The Need to Enlighten the Woke

9 May 2024

Susan Neiman, Left is Not Woke (Polity Press, 2023)

Image Credit: Polity Press


In Left is Not Woke, Susan Neiman wades into the ongoing debate over the concept of “wokeness.” Her primary objective is to rescue the thinking of the 18th century Enlightenment from what she sees as an ill-considered attack coming from the “woke left,” which she defines as the “far left, or the radical left.” An American scholar with academic training in philosophy and intellectual history, Neiman has lived mostly in Germany over the last quarter-century, where today she is director of the Einstein Forum, a German think tank located in Potsdam, outside Berlin.  She is the author of Learning from the Germans, Race and the Memory of Evil,  reviewed here in 2020, a thought provoking work examining the German and American experiences with historical memory and what she calls “comparative atonement,” the differing ways in which the two countries have tried to come to terms with two of the darkest chapters in their history, the Holocaust in Germany and the United States’ years of chattel slavery and racial discrimination. The term “woke,” Neiman reminds us, owes its origins to a 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” by renowned blues singer Lead Belly, Huddie William Ledbetter, written in defense of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape of a white woman in the 1930s.  Staying woke in Lead Belly’s song meant staying awake, always watching for signs of discrimination.   


In this sense, we should all be woke.  Unfortunately, as she wades into the debate over wokeness, Neiman stays in the shallow end.  Her case against woke thinking is largely undocumented, with few contemporary examples of that thinking.  At a time when some right-wing politicians seem to use “woke” as a shorthand for much that is objectionable to conservatives, Neiman passes up an opportunity to add clarity to the term.  


Alarmed by the rise of anti-democratic authoritarianism across the globe, Neiman appears to be warning the political left that it needs to get its own house in order if it wants to curb the world’s rising authoritarianism.  While the anti-democratic right may be more dangerous, by denigrating the Enlightenment the woke left has “deprived itself of the ideas we need if we hope to resist the lurch to the right.” Ideas that can be traced directly to the Enlightenment provide “much stronger conceptions of progress, justice, and solidarity than those which are dominant today,” she writes. 


Neiman highlights three such ideas that she contends have been denigrated and discarded by the woke left, all flowing from the Enlightenment, which she hopes to resuscitate: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a belief in the possibility of progress, and an insistence upon justice as something other than a mere lever of power. To the woke left, these interconnected ideas are “Eurocentric,” little more than thinly veiled justifications for European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries and its contemporary vestiges, particularly the racism that accompanied colonialism.  


Neiman traces the foundation for the woke attack on the Enlightenment to two 20th century thinkers, French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Neiman describes Foucault as a radical with a gloomy and insidiously reactionary message: everything that we might point to as a sign of progress is, on closer examination, a manifestation of “more sinister forms of repression . . . ways in which the state extends its domination over our lives.” Poking holes in society’s major institutions was Foucault’s favorite pastime, and he found almost all akin to prisons, about which he wrote much.  Foucault proffered few solutions for the pervasive oppression he perceived everywhere.   His relentless deconstruction may have had no other purpose than “subversion as an art form,” Neiman surmises.  


Schmitt shared with Foucault a “hostility toward liberalism” and a “commitment to unmasking liberal hypocrisies.”  He became a Nazi party member when Hitler came to power in 1933 and earned the moniker “Crown Jurist” of National Socialism.  Although banned from teaching after World War II, Schmitt continued to write prolifically up to his death in 1985 at age 96, producing searing critiques of the Enlightenment, liberalism and parliamentary democracy which emphasized the importance of will rather than right in organizing society.   Much like “Nietzsche on a bad day” as Neiman colorfully puts it, Schmitt’s ideas add up to a “political theory for war.” It is easy to see the influence of Foucault in academic circles.  I for one was surprised to learn that Schmitt enjoys similar stature in some of the same circles.  


