Wokeness and the New Cold War
American politics and society are currently experiencing profound shifts on social matters, particularly relating to issues of race, identity, and gender. In recent years, “woke” attitudes on the Left have moved from college campuses to the heart of society, including endorsements by big business, countless celebrities and media mavens, as well as rising numbers of Democratic party notables. Attitudes on politically touchy issues regarding ethnicity and sexuality that were regarded as fringe less than a decade ago now appear to have been mainstreamed, at least as far as social media is concerned.
This is all thanks to the “Great Awokening” in Vox’s memorable phrase, which witnessed a major upsurge in racial liberalism, particularly among educated young whites, during Barack Obama’s second term in the White House. Right-wing pushback to this newly vocal Wokeness aided the election of Donald Trump in 2016, yet his polarizing one-term presidency also served to increase enthusiasm for it on the Left. Indeed, Wokeness and MAGA operated in a sort of symbiosis throughout the Trump presidency, with their radicalisms only serving to bolster and intensify the other.
One of the intriguing aspects of Wokeness is that it enjoys limited appeal among the broad electorate, and is viewed skeptically even by many Democratic voters, particularly non-white ones, yet it has been embraced wholeheartedly, indeed with religious-like fervor, by many Democratic-leaning donors and influencers. Wokeness is merely the common term for the Critical Race Theory that underpins the ideology, which can best be viewed as a watered-down version of Late Marxism, with non-whites replacing the proletariat as the revolutionary class and whites standing in for the bad old bourgeoisie. The orthodox Marxists remaining among us generally find Wokeness horrifying in its crudeness, while those acquainted with Antonio Gramsci understand intuitively how Wokeness has achieved a sort of elite cultural hegemony in record time.
The ersatz-religious nature of Wokeness has been much commented on by its critics, which include many old-school liberals who have noticed that it places little value on things like free speech. Indeed, the censorious attitude among many young Leftists towards what George Orwell famously called wrongthink is difficult to miss. It would be incorrect to attribute resistance to Wokeness to the Right exclusively; there are plenty of old-fashioned liberals who seem appalled by it as well (though many of them remain quiet about it, fearing shaming and worse). Nevertheless, increasingly numbers of Republicans view resistance to Wokeness, for instance by banning CRT indoctrination in public schools, as a vote-getter as the 2022 midterms approach.
Judging from opinion polls, which indicate that many Americans, particularly but by no means exclusively on the Right, worry about being “cancelled” over their unwoke views, the GOP may be making a successful wager with their vocal resistance to CRT and what goes by the colloquial catchphrase “political correctness.” What Americans generally miss, however, is the expanding international dimension of Wokeness. This crusading faith, born on American college campuses, in recent years has gone global, sometimes with strange consequences.
It’s not surprising that Wokeness has expanded across the Anglosphere, given the dominance of American popular culture among English-speakers worldwide, notwithstanding that the discordant American racial experience, with its current CRT emphasis on the legacy of chattel slavery among blacks, has limited conveyance in, say, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or even Great Britain, which never experienced this directly. In a strange form of cultural appropriation, across the Anglosphere, young radicals speak about race and related social matters with a distinctly American voice, grounded in American issues, even when these have little if anything to do with local history or experience.
Hence the recent American habit of players publicly “taking a knee” before professional sports games, which has become de rigueur in the United States with the encouragement of the Black Lives Matter movement and its corporate sponsors, has spread to Britain. This has been met with varying degrees of befuddlement by continental players, and there was a minor bruhaha last week when Polish footballers who were playing a World Cup qualifier in England refused to get on their knees before the cameras. Indeed, the idea seemed to bewilder the Poles, with their team chief stating that taking a knee to honor BLM was the “last topic that interests” them.
While Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries appear to be resistant to the charms of Wokeness – perhaps because they lived rather recently under Communism and therefore possess a degree of herd immunity to Marxistoid fads – Western Europe has taken to this American import with a surprising degree of enthusiasm, at least in certain quarters. Murals honoring the late George Floyd, BLM’s current martyr-hero, have appeared in several German cities, while France has witnessed intense debates about Wokeness and its political meaning.
To many French intellectuals, by no means just on the Right, Wokeness appears to be a toxic import which has given rise to what its detractors term “Islamo-leftism.” This threat, which fuses CRT-flavored narratives about race with French controversies, has been deemed sufficiently serious that President Emmanuel Macron’s government is investigating Islamo-gauchisme. Macron himself has denounced Wokeness as an unhealthy “American import” that is causing “division and self-hatred” in France. It’s increasingly common among European skeptics to term Wokeness “the American disease.”
If this is how America’s friends view our latest ideological fad to go global, what about our enemies? That’s where things get interesting. Communist China regularly cites CRT-inspired language in its increasingly shrill diatribes against the United States. Beijing mouthpieces routinely denounce American “racism” as its “chronic disease,” while BLM was cited recently by Yang Jiechi, the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign affairs boss, in his tempestuous meeting with American counterparts in Alaska, stating acidly, “We hope that the United States will do better on human rights.”
