The contemporary movement known as wokeism is only the latest in a series of idealistic efforts to redeem corrupt privilege and transform human nature by means of group solidarity.
Much as Jacobin leaders in the French Revolution and Marxist thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries looked to the virtue and ethical purity of oppressed groups (common people, peasants, proletarian workers) to overthrow oppressing classes (the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie), so woke reformers today look to minorities and to those marginalized because of their sexual desires or gender identities to create a peaceable kingdom of intersectional harmony, in which white and cis-hetero-male groups will be stripped of their privilege and made conscious of their sins.
Yet wokeism’s relentless focus on group identity runs counter to American traditions of liberty that, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, reject a politics of “classification” and “caste.” America, to be sure, has often failed to live up to its universalist ideals: that was the point of Lincoln’s presidency. But the basic idea is that rules apply equally to everyone and should not, as F. A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty, “single out any specific persons or group of persons” for special treatment on account of some abstract virtue, failing, or grievance that supposedly distinguishes the person or group from the rest of the citizenry.
Hayek spoke for the classical tradition of liberty, a creed that, while imperfect, remains the foundation of the American system and underlies many of its virtues. Yet it is no longer much taught in American schools. The authors of a new model for K-12 social studies aim to change this.
“We believe,” the authors of American Birthright write, that “American students should comprehend aspects of American government such as the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, elections, elected office, checks and balances, equality under the law, trial by jury, grand juries, civil rights, and miliary service.” They want to correct the distortions of school curricula that “too frequently omit crucial figures” in the American story, such as George Washington, and “excise entire concepts, such as liberty or republican virtue.”
It’s not partisan special pleading. The orientation of the Civics Alliance, the coalition sponsoring American Birthright, is conservative, but a progressive critic would be hard put to find its program reactionary. Hayek figures in American Birthright, as does Milton Friedman. But so, too, do Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Washington and Thomas Jefferson are part of the program, as are Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Far from being narrow, American Birthright would expose students to a range of human possibility. It emphasizes primary texts that young people can evaluate for themselves: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Exodus, the First Sermon of Buddha, the Analects of Confucius, the Hadith of Gabriel, the Communist Manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, and Roe v. Wade ruling figure alongside The Wealth of Nations and the Federalist Papers.
True, if identity politics triumph, the classical liberalism that American Birthright would resurrect will be as much a curiosity as Zoroastrianism (page 105). But the Civics Alliance may be right in betting on the continued vitality of Lincoln-style liberalism. Wokeism is likely to fail precisely because it borrows so copiously from earlier failed experiments in collectivist solidarity. Robespierre’s ruinous republic of virtue was toppled in less than a decade, and the workers’ paradises inspired by Marx have (with a few unsavory exceptions) met similar fates.
Wokeism is running up against the obstacle that doomed its predecessors: human nature. Marx, Edmund Wilson wrote, was startled to discover that the proletarian worker, given the chance, was less interested in “improving humanity” in the abstract than in joining the bourgeoisie to better his own lot. It was not “what Marx expected him to do.” Enrichissez-vous (“enrich yourselves”), the slogan of the classical liberal statesman François Guizot, proved more attractive to the downtrodden than Marx’s ideal but unworkable proposition, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
If polls show Democrats losing ground with blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, it’s because many of these Americans are less interested in “renegotiating the social contract” in the name of an ambiguous equity than in achieving old-fashioned American success—the prosperity that collectivist regimes conspicuously fail to deliver. Those running away from wokeism instinctively sympathize with Lincoln’s classical liberal rejection of a politics of resentment that leads to lower standards of living: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”
The same disjunction between utopianism and human nature is evident in wokeism’s esoteric terminology, the work of intellectuals who live primarily in books and ideas. Just as those whom Robespierre and Marx sought to lift up had little interest in dialectical materialism or the dictatorship of virtue, few Americans are inspired by the woke newspeak vocabulary, the invention, James Carville said, of “people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges” who use a “different language than ordinary people. . . . They come up with a word like ‘Latinx’ that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like ‘communities of color.’ I don’t know anyone who speaks like that.”
By contrast, Martin Luther King Jr.’s classically liberal language, his “dream deeply rooted in the American dream”—the dream that “all men are created equal”—continues to stir Americans regardless of group affinity. In his charity, King saw that good and evil are evenly distributed across human groups. By abandoning King’s 1963 dream, wokeism reproduces the bigotry he deplored in a different key.
This less forgiving, more divisive dream owes much of its strength to those in ivory towers and higher income brackets, but its appeal even there is limited. The Duc d’Orléans, the cousin of Louis XVI who rechristened himself Philippe Égalité, might have been a true convert to the Jacobinism that eventually beheaded him. But the support of America’s power establishments for the woke agenda is largely a product of fear and cynicism.
One must rely on anecdotal evidence, since few will speak on the record in ways that might end their careers, but talk in clubs and among private school parents suggests that many of those who publicly profess devotion to such dogmas as ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing and an all-out war on hydrocarbons are skeptical of the premises. If they pretend to accept them, it is because there is no point in losing a hard-earned position by openly dissenting from the latest madness of high-end crowds.
The deeper problem is that true woke believers themselves seem not to be in earnest. They offer complicated plans that would remake vast swaths of American life, yet they fail to support comparatively simple initiatives that could dramatically improve American education. Even as Covid-19 revealed that the schools on which poorer Americans depend are worse than most of us knew, elites insisted on insulating these failing institutions from competition. They continue to deny parents who can’t afford it the freedom to choose better alternatives for their children.
It is as though woke high priests want to deprive people of the tools they need to succeed and instead use the grace-and-favor powers of the state to create a new kind of public privilege—one with all the liabilities of old forms of private privilege, in which cosseted scions languished in drink and neurasthenic despair. Henry James nailed the morbid psychology when he made his Princess Casamassima seek a cure for her own neuroses in ministering to the downtrodden; should her captive pets ever achieve real independence, she would go mad.
The kicker is that many elite converts to wokeism benefitted from schools that disdained the progressive education that has given us, among other things, social studies itself. You don’t find social studies at top New York City private day schools or New England boarding schools: those expensive institutions have, at least until recently, adhered to techniques of classical education that originated in the ancient Mediterranean. A curriculum saturated in poetry and classic literature might seem archaic in the STEM age, but in stimulating the inward light of the imagination, it awakens a sense of purpose that is as crucial to life outcomes as technical knowledge.
This classically humane approach to opening the mind once complemented America’s classically liberal ideal of striving against the odds—an approach that, before John Dewey came along, was as available in the one-room schoolhouse as it was at Exeter. Lincoln, for his part, classically homeschooled himself by reading the Bible and Shakespeare. When Lionel Trilling praised the “intense literariness” of the old McGuffey readers, a staple of pre-Dewey American education, he had in mind the power of classic literature to kindle in young minds aspirations that sustained them amid the tasks of grownup life.
If there is a fault in American Birthright, it is that it is too progressive, and that in attempting to introduce young Americans to Lincoln’s idea of classical liberty, it fails to engage their imaginations with Lincoln’s (homegrown) idea of classical education. Great books and great poetry were long classical liberalism’s cultural twin, a music that goes deep into the soul to prepare it, in Tennyson's words, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
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