Recently searching neighborhood live theater in Chicago as I was passing through, I stumbled across 5 or 6 venues online without much searching at all. All but one featured tales of the suffering engendered by white privilege. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed at the narrowness of theme (no knock on Chicago per se, whose beautiful people and cultural vitality continue to amaze). Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with the underlying politics of “woke” culture. My “doublewoke” (or woke against woke) conceit is not a full renunciation of wokeness, but an encouragement to take the next turn, to take the potential for good that lies slumbering in the woke movement and wake it up to a brand new day.
I start with the assumption that the “woke” set and I share a long-term progressive ideal of a society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. But I fear the machinery of “woke” is going about it in the least efficient way, relying on two shaky strategies. First, it relies too heavily on negative reinforcement; i.e., search the people you encounter not for the good that is in their hearts but for any faux pas, past or present, that can be used to scarlet letter them as racist, sexist, etc. Sure, no one is perfect, but this approach suggests that we can right the ship with sufficient shaming and scolding. Unfortunately, shaming as a means of betterment just doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character for blacks and does not build character for whites. Shaming may not be the intent, but if this is the reception you get from all who fall outside the “already woke” category, which includes many ordinary people who might otherwise be allies, you might reconsider your rhetorical strategy. Save the accusatory tone for the select few malicious racists who deserve it, and discard your broad brush with the other solid waste. Using the broad brush always places the “us versus them” line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side.
The other shaky strategy is dividing people by race, gender, etc., instead of by ideology. We should be bringing black, white, gay, straight, etc., together in a rainbow coalition to fight for that progressive vision mentioned above. The enemy is not white, black, male, or any other such demographic grouping. The enemy (at least the short-term enemy, as there are no long-term enemies, for, like it or not, we all travel the spaceship earth together) should be defined ideologically, as those whose ideas continue to lock in the disequilibriums of late capitalism. The woke folks, however, too often represent the struggle as if it were women against men, black against white. They too often suggest we should vote for, value, or pronounce someone guilty or innocent based on skin color or sex organs or gender. Drawing the battle lines along race or gender is counterproductive if your goal, again, is that “society that is equal and open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.” By drawing battle lines between and building walls around specific genders and races, you are impeding, not advancing, the long-term progressive vision.
Despite the problems that woke culture has in engaging all but the choir, it is rapidly becoming hegemonic in the arts. I suspect that my experience searching venues in Chicago is not unique. Wokeness can no longer claim any countercultural banner. It is, for all practical purposes, the Establishment in arts and humanities. And it is particularly damaging in the arena of authorship and the arts. Racial purity tests for who can write or paint about topics based on an increasingly granular identity politics is becoming the progressive norm. To my progressive friends I say be careful what you wish for. When creative identifying with demographics other than your own becomes the number one cultural sin, we will have pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for.
But once any establishment becomes fixed in place, conditions are ripe for the next countercultural movement – in this case the “woke against woke” movement. It will begin in satire, and we may indeed see such a beginning in works such as those of the fictitious Titania McGrath, who turned out the be spiked columnist, Andrew Doyle. First subject wokeness to satire – but without giving any succor to conservatives. Indeed, conservatives must also be subject to the barb, else the movement is not countercultural at all but merely reactionary. When the satire starts to hit – who knows – it may trigger a Cambrian explosion in the arts, where after a (woke) period of narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable,” the dam bursts open. Rather than circling the wagons around race and gender, restricting who can write what, suddenly everyone is encouraged to artistically explore everyone else’s point of view, everyone participating in every culture in a frenzy of mutual celebration not unlike the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
It will be a new Age of Aquarius. Thus spoke its prophet.
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