Guest essay: A liberal’s argument against Woke

By Johnathan Zimmerman

In the 1950s, the greatest threat to American freedom was the attack on communists and their so-called fellow travelers in government, academia, and the arts. Led by a firebrand senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, the anti-communist campaign destroyed countless lives and careers. To place someone under suspicion, all you needed to do was suggest they were Red.

What Sen. Joseph McCarthy had in common with Woke
We can see a similar spirit in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ witch hunt — yes, I said it — against “Woke.” Whatever he doesn’t like — school lessons about race, gender-affirming medical care, the Walt Disney Corp. — receives that all-purpose put-down. DeSantis has boasted that Florida is “where Woke goes to die.” And he has pledged to purge the entire country of Wokeness if he’s elected president.

But many of the same people who fought McCarthyism also underscored the perils of communism. Just like McCarthy, they said, communism trampled on individual liberty and dignity. So they resolved to resist both movements.

In a 1952 interview with the Harvard Crimson, for example, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — a 1938 graduate of the university — indicted both communism and McCarthy, who had called Schlesinger a communist for criticizing him. As the eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, many years later, opposing the anti-communist witch hunts didn’t mean you were an apologist for the Soviet Union. You could condemn Red-baiting without being Red yourself.

That’s what’s missing — thus far — in the resistance to DeSantis’ anti-Woke campaign.

My fellow liberals have correctly called out DeSantis and other Republican leaders for their brazen assault on freedom, especially their efforts to restrict what teachers and professors can say in the classroom. But there’s been little acknowledgment that Wokeness is a real danger, not simply a figment of Ron DeSantis’ conspiratorial imagination.

That’s the theme of a new book by philosopher Susan Neiman, “Left Is Not Woke.” She is a proud member of the Left, but — as her title indicates — she is definitely not Woke. That’s because she rejects what she argues (and I agree) is the essential premise of Wokeness, which is to define all of us by our racial and gender identities.

Consider “positionality” statements, which encourage scholars to divulge their identities in grant applications and sometimes even journal submissions. The implicit (or explicit) message: Our race and gender determine our ideas. And anyone who questions that will be automatically suspect.

The same shade of suspicion is cast on anyone who tells a hopeful story about the United States or suggests that things are better now — more fair, more just, more open — than they were in the past. That’s another recurring theme of Wokeness, as Neiman notes: a deep cynicism about the idea of progress itself.

We can hear it in the refrain that mass incarceration represents a “new Jim Crow,” or that the 13th Amendment didn’t actually abolish slavery because it allowed for involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. To be sure, Woke people aren’t alone in claiming that little progress has been made; it turns out that almost everyone does that. But as Neiman argues, it’s hard to make the case for progressive change when you’re calling Abraham Lincoln a racist and claiming that “we are still living in a world that’s just as racist as it was in 1865.”

There are, of course, caveats. Neiman knows these views don’t characterize everyone in the academy; after all, she’s an academic herself. And “Woke-ism” isn’t the same as a repressive communist regime; most people who consider themselves Woke have no intention of imprisoning or murdering their opponents, for example.

What’s more, just like McCarthy lied about communism — falsely claiming, for instance, that the U.S. State Department harbored 205 “known communists” — so has DeSantis radically distorted his own targets. Most notoriously, his spokeswoman charged — without any evidence — that people opposing his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law were “grooming” students for sexual abuse.

But there is an effort — especially at our universities — to promote Woke ideas, especially around racial and gender identity. And it does sometimes echo the repressive doublespeak of — yes — communism, which is why refugees from the communist world are sometimes the sharpest critics of Wokeness.

Last year, for example, Purdue political science student Habi Zhang likened the Woke spirit on his campus to efforts by Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, to replace “wrong ideologies” with “the correct mode of thought.” Of course, conformity under Mao was enforced “out of the barrel of a gun,” as he famously said; in a democracy, by contrast, we’re free to dissent.

That’s why people who believe in freedom should unite against Ron DeSantis and against Wokeness. In the 1950s, we found a way to rebut Joe McCarthy without embracing communism. We can do that again, with DeSantis and Wokeness. Many of his accusations are illusory, but Woke-ism is real. And we can’t mount an honest resistance to him until we own up to that.


