An educational system that does not deny human nature, in which university students can express and pursue their thoughts by writing and creating as they wish, without inhibitions imposed by any orthodoxy, faith or political bureaucracy, will give rise to a stronger and healthier culture of ideas.
In January of this year, Peter Thiel gave an Oxford Union address in which he promoted a return to classical liberal education. During the Q&A, an audience member asked: “Why isn’t the Right producing more great art?” The relation to education was not immediately clear, but it was a good question, nonetheless. After all, many on the political Right think of politics as downstream from culture, and an impressive thinker like Thiel who has been deeply involved in right-wing politics for many years was likely to have interesting insights.
But Thiel was blindsided. In a somewhat disjointed response, he admitted he didn’t have much idea, adding that the conservative argument that movies have a left-wing bias was “somewhat stale” given how difficult movies are to make, though at the same time he did believe that the art world was “a crazed left-wing racket”.
It should not be surprising that screenplays and other literature, like most creative endeavors, are dominated by liberals and their values. In our age, artistic themes often suggest change, and change, especially social change, falls within the province of progressives. At least since Fascism disgraced itself in World War II and Communism did not receive the equivalent scorn it deserved in the West, art has largely been a labor of the left. Mainstream conservatives, made unsure of their place in history’s narrative, have either not participated much in creating art that celebrates the preservation of traditions, or have been brow-beaten by blithe accusations of racism/fascism/sexism.
George Orwell, in his 1941 essay titled “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda”, described the early beginnings of this artistic ideological dichotomy:
The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced… In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides…
It reminded us that propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose – a political social and religious purpose – that our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs.
Since the 1940’s, on the occasions when artists have pushed back against left-wing pieties, they are naturally considered conservative. Many of Tom Wolfe’s novels, for example, mocked and ridiculed the contradictions and conceits of progressive society. Today, there is even more opportunity to satirize the values that woke progressives have constructed out of a farrago of puerile feelings and subjective “truths”, to fill the artistic void left by wokeness. While the Left often thinks of art as breaking old taboos to move society forward, the prospect of conservatives and classical liberals breaking progressive taboos to move society “backwards” holds delicious possibilities. Doing so would undermine the Left’s arrogation of the mantel of change, contributing to the current political realignment.
To some extent this appears to be happening. For example, Heresy Press is one new publishing company that is open to writing from any perspective. There are also some contemporary popular “anti-woke” satirists like Titania Mcgrath, Delicious Tacos, and The Tired Moderate. But the latter two have self-published their books, as I did, which makes marketing difficult. And this is a major reason we haven’t seen more such books: woke values have a stranglehold on the publishing industry.
In a January 2023 article, Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, lamented the cancelling in January 2020 of white author Jeanine Cummins’ book tour to promote her widely praised novel, American Dirt, about Mexicans immigrating illegally to the US, marking this as the point where a far left-wing orthodoxy had decisively established its dominance over publishing and cowed nearly all its critics. But Paul still managed to find one cantankerous voice. She referenced a fall 2022 interview in Hobart magazine with Latino writer Alex Perez, the “Iowa Pariah”, in which he asserted that, “My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals. This is a mindset that views ‘whiteness’ and America as inherently problematic, if not evil, and this sensibility animates every decision made by publishers/editors/agents … 80% of agents/editors/publishers are white women from a certain background and sensibility; these woke ladies run the industry. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate the Brooklyn ladies. On the contrary, I respect how these passive aggressive prude ladies took over an industry.” One of wokeness’s main goals is to dismantle “whiteness” by, in the case of American Dirt, objecting to a white author developing characters of color because she purportedly demeans or misrepresents them through inauthentic constructions, due to her own “white bourgeoise values” and corresponding lack of Hispanic lived experience.
As bleak as the situation in publishing is, many are optimistic that wokeness will collapse under its own weight. Experienced writers and editors such as Claire Lehman, John Cleese, Bret Easton Ellis, and Bret Stephens have all asserted that woke writing cannot maintain its dominance for reasons ranging from how uninspired and thematically limited it is, to the likelihood that woke cancellations will be counterbalanced by publishers who will respond to the demand for better quality writing.
But this optimism may not be justified for two reasons. The first is postmodernism’s dominant influence in much of the US university system. Postmodernism is an anti-Enlightenment philosophy that is applied across disciplines and which serves as a source of continual ideological renewal for woke ideology, as universities produce new graduates with new grievances each year. Postmodernism rejects innate human nature, objective truth, knowledge, reason, the individual, replacing them with socially constructed identity groups, cultural and value relativism, ideologies, and blurred categories. In doing so it has extended itself into unworkable nonsense. Wokeness is the application of this nonsense in real world contexts, like publishing.
