Hitting Woke Herd Immunity? 

Two recent polls suggest wokism is beginning to recede on a variety of fronts, from less trust in Black Lives Matter and more confidence in the police, to suspicion that the Capitol “insurrection” account is being used to unfairly suppress political expression while Antifa, increasingly, is seen as a terrorist organization whose violence has been ignored improperly by authorities.

There are tens of millions of Americans who either have been stung, or turned off, by McCarthyite wokeness (and thus have anti-wokeness antibodies). More have been vaccinated from its latest virulent strains by their own values of judging people as individuals, not as racial or gender collectives. So lots of Americans have developed peremptory defenses against it. The result is that daily there are ever-fewer who are susceptible to the woke pandemic. And it will thus begin to fade out—even as the virus desperately seeks to mutate and go after more institutions.

Peak wokeness is nearing also because if it continued in its present incarnation, then the United States as we know would cease to exist—in the sense that 1692-93 Salem or 1793-94 Paris could not have continued apace without destroying society. Woke leftism exists to destroy and tear down, not to unite and build. It is not designed to play down and heal racial differences, but to accentuate and capitalize on them.

Scattershot Immunity

The methodology of cancel culture is utterly incoherent and unsustainable. The shark was jumped by the case of the Dr. Seuss books—banned by some local school districts, even as Dr. Seuss Enterprises, in terror, pulled some of the late Theodor Seuss Geisel’s publications of its own accord. If the author of The Cat in the Hat is now an enemy of the people, then anyone and all can be so designated.

That is, after 70 years and millions of books in the houses of millions of Americans, our generation’s new Soviet censors have now decided that Seuss’s books of the late 1940s and 1950s do not conform to our 2021 sensibilities and thus should be banned. The same kind of canceling of Disney films and cartoons, and of particular novelists and social critics is now a matter of record. 

But what are to be the new standards of Trotskyization as we go forth? Can the Governor of New York be excused for months of policies that led to nearly 15,000 unnecessary deaths, but not for inappropriate kisses and touching of women? Or will he, as an Emmy-winning woke official, be exempt from punishment for both types of transgressions? 

There are no logical standards that dictate who is and who is not canceled. For now, all we know about the rules of wokeness is that living leftists are mostly not canceled by the woke mob for the thought crimes that ruin both the non-Left or the generic dead. 

The operating assumption is that the uncovered sins of the progressive are aberrations and not windows into their dark souls. Or perhaps woke leftism works on the same principle as carbon credits: the more you act progressively, the more pluses you have when minuses are summed up.

Most who have claims of being non-white are likely to find partial vaccination from the woke mob. Those who are independently wealthy or successfully self-employed likewise have some immunity. Then there are the defiant, the proverbial “Don’t Tread on Me” folks, who will fight, and thus encourage the zombie walkers to detour around them. 

The only consistent pattern of woke punishment is the shared logic of the lions and water buffalos at the ford—devour the sacrificial, single, and vulnerable while avoiding the robust herd with retaliatory horns.  

The Woke Tax

Wokeness eventually would put an unsustainable economic strain on the system. Wokeness is siphoning off billions of dollars from a productive economy through a sort of value-subtracted tax. We are spending a great deal of labor and capital for merit to be replaced in college admissions, in hiring, in grants, in publication, in the selections of awards, and in movies and videos, in everything—as racial, ethnic, and sexual identity considerations replace meritocratic, literary, artistic, and technological criteria, rather than just augment, them. 

Americans also are investing lots of capital in preempting wokeness—writing/saying/acting in ways that are not productive, but simply defensive. Diversity oaths, and diversity applications, pledges, and statements take some time to read and digest. It will not be long before insurers will sell “woke insurance,” the premiums adjusted upward for those more conservative and of the wrong genealogy. It won’t be long before we all carry cards certifying that “At no time, did I say, hear, or think anything . . . .”

