The New Front in the Culture Wars: Wokes vs. Liberals

Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).

To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.

So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.

Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media).  Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.

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Paglia’s latest on the culture wars

Here’s a bit from a Camille Paglia interview (by Claire Lehmann, Quillette, 10NOV18) on how we got to this point in the culture wars.

I don’t always agree with Paglia, but she is a reminder of a common political fallacy. Anyone who criticizes identity politics is assigned to the Right by default. This is a false binary. There are quite a few of us who critique identity politics not from the Right but from what seems to us true left, a more or less Marxist-based 1960s radicalism. From this vantage point, the identity politics Left seems just another version of the authoritarian Right, with its sharp lines between races and genders, its reliance on us vs them models, and its ideological concentration of power and policing of all dissent.

Anyway, on to Paglia …

“As I argued in … [1991] Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault were already outmoded thinkers even in France, where their prominence had been relatively brief. There was nothing genuinely leftist in their elitist, monotonously language-based analysis. On the contrary, post-structuralism was abjectly reactionary, resisting and reversing the true revolution of the 1960s American counterculture, which liberated the senses and reconnected the body and personal identity to nature, in the Romantic manner . . .

“Post-structuralism, along with identity politics, made huge gains in the 1970s, as the old guard professors proved helpless against a rising tide of rapid add-on programs and departments like women’s studies and African-American studies. The tenured professoriate seemed not to realize that change of some kind was necessary, and thus they failed to provide an alternative vision of a remodeled university of the future. I myself was lobbying for interdisciplinary innovation in the humanities—something that remained highly controversial right through the 1980s . . .

“Helped along by a swelling horde of officious, overpaid administrators, North American universities became, decade by decade, political correctness camps. Out went half the classics, as well as pedagogically useful survey courses demonstrating sequential patterns in history (now dismissed as a “false narrative” by callow theorists). Bookish, introverted old-school professors were not prepared for guerrilla warfare to defend basic scholarly principles or to withstand waves of defamation and harassment . . . [They] never systematically engaged or critiqued … [That] was left instead to self-identified conservatives. The latter situation was clearly counterproductive, insofar as it enabled the bourgeois faux leftists of academe to define themselves and their reflex gobbledygook as boldly progressive . . .

“I am an equity feminist: that is, I demand equal opportunity for women . . . However, I oppose special protections for women as inherently paternalistic . . . Women have rarely worked side by side with men in the way they now do . . . Despite their general affluence, professional women of the Western world have been chronically unhappy for decades, and I conjecture that it is partly because they have been led to expect happiness from a mechanical work environment that doesn’t make men happy either…”

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