To get a sense of how entrenched postmodernism has become in American universities, we can consider some firsthand witness accounts. In 2016, Camille Paglia stated that as a result of professors’ career focus on postmodernist philosophy, “the universities are an absolute wreck right now because for decades, any graduate student in the humanities who had independent thinking was driven out.” Law professor Amy Wax, who is being sanctioned by the University of Pennsylvania for expressing unpopular ideas about race, thinks that the woke takeover of the academy is perhaps irreversible. Mathematician James Lindsay, one of the perpetrators of the Grievance Studies Affair, has argued that wokeness has increased its influence because dippy postmodernist ideas engage the focus of leagues of less intelligent students. Yale psychologist Johnathan Haidt thinks the problem will get worse due to social media ‘like’ and ‘retweet’ buttons that enable a vocal subset of ill-informed students to fume, organize and successfully make demands within weeks or even days. (The administrators, often former radicals themselves, or simply out of confusion or cowardice, quickly assent.) And while it is heartening that philosophy professor Stephen Hicks predicted in 2021 that “things will improve” in the battle for “liberal civilization values”, the fact that he made the same prediction in 1998 is somewhat less so.
The second reason why wokeness is unlikely to ease its grip on publishing is the fact that many young people in academia have been indoctrinated into the woke faith, which is fueled by obsessive resentment over endless perceived social injustices. Time and motivation are with them, which is of great significance given that past right-wing failures to reform academia seem to confirm that they failed at least in part because they were waiting games.
An early example of such a failure in the United States appeared soon after World War II. William F. Buckley urged reforms to the irreligious and collectivist values of his alma mater, Yale University, in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom, which argued that curricula in all educational institutions incorporate and teach certain underlying values, and that the unattainable ideal of academic freedom was being used by the administration and faculty as an excuse to teach and convey whatever values they themselves preferred. It was therefore absurd for Yale alumni – and those of many other universities – to continue funding their alma maters unless faculties began teaching the Christian, individualist and free-market values that most of them held. Though Buckley’s book received a great deal of attention at the time, suffice it to say his arguments did not win the day. Perhaps conservatives should have acted more swiftly and decisively in response to his warning that, “at this college level, the great transformation has already taken place. The conservatives, as a minority, are the new radicals. The evidence is overwhelming.” But later Buckley admitted that he missed something. This new conservative minority could not really be termed “radical” due to their tendency to not embrace one of the radical’s defining traits: a fondness for a good fight. In a 1977 introduction to a reprint of the book, Buckley lamented that, “the so-called conservative, uncomfortably disdainful of controversy, seldom has the energy to fight his battles, while the radical, so often a member of the minority, exerts disproportionate influence because of his dedication to his cause.” The book also contains a description of the Yale administration’s cancellation of a speech he was to give in 1950. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In 1987, classics professor Allan Bloom wrote of similar problems. In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, he complained that his students at the University of Chicago possessed a “radical subjectivity about good and evil” that impeded their understanding and appreciation of the texts they studied, and that “there is no doubt that value relativism, if it is true and it is believed in, takes one into very dark regions of the soul and very dangerous political experiments.” Despite becoming a bestseller, little came of Bloom’s warnings, and the next decade saw relativistic postmodernism start to expand rapidly beyond philosophy and into different academic fields.
Echoing these ideas several decades later, Joanna Williams, author of the 2022 book, How Woke Won, correctly wrote that, “This has not happened overnight but over the course of several decades. And it has not happened because of the merits of woke thinking but because institutions, devoid of any intrinsic sense of purpose, were unable or unwilling to defend liberal values.”
Now, in 2023, there may finally be a workable, albeit perhaps counterintuitive, solution. Christopher Rufo, recently appointed to the board of trustees of New College of Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis, advocates arguments that parallel Buckley’s. He asserts that education necessarily is based on values, and that needed changes can be forced by reforming highly politicized bureaucracies through withholding public funding. This is justified, he says, when, after due consideration, a majority of taxpayers disagree with fundamental values being taught in state educational institutions. To not reform educational bureaucracies out of concern for the slippery concept of pure academic freedom is simply to cede power to those who already do not allow academic freedom. However, unlike Buckley, Rufo is advocating for state – as opposed to alumni – intervention in university curricula, particularly in critical race theory (CRT) and diversity inclusion and equity (DIE) programs, because such programs perpetuate warped understandings of race, gender and sexuality. Rufo is also advocating for amending teacher certification requirements so that the M. Ed, where future teachers are trained in DIE and CRT, will be scrapped. And, of course, the temper of the times is dramatically different: the New College administration wanted to cancel Rufo’s first public appearance on campus after one newly appointed Christian board member received a death threat, which campus police deemed credible. (The members insisted the event go forward.)