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At a time of $1.7 trillion in student aggregate debt, and existential financial crises in universities during the zoom virtual campus, is higher education really so rich that it can add layers and layers of six-figure-income diversity and equity coordinators? 

Most will not invent, create, teach, or produce. Instead, they are not merely monitoring but hindering those who do—either out of a need to justify their apparat or from self-importance. To believe otherwise is to suggest that on, say, May 1, 2020, the United States was an utterly racist society, without civil rights protections or any reparatory programs for those deemed unfairly victimized in the past. 

The result is that billions of Americans’ hours are invested in woke reeducation and diversity training, in workshops and group confessionals, and in adjudicating and punishing those who do not comply. Ad hoc and personal cancel culture results in thousands of days of unproductive labor as functionaries scour the internet on the scent of a past misspoken word, or an ancient but now incorrect gesture that can return to ruin a rival or an enemy. 

Our economy will soon mimic the totalitarian ones of old. Our commissars are like those of the old Red Army—ordering Soviet commanders’ counter-offensives during the Great Patriotic War to ensure that tank battalions were advancing ideologically correctly rather than just tactically or strategically soundly.  

Melodramatic? Perhaps. But 280 former generals, admirals, and national security officials signed a letter warning that if Trump were to bring in any federal troops to keep the peace after the capital violence of late May and early June, riots that saw systematic attacks on police, vandalism, arson, injuries, and looting, and neared the White House grounds, he should be considered a dictatorial threat. “There is no role for the U.S. military in dealing with American citizens exercising their constitutional right to free speech, however uncomfortable that speech may be for some,” they insisted. 

The same group remained mute when nearly 30,000 troops flooded the streets of the capital in the aftermath of the January 6 riot inside the Capitol building. They maintain their silence as barbed wire and fencing now cordon off the city, and thousands of troops remain without a terrorist or insurrectionist enemy in sight—a militarization of the capital not seen since the Civil War. Tolerable and intolerable violence is predicated on ideology, not its nature or magnitude. 

Warring on the Past

No society can long exist if it believes that its own founding principles, its customs and traditions, its very origins are evil and must be erased. Tearing down statues of Abraham Lincoln, and redefining 1776 and 1787 as 1619, are many things, but one thing they are not is coherent. Trump was considered nutty when he warned that the statue topplers would go from Confederate monuments to Washington and Jefferson—and then when they did just that he was further ridiculed for being prescient. 

Who were the long-dead men who devised a system whose natural and eventual fruition is what attracts indigenous people from Oaxaca, the destitute from Somalia, or the politically oppressed from Vietnam? If evil white people founded an evil system solely for their own evil purposes, why would anyone nonwhite dare risk his life to eat from the alluring fruit of the inherently long-ago poisoned tree? 

If Americans are to accept that their Declaration of Independence and Constitution were frauds, abject falsifications of the real unspoken founding of 1619, then again what is to replace them? Whose statues are to rise, which books are we to be authorized to read, whose science are we to turn to? 

Everyone has feet of some clay. For every cancellation, then must there be commensurate bowdlerizing? Is there no adultery, or unkind treatment of women or plagiarism in the past of Martin Luther King, Jr? No violence or criminality in the life of Malcolm X? Did Cesar Chavez never send his goons to the border to beat back illegal aliens? Was Margaret Sanger only a sometimes advocate of eugenic abortion? Are the written biographies of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to be freed of anti-Semitism and petty corruption? Is Louis Farrakhan an ecumenical leader in the way FDR was not? Was JFK really our first feminist?

Are we to look to those who erased our supposedly awful past for guidance? 

Is it to be the architect of the 1619 Project? Long ago the ecumenical Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote that “the white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager, and thief of the modern world . . . The descendants of these savage people pump drugs and guns into the Black community, pack Black people into the squalor of segregated urban ghettos and continue to be bloodsuckers in our community.” 