But Foucault and Schmitt have been gone since the mid-1980s. Neiman notes that many of those now teaching in universities were students themselves when Foucault became the “bedrock of left-wing thought,” the “one philosopher read by anyone who isn’t a philosopher.”  These present-day teachers “pass on the texts they learned as exciting new classics.”  But herein lies the main deficiency that runs through Neiman’s analysis: we learn next to nothing about who those present-day teachers in the thrall of Foucault and Schmitt are, or the specifics of their case against the Enlightenment.  


Neiman nonetheless defends the Enlightenment and its relevance to present day political aims with passion and eloquence. Her central argument is that writing off the Enlightenment as “Eurocentric” entails rejecting universalism, arguably its central tenet, in favor of what she terms “tribalism,” sometimes referred to as “identity politics.” The contemporary woke left considers Enlightenment universalism a sham, “invented to disguise Eurocentric views that supported colonialism” – a “fake universalism” that some cultures use to impose themselves on others “in the name of an abstract humanity that turns out to reflect just a dominant culture’s time, place, and interests,” as Neiman phrases it. 


More than “simply ungrounded,” the arguments for Eurocentricity turn the Enlightenment notion of universalism “upside down.” The Enlightenment was pathbreaking in “rejecting Eurocentrism and urging Europeans to examine themselves from the perspective of the rest of the world,” Neiman argues.  Enlightenment thinkers insisted that everyone is “endowed with innate dignity that demands respect.”  Voltaire’s Candide, a “succinct diatribe against fanaticism, slavery, colonial plunder, and other European evils,” is the most accessible of many 18th century Enlightenment works espousing universalism. Montesquieu among others insisted that we learn to view the world from the perspective of non-Europeans. Diderot criticized repressive European sexual laws from the (more enlightened) perspective of Hurons and Tahitians. Unlike similar thoughts in the great religions, Enlightenment thinkers based their universalist views on reason, not revelation.  


Those who make the “bewildering” claim that the Enlightenment was Eurocentric, Neiman argues, confuse the historical realities of the 18th century with the Enlightenment thinkers who “fought to change them – often at considerable personal risk.”  This was part of a strategy in which Enlightenment writers put their own thoughts in the “mouths of imagined non-Europeans in order to avoid the persecution they would otherwise face for voicing them.” Nearly all the canonical Enlightenment texts were “banned, burned, or published anonymously.  However different they were, all were seen to threaten established authority in the name of universal principles available to anyone in any culture.” 


To be sure, there were gaps in Europeans’ knowledge of non-Europeans, but the best Enlightenment thinkers,  aware of the limits of their knowledge, “urged caution and skepticism in reading empirical descriptions of non-European peoples.” In 1754, Rousseau criticized the “new collections of travels and reports” which Europeans had amassed as they ventured to other parts of the world, pretending to “judge mankind” but “more interested in filling their purses than their heads.”  Diderot warned against making judgements about China without a more thorough knowledge of its language and literature. Kant pointed out the difficulty of drawing conclusions from contradictory ethnographic accounts of non-European peoples.  


Yet the same thinkers recognized that differences between people and cultures still matter.  “Individual histories and cultures put flesh on the bones of abstract humanity,” Neiman writes.  The universalism that the Enlightenment bequeathed to future generations came with a “robust assurance that cultural pluralism is not an alternative to universalism but an enhancement of it.” Enlightenment universalism rests on the conviction that “behind all the differences of time and space that separate us,” human beings are “deeply connected in a wealth of ways.” 


But Enlightenment universalism has now given way to tribalism, which Neiman describes as the “civil breakdown that occurs when people, of whatever kind, see the fundamental human difference as that between our kind and everyone else.” The left-wing turn to tribalism is “particularly tragic because the early civil rights and anti-colonialist movements resolutely opposed tribal thinking in all its forms.” Demographics cannot be the whole answer in explaining people’s values. “We do things for other reasons than being members of a tribe,” Neiman argues.  The best type of universalism is that “learned with and through difference.” 


