Are you Woke? It was not too long ago that such a question would have been greeted with a puzzled disdain for its grammatical barbarism. It is now the question of the moment, no longer limited to college campuses as part of the initiation rites to higher learning. In certain political circles, it has already become the code word for being taken seriously on policy questions.
As Mark Pulliam notes in “Slouching Toward Totalitarianism,” the rise of wokeness as a powerful political force has been extraordinarily rapid, “almost overnight.” In a few short years it moved from something living in assorted university departments to a thing being promoted by the public library in Pulliam’s small town in Tennessee. There are no less than three best-selling, widely discussed books pushing the agenda: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other books on any topic in social policy that have commanded the attention these three books have received in the last few years. How did this happen?
As Rachel Lu notes in “Diagnosing the Woke,” it is not the case that the rise of wokeness is due to sensible, cogent arguments that are persuasive to reasonable people. Lu writes, “Even if one is willing to go a certain distance with the activists in agreeing (say) that historical injustices have a meaningful causal relationship to contemporary inequalities, progressive thinking on these topics still seems bizarrely unbalanced… They actually seem to believe that Americans, or whites, or men, are uniquely and irredeemable guilty, for reasons written into the whole fabric of our society.” The correction is not to go and sin no more, but rather to engage in perpetual obeisance to the gods of wokeness. How did this happen?
The Rise of Wokeness
The puzzling thing about wokeness is not that it is fashionable among a small subset of the Campus Left. One should never be surprised by what is fashionable among college faculty and students. The curious question is how these ideas broke out of the academic asylum and met acquiescence among a large group of people who should have known better.
The answer is found in a book which should have never fallen off the radar: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. First published in 1941, it was—along with 1984—one of the great books about totalitarianism written in the 1940s. Widely praised when it was published, the book was enormously influential in fostering the consensus view of post-war anti-communism. In 1998, Modern Library published a list of the 100 best English novels of the 20th century; Darkness at Noon was ranked eighth, five places above 1984.
The plot of the novel itself is fairly simple. The story begins with the imprisonment of Nicholas Rubashov, one of the heroes of the communist revolution in a country which is clearly the Soviet Union. Decades after the revolution, Number 1 (read: Stalin) has assumed power. Rubashov is imprisoned on the absurdly false charges of plotting to kill Number 1. The entire novel takes place in prison, as Rubashov is interrogated and eventually comes to voluntarily confess at a public trial to crimes he did not commit. He is then shot.
The novel explores the philosophical puzzle of why Rubashov would join with what has obviously become a murderous cult run by a totalitarian who is solely interested in amassing enough power to stamp his will upon the whole country. Rubashov, a devoted communist to the end, abandons his principles and bit by bit comes to accede to demands of the new generation who are seeking scapegoats and ritualistic confessions of guilt.
What is the nature of the new generation? One of the Party officials interrogating Rubashov explains:
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.
The individual does not matter. The group matters. What is good for the group is by definition good, regardless of whether it is good for the individual. As the interrogators make abundantly clear, no individual has the right to stand in the way of the group. The Party represents the group, and thus no individual has the right to oppose the Party.
Such an approach would have an obvious problem persuading people outside the Party. But, with the perfect purity of knowing they are right, the Party feels no need to explain themselves or their actions. “Experience teaches…that the masses must be given for all difficult and complicated processes a simple, easily grasped explanation.” But, you ask, are the simple explanations actually True? Can good policy really be reduced to a bunch of slogans easily printed in a variety of colors on a lawn sign? In asking this, you display your ignorance about the nature of Truth. As Rubashov’s interrogator explains, “Truth is what is useful to humanity, falsehood is what is harmful.”
Stated so clearly, it would be natural to think that an old political hand like Rubashov would never agree to participate in such a transparently mendacious enterprise, whose sole end would be to give power to people who are not only perfectly convinced they are always right, but who have no compunction about using dishonest means to achieve their ends. Rubashov is faced with a choice. Either try to adapt to the Party’s ever-changing notions of right and wrong, good and evil, or acknowledge himself to be an enemy of the Party he helped to create.
How does Rubashov reason himself into siding with the Party about his own guilt for a thing he never actually did? And more importantly for us, how does Rubashov’s transformation mirror what has happened in recent times? The woke, with the same sense of moral purity as The Party, with the same set of beliefs about the importance of the group over the individual, were a small faction a few years back. They now command national attention. How did this happen?
