Guest essay: Even liberals have problems with Woke

By Jonathan Zimmeran

For the Philadelphia Inquirer

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.

Illustration courtesy of The Atlantic
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. [Boldface added]

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.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn.”

17 thoughts on “Guest essay: Even liberals have problems with Woke”

  1. ”Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.”
    That says it all.

  2. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is not a vice.” — Barry Goldwater
    Wanna bet?

  3. Wow, it’s almost as if liberals are NOT robotic, Kool-Aid-drinking morons, but rather people who think things through and look at all sides of an issue. Which, come to think of it, is kinda the very DEFINITION of liberalism.

      1. Progressives are for economic justice. Liberals (like ACLU’s Chase Strangio) are for book burnings.

        1. You have that backwards and the ACLU is progressive, not liberal. It no longer protects speech it doesn’t like, and has lost me as a member.
          Liberals are the ones who hate what you say but will defend your right to say it.

          1. Republican Teddy Roosevelt also called himself progressive, “Break up the trusts” (though he did secretly collude with favored one-percenters). That wouldn’t be about Identity.
            Sme Democrats call themselves progressive as they bailed out the banks and kicked 5.1 million homeowners to the curb – but they will never, ever misgender you. I call that liberal.
            Liberals are the ones who tell Twitter to take down parodies of Biden (as Matt Taibbi et al., have revealed). I too donated to the ACLU for 16 years until their (Transylvanian) Chase Strangio said “Stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.” The book was Abigail Shreir’s, “Irreversible Damage,” about young people regretting their gender-rearranging surgery.
            I was born when Harry A-Bomb Truman was president. When liberals would (mostly) be anti-war, anti-censorship and anti-FBI/CIA. Now they’re the complete opposite. Now they’re cheering the Deep State to interfere in elections (and to fight the Russians down to the last Ukrainian). I’m no fan of Trump but election-interference by the permanent bureaucracy is a worse threat to democracy than that buffoon Trump ever could be.
            By the way, the Daily News sucks nowadays. I don’t know if you remember, but you and I would go back-and-forth in emails. My moniker was “Non-Compassionate Liberal.” I was always (at least 51%) in agreement with your outlook.

            it was OK for Amazon employees to
            Liberal used to be anti-war, anti-censorship, anti-FBI & CIA. Now they champion censorship

          2. We agree on everything but the label. I will continue to fight progressives, like Helen Gym, and more or less support liberals. I will also oppose the Woke.

        2. “Economic justice.” There’s one of those progressive phrases that allows any injustice in the name of ‘justice.’

  4. The red scare started in the 20s and was a reaction to radicals, some who were foreign nationals and committed bombings. Some were communists, Russia had a recent revolution and McKinley was assassinated 2 decades earlier. During depression, there was support for socialist programs, many were necessary during desperate times. After WWII political opportunists went on a witch-hunt against people who had worked in unions, had leftist leanings during depression and supported presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Good people and they families were destroyed. People couldn’t get jobs, some even committed suicide. It is not an episode in history that we should repeat.

  5. Zimmerman is one of the very few Stinquirer columnists worth reading. So is Trudy Rubin.

      1. I saw the trailer earlier in the week.

        I posted just before I went to see it at the Cinemark , 4012 Walnut Street. I went to the morning show. today. Why did I go to the morning show. Saratoga Race Track opened today.

        If you want to know what it’s about view the trailer. Better yet spend a few bucks and go to the movie.

        Anything else you want to know DET Bykofsky.? Maybe our great police commissioner can hire you.

        Ha Ha Ha

        1. I asked you to tell me about it if you had seen it. Your response seems to be you saw the trailer.
          Det. Bykofsky says that is like believing pain relief advertising and I am no more interested in this film than Indiana Jones. I read the positive Variety review, and I am aware of the hysteria from the right that the film has been banned even as it is kicking ass in movie theaters.

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