from analyzing the government itself to focusing on how civil rights law changed corporations and universities. How were these dictates from high up received at the ground level, in terms of things like creating new bureaucracies, transforming the norms of academia, and changing the nature of the relationship between bosses and employees? I explain why I believe that legal changes led to a cultural shift, and why the process might move in the other direction if conservatives successfully go after civil rights law. All of this takes the book beyond history and into “genius takes you on a journey” territory.
The book aims to be practical as much as it does to explain. I don’t just say wouldn’t it be nice if we repealed the law on x. Rather, I show you that the next time a Republican president comes into office, eliminating the mandate to do x is pretty straightforward, and he can also throw out y and z while he’s at it, without much of a political cost. With a conservative Supreme Court, there are also judicial decisions that can have a major impact, and they usually involve little in the way of doctrinal radicalism, but rather require simply dusting off the arguments of a Scalia or Rehnquist dissent from a decade or two ago and making it law, as Justice Roberts did in SFFA v. Harvard.
Why didn’t anyone do any of this before? Well, I also have an answer to that, and it involves the changing nature of communications technology and how the two major parties have sorted over time. If this book does have a practical impact on the law, and I think it will, then it may also end up being of historical interest, thus meeting all three benchmarks of the worth reading test.
I don’t think anyone else could have written The Origins of Woke. It needed a background in law and the social sciences to be able to do the research, and to get to the truth required an autistic interest in understanding the world along with enough hatred of left-wing lies about race and sex and what they’ve done to society. An unusual combination to be sure.
Beyond explaining wokeness, I think the book has something interesting to say regarding how we understand history more generally. We are too quick to see design, whether in the form of people following the scribblings of philosophers or the effectiveness of plans put in place by political leaders. My Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy critiques this view when it comes to understanding American foreign policy. In reality, government officials are often just improvising given their political constraints, and then thinkers and analysts construct a kind of higher meaning behind whatever outcome came about in order to either defend or critique the status quo. Understanding this on one issue set can provide lessons that may translate into other areas.
I expect to move on from the issue of wokeness as law once the book is published. I see writers who focus on the same thing for decades, and they tend to get boring, because there is usually only so much to say about a topic before it gets stale. My interest in foreign policy really dropped off after my first book was published. Like many of you, I’ve lived with and hated wokeness for most of my adult life. This Tuesday, I’ll be giving all of you the gift of understanding this demon, and a roadmap to defeating it. After that it’ll be up to the rest of the world to decide what to do with that information.
Note: Join me on X (Twitter) Spaces this Sunday, September 17, at 7:20 PM ET to discuss the book. Set a reminder to do so here.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.