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.