For Rubashov, it was a three step process. First, Rubashov came to realize the failure of the project he had set out to accomplish.
This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared. Our will was hard and pure, we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detested?
Rubashov’s generation had a vision, but the masses did not accept the vision. The masses proved stubborn, constantly clinging to their traditions and their individuality.
This is dispiriting to be sure. Imagine a group of people who, when young, were filled with such excitement and fervor that they really imagined they were leading a popular renaissance, and all things would be made new. Then imagine the shock of realizing that the people did not share that vision. Imagine if the people, the working classes themselves, were to bypass the opportunity to vote for a woman who embodies the dream and instead elect a loathsome man who mercilessly mocks the dream. There is no way for these once-hopeful revolutionaries to avoid the question: “Why are we so odious and detested?”
The second step in Rubashov’s transformation is realizing the logic of his beliefs. For years, he had measured things by their results. History is progressive; history is marching toward the newer world of his dreams. For years, Rubashov had believed he was on the right side of history, but having come to the crushing conclusion that the masses did not follow, he realizes his error: “For us the question of subjective good faith is of no interest. He who is in the wrong must pay; he who is in the right will be absolved. That’s the law of historical credit; it was our law.” After such knowledge, what is left? You either believe in yourself or you don’t. Number 1 still has faith in himself; he is still absolutely convinced of the rightness of his cause. Rubashov? “The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.”
Again imagine a group of people who are no longer convinced that the policies and programs they fought to implement for decades are persuading the masses to join them in their cause. Imagine that less than a decade before, a perfect embodiment of all their hopes and dreams was elected President, declaring, “We’re on the right side of history.” Imagine after years of battles, after the election of Barack Obama and the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the masses elect a man who expresses such disdain for all their work. Belief in their infallibility would inevitably collapse. It would not take long to notice, however, that there are others who do not despair. There are others out there who have absolute faith in their own infallibility, absolute certainty that they will win. The woke have the faith of the Party in themselves, a faith that is “tough, slow, sullen and unshakable.”
The third and final step for Rubashov comes when he squarely faces the difference between himself and the new Party, embodied in Gletkin, his interrogator. “Gletkin was a repellent creature, but he represented the new generation; the old had to come to terms with it or be crushed; there was no other alternative.” In one of the most psychologically revealing passages in the book, Rubashov breaks.
How old might this Gletkin be? Thirty-six or seven, at the most; he must have taken part in the Civil War as a youth and seen the outbreak of the Revolution as a mere boy. That was the generation which had started to think after the flood. It had no traditions, and no memories to bind it to the old, vanished world. It was a generation born without [an] umbilical cord….And yet it had right on its side. One must tear that umbilical cord, deny the last tie which bound one to the vain conceptions of honour and the hypocritical decency of the old world. Honour was to serve without vanity, without sparing oneself, and until the last consequence.
After such knowledge, confession and execution are inevitable.
Once again, imagine a generation who has lost belief in their infallibility, faced with a new, younger, and more vigorous generation firmly convinced of their cause. What choice does one have? Come to terms with it or be crushed. Having fought so hard to achieve positions of power and influence, it would take a great deal of courage to stand firm and be crushed. The “vain conceptions of honor and the hypocritical decency of the old world” are tossed aside, and the generation born with no umbilical cord to the past rises.
Here, in a book written in 1941, we have the script of the last four years. As William Voegeli put it in his recent article in the Claremont Review of Books, we now have the “Weak leading the Woke.” The biggest question for the next few months is how much power the weak will transfer to the woke. The Rubashovs among us are the leaders of the Democratic Party, the presidents of the leading universities, the heads of the major media outlets, and the CEOs and upper management of large firms, both in the tech industry and elsewhere. Looking at all those individuals, you find many who used to believe that honor and decency were important. But, in 2016, their own faith that their political and cultural dreams would win, that they were on the right side of history, was shattered. Now, these pillars of society confess their sins in public show trials (“We must do better”) and one by one accede to the demands of the woke, lest they find their careers shot in the back of the head while walking down the halls of power.
Is there hope? Koestler’s book is not an optimistic one. “He who accepts a dictatorship must accept civil war as a means. He [who] recoils from civil war must give up opposition and accept the dictatorship.” Let us hope that Koestler is wrong about that. Hope, however, may not be enough. The challenge of our age is not merely to resist the woke, but for those who recoil from both civil war and dictatorship to find a peaceful, orderly means of resistance.