by EW Wilder
Writing in the July 2023 edition of Harper's, Ian Buruma makes the following errors:
He accepts the far rightwing definition of "woke" which, rather than being a blanket term for social justice awareness, more likely has its roots in the need for Black Americans to stay aware of their surroundings in order to avoid trouble (or worse) in the Jim Crow South.
He conflates Anabaptists' baptism conventions with other Protestant traditions of public confession and implies they are parallel to Catholic confession of sin. The Anabaptist conventions are theologically distinct.
He argues by analogy that Puritan traditions of "doing the work" equate with contemporary corporate statements on social justice issues.
The latter is at the core of his argument, so let's delve into it.
Arguing by analogy is always fraught, and while it's true that vestiges of Puritanism can be found throughout American secular culture, chances are the corporate statements Buruma excoriates are more public relations stunts than they are any expression of real ideological of even political positions. Rightly, Buruma points out the widespread hypocrisy of these statements, coming as they do from companies—such as Amazon—that have a poor history of giving a rip about their workers. But hypocrisy is a longstanding part of corporate life. If Buruma is scandalized by giant companies saying they support #BLM while simultaneously funneling money to the campaigns of racist politicians, wait until he discovers the falseness of their statements that "employee safety is our highest priority" or that clearly terrible customer policies are being implemented "to better serve you."
The only people who are scandalized or even surprised by the hypocrisies of the boardroom aren't, well, "woke" enough to write comprehensively about the subject.
Later in the essay, Buruma puts scare quotes around "'structural'" racism, as if redlining, Jim Crow laws, and race-based gerrymandering never existed, or, indeed, in the case of the latter, don't continue to plague us.
He ends up noting that Democrats, if they want to win, need to de-emphasize social justice issues in their campaigns, lawmaking, and public statements in favor of economic ones. But this is also hardly profound; it was the basis of Bernie Sanders's campaign strategy, after all, and it was a popular enough stance for establishment Democrats with strong corporate ties to quash the Sanders campaign in 2016. So, at best, Buruma's essay is about a decade too late. At worst, though, it helps feed the rightwing hate machine, which, as Ron DeSantis's politics embody, is actively using "woke" as a wedge issue.
Buruma's stance, though, also elides a very serious problem: a lot of White working and middle class Americans are, quite simply, racists. I'm not sure what Buruma's life has been like, but, as a cis/het/middle-class White guy from the Great Plains, I can attest to the fact that racist attitudes are both common and open in all-White spaces, especially informal ones. Behind the barn, over lunch or coffee, at family gatherings, when White people of my demographic get together, jokes about Black and Brown people are often thrown around like a baseball in a game of catch. It's ugly, but it's true.
And the fact that certain swing voters went for Barack Obama once or even twice does not make them not racist. Obama worked for years on making his personal brand acceptable to the White power base, the white electorate. Putting Joe Biden on the ticket, a man who openly used terms like "clean" and "articulate" to describe Obama, was a strategy to appeal to voters who would themselves use those terms to describe an "acceptable" Black person. Like Bill Cosby before him and Clarence Thomas now, Obama knew how to play the White man's game, and he was rewarded for it. It also helped that the economic collapse of 2008 made a message of "hope" and "change" resonate. That many of these same voters reverted to vote for the clearly racist Donald Trump eight years later just adds evidence to the idea that a deeply racist White middle-America is happy to use a Black man to get what it wants and is happy to return to form when it senses that the Other is getting too "uppity."
Buruma goes on to note that globalization has benefited those he deems, in a distortion of Protestant tradition, "the Elect," and that he is among them. He contends that these so-called Elect benefit from virtue-signaling. I admit that I have no idea who his "Elect" are or how they differ from the people (many of them Jewish) the far right deem "the elite" (or, if you're Donald Trump "the a-leet"). Professors and other academics are supposedly part of this cohort, but, as one of their number, I don't see how globalization has helped or hurt me very much one way or the other. The internationalism Buruma cites—the ability for academics to cross international boundaries to collaborate—seems indistinguishable from jet travel, something theoretically more open to the coal miners who once made close to six figures a year than to underpaid profs. But virtue-signaling and benefiting from global trade are unrelated: just ask Rupert Murdoch. Oil companies seeking new markets, manufacturers looking to outsource, and the largely (and vocally) libertarian tech industry looking for cheaper coders from overseas, not to mention uber-wealthy investors looking for a tax dodge, seem to all have benefited from globalization more than anyone else. Few of these entities have a history of even paying lip service to social justice issues, unlike retailers, whose presence in local communities creates a need to appeal to local populations. Retailers, while globalization has allowed them to offer cheaper products, can't offshore their workforce, and they have been among the first to raise starting wages in the years since the pandemic.
Counter to what Buruma seems to think, so-called "wokeism" actually has benefited me as an instructor at a small college, and in practical terms. I serve a diverse student body, and I have to run classrooms and virtual spaces in which Black, immigrant, and LGBT+ people feel safe alongside the White, cis, het, and native born. Besides, this stuff is real: not only is structural racism still alive and well in our congressional districting, gay and trans kids still get bullied, their lives and bodies continue to be sanctioned against by rightwing state and local governments and school boards, and women's representation and wages still lag in business and tech fields.
As someone who spent seven-and-a-half years working alongside the public mental health system, I have seen how economic inequality can impact lives in a massively negative way. Generational poverty is more often the cause of mental health problems than the result of it. But as most progressives realize, addressing economic inequality alone won't solve all social justice issues. There was, after all, a strong Black middle class even when much of America was segregated, and the sexual orientation of Apple CEO Tim Cook didn't stop eleven gay kids who live in a wealthy suburb of my home town from attempting suicide one recent fall semester due to bullying at school and lack of acceptance at home.
Instead of just ceding the "woke" ground to the rightwing, just as liberals have ceded faith and finance and free speech, the left needs to start doing what it used to do: it needs to start educating the public. The rightwing has spent four decades filling the radio airwaves and cable TV signals with its vitriol and hate, while the left has largely sat on its hands. The left needs to raise consciousness; it needs to be unapologetic about issues of gender and race and sexual orientation as well as about issues of economic inequality. This messaging needs to be accurate and frequent and clear.
Indeed, if there's one thing that Americans admire more than anything else, a quality that surpasses ideology and identity in the American mind, it's confidence. Trump won not because he had anything substantive to say—he still doesn't—but because he spouts his nonsense and lies with utter conviction. This is the lesson that we on the left need to learn: not that we need to be less woke, but that we need to be righteous in our commitment to the cause.
Photo credit: "woke" by Bob Larsen