Eric Kaufmann: Creating a post-woke society

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Our task is to defeat cultural socialism and restore cultural wealth while accepting that some attention to equal outcomes and protection for minorities is part of the good society

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In a new book, Eric Kaufmann examines the rise of left-liberal extremism and discusses how to check this dominant hybrid ideology.

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“The Third Awokening” revolves around the left-liberal anti-racism taboo of the mid-1960s. Like the big bang, this was a cosmic event; its logic has been progressively expanding, defining our social universe. It has introduced a zone of unbounded identitarian sacredness around race — a form of social kryptonite which irradiated anyone standing in its way. This powerful magic was borrowed by the feminist and later LGBTQ+ movements, weaponized by the revolutionary left and stretched to new frontiers of microscopic and confected emotional grievance. Along the way, it has eroded freedom, truth and excellence while vandalizing cherished national identities and undermining social cohesion. Until the taboo is reformed into a proportionate norm like any other, cultural socialism will remain a dominant force in polite society.

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While there is no question that the energy behind cancel culture has peaked, my view is that, far from disappearing, the underlying ideology is likely to maintain or increase its power in the years ahead. Its wings have been clipped, but the core myths and symbols from which it springs remain intact. This seedbed stands ready to nourish another moral panic the next time a white policeman kills an unarmed Black man or a whistleblower exposes a high-profile sexual predator.

Young people, especially young women, are much less tolerant of speech which offends historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual identity groups than older generations. This is especially true of gen Z (zoomers) and millennials educated at the best universities. As they become the median employee in elite institutions and attain positions of power, they are likely to upend the country’s classical liberal and patriotic creed. The senior liberals who are behind the modest anti-woke correction in the mainstream media will have left the scene as part of the inevitable generational turnover of institutional leadership.

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While radical ideas like critical race theory or gender ideology have gained ground, they only succeeded because they resonated with an established left-liberal hypersensitivity around identity issues. This attention to the demand side, or consumption, of ideas, is missing from many books which focus only on the radicals and the ideas they produce.

Left-liberals, not revolutionary radicals, were also responsible for a number of woke innovations. Like water gradually heating to boiling point, their sensibility evolved incrementally from the ’70s through a process of therapeutic “concept creep” in which ever-finer microaggressions came to be declared traumatic. This is how we evolved from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” It also accounts for the ratcheting extremism of a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions between the ’60s and ’80s.

Throughout the book, I show how the left-liberal majority in cultural institutions like universities is ambivalent about cancel culture but attracted to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies such as diversity statements or broad definitions of harassment, which drive cancel culture. While fear is an important aspect of conformity — as it was during the McCarthy era — left-liberals today, like radicals, worship the totems of equal outcomes and harm protection for minorities. They accept that this is the north star toward which morality must orient.

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This renders modern liberals powerless in the face of radicals to their left. Like pious Muslims trying to argue against Islamic fundamentalists who point to passages in the Qur’an to authorize their violent global jihad, left-liberals are tied into a common moral framework with the fundamentalists, making it nearly impossible to resist their claims. While Patrick Deneen, Yoram Hazony and other post-liberals believe that the entire philosophy of liberalism is to blame, I believe liberal ideas can be salvaged if today’s left-liberals come to understand, question and control their “minorities good, majorities threatening” emotional reflex.

In the final part of the book, I outline a “12-point plan” for rolling back progressive extremism in our institutions to re-balance cultural equality with freedom and national community. Most of my proposed reforms are directed toward conservatives because it is only when they succeed that moderate liberals can win the internal battles against radicals — such as the Democratic politicians known as the “Squad” — who influence the cultural tone in their coalition.

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I urge conservatives to use legislation and executive action at federal and state levels to intervene in public bodies and schools. The goal is to enforce political neutrality and introduce new conditions on public funding that require recipients to uphold political nondiscrimination and free speech. Legislation and executive orders are needed to proactively dismantle the DEI apparatus and ethos of the public sector and school system. While the battle of ideas is the only way to ultimately prevail, it will take decades to change public attitudes among younger generations. And while lawfare can protect dissenters’ speech rights in some contexts, this is expensive, stressful and can be gamed by organizations. Ultimately, most will want to avoid the hassle, choosing instead to self-censor.

