A Guide to Woke—But Not to Nietzsche - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

A Guide to Woke—But Not to Nietzsche


American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time
By Joshua Mitchell
Encounter, 2020

I recently created a university course on wokeism in the intellectual classes. Its title is taken from Raymond Aron’s classic book on the Western intellectual romance with Marxist communism, The Opium of the Intellectuals. When it was posted to the public course schedule, I was asked by a radical colleague what the course was about.

“Do you know all those courses in the Religion Department and elsewhere here that look at Christianity critically?” I replied. “You know, the ones that explore its historical and sociological origins, the content of Christian beliefs, and the consequences of Christian influence and power in the world? All in order to point out Christianity’s faults and contradictions? Well, in this course, I do that with your religion.” Reader, if only I had a photo of the look that produced on her face to share with you…

The perverse attraction of a significant number of intellectuals to noxious political ideas is a topic in need of cogent analysis. Such noxious ideas often offer a morally purifying solution to the deepest problems of human society, and they use language and symbolically-driven behavior that mimics religion. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, today’s professoriate is quite unlikely to take up this analytical task.

Joshua Mitchell, who is on the faculty at Georgetown University, has done us all a great service in writing this careful reflection. American Awakening is not without flaws, but it certainly deserves an attentive read from anyone concerned about the malady that has stricken much of our cultural elite.

Mitchell is commendably clear in defining identity politics. It is a fumbling effort in a de-Christianizing society to find a replacement for Christianity. The basic Christian categories, transgression and innocence, still compel us, though fewer Americans than at any point in the recent past now profess belief in the Christian account of how they can be resolved. The question of what we should do after realizing the incompleteness of earthly justice has long fixed our attention in the West. But we are apparently in the process of losing the traditional religious vocabulary we applied to that question for many centuries.

Wokeist identity politics presents itself as a substitute. It borrows some of the moral scaffolding of Christianity while jettisoning its most essential element. This is the supernatural victory of the Christ that enables the resolving of all transgression and the cleansing of guilt. With that solution gone, the woke are left to bicker endlessly about who is and who is not on the side of Good. They gleefully contemplate the ever-harsher punishments that must be ladled out to transgressors by the righteous. Heteronormative white men become the scapegoat who must answer for all moral crimes. Practitioners of the woke faith seek to demonstrate their elect status in the hierarchy of victims. They do this through the often fabricated evidence of their oppression and the boundless vindictiveness of their desire for the scourging of sinners.

While the adherents to identity politics awake to their merciless faith, Mitchell hopes for another awakening. This would return us to what he calls the liberal politics of competence. The liberal citizen is focused on morality in a manner circumscribed by his own enlightened self-interest. This leads him to work assiduously in a calling and, by his humble recognition of reliance on his fellows, for the production of the common good. He places responsibility for the ultimate resolution of questions of justice outside the natural order. We must recognize the human inability to perform this operation.

The liberal political theory on which the book’s argument relies is a formidable intellectual accomplishment. A conservative reader will however have questions. What if the revolution that produced the liberal individual is also the beginning of the process that dissolves the very possibility of moral order? What if liberal democracy is unsustainable over the long term? Was the competent liberal citizen ever more than a vanishing rarity, even in the most successful liberal societies?

Mitchell acknowledges that some liberals have gone too far. He points to John Rawls as an example. But Rawls may well be the most influential moral philosopher of the past half-century. He advocated the inhuman, impossible abstraction of the “original position” as the basis for thinking of the liberal subject and social morality. The logic of his framework is implied in much of modern liberalism’s institutional structure. How is one going to avoid him without fundamentally challenging that political order?

The second part of the book deals with two other social ills, bipolarity and addiction. These are seen as intertwined with the affliction of identity politics. It is a telling point that our society is made up of individuals who go about their lives convinced of their own elevated status. They post constant updates about their daily activities to their social-media accounts. Yet they assert their own helplessness as the justification for failing to fulfill basic duties of responsible adulthood.

This is in fact a perfectly consistent consequence of the theory of identity that now dominates Western culture. Identity politics melds a hyper-democratic faith in human equality with the fervent worship of victims as the moral center of the universe. We are all glorious in the relativist, anarchist logic of this religion. We should revel in our own me-ness. But some groups have dominated others, and we descend from different combinations of groups. Those of us who claim a genealogy from dominant groups must defer to those born of dominated groups. Part of this deference is the recognition that those victims have less efficacy and power than we privileged do. This is considered a badge of moral superiority rather than a failure to attain the basic self-responsibility of mature adults. It raises them to sacred status.

A central flaw in this book’s argument, which is shared by another recent book on this topic (Mark Mitchell’s Power and Purity), is the way in which a caricatured Nietzsche is presented as the antithesis of the Christian position argued by the author. Power and Purity presents wokeism as a bastard child of the Christian concern with victims and the Nietzschean will to power. American Awakening aligns Nietzsche not with the woke, but with the other major threat Joshua Mitchell sees looming over American culture, the alt-right. But this will not do.

Making the half-educated cretins shambling along in the dark in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” into the legitimate heirs of one of the most original minds in modern Western history requires a concentrated effort in misinterpretation. It may be that at some point the work once done by another generation of fastidious Nietzsche scholars to rescue him from misuse will have to be done anew. One effective first-line antibiotic against oversimplistic readings of Nietzsche’s relationship to Christianity is Karl Jaspers’s splendid little book Nietzsche and Christianity.

American Awakening’s reiteration of the claim that American renewal rests on “healing the wound of slavery” is another irksome aspect of its adherence to liberal pieties. Let us be blunt. Chattel slavery was eliminated in the United States in 1865. No slaves or slave owners remain among living Americans. There is no easily discernible trace of the institution of slavery in any contemporary American social, political, or cultural space.

The burgeoning fictional literature from various Social Justice Studies programs around the country cannot change these facts. Virtually every claim I have ever seen of the persistence of the effects of slavery in contemporary America is an assertion without evidence. The best such arguments—for example, Orlando Patterson’s long chapter in his Rituals of Blood on the black family and the legacy of slavery—are by acknowledgement speculative and scientifically indeterminate. One thing can be known with near certainty about talk of the “the wound of slavery” in 2022. It will contribute to the fueling of black resentment and the stern refusal of many to do the work that is demonstrably in their power to address existing social problems in their community.

Was slavery not healed by the colossal sacrifice of the Civil War? Or by the trillions of dollars that have been spent since its conclusion to improve the condition of black Americans through social programs of myriad sorts, including direct transfers of wealth? Why, then, we may have to acknowledge that what some insist on mislabeling “healing” is outside the realm of the possible and just get on with things as best we can.

Mitchell’s description of wokeism is admirable, and his fears of its intentions well-grounded. I wonder though what good he imagines comes from this rhetoric on slavery. He offers no concrete proposal for accomplishing what he presents as a necessity for the survival of the American political experiment. It is a curious suggestion that we can vanquish the wokeists by meditatively intoning their mantra. We do better to heed Nietzsche and to encourage forgetting. As individuals and as a culture, nothing productive is likely to come from scratching morbidly and incessantly at the itching of old scar tissue.

Alexander Riley is professor of sociology at Bucknell University and the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.


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