This originally appeared in the July 11, 2023, Philadelphia Inquirer. Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

19 thoughts on “Guest essay: A liberal’s argument against Woke”

  1. I honestly think this whole issue is over-played, but I do admit that I am not in college nor have I been around a collegiate atmosphere in recent year. But I know of no liberals/lefties who would agree to “define all of us by our racial and gender identities”. If nothing else, I am logical, and such things defy all logic and reason. I think if we all stuck to those two things — along with actual facts — we’d all get along a lot better.

    1. Like Mark, you are a Liberal.
      You know, I hear the GOP ignites the cultural wars, like withWoke.
      My opinion is the GOP pushes BACK against stuff like Woke, and men in women’s bathrooms.
      And I am not a Republican, the leadership has sold their souls to Trump.

  2. Well!! That is one very well written guest essay that makes clear, and puts into clear context as well, the entire situation. A good posting, Stu!

    1. It was important to show that Liberals should be opposed to Woke. I define myself as “a JFK Liberal,” which is NOT where the party is today. I just read a piece saying that Obama has warned Biden he is too far Left and Trump is a real threat.

      1. Yes – just saw that too regarding Obama warning Biden. I’m sure you’re going to have to say something in a longer treatise here about this subject.

  3. This essay says what I’ve been saying since Stu started using the term that I don’t like. Woke is not liberal and liberal is not woke.

  4. Don/t get me started on the recent popularity of thinking of Churchill only as a racist, not by far the greatest statesman of the 20th century, and seeing only the sins Columbus brought to the New World (under marching orders from Isabella and Ferdinand) while ignoring the fact that he was probably the greatest seaman and intuitive navigator of all time, and paved the way to a world economy.

    It goes way beyond that and gets very controversial, but the bottom line is that one of the present absurdities is seeing absolute equivalence between all the societies on Earth. We need to realize that some countries develop far more advanced ideas and cultures than others owing to factors such as geography, climate, and especially conflicts (not race!). It all began with Vietnam, which we got the wrong lessons from. The liberal aspect of the press kept focusing on the mistakes made by the US rather than seeing the real issue of insidious Communist revolutions inspired by Lenin and Stalin and reporting on the cruelty of the Viet Cong and NVA as well as the positive things done for South Vietnam by the US. We need to focus more on historical facts like the stark contrast between Britain and her history and governance in World War II and that of Germany, which had many of the same cultural underpinnings, yet turned to fascism. When I was a college student, they taught Western Civilization. Unfortunately, it is no longer taught. While we want to be more inclusive of the many influences from other societies that helped to establish the modern world, that core set of ideas is still the ultimate source of the ideology and governance in the countries that destroyed fascism by 1945 and lies at the core of modern democracies.

    1. I agree with you on Churchill, who disliked “Mohammedans” as they were then called, and strongly like Jews.
      To judge him on those counts, or allow them to outweigh his achievements as a leader and a leader, is the same as judging George Washington only as a slave master, ignoring his military and political brilliance, and humility.
      You have put your finger on why I hate Woke, which sees everything through a racial or gender focus.

  5. So, it’s good to be against wokeism (DeSantis), but not to be against wokeism (DeSantis)? I don’t get it.

    1. Actually it’s not hard at all. It is the McCarthyism analogy. One can rewrite your sentence to say “So, it’s good to be against communism (McCarthy), but not to be against communism (McCarthy)? I don’t get it.” What’s not to get?

      A much less apt analogy is to remember that Hitler was elected on an anti-communist platform. Franco seized power to supposedly save Spain from communists. In fact, a key aspect of fascism is its enmity to communism. Just because communism is bad, does not make fascism good. One can logically oppose both.

      1. What I implied (and you missed the point) was DeSantis is not some wild-eyed alcoholic like Joe McCarthy was. DeSantis is a very successful governor who is taking steps to erase wokeism from his position of power, as parents and committees are simply gagged or shunted aside by the woke fanatics when they try to do the same. DeSantis is doing what he was elected to do — which separates him from the majority of weenies holding office. Obviously, we disagree, but that’s what reasonable discourse is all about.

