January 12, 2023
In Book Reviews Cancel Culture And Academic Freedom
Breaking the Spell of Woke-Lore: A Critique of Norman Finkelstein’s I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get To It!
George David Miller, retired professor of philosophy, author of Reinventing American Jurisprudence, Lexington Books, 2022.
In I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get To It! Norman Finkelstein is spot-on about woke folklore posing as political philosophy: Woke-Lore (as I shall call it) is both intellectually empty and toxic. Identity politics and political correctness fuel Woke Folk. As identity politics supplants issue politics, the crisis of pronouns supplants the lesser evils of food insecurity, homelessness, heath care availability, and climate change.
Wokeness is a cultural phenomenon featuring religious zealotry and corporate branding. Deftly and defiantly, Finkelstein demonstrates that the Woke are short on tolerance, self-awareness, intellectual rigor, and compassion. Like televangelists, Woke leaders are handsomely rewarded and their adoring flock at universities and the progressive edge of the corporate world is all too happy to buy into their contorted logic supported by thin evidence. An essential article of Woke-Lore is intersectionality, which holds that the same person can be oppressed in different ways—the prototypical example of this being a black woman. But in translating this to social justice, how does one calculate in terms of meting out justice to the doubly oppressed or those who are oppressed thrice or quadrupled? There is no viable formula, only machinations of an ideological shell game.
Ex-Maoist Finkelstein recognizes an important aspect missing from intersectionality—class. He rightly reasons that this omission reveals Woke-Lore’s fraudulent nature. It feigns social change. While some of the pieces are moved differently, the same King is protected by pawns, the same elitist hierarchy nurtured. The one percent doesn’t mind opening its ranks to a few select individuals of color so long as the long-term goal of maintaining its power is met. Oprah is a fine member, as are the useful priests who peddle this holier-than-thou distraction from the legal larceny of the movers and shakers, the blessed ones.
Identity politics distracts, as Finkelstein contends, from serious political issues. Drawing distinctions between the Obama presidency that was and Sanders’ presidency that wasn’t drives home Finkelstein’s point. The paltry yield of Obama’s identity driven politics was the ACA and little change in who runs the place. A few more crumbs are offered, but crumb dispensers remain few. The few new crumb dispensers, select and coopted people of color and women, happily accede to the maintenance of this class system. The oppressed become the oppressors by using an intellectual apparatus of intersectionality and diversity, which is designed to bring about social change as effectively as thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting are meant to stop gun violence. The priests keep on getting fatter and richer while outside the church the people of fatuous faith famish. Same old story. As Finkelstein explains, Bernie’s health care for all would have served everybody in the 99 and would have represented real social change. Obamacare leaves medical care as a medical industry, profit driven instead of people oriented.
Finkelstein is genuinely disappointed with Obama’s performance, describing him as shallow and opportunistic. But that’s who attains power most of the time. People who know how to climb the ladder; and the higher the climb the more principles have to be discarded. What was Finkelstein expecting—Marcus Aurelius? Obama was what we thought he was and that wasn’t Mr. Aurelius and definitely not justice-driven MLK. Bush’s AIDS initiative in Africa far exceeds any of Obama’s feats. Yes we can—yes we can maintain the status quo but make it look like social justice. The price of this social justice includes the erasure of class and shrinkage of speech.
It is hard to accept as Finkelstein and other leftists have discovered only from the vantage point of being excommunicated: one party sucks as much as the other one as both subscribe to loyalty tests. As in all good religions, absolutes are applied and purity tests are used by Woke Folk. Whiteness is the seven deadly sins wrapped into one big sin and no matter what one does any connection with whiteness is sinning. In this theology, whether you’re abolitionist who made a few offhand remarks or a grand wizard who put the vee into virulent, you’re racist and doomed to cancellation. Yet if we’re all infected by this racist venom, how can the priests of PC piety be unaffected and racists themselves? This is just an article of faith we’ll just have accept. But another way of looking at it is racism is good for business and the woke brand. The woke brand leverages whiteness without which the brand would disappear without a constant reference to “the” problem.
