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How To Defeat Woke: Rufo vs Hanania
Written by Sasha Ivanov.
This year saw the publication of two very important books, which are bound to shape intellectual discourse and (hopefully) public policy in coming years. Richard Hanania’s The Origins of Woke and Chris Rufo’s America’s Cultural Revolution are the Tech Right’s response to the woke onslaught of the past decade. The two authors made their name on Twitter/X by capitalizing on anti-woke sentiment, and each ended up influencing the American right-wing despite having no previous affiliation with the Republican party.
Both books are excellent, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the culture war. Both authors – especially Rufo, but also Hanania through CSPI – are activists and not mere writers. They deserve credit for taking the fight to the Left and being viciously attacked while doing so.
This review will compare and contrast the two books, providing a critical appraisal of their main points – while keeping in mind that both are fundamentally on the right track. I will not describe the contents of the books in detail – for that, you can read Eric Kaufmann’s excellent review.
Culture or politics?
Juxtaposing the two books helps to answer a fundamental question: how do we change society – through political or institutional/cultural capture? Obviously, both approaches are needed; after all, the left took both approaches. But at this moment of leftist hegemony, where should the right focus its efforts? In science there is a distinction between ultimate and proximate causes; if politics is downstream of culture, as the late Andrew Breitbart used to say, then efforts should be concentrated on the ultimate cause, culture. But if civil rights law is the ultimate cause of woke culture, then just changing legislation will be enough.
My own position can be summarized as follows: Rufo beats Hanania. Politics is downstream of culture, and not the other way round. Of course, the two books are more complementary than they are antagonistic, and neither claims that wokeness is singularly caused by politics or culture. However, Rufo clearly emphasizes the causal role of culture on politics, while Hanania clearly states that political decisions ultimately shape culture.
If Hanania is right, then abolishing wokeness is simply a matter of taking over the government (either Antonio Tejero-style or, as Hanania suggests, by influencing the Republican party) and passing the right laws. Effects will then trickle down to the culture in the space of a few decades. But if Rufo is right, then what’s required is a painstakingly long process of intellectual and political activism: the anti-woke crowd need to actually start caring enough to sacrifice their barbecues and become committed activists.
Rufo started out as a filmmaker, and his book is more of a narrative, which elucidates the key facts in a masterful way. Hanania, on the other hand, is a trained lawyer and social scientist. His book makes specific claims about the ultimate causes of wokeness, and recommends specific measures to curtail it. He is certainly well-read on civil rights law. He is also a very American writer – his approach is hands-down, and focuses laser-like on the relevant legislation. Unfortunately, his book is a typical case of the hammer-nail bias.
The basic problem is that even if Republicans enact all the necessary laws, their efforts will be thwarted by a sea of liberal bureaucrats, who will end up interpreting and enforcing those laws (recall what happened during the Trump administration). Indeed, a recurring theme of Hanania’s book is that the text of civil rights law is actually quite innocuous, and it was only through judicial and bureaucratic activism that such law became a tool of social engineering. As the author himself notes, the civil rights bureaucracy attracts a very specific type of person. And when Republicans tried to find conservative judges and bureaucrats to appoint, they discovered that there simply weren’t enough of them.
Rufo provides a simple explanation for this. The bureaucracy is woke for the same reason that capital is woke: elite-college graduates are literally taught to be woke, from first grade up until they earn their PhDs and JDs. This is due to the systematic capture of education by leftists – a process described in Rufo’s book. Rufo’s “Critical Race Theory” is a repackaged version of the “Cultural Marxism” meme, that was circulating within the online dissident Right ten years ago. The meme was immediately successful – because it was true – which led to it being labelled a “conspiracy theory” by the modern gatekeepers of knowledge (i.e., Wikipedia). Rufo’s accomplishment is that he exposed the facts in a much more detailed, academic manner, making it much harder for the Left to label him a conspiracy theorist. He cites the original New Left sources and uses the appropriate jargon.