This is all rather rich coming from the dictatorship that subjects Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetans in their occupied homeland to cultural genocide – and perhaps worse. The People’s Republic of China is functionally a Han ethno-state, since that group makes up 94 percent of the PRC’s population, with non-Han minorities playing rather limited roles in public life. That decidedly non-diverse reality hasn’t stopped the CCP from employing our own Wokeness as a weapon against the United States, often ham-handedly. On cue, Beijing has made a lot of noise about a recent surge in anti-Asian violence in the United States, even though it’s not yet clear what exactly is causing that surge, which may simply be a part of generally rising violent crime in most American cities over the last year. All the same, a PRC foreign ministry spokesman recently expressed Beijing’s “deep concern” including the pointed recommendation: “The United States should take practical measures to resolve issues of racism and racial discrimination at home, and earnestly safeguard and protect the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in the United States.”
Russia’s take on America’s racial problems is even more interesting than China’s frankly predictable, if decidedly cynical, spin. Kremlin media outlets, too, are prone to praising BLM and using CRT-inspired language to attack the United States for its racial problems, thus carrying on anti-American propaganda themes which date to Soviet times. Moscow’s official viewpoint is more complex, however, and Kremlin media outlets are as likely these days to criticize Wokeness as to praise it – sometimes in the same outlet, in adjacent articles. Consistency has never been a strongpoint of Russian propagandists.
Concerns about the other side of Wokeness, namely that it fosters anti-white attitudes and policies, also have currency in the regime of President Vladimir Putin, and they’re now being discussed openly. Last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, an excellent barometer of Kremlin viewpoints, warned about anti-white “aggression” in the United States. In televised comments, Lavrov offered a full-throated defense of whiteness against Wokeness that no Western politician of any stature would dare utter publicly, while pointing his finger directly at America for this radical and dangerous ideology:
Hollywood changes its rules now, too, so that everything reflects the diversity of modern society, which is likewise a form of censorship, which stifles art and imposes various artificial restrictions and demands. I saw black people playing in Shakespeare’s comedies. I don’t know when we will have a white Othello. You see, that’s absurdity. Political correctness pushed to such absurdity won’t end well…
Probably, everyone wants to get rid of racism, and we never doubted that. We were the pioneers of the movement for equal rights of people of any skin color. But there is a risk of reaching the other extremity, what we observed during the BLM events and the aggression displayed against white people, white US citizens.
Lavrov further accused the United States of spreading Wokeness around the world by design: “They have colossal capabilities for that.”
It should be noted that this Kremlin concern for endangered whiteness is hardly new. The Soviet regime, while pushing the Cold War anti-racist propaganda which Lavrov cited (not entirely accurately), felt differently in private. During a state visit in the late 1970s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev flabbergasted British Prime Minister James Callaghan when he stated to the visiting Western leader, “There is only one important question facing us, and that is the question whether the white race will survive.” Callaghan, having no idea how to respond, fled the room silently.
For several years, Putin and his regime have posed as the defenders of conservatism and traditionalism on the global stage, including Kremlin endorsement of old-fashioned values regarding race, gender, and religion. Moscow is already deeply opposed to Wokeness in its policies and most of its propaganda. However, if the Putin regime decides to make itself the global defender of endangered whiteness too, as Lavrov seems to be hinting, that may prove a serious irritant inside the West. The Russian Federation is about 80 percent ethnically Russian, making that country considerably whiter than the United States is at present. Might we soon come to a day when Vladimir Putin is viewed by disaffected people around the globe as the last hope for the demographically declining white world?
It would hardly be out of character for the Kremlin to take that pose. Putin and his regime are always seeking new propaganda angles to exploit against the West, and our Wokeness is a weapon which can be employed against us with ease. This matters particularly because we are now in a new Cold War with Putin and Xi’s China too. Those regimes have many differences and there’s no love lost between Moscow and Beijing, thanks to a lot of bad history and current rivalries. But they hate the West together, and Russia and China fear and loathe us, particularly the United States, more than they despise each other. We should expect Beijing to talk a lot about American racism as it impacts minorities; we should prepare ourselves that Moscow will keep talking about American racism and how it harms whites. They may find a receptive audience in certain corners of our politics.
Way back in 1970, when the Nixon administration was just starting to reach out to Mao’s China to seek a strategic partnership against the Soviet Union – a development which helped turn the tide of the last Cold War – the historian John Lukacs published a provocative book titled The Passing of the Modern Age. A Hungarian by birth and raising, the continentally cosmopolitan Lukacs escaped Communism as it took over his homeland and arrived in the United States at age 22. He remained in this country until his death in 2019, writing thought-provoking books to the end of his long life. Lukacs, it should be noted, was a Catholic reactionary who despised populist nationalism in all its forms; he detested Trumpism long before it took shape. His 1970 publication nevertheless included this remarkably prescient prediction:
Bismarck was supposed to have said that the most important fact of the twentieth century would be that Americans speak English; it is not impossible that the most important condition of the next hundred years might be that the Russians are, after all, white.