Woke intolerance is exemplified in the phrase often pronounced to the impure: “You can’t say that.” Only those victimized by the word can utter the desecrated word, which becomes holy when they say it. The same word uttered by one group is profane, but when uttered by the victimized group it is sacred, a means of self-empowerment, even if the word is kept in circulation and reinforces the stereotypes of the enemies. But consistency is usually not a trademark of zealotry; nor is intellectual humility
The absence of intellectual humility is absent from Woke-Lore. But should that surprise? Absolutists tend not to be terribly interested in hearing views terribly different from their own. In perhaps the greatest irony of Woke-Lore, which celebrates difference, it doesn’t want to celebrate any difference outside the faith. These differences are deviations and the practitioners of these beliefs deviants and heretics.
With PC and cancellations, paternalistic priests want to protect their flock from anything upsetting or unsettling. But these helicopter priests only want to infantilize for the purposes of thought control and manage their traumas for political ends. Yet what better to test the faith of the flock than the devil? Without temptations from the devil, how can one test one’s faith? But obviously the fragile minded and easily compromised cannot be tested or trusted to think for themselves. Their fragile minds will shatter. Any real difference from the faith is seen as a threat. In this black-and-white universe (not of relativism as Finkelstein wrongly reports) but of difference as an absolute, antennas are always up and the enemy is always around. In this near paranoid state of perpetual offendedness, one does not need to see the whites of their eyes before shooting (if that phrase still can be used). One can infer a micro-aggression from any sort of behavior and be instantly offended by squinty glances, crooked smiles, or a lame helloes. Micro-aggressions are the left wing version of Stand Your Ground ideology in which the playing of rap music is cause for shooting another person. In Woke-Lore, politically incorrect language is the equivalent of rap music.
In this hypersensitive climate, blame is the chief excremental export and forgiveness and compassion are in short supply. Nowhere is this more evident in how Woke Folk regard people’s ability to change. The chosen people can change and the impure are unsalvageable. While sexuality can be deemed fluid and change, one’s thinking cannot, either one’s own or one’s enemies. The Woke aren’t permitted to think, as it endangers their fragile house of cards ideology. Unable to imagine their views changing, Woke Folk cannot see and thus allow their enemies to learn and change. Yet better to be like Santa Claus and do a new naughty and nice list each year than to have a Nixonesque list of enemies toward which one is resentful until hell freezes over.
Granted, there’s white fragility, but who can ignore the fragility of a movement that banishes all views it insists triggers its followers and who must be protected from them? How fragile are those woke folks? Every idea opposed to theirs is like a raging bull in a china shop. Cancel culture is a political-religious movement characterized by leveraging trauma to create the Other on steroids—THE OTHER or better THE OTHER∞. Instead of distinguishing degrees of otherness starting with friends and moving out toward acquaintances, disinterested parties, occasional opponents, and downright enemies, whoever does not pray the same way and deviates from the company line is an infidel and heretic and is condemned to the hell of cancellation. Whether they know it or care to admit it, the left and right steal from each other, especially zealotry and its ideological accouterments. Cancellation is excommunication or better: hell for the impure sinners. Cancel culture is the left’s version of the notorious one-drop rule: one difference in ideology and you are designated as impure and must be segregated in another space.
Where Finkelstein’s analysis can be enhanced is by casting the situation in terms of values. One side absolutizes truth and along with it the vehicle to achieve it, speech and expression. The other side absolutizes identity and curbs free speech, regards free speech as a negative value and espouses the value of protection. Identity matters greatly to peoples whose identities have been prevented to develop because of their subservient places in society. There is a struggle for identity for many people: people of color, indigenous people, women, and transgender individuals. This search for identity puts people in intellectual and spiritual hardship, constantly searching to establish an identity distorted by the ruling class. The search for truth may conflict with their search for wholeness. However much insulation may serve short-term needs, it does not serve the endgame of a just society. Justice depends upon speech to point out the flaws and call out the quacks, the mercenaries, and the merciless. There is always collateral damage with speech in the form of hurt feelings. I am not discounting these feelings as booboos, as many are traumatic. Yet justice demands truth-seekers and that is often unsettling and disorienting and cause for soul-searching. If you can’t stand the heat get out the sauna. The heat is always going to be palpable in a pluralistic society in which rendering justice demands heated debate of treasured values. There needs to be spaces for identities to emerge and feel full and healthy. But those spaces cannot encroach upon the safe space for speech, vital as it is for speaking truth to power. As important as it is to protect and nurture the identities of individual groups, it is still more important to preserve the identity of our society as one of truth seekers in the service of justice, an ideal if abandoned means all is lost for democracy. Finkelstein understands this and suffers no fools in writing an intrepid intellectual counterpoint to the cavalier casuistry of Woke-Lore.