In other words, if conservatives want to end wokeness, they’ll have to win hearts and minds. They’ll have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, which Hanania claims does not exist. Note: the failed Tejero coup reference above was not merely meant to be humorous. For decades, Spain, Portugal and a host of Latin American countries were ruled by military dictatorships, with the explicit aim of upholding “traditional” values. And despite (or possibly, because of) this, Iberia and Latin America today are hotbeds of woke feminism. As the Spanish conservative intellectual Miguel de Unamuno warned Franco’s fascists: “Venceréis, pero no convenceréis” (you will win, but you will not convince).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly proscribes reverse discrimination, as well as a “disparate impact” interpretation: “Nothing contained in this title shall be interpreted to require any to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group … on account of an imbalance which may exist.” Yet, as Hanania writes: “ultimately none of this would matter, and it would be used to justify proportional hiring by race and sex”.
The law literally says the opposite of what the woke establishment pretends it does. Even the executive orders that established affirmative action explicitly forbid racial quotas, and clarify that they are not “intended to achieve proportional representation or equal results”. The Congress that passed these laws did not intend to produce reverse discrimination, but this is exactly what happened because the culture and bureaucracy were taken over by left-wing activists. The story was repeated in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which banned race-norming in tests.
Even Supreme Court decisions can have multiple interpretations. Regarding the Griggs v. Duke Power Co. 1971 decision (which established the “disparate impact” doctrine), Hanania astutely argues that not using IQ tests can be considered to have a disparate impact on Whites. The fact that the doctrine is never interpreted that way shows that what matters is the intentions (hence, the culture) of the bureaucrats, not the letter of the law. Similarly, he notes that no court ever went after the liberal policy of school closures during the pandemic, even though it had a disparate impact on minority students. Federal agencies claim that if one group’s hiring rate is below 80% that of another, this is evidence of disparate impact. Yet no-one has ever used this rule to sue the NBA.
Sexual harassment is not mentioned in the Civil Rights Act, and yet the act eventually led to an industry of harassment lawsuits. Hanania notes that sex discrimination was originally introduced as an outlandish idea by a southern segregationist, in order to torpedo the bill. However, the amendment ultimately ended up as part of the act. Presumably, the majority of lawmakers took sex discrimination seriously. After all, this was the era of second-wave feminism and sexual liberation. Still, 1960s courts mostly rejected sexual harassment lawsuits, even in cases where the bosses explicitly demanded sexual favours from their employees – which only goes to show how much the culture has shifted since then.
Similarly, there is nothing in the Title IX provision of the 1972 Education Amendments that mentions either female sports or sex on campus. Despite this, Title IX has become synonymous with the regulation of these two practices, through ultra-expansive interpretation by judicial activists. Title IX is mainly used to cut funding for male sports on US campuses, in order to reach parity with female sports.
Hanania acknowledges that “women outnumbering men in student government, music, and other kinds of extracurricular activities has never bothered the Office for Civil Rights”. Once again, the problem is not so much with the law itself as with its cultural interpretation. Title IX wasn’t used to micromanage students’ sex lives until the Obama years, a full 40 years after it was enacted. The text of the law did not change during those decades, though the culture did. The Obama administration sent letters to universities, urging them to abandon due process in accusations of harassment. Universities immediately complied, despite the letters being mere “guidelines” with no legal value. The Trump administration revoked the letters, but the kangaroo courts continued with business as usual.
Most recently, a conservative Supreme Court scored a major victory in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The latter’s immediate reaction was to declare that it will basically ignore the decision. California already bans affirmative action (57% voted against the practice in 2020), but the state’s universities continue to discriminate against White applicants. California also bans discrimination due to political beliefs, but this did not save James Damore or the numerous anonymous victims of cancel culture.
Being a true libertarian, Hanania thinks that the private sector will move towards more reasonable policies once it is freed from the shackles of civil rights law central planning. In reality, large corporations have actively promoted woke policies, sometimes by confronting entire states. In 1991, the NFL moved the Super Bowl final from Arizona, because the state would not recognize the newly declared Martin Luther King holiday. In 2014, it threatened Arizona once again, this time over a planned bill that would have allowed anti-gay discrimination on religious grounds.
