Wokeism Cannot Be Wished Away

My friend Paul Gottfried has already ably and trenchantly critiqued the faulty assumptions about the meaning of recent elections offered by Scott McConnell in his recent American Conservative essay. In it, McConnell suggests we might be at the end of wokeist domination of political and cultural discourse in the country. He is, alas, wrong. Wokeist power cannot be so easily wished away.

McConnell’s piece is long, so I’ll concentrate on just two of his more specific claims in order to illustrate his missteps. 

He claims, in the article’s penultimate paragraph, that wokeists make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, citing the Pew Research Center but without a link. I assume he is referring to the November Pew survey on political ideologies that has been much discussed online. These results do not at all support McConnell’s claim. 

Pew divides the left-leaning portion of the American public into four groups. McConnell apparently believes only one of these, the progressive Left, counts as woke. But the Pew write-up on its results, and the data show this is not so. Another 10 percent of the American population are what Pew classifies as “Outsider Leftists,” who hold views on issues indistinguishable from those of the progressives and differ only in that, unlike progressives, they reject both established political parties as an effective means of action. That is, they are in some ways more radical than the Progressives. 

Pew breaks down their data from all groups on how they feel about redress of “racial bias” and whether they think “systemic change” is needed. About two thirds of both Progressive and Outsider Leftists say “yes.” More importantly, of the two other left-leaning groups, which Pew calls “Establishment Liberals” and “Democratic Mainstays,” nearly 30 percent and 40 percent (respectively) agree. Establishment liberals are 13 percent of the American public and Democratic mainstays are 16 percent. 

When you do the math here, it means that more than 20 percent, or more than 1 in 5, of the American electorate believes that systemic change is needed to address “racial bias.” That number is still larger than 1 in 5, because Pew shows that small percentages of all the centrist and Right groups agree with this sentiment, too. How much impact on affairs can one-fifth or more of the voting population have, especially when they disproportionately occupy important institutional positions? McConnell’s refusal to see survey data clearly results in a total misread of how many people in this country agree with woke principles.

McConnell also comments on how, in his view, there are signs of popular culture rejection of Woke principles. He invokes as evidence a recent Netflix series, “The Chair,” claiming that the show presents activist college students who illegitimately try to badger a white male professor out of his job on a trumped up social media cancellation campaign as the bad guys. 

Either McConnell has not seen the series or he was not paying close attention when he did. The foundational presupposition of “The Chair” is that higher education is currently dominated by old conservative white people, and they need to be replaced with progressive people of color such as the series’ star Sandra Oh’s character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, who is the child of Korean immigrants. 

Kim has just become chairwoman of the department of English, which is facing cutbacks because student enrollment in courses is down. The series tries to explain this is because too many of those old white guys are teaching courses the current crop of students doesn’t like—courses in the Western canon, basically—and they want hip, politically correct, new courses like those taught by the lone black faculty member. She has overflow enrollments for her course “Sex and the Novel,” in which she gives her students—nearly all female and disproportionately nonwhite—assignments such as tweeting their favorite line from Moby Dick

An older male colleague, a Melville scholar, is critical of the idea. “I want them to become absorbed in the story line, the beauty of the phrasing, but if all they’re doing is looking for the flashiest soundbite, [that’s] low-hanging fruit,” he says. Her response: “It’s a way of connecting with them. And I find that it mobilizes the skills of close reading.” Because it’s just so obvious that Twitter and close reading go hand-in-hand.

The “Sex and the Novel” professor, an untenured young black female, is presented as by far the most human and knowledgeable person in the department. She seems to know everything, correcting her colleagues’ misquoting of Shakespeare, though she is a scholar (of course) of African-American writing. She is lauded for her recent article on Frances Harper, an obscure 19th-century black abolitionist writer. Anyone who has been inside a real university in recent years and observed the way that black faculty are lauded to the skies by colleagues and administrators alike there for their every move knows from whence this characterization draws its contour. 

Kim teaches in the same progressive Left pedagogical style. We see her in class writing long passages on the board from Gloria Anzaldua, a radical queer theorist, telling her students: “You don’t need to have an answer. I’m more interested in your questions than answers . . . When I get up in the morning, I’m excited to come to class not because I get to teach you but because I get to learn from you.” The tenured chairwoman of the department is learning from students who do not have and are not expected even to attempt any answers. This tells you everything you need to know about the contemporary university. Kim then signs a student’s “Save Ethnic Studies” petition when class concludes. 

Even the white male professor who is the object of the cancellation campaign is a woke progressive. He is the ally and former lover of Kim, who agrees with her that the way forward in higher education is to eliminate people who look like him and replace them with people who look like her and the black African-American studies scholar.

The frame of the entire series is that universities in 2021 are reactionary cesspools filled with white racist dinosaurs who must be swept away by the radical and diverse wave of wokeness. From this, McConnell finds reason to be optimistic about the waning of wokeness.

During the Christmas season and at the turn of a new year, exhortations to be of good cheer are always welcome. McConnell’s, however, is without much substance.

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About Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University and a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

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