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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The content of their character

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
(Martin Luther King)

If only we could get this down. Some conservatives suggest that laws have been changed to make discrimination illegal and thus we are already there (in effect, we ARE judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin). Some woke progressives suggest, on the contrary, that the remark points to a distant future, so far removed from the present that it is a mistake to try to apply it today in our everyday lives.

I think each of these views is somewhat myopic. I think the best way to look at it is this: MLK’s rule is a starting point for the individual and an endpoint for society. If we each start now, with the people we meet on the street today, to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of the skin, if we each follow the well-known paraphrase of Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world,” we will be taking the necessary first step on the path that ultimately ends with the society Dr. King envisioned. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there is not much work left to be done on the road to racial equality and harmony, but don’t make the perhaps even larger mistake of not applying the MLK rule in your personal life today.

Those are my thoughts. Additional thoughts and comments welcome.

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