Neiman seizes upon a 2019 article in the New York Times to illustrate how tribalism has seeped into mainstream liberalism today. The article referred to the Indian ancestry of Vice President Kamala Harris (who was born in the United States), and noted that despite her Indian roots, the Biden administration “may prove less forgiving over Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda.” This carelessly written sentence seems to presume that the Vice President’s ethnic background would normally determine administration policy.  Appearing in the New York Times, sometimes called the United States’ “paper of record” but one which Neiman describes as “increasingly, demonstratively woke,” the sentence may illustrate the pervasive nature of tribalist assumptions in today’s United States.


Neiman also seeks to refute the idea that the key Enlightenment thinkers entertained a naïve belief in the inevitability of progress in human affairs. With few exceptions, Enlightenment thinkers viewed progress as possible but far from inevitable. Their views were the “very opposite of the views ascribed to them today. Over and over, they proclaim that progress is (just barely) possible; their passionate engagement with the evils of their day precludes any belief that progress is assured. Still, they never stopped working at it.” The religious doctrine of original sin, which dominated the institutions of the Christian world in which Enlightenment thinkers operated, shaped the Enlightenment view of the potential for human progress, Neiman emphasizes.  


In its many variations, the doctrine of original sin taught that human beings are born inherently sinful, and change could come “only come through the hand of God.” Rejection of the doctrine was a crucial element to Enlightenment thinking. Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, and others strove “not to defend a utopian view that we are all naturally good, but to attack a Christian view that we are all naturally evil.”  Voltaire wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary that rather than being born evil, man “becomes evil, as he becomes sick” (although Neiman notes that Voltaire once quipped that original sin was the only theological doctrine supported by evidence). In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the idea that progress is possible constitutes another deep difference between the political left and right. 


To stand on the left was once to “stand behind the idea that people can work together to make significant improvements in the real conditions of their own and others’ lives,” Neiman writes. The United States has bridged racial gaps significantly since the time when slavery was enshrined in law, even if that progress has been largely incremental, with a few steps forward, other steps in the wrong direction, and plenty of room for continued progress. But to suggest that racism has hardly changed in a century “dishonors the memory of those who struggled to change it,” she argues.  


Going forward, Neiman urges the political left to embrace the Enlightenment notion of progress as always possible, even in the bleakest moments. If we give up on the prospect of progress, politics becomes “nothing but a struggle for power,” she writes.  Politics as merely a struggle for power, yet another article of faith for today’s woke left, neatly encapsulates Foucault’s perspective. To deflate the notion, Neiman takes on Foucault directly rather than relying upon Enlightenment intermediaries.   


In Foucault’s world, and that of Schmitt, power is “only vaguely tied to the actions of particular humans in particular institutions” and is the “driving force of everything.” This view can be traced back to the ancient Sophists, where might makes right, which “amounts to no concept of right at all.” Foucault belittled the traditional notion of justice as a means of rewarding people according to their merits and punishing them according to their faults.  


In writing about prisons, his metaphor for all societal institutions, Foucault came close to denying any social or moral distinction between innocence and guilt. In one interview, he took the position that the distinction was irrelevant. This is an over-the-top contention for Neiman, one that should place Foucault and those who purport to be his heirs outside the realm of serious democratic debate.  Denying the moral distinction between innocence and guilt “denies the possibility of moral distinctions at all.” When a democracy gives up on moral distinctions — between guilt and innocence, between justice and power – it is on a glide path to fascism, she contends.


While there are undoubtedly contemporaries on today’s political left who share Foucault’s instrumental view of justice, such persons and their views do not receive a hearing here. Nor do those who reject the universalism of the Enlightenment or its guarded view of progress as ever possible. Despite a robust defense of the Enlightenment and spirited exhortations to contemporary progressives, these absences render Neiman’s case against the woke left more frustrating than enlightening.  

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