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The Woke Have Won, and Decisively.
Letter 1: My Opening Letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This is a re-publishing of a 2020 letter exchange between me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the outcome of the culture war. As the original hosting site has been taken down, I am reposting here and adding titles. This is the first letter, from me to Ayaan.
28 Sep '20
Let me begin with what I hope is obvious: I’m very excited and honored to have this discussion with you.
I’m even more thrilled that our correspondence will not be centered on the topic people might expect from us—Islam. Instead, we will be focusing on the phenomenon commonly referred to as “wokeism.” However, as many have pointed out, wokeism is not entirely different from religion, so our experiences in addressing the excesses of Islam will be highly useful.
In fact, it was my activism with religion that first drove me to investigate this issue many years ago. When I first began speaking publicly about Islam, I quickly found (as did you), that those whom I anticipated would be on our side viewed me with suspicion. My criticisms of Islam were based on the very principles that those liberals claimed to champion, and yet I was swiftly rejected by them. This behavior left me stunned and confused, so I set out to understand it.
Very quickly, it became evident that the hesitancy to critique Islam actually had nothing to do with Islam. Educating my fellow liberals would not be enough—as ignorance was not the root of the problem.
Over the previous few decades, a new ideology had taken hold throughout liberal and progressive circles: writer and cultural critic Wesley Yang called it “the successor ideology,” but now it’s more usually called wokeism. At its core, this ideology is a delegitimization project—and it targets the very foundations of humanist, Enlightenment values. Wokeism is not the only movement to exploit the same programming that makes us vulnerable to religion. But it has achieved astounding success because it has also managed to neutralize liberals, who might otherwise stand against religious impulses, by hijacking our caring instinct, and by ruthlessly exploiting social dynamics to crush dissent.
Before we dive in too deeply, I would like to elaborate on a point I made in a private conversation prior to this exchange, which seemed to surprise you. I will repeat it here for the benefit of our audience: I believe that what we are witnessing is not the dawn of open war, but its conclusion. The woke have won, and decisively. But all is never truly lost, and this is not a prelude to submission. My approach is one of pragmatic optimism: In order to fight this—and we must fight it—we need to understand what lies ahead of us.
Let me briefly attempt to justify my view.
Wokeism has won because it has captured our cultural and sense-making institutions.
Nearly all our educational, media, and non-profit institutions (including major grant-making organizations) are advancing in one direction. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds of the global elite are almost uniformly supportive of this new secular faith.
To give just one example: Although the guillotines posted on his doorstep might indicate otherwise, the richest man in the world is not the enemy of wokeism. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post not Breitbart, and his former wife has pledged to dedicate nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to causes relating to social justice.
Let me also make a brief analogy with a subject all too familiar to us. We know that jihadists do not appear in a vacuum. They require a degree of permissiveness within their larger context to exist in significant numbers. We can therefore use the number of jihadis from a particular country as a crude measure of the overall level of liberal tolerance within it.
Pulling this analogy back to the “woke,” it is no anomaly that the New York Times can hire and stand by an employee who speaks of white people as “dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” but cannot publish an op-ed by a sitting US congressman without a major staff insurrection. The conditions required for the extremists to thrive already exist. The door is open; they only need to walk through.
One may object, however, and point out that the majority of Americans are not woke. I believe that this is true. I also believe that it doesn’t matter. When so many of our fundamental institutions are in cult-like consensus, when the richest and most powerful among us routinely display public allegiance to one faith, the preferences of the average American are largely irrelevant.
We must adjust our approach accordingly. To put it rather dramatically: we are not meeting the barbarians at the gate; we are rebelling against the empire.
I’ll end this first letter here. I’m excited to explore this topic with you, and would love to hear your thoughts on how we might tackle this issue.
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