What's Tony Thinking

Left Is Not Woke


I was visiting with a longtime Seattle civic leader recently who lamented Seattle’s hook, line and sinker adoption of Woke ideology and how that was effecting hiring in both Seattle governmental and NGO sectors. He said, “People aren’t saying anything, figuring the fever will break.” I responded, “Isn’t that what Republicans have thought about MAGA-ism and Trump . . . that it will burn itself out, so keep your head down?”

Someone who is saying something, albeit, not a Seattlite is the philosopher, Susan Neiman, who was interviewed recently on Andrew Sullivan’s program, The Dishcast. Neiman, who has taught philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv Universities, is out with a new book titled, Left Is Not Woke. 

A self-described progressive and socialist, Nieman challenges Woke ideology arguing that it isn’t actually progressive. Why? For openers, Neiman says it is reductive. “Out of the 15 or 20 identities that any or all of us have, Woke narrows it all down to just two that matter: ethnicity and gender.”

Neiman also notes that of the many identities that most of us claim and which contribute to who we are, these two involve the least agency, that is choice. They also lend themselves most readily to marginalization and thinking of oneself as a victim. They bind us in and to tribes and identities over which we exercise little agency.

Neiman defends, in contrast, Enlightenment universalism and our capacity for solidarity with those who are not of our tribe. Universalism says we can be bound to others by conviction and values, and not just color or culture. Tribalism denies this, saying we are bound by factors that are given, not chosen. I am a white man, nothing else matters.

One of the most radical and remarkable things about Jesus was his denial of tribal identities as determinative, which is one of the reasons he was often in trouble with his fellow Jews. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'” (Matthew 5: 43 – 44). To put Christianity in service to racial and national identities, as many on the right now do, is to deny the very faith that you claim.

Neiman faults Woke-ism on two other grounds. One is that the Woke argue there is no distinction to be made between justice and power. Any claim to doing or serving justice is really just a cover for power, seeking power or holding onto it. So when you read a classic text like the Bible through Woke or post-modern lenses, the only important question is, “Who’s interests are being served?” Everything is about power. This can be quite heady and seductive when you are a college undergraduate!

While one can and should be critical about the way that power-grabs and self-interest can be dressed up as just, the good or the true, etc. to argue that it is all and only about power, all the way down, may sound heady but it too is hugely reductive. It eliminates any notion of sacrifice or serving values other than or greater than self-interest. Do we really want to see the world that way?

Neiman’s third point is that the Woke don’t believe progress can be made or that reforms are possible. The systems of hegemony, patriarchy and white supremacy are so entrenched and so much “a part of the American DNA,” (according to the Woke) that incremental reform and progress, are only an illusion.

Sullivan/ Neiman is a good conversation. I recommend using the link above to listen in. It runs over an hour, so a good companion on your long walk or, as in my case, workout at the gym.

Some of you may wonder why I aim a fair amount of critique at the woke progressives, and don’t just focus on the right-wing? Why don’t I just play for my team and attack the true enemy? One answer is that the two, Woke and MAGA, aren’t that different. Both ultimately push a tribal agenda in which our tribe in locked in mortal combat with the other tribe.

Another reason I think it important to critique the woke progressives is suggested by my opening anecdote.Seattle is a political mono-culture where woke and DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) has become dogma. If I lived in Florida I would probably have a different ideology in my sights. In any event, I have always been allergic to ideology, which I find to be quite different than faith (though some turn their faith into an ideology). An ideology claims to have the truth, whole and unimpaired. All that matters is to implement it, and God help those who get in the way!

Faith in the God who is God can never claim to have the truth whole and unimpaired because only God is God, and God is beyond our full knowing or understanding.


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