Over on Twitter, I have great fun skewering the Woke. And who doesn’t? An incoherent ethos presents a sort of jungle gym for those who enjoy logic puzzles. A scratching post for the claws of the mind. It’s why Mencken had such fun dragging Catholics. But I am here to argue that Woke is not the problem. Institutions are crumbling not because pink haired zealots have stormed the battlements. Pink haired zealots have stormed the battlements because they found them undefended. Woke is a symptom, not a disease. And if Woke is not the disease, then many putative remedies—most notably right wing conservatism—are not the answer. Let’s step through the argument.
Nobody is Woke, but everyone thinks everyone else is Woke
Sit down with a random human, and it’s a sure bet they don’t believe gender is a social construct, or that it’s a good idea to have race quotas for pilots, or any of the other performative absurdities that so exercise the sound of mind. Even where people adopt Woke stances publicly, their actions reveal preferences that are the opposite of Woke. Just look at comedy: the best humor today takes aim at Woke, and leaves its shaft twanging in the bullseye. Get any American alone in a “safe space”, and he can’t wait to let his guard down and clown the pieties of the Left. This raises the question: why does nobody stand up to defend institutions that were defended in the past? I am far from original in suggesting an unholy triad: affluence, social media, multiculturalism.
The scope of the modern state—and its baggage train of quasi public institutions like academia and media—is a holdover from a time when people had to make common provision against a hard world. Raising a family was a highwire act, hence marriage. War had not yet been replaced by trade, hence a muscular state. Pistols and cameras were not cheap and reliable, hence police. Information lay diffuse and hidden, hence newsrooms and universities. Life was hard and decisions had consequences, hence norms. Industrialization weakened those norms, but still there was a long coasting period where we didn’t have to think too much about values, because our institutions imposed them for us. Schools taught. Police enforced. Universities explored. Journalists reported. Corporations satisfied wants and made no apology for it. It was a secular religion based on not being a jackass.
Even into the 1990s, we defended our values instinctively, like dogs barking at the mailman. The kind of histrionic outsider who today is called a “social justice warrior” rarely made it past the gate. Now, anyone with a grievance can trend on Twitter and bring a great institution to its knees. Thus we have kneeling in football, the ACLU advocating pediatric castration, schools urging censorship. In a world of affluent and networked hominids, paralysis-by-Woke is just the failure mode of vestigial institutions. Few people, individually, think it’s a good idea, but Woke is the meme, the Schelling Point, the ladder up the rampart. If one person in 100 yells “Grievance!”, 99 genuflect to avoid looking silly.
The Great Reset
Grievance is a luxury good, and one of the first discoveries of a newly unshackled people is identity politics. The same irony—that people who have gained the most complain the loudest—is also why the great revolutions of history have happened not when a people have been held down too long, but when they have just begun to be freed. The USSR fell at the height of its accomplishments, not at its nadir. Black radicalism began after blacks had made great strides into the middle classes. Today, the US is the freest and least racist place on earth, and white bigotry so absent from daily life that entire PhD programs invent forensic semiotics to find its merest shadow. So in a way, Woke is a blessing. It diverts tribalism into Kabuki metaphysics and away from the traditional outlet of state violence. But it is still nasty stuff, as we learned in 2020.
The termites of affluence had been eating away at public institutions for a long time, and I suspect the internet revolution put them into the rafters, where they have been gnawing with silent vigor for the last decade or so. But mostly it was small skirmishes; campus theatrics and the ritual looting of Foot Lockers after traffic stops gone bad. Then 2020 came along. COVID-19 was a light wind, but it blew on every institution at the same time. And they all toppled: schools, police, the academy, legislatures. The rot was entire. And since we have not wholly replaced any of these institutions, their paralysis was traumatic.
The way forward is not to the Right
It is tempting—and dangerous—to think the answer is to rebuild the same house, to reinforce the police and run the hoodlums off of campus. Many, recoiling from the horrors of the Left, are lurching Right. They see that Progressivism—the blind desire to uproot whatever currently exists—moves inexorably downhill to its one stable equilibrium: tyranny. But reflexive Right Conservatism is too often deaf and dumb. It has few values of its own besides fetishizing the past, and so the best it can say is that it is sometimes right by chance. Where the Right takes principled stands, those stands look a lot like ad hoc libertarianism, and when the Right feels threatened by a Leftist government, the only hammer it has is “More Government”; witness its shameful calls for state interference in social media. Equally pernicious is a compatibilist Centrism. Centrism can only ever be a rearguard action, an egg balanced on its end. The way to reconcile Big State Leftism with Big State Rightism isn’t to adopt Big State Centrism, but to move orthogonally to smaller institutions.
Like most problems, Woke will not be solved, but dissolved. The path is forward, not back. The affluence that allows us to abandon the main castles to the Woke also allows us to build cozier bunkers closer to home. 2020 was the first time that many of us had to think about our values from first principles: what do I, as a parent, want in a school? How do I get it? What about defending my home? How do I get information in a world where the New York Times has become Pravda and Nature become Lysenko? What does university offer that isn’t available free on YouTube? In every case, we discovered that we could get more for less, that the “commons” so fetishized by statists is nothing but a sprawling flea market with West Elm pricing. Home schooling, gun sales, and home remodeling were through the roof last year, and that is great news. High quality journalism flourished on Twitter and Substack, while medical journals and newspapers beclowned themselves in tantrums of mendacity. That, too, is great news. The decay of the public sphere is compensated for by the reinvigoration of the private sphere. As you watch our institutions burn, don’t grab the fire extinguisher, grab marshmallows.
In search of religion
All this applies equally at the level of nations. I am hopeful that an avalanche of Brexit-style secessions can create refuges from multiculturalism, perhaps even entailing the breakup of large countries into small ones. But that would merely alleviate some frictions; it would not leave man content. 2020 reminded us that man without religion will create his own religion, dangerously and erratically if necessary. Thus: lockdowns and hygiene Puritanism. Thus, more broadly, the climate change hysteria of recent years. Man must have myths in order to star in a story, but the way back is not theism. Nor any of the specific public institutions of our grandparents. Modern man is too rich to have his nose kept pressed in a prayer book.
But whatever replaces Woke will have to work a lot like religion, because our brains haven’t changed much since the Pleistocene. The Stone Age selected for animism, the Iron Age for messianism. All religions succeed or fail to the extent they harness the entropy of an economy and propel their adherents to dominance. What quasi-religious narrative will we invent to bring the gears of a modern economy into alignment with the gears of Pleistocene man? It will, by necessity, embrace many of the things the Woke so hate, and here again we can look to the realm of comedy for clues. Satire is how man unburdens himself of forbidden thought, and it is notable that some of the best meme humor of late has undertones of traditionalism. No doubt you will recognize the following cast of characters:
Memes are the primordial elements of religion, and so it is a good bet that the narratives of tomorrow will have at least a dash of “toxic masculinity”, as well as the adjacent values of hard work, responsibility, and objectivity. It is a good bet that they will venerate the family. But the glue that holds the memes together will be stories. What those stories will be is the most interesting question of our time.
This article was first published on the author’s own site. It has been reprinted with permission.