What’s the real cause?
If laws, judicial decisions, and even a conservative government are unable to stop wokeness, then what is to be done? Wokeness is of course a complex phenomenon, but its ultimate causes boil down to three factors: multiracialism, liberalism, and Christian ethics.
As Steven Pinker has shown, the West has been getting more and more liberal over time, emphasizing individual rights and expanding the circle of empathy. The particular timepoint when this went “too far” is unclear. Hanania and Rufo follow Zach Goldberg in tracing the “Great Awokening” to around 2010. It was at this time that media around the world started to obsess with racism and sexism in chorus. What was the proximate cause? Hanania thinks it was the rise of Twitter. A more plausible explanation is the convergence of three factors.
First, a generation that was raised liberal from the cradle (millennials) started to come of age. Second, it became clear that the election of the first Black president in U.S. history did not improve the material well-being of African Americans, which led to widespread resentment. Third, the ideology of diversity combined with bad political decisions by G.W. Bush led to the 2008 financial crisis, a.k.a. the Diversity Recession.
A popular conspiracy theory claims that the Establishment manufactured wokeness, in order to divert attention away from “Occupy Wall St.”. What actually occurred was less a conscious conspiracy, and more a case of millennial professionals pushing leftist talking points that did not directly challenge their bosses’ interests. The failures of the managerial elite, along with the economic stagnation of African Americans, caused upheaval within the Democrat base. It was easier to scapegoat the “racist and homophobic” White working class – who incidentally had started to die earlier around that time, a consequence of the breakdown in their social fabric.
Hanania traces everything back to the Civil Rights Act, but has little to say on why it was adopted in the first place. The act came as a result of intense racial activism, which combined both Christian elements (Martin Luther King) and Communist elements (the Black Liberation Movement described by Rufo). One thing Hanania does say is that Black riots were the catalyst, contrary to wishful thinking which maintains that violence is counter-productive. (The riotous summer of 2020 is the latest example of the efficacy of violence.)
Racial activism is also behind the invention of new race categories in the US census. Hanania describes these as the result of haphazard decisions made by bureaucrats, which somehow took on a life of their own. In reality, the racial spoils system is just a natural outcome of demographic trends. In multiethnic countries like Bosnia, there are quotas arranging the representation of different groups in government and civil life. The US is heading rapidly in that direction.
No matter how many conservative judges are in the Supreme Court, as long as the demographics of the US continue to shift, the trend towards wokeness will continue. This conclusion is not welcomed by either Rufo or Hanania, both of whom have railed against the “politics of whiteness”. But the inescapable fact is that every multiracial country on Earth has practiced either segregation or some form of racial spoils system.
Regardless of the proximate causes, the seeds of wokeness were planted in America by its first colonists. The U.S. was settled by religious zealots eager to create a “city upon a hill”, an earthly utopia far away from the Old Regime. While a tendency towards individualism had existed in Northern Europe for centuries, English Puritans took it to an extreme. Emphasizing personal connection to God, they found a country with no official religion or organized Church, with a free-market approach to religious salvation. America thus became the land of countless cults and denominations, with emphasis on personal choice, individual responsibility, liberty and self-expression. While this certainly stimulated growth and innovation, it has also given rise to multiple crazy ideologies, the latest being wokeness.
The Puritan roots of wokeness become apparent when one considers issues of sex in the workplace. As noted above, the puritanical demand to remove human sexuality from an area where humans spend one third of their adult lives does not follow from the text of the law. Hanania mentions that North American workplaces report the least enjoyment, in a study by the Harvard Business Review. It could be that this is due to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But it might also have something to do with the fact that this continent was originally settled by religious fanatics inimical to enjoyment.