Conservatives must upgrade the back end of their operation, relying not just on election victories, but also on mobilizing and organizing between elections. Regardless of what you think of the National Rifle Association, pro-life movement, Straussians or the Federalist Society, they show that conservatives can be focused and effective. Nurturing a pipeline of elite talent, even where the right is vastly outnumbered — as in Ivy League law schools — is a vital task. For at present, Republican administrations (or conservative ones in other western countries) lack the cadres of qualified appointees necessary to repopulate the bureaucracy and public bodies that have drifted left over time. Politicians lack the grounding in conservative and classical liberal ideas to help them resist the inevitable allure of acceding to progressives in institutions.

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The goal is nothing short of a revolution in ethos, from a leftist focus on equity and diversity to a neutral and depoliticized public service concentrating on excellence and serving the country. The cultural left has spent several decades attacking meritocracy because outcomes are not equal across identity groups. They have undermined national narratives and symbols in the name of multiculturalism because the past, like the present, is not equal. People must understand that the future of our civilization is at stake. Changing the flag flying over public buildings from the Stars and Stripes to the Chinese star is, at one level, a trivial act, but none of us question its importance. Why, then, is it so difficult for many to grasp why flying the Progress Pride or Black Lives Matter flag is so subversive?

Reform of public schools must be the highest priority. Studies show that school indoctrination really works and is casting tomorrow’s leaders and voters to be champions of DEI. Conservative governments need to purge woke politicization from the classroom, making this an overriding goal. School choice can do little more than nip at the edges of the problem. As the example of Twitter/X in relation to would-be alternatives like Gab and Parler shows, reforming the mainstream is more effective than starting separate institutions. This is true for all but the most competitive sectors (such as online podcast media), with most spheres of society involving varying degrees of market power which raise stiff barriers to new entrants while entrenching the power of established players.

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Government regulation, not market competition, is therefore vital to taming the power of woke. No politician understands this better than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is the policy leader in this regard. However, his activism is an awkward fit with many in the conservative political world. It puzzles fiscal conservatives such as George W. Bush, Nikki Haley or Britain’s Boris Johnson, whose political instincts were forged in the ’80s during the Cold War and stagflation — or by writers formed in this crucible. They are primarily oriented against government power and have been only too willing to submit to cultural left speech policing and affirmative action in order to placate liberals in the media and well-heeled donors.

As a result, conservative politicians have heretofore provided little resistance to equity-diversity (read: discrimination to achieve equal outcomes) or inclusion (read: control over freedom of speech). Both the public and an important tranche of conservative intellectuals have been ignored by conservative career politicians. This will have to change if we want our institutions to better reflect the mores of the wider society. This new paradigm is fully in accord with liberalism, but is about defending the liberty of citizens from institutions and private threats more than from executive government. It harks back to an older liberal tradition rooted in the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. It recognizes that government is accountable and transparent in a way that institutions are not.

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While culture is partly downstream of politics, lasting change can only come from the battle of ideas. The lineaments of the culture complex that nourishes both left-liberals and radicals must, to paraphrase postmodernists, be decentered. So long as our value system is based around the “minorities good, majority bad” reflex, a catastrophizing “fascist scare” approach to cultural conservatism, and race, sex and LGBTQ+ taboos, nothing will change. We must return to where it all began, planing our totalizing taboos down to proportional norms like any other.

This will allow a new, resilient, post-woke society to arise that will lift majority and minority alike. The push for more equal results and better harm protection for minorities has brought considerable benefit to our world. But it has overreached, damaging human flourishing. Just as we defeated communism but absorbed some of its insights to forge a mixed welfare-state form of capitalism, our task today is to defeat cultural socialism and restore cultural wealth while accepting that some attention to equal outcomes and psychological harm protection for minorities is part of the good society.

Excerpted with permission from “The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism” by Eric Kaufmann.

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