It took seconds to happen. A thud, a puff, a cloud of dust. A statue crumbled, its fragments threw up a choking plume of debris.
The men — all men — roared with delight. An ancient statue, enormous, beautifully wrought, lay in pieces on the ground. It was Afghanistan. Pre-9/11. One of the many battles won in the Islamists’ war on the past. The defenceless masterpieces of a lost culture, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, were reduced to rubble.
These images in stone, according to some religious scholars, are “idolatry”. That’s fair enough if that’s what you believe, but nobody is in danger of converting to Buddhism by looking at an old statue. But anything or anyone that stands in the way of totalitarianism — religiously inspired or otherwise — is plain wrong, and must be corrected, even if correction is destruction. These men are juiced on the certainty of what they believe. Certainties are grifts. Certainties are the means by which powerful men steal from everybody else.
I scanned around the internet yesterday, seeing the throngs of people at Kabul airport, desperately fleeing the statue-smashers as they rolled into town on their flatbed trucks with newly-acquired American machine guns.
Then an ad popped up. There’s a young woman walking into school, speaking to camera. She’s Western, hip and well-heeled in big puffy sneakers with a huge “AIR” written on them. She tells us she’s about to go into a history lesson to talk about dynasties. An ancient-looking bust of a man wavers in and out of focus. But she’s not going to talk about “ancient Greeks and Romans”, because “that’s just the patriarchy.”
Instead, she does her presentation on “the greatest dynasty ever”. Which is of course the US women’s basketball team, who had just won another gold medal. In the zero-sum hyperbole of the script, that’s the thing that is important, according to Nike’s ad agency. Not “history”, and certainly not ancient Greek or Roman history.
It’s the “just” in “that’s just the patriarchy” that gets you. The verbal hand swipe, the flippant dismissal of centuries of culture. Culture that, for better or worse, shaped the society we in the West inhabit now, no matter what our ethnic heritage is. It was like the puff of smoke before the rubble.
Never mind that the culture she exists in is inextricably connected to the culture of the Ancient Greeks, who thousands of years ago set in motion the values and systems that allow democracy and equality. And never mind the fact that the company this young woman is shilling for is literally named after a Greek goddess, and never mind that the Olympics was invented by the culture that “Alexander the OK” exported to the rest of the world.
The US women’s basketball team, she tells us, stand for equality, social justice and inspire women just like her. They’ve won every game since 1996. That’s something to celebrate, but is it necessary to insult people to point out that out? The women’s US basketball team makes “your favorite men’s basketball, football and baseball teams look like a bunch of amateurs.”
Let’s put this mean-spirited barb aside and focus on the meat of the matter. Of course social justice is important, it’s the perhaps the most important item on society’s agenda. But even our understanding of social justice is inherited from the ancient cultures that gave rise to Western Civilization.
That doesn’t mean we need to think Alexander the Great really was “great”, it means we need to learn from the past to construct the future. Was Alexander a bad person? Probably. Does that make him unimportant? Absolutely not.
The people who inhabit boardrooms of companies like Nike are open-minded to what marketing mascots they need to employ to hype up their target customers. Nike doesn’t care about social justice that doesn’t sell sportswear. It’s interested in the latest fashions from the street, so it can go on making a killing for its shareholders.
The Misappropriation of Woke
Unfortunately, the latest fad is a hyper-partisan species of identity politics, or what some people call “Wokeism”. Along with polyester vests and plastic shoes, the company is propagating here an attitude that’s all about trashing everything that isn’t ideologically sanctioned by a clique of intellectuals and influencers. And it’ll showboat all over your reservations about the impression that’s making on kids.
“Woke” is a wonderful thing if it’s still used to mean heightened social and political consciousness. Woke comes from a good place – a struggle to confront ignorance and false consciousness. But in the absence of any woke political programme, the designation’s meaning has drifted in recent years. It’s become an object of ridicule to the right, and something approximating an attitude on the left.
Substantive beliefs do fall into “woke” — that we should pull down the statues of slave owners, or that bathrooms should be ungendered (both these ideas make sense, as long as we get a broad consensus to do them — which is where the hard work of campaigning is required), but woke is not an exhaustive set of beliefs (unlike, for example, socialism or anti-racism). It’s now a relational attitude, one that defines itself by what it is not rather than what it is. It’s like “cool” — you’ll know it when you see it, but it would be hard to explain it properly without describing what it is not.
In this form, Wokeism is a zero-sum game. It’s a with-us-or-against-us divisiveness that allows nobody to think for themselves.
“You would criticise.” Some people will retort, “because you’re a middle-aged white guy.”
Sure. I am. But there’s the problem with the most virulent forms of wokism — if our identity alone determines our opinions and ideas, what hope is there for rational thinking, empathy and impartial judgement? The whole point of rational thinking is that it transcends our identity — it takes a universal view on things. It’s what justice and understanding are built on.
Is it hysterical to draw a parallel between a sportswear company’s dalliance with faux-radical politics and the Taliban’s destruction of ancient artifacts? Perhaps. But both certainly share — fundamentally — a totalitarian hostility to open-mindedness. Both embrace unconditional thinking — that people’s actions can be condemned regardless of their reasons or situation, and that there’s really no difference between opinion and reality.
They also share a perverse glee in the upset they cause, the insults they inflict on the people they hate.
While the Taliban have financial backers that genuinely believe in their cause, the backers of these advertising execs probably have no idea what they are really doing.
It’s likely that they take some enjoyment out of annoying conservatives, but with ads like this they are frustrating liberals too. The baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. The message is fundamentally sound — women of color should be celebrated, social justice is important. But what’s at stake in the delivery is the very engine of social, economic and political progress — winning over hearts and minds.
Politics is a tug-of-war for the middle ground, both sides try to shift the centre and reframe the debate. “Big state” vs. “small state”, “traditional values” vs. “individual rights”. Fighters in the culture wars — both left and right — entrench themselves and attempt to split the middle ground apart. Consensus is never reached, and instead both sides take what shards of the broken mess they can as battles won in an ongoing war. It’s political entropy.
Wokeism may be a flash in the pan, much like the radical Marxism of the 1970s — an era of upheaval similar to the one we find ourselves in now. But it’s still not helping, especially so when it’s now being appropriated by companies for financial gain at the cost of social unity. The radical Marxism of the 1970s wanted to violently smash the system of “capitalist oppression”, Wokeism is already becoming part of that system.
Statues are smashed with sledgehammers and blown to pieces because that’s idolatry. Children are told it’s not cool to learn history, because that’s the patriarchy. Same energy.
Update: Reader Amae made some good points in the comments. Particularly about the weaponisation of “woke” by the right. See my response if you feel I’m “punching down” here.