Is going back into one’s student days to find such an embarrassing rant, in the fashion of the accusers’ of Brett Kavanaugh’s desperate but false allegations, unfair? If so, this past summer Hannah-Jones bragged that, yes, it would be “an honor” if the summer rioting—700 police officers injured, 40 deaths, and billions in property damages and hundreds—be called henceforth “the 1619 riots.”  

At the height of tensions, she advised, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.” And she added, “Any reasonable person would say we shouldn’t be destroying other people’s property, but these are not reasonable times.” Did the Times consider its essayist inflammatory?


In our self-celebrated liberal society are we all to be reduced to identifying by race? But first, do we even have the ability to ascertain who is and is not white or black or brown?

Most illiberal societies in the past that tried such stigmatization of race, ethnicity, or religion did not end so well—from the Ottomans and the Third Reich to the former Yugoslavians, Rwandans, and Iraqis. One eighth, one fourth, or one half makes one a person of color—or not color? Shall we seek knowledge of one-drop of tell-tale bloodlines from the archived jurisprudence of the antebellum South? 

If Peruvian George Zimmerman had only used his matronymic, and Latinized his first name, then would a Jorge Mesa have become a sympathetic character who lost a fair fight with Trayvon Martin rather than reduced by the New York Times to a strange category of “white Hispanic” hoodlum, with the additional odor of a Germanized patronymic.

Why does class bow to race, since the former seems to trump the latter. If we forget percentages for a moment, and also forget that we are individuals, not anonymous cogs of vast racial wheels, in absolute numbers, there are roughly (in some studies) more poor white people—both those earning incomes below the poverty level and those with no income at all—than all other commensurate poor minorities combined. Were these supposed to be the targets of Barack Obama’s “clingers” remarks, or Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” John McCain’s “crazies,” or Joe Biden’s “dregs,” “chumps,” and “Neanderthals”? 

Apparently, the supposedly all-powerful, all-determining Oz-like role of racial supremacy and the unearned privilege that accompanies it, have aided those 26 million white impoverished very little. Or perhaps they did not get the message that they were recipients of unearned, all-determinative white privilege. 

Or perhaps they were just people, like the poor of all other races, who suffer from lack of or access to education or vocational training, the stagnation of entry-level incomes, divorce, family dissolution, bad luck, poor health, substance abuse, economic ill-winds, cultural disadvantages, self-inflicted pathologies, or all the other criteria that can make every one of us of every race susceptible to ravages of poverty.

Given that, in absolute numbers alone, there are more minorities that are not poor than the number of white people who are, how is it that class considerations are forgotten? Or for that matter, does any child’s destiny rest on just race—or a two-parent household living in Menlo Park rather than Parlier, or growing up with college-educated parents or high-school dropouts? And does race really determine all the other criteria that foster wealth or poverty?

Note the artifact that those who are now classified as nonwhite are wisely not often seeking to rebrand themselves as “white” to share in intractable “white privilege ”—in the fashion of the past when white majority racism was undeniable. Why are Asian-Americans, on average, enjoying over $20,000 more in average household income than so-called whites?

Why more commonly would so-called white people create an entire industry of constructing pseudo-minority identities—from Elizabeth Warren to Rachel Dolezal to Ward Churchill to Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria—if not for careerist or social advantage or wishing to be cool by claiming not to be “white”? Why has the new racist “passing for non-white” replaced the old racist “passing for white”?

These are admittedly absurd questions. But they are quite apt for an absurd society obsessed with race but without any mechanism to develop a logical category of victimization and reparation.  

Predicating wokism on race is a tricky business, even if one could define and identify race, quantify its role in determining class status, and convince millions that it is moral to judge people by how they look. 

Like the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyite hysteria, when wokism fades, we are likely to see its real catalysts revealed. And they will not be found to be misplaced idealism, nor heartfelt desire for a more ecumenical society, but mostly the age-old, narcissistic destructive road to career enhancement, fueled by customary ancient fears, envies, and hatreds.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the recently released The Dying Citizen, and the forthcoming The End of Everything (May 7, 2024)..

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