Of course, I am not the first to observe the similarities between wokeness and Puritanism. The term “Great Awokening” is itself a reference to the periodic religious revivals in America. But this is usually meant as an allegory, not as a serious theory of the origin of wokeness.
Hanania mocks the idea: “opponents of wokeness will often trace its rise to individuals like Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, or—in the case of the really intellectually ambitious—Martin Luther”. I would unironically add that he forgot the chief culprit: Jesus Christ. How Christianity pushes egalitarianism and elevates victimhood has been analyzed ad nauseam by Nietzsche and his disciples, the latest of whom is BAP. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s thought has been either ignored or distorted post-WWII, so many still view Christians and the woke as opponents. But it would be more appropriate to think of them as two competing factions of leftism, like TERF vs. Trans.
It is therefore depressing that the only bulwark against wokeness seems to be “religious freedom”. Hanania describes the Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru 2020 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that religious institutions can be exempt from anti-discrimination laws. In a country built on liberalism, it seems that the collective “rights” of racial groups are only limited by the collective “rights” of religious groups. The individual “right” to identify as whatever gender one wants is not judged by its impact on the community, but simply by the extent to which it “infringes” on the “religious rights” of others.
The entire American “conservative” movement is simply another variant of liberalism. In an article aiming to debunk the notion that “conservatives always lose”, Hanania goes through a list of American right-wing victories. The perceptive reader will notice that these are not really conservative victories, but victories for atomized American liberalism: the lowering of the tax rate (economic freedom), the expansion of the right to bear arms, and the right to withdraw children from public education (homeschooling). The one exception is abortion, which is a victory for Christian ethics.
Rufo has also written a hopeful piece on right-wing victories, this time exalting the achievements of President Nixon. Yet Nixon’s “victories” consisted of little else than the slashing of the welfare state, another win for economic liberalism. On the culture front, Nixon actually extended affirmative action.
From the above, it is clear that Rufo’s suggested return to the American model of colorblind individualism is as misguided as Hanania’s lawmaking suggestions. Rufo is right that culture matters, but his suggested remedy is what caused the problem in the first place.
In fact, a natural experiment, which shows the causal role of American culture, as well as the relative irrelevance of legal practices, has already been carried out.
On top of anti-discrimination laws, most European countries have draconian “hate speech” laws, which are the stuff of nightmares for American conservatives. In that sense, Europe has already accomplished one of the primary objectives of wokeism (legally restricting speech). And yet anyone who has been to both continents can testify that Europe is decidedly less “woke”, and suffers less from “cancel culture”. This is due to the three factors mentioned above: Europe is less multiracial, less individualist/liberal (with stronger social ties/structure and a sense of collective identity) and less Puritanical.
What are we to do?
To justify his interest in proximate causes, Hanania cites the example of the Russian Revolution: “To understand why Russia was communist in 1960, it is more useful to study 1917 and the years immediately after than it is to look at the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church and the culture of eighteenth-century peasants”. He concludes that changing policy is a political project, “one that depends on a small group of individuals changing the nature of the regime they live under”.
But a small group cannot gain control or influence policy without certain prerequisites. The Russian Revolution was preceded by decades of radical movements, involving thousands of assassinations. These were carried out by political zealots, who were not incentivized by self-interest, but were “possessed” (as Dostoyevsky said) by a revolutionary spirit.
Any policy change, regardless of whether it is bloody like the Bolshevik Revolution, or “mostly peaceful” like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, requires a community of people who are ready to fight for their ideals, and who command power – either in numbers, wealth, or threat of violence. At the heart of it all, there needs to be a convincing ideology/religion for the new community. This ideology cannot be the “old American regime” that Rufo wants to resurrect, not least because that regime led us to where we are today.
Is everything lost? Not quite. The immense popularity of figures such as Andrew Tate and BAP (who could be seen as Andrew Tate for nerds) suggests that young people in the West are ready to break from Christian morality. But since no competing ideology has yet emerged, wokeness will persist for some time.
Sasha Ivanov is a behaviour geneticist.
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