The only underlying value system that should be allowed to dominate any publicly funded educational institution is one which encourages freethought and free speech. Governor DeSantis should go further by establishing a government oversight body to which students and professors can directly appeal if they are prevented from pursuing any idea in their studies, teaching or research for which they can show empirical support. And these reforms should be implemented in other states.
State intervention to mandate a return to the values of classical liberal education is justified, and transcends left versus right politics, when it is done to counter influence from coercive illiberal bureaucracies. Wokeness incorporates a new morality, a propagandized value system that often reacts with hostility to reasoned argument. And so academic freedom becomes muted. There is the example of black Harvard economist Ronald Fryer who questioned the woke value of black victimhood when he produced empirical research, published in June 2019 in a peer reviewed journal, indicating that police are not more likely to kill black or Hispanic Americans than white Americans. In July 2019, after sexual harassment investigations initiated in 2018, Fryer was suspended from his position (sexual harassment charges by women are also not supposed to be questioned, per the woke values of the Believe Her movement). Because woke anti-Enlightenment values ultimately make reality more difficult to ascertain by creating a climate of fear that suppresses debate, their presence in education should be of as much concern to mainstream liberals as it is to mainstream conservatives.
Woke morality reacts with hostility not only to reason, but also to jokes. My own point of view as a submissions editor, and as a satirist, is that woke ideology’s hold on literature seems to be giving way only to a very limited extent, if at all. Of the hundreds of submissions I have read over the past several years, only one openly mocked woke pieties and perhaps one other thematically contravened woke values. One writer, a white man, admitted to me that a few years back he started submitting his writing under a minority female name, at which point his work suddenly began to receive glowing praise. Originally, I had thought I might see more essays, and especially satires, skewering woke intellectual pretensions. Satire is a genre well suited to this purpose. Perhaps writers have been discouraged by what they know to be an unwelcoming climate in publishing, but this is not the only possible explanation. Over the last decade or more many comedians have complained of the humorless atmosphere on college campuses, where many young writers learn the rules of their craft. It may be that campus wokeness has disarmed its opponents of their best weapon. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker explained the power of social and political satire:
Humor with a political or moral agenda can stealthily challenge a relational model that is second nature to an audience by forcing them to see that it leads to consequences that the rest of their minds recognize as absurd. …
[T]he butts of a joke may be all too aware of the subversive power of humor. They may react with a rage that is stoked by the intentional insult to a sacred value, the deflation of their dignity, and a realization that laughter indicates common knowledge of both.
There is little reason to think that the radical leftward drift of the U.S. university system, and with it much of society, will abate unless a great deal of coordinated pressure is exerted to reverse it. It can take a hurricane to change the course of a river. In concert with all the strategies above – passing laws to prevent ideological capture of academia, regulating teacher certification, withholding public funds from universities, starting new publishing companies, establishing government oversight bodies – I also suggest building a grassroots artistic culture to undermine the woke value system. Groups can form to hold exhibits in private homes when museums are too restrictive. Online journals that are willing to publish literature with anti-woke themes and perspectives should prominently announce their willingness to do so on their websites’ landing pages. And a website that lists online anti-woke friendly journals would be helpful, especially because not all listing websites like thegrinder or duotrope may be willing to do so. These journals can also establish their own presses, using online independent publishing platforms to make profits as they meet the demands of the marketplace. At the same time, they can convert any woke campaigns directed against them into self-promotional material – proof that they are fulfilling their artistic missions. Meanwhile conservative and classical liberal writers must do their part by generating new creative energies that draw upon the comical slumbering value-confusion that is woke morality.
 As of this writing, Heresy Press has received so many novel submissions that it has closed submissions for this genre until its staff can review them all.
“It would appear that a society which takes no account of the educable person, makes no place for him, does nothing with him, is taking a considerable risk — so considerable that in the whole course of human experience, as far as our records go, no society ever yet has taken it without coming to great disaster.”
--Albert Jay Nock
James Weitz is originally from Washington DC but spent many years living in Latin America. He has worked on privatization and anti-corruption issues at the World Bank and the Organization of American States. He has an MA in Applied Linguistics with a focus on intercultural communication, and, like too many Washingtonians, a law degree. He occasionally returns to his hometown, where he likes to visit bars, and socially construct politically incorrect arguments with unsuspecting locals.
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