  6. This is the second time I’ve read this article and the second time I’ve felt it was a “cop out” on the part of the author. My interpretation is the author is anti-Desantis, which he has every right to be.

    However, the idea the only way to rid ourselves of wokeness is to rid ourselves of Desantis is absurd. Desantis is not the only person who is anti-woke. To assume Desantis is the face of anti-wokeness is also a stretch. And comparing Desantis to McCarthy is like comparing a high school football team to the Philadelphia Eagles. They are not even close to being in the same league.

    Please note I am NOT a Desantis disciple in any way or shape. I’m just calling ’em as I see it.

    I think this is lazy reporting and can’t imagine you would ever write such a piece. Just my opinion. Have a great weekend!

    1. I think you missed the point. The author nowhere says, or even implies that “the only way to rid ourselves of wokeness is to rid ourselves of Desantis.” Zimmerman says “people who believe in freedom should unite against Ron DeSantis and against Wokeness.” No different than saying something like “people who believe in freedom should unite against fascism and against communism.” Again, he gives a roadmap with the analogy of McCarthyism/communism. What’s not to get?

      The most one can say in criticism is that DeSantis is not the only over-the-top anti-wokester, although, much like McCarthy’s anti-communism, he has made it the centerpiece of his brand, and is the most prominent proponent.

      1. I’m trying to understand what it is that DeSantis is doing that makes him ‘over the top.’ Fighting against the woke horror is not lawn tennis, it is a fight for the soul of the country. The USA let the nose of the gay camel into the tent, and now — only a few years from when gays were in the closet, we find transgenderism, men participating in women’s sports (as women!), teens having sex-change surgery (without the knowledge and consent of their parents), and so on. The woke cell continues to split into ever more outrageous permutations.

        1. The author of this post, Zimmerman, is also a signatory of an open letter from Jewish Scholars. (Stu might be interested in reading it. It uses Jewish teachings to show why woke is wrong. I tried including the link, but my comment was not accepted with it).

          They write: “Although we are acutely aware of the illiberalism and threats to academic freedom emanating from the political right, and in no way downplay these dangers, in this letter we focus our attention on, and express our deep concern about, a dangerously intolerant ideology on the political left that has taken hold in academia. We firmly believe that the purpose of education is to teach students how to think, not what to think.”

          The problem with the DeSantis anti-woke wing is that they disagree with the last sentence in the quote. (There are, of course, voices on the right that have spoken against the fad of book-banning, educational subject banning in state universities and high school AP classes.)

          If one examines some practitioners of “anti-wokism” particularly DeSantis, it seems that they have adopted the worst parts of wokism in order to fight it, including (1) performative virtue signalling, such as going after Disney, or stores selling “pride merchandise”;(2) labeling all folks who disagree with them as “woke”–much the way anybody who disagrees with the woke, are “racists” by definition; (3) generally strategizing to use government to suppress “bad” ideas, rather than refute them in the public square and (4) a total embrace of the once-maligned “cancel culture”–just against different people.

          It used to be quintessentially American to say, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You don’t hear that from woke, and you don’t hear that from DeSantis. The message from both is shut up, you are not allowed to say that.

          If I were in law school today, I would definitely take Critical Race Theory (technically it is a high level legal theory, not a social theory) for the same reasons I took Marxian Economics (was an econ major) in college (from a socialist professor, no less). This is because if you disagree with a theory’s conclusions, it is useful to know how people got there. I was quite comfortable getting into discussions with campus radicals in the 70s, pressing them to explain Marx’s analytic and predictive problems and short-comings. (I’m no expert on it, but I’ve looked at the CRT legal reasoning, and I see some problems with it)

          We didn’t win the Cold War because our indoctrination of school children was better than the Soviets’ and we didn’t avoid a communist revolution by banning all study of Marx in our schools. A society that allows free inquiry, free speech, and yes, a diversity of opinions is a stronger society. Bad ideas are defeated by good ideas, not suppression.

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