ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Relocations: Rejecting the basic premise of wokeness

John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of our Declaration of Independence. Did its rhetoric simply mask a power play by our Founding Fathers?
December 22, 2023

If all discourses are only jockeying for power, what becomes of appeals to justice?

“What concerns me most here are the ways in which contemporary voices considered to be leftist have abandoned . . . commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.” — Susan Neiman, “Left Is Not Woke”

By Herbert Rothschild

Jules Feiffer, who was a staff cartoonist for the Village Voice from 1956 to 1997, may have been the most widely read satirist in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. His was sophisticated satire, and his most frequent targets were aspects of the liberalism that dominated politics and East Coast culture from the end of World War II until the advent of Ronald Reagan. I want to share a Feiffer strip I remember well.

Ashland.news-Secretary-Herbert-Rothschild
Herbert Rothschild

As with many of Feiffer’s strips, each panel depicts a single person talking. In this case it’s a conservatively dressed Black male, and he’s speaking about a party he had recently attended in the expensive Manhattan apartment of a white couple.

He says that other guests kept coming up to him to talk about the Civil Rights movement, how it is so inspiring that freedom and equality are being championed. He would reply that he doesn’t think about the movement that way. Rather, he thinks that it’s been a long time and he just wants his. Upon hearing this, the guests would drift away. In the last frame, though, the speaker argues that he did his part to advance the movement. Because of him, such hosts now invite two Blacks in case the first one doesn’t work out.

That’s sophisticated humor. First, Feiffer assumes that all his readers favor the civil rights movement, which wasn’t true nationwide at the time. But second, he punctures the self-delusion of those among his readers who live at a privileged distance that they are aligned with those in struggle. Third, it assumes that many of his readers are sufficiently comfortable in interracial relations that they (unlike the party guests) don’t require Black people to present themselves to whites as “credits to their race.”

What I don’t think is an object of satire in that cartoon, however, is the very ideas of universal freedom and justice. It can be interpreted that way, and had Feiffer been infected by woke theory, I might be inclined to agree. Fortunately, he wasn’t. His critique of liberalism wasn’t an attack on the Enlightenment values on which liberalism drew so heavily, even if those values can sound vapid when referenced by his cartoon liberals.

For those who believe that theorists like Michel Foucault successfully pulled back the veil of Enlightenment values to expose the fundamental self-interest behind them, the encounter in that Manhattan apartment would confirm his view that all social interaction is a jockeying for power. Understood this way, the white guests are framing the civil rights movement as an affirmation of ideals, not as a quest for shared wealth and control, so they can preserve their control. Once practical accommodation is demanded — once a call for Black power replaces the call for universal brotherhood — their support quickly wanes. There’s some truth in that reading, but it becomes dangerous if it’s taken as the entire truth.

To better understand what’s at stake for us here, let’s consider a more familiar text: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

As a schoolboy, I found that those truths did seem self-evident. So did many other universal statements about life and how it should be lived. I wasn’t a cynic as a child and I’m not a cynic now.

Which is not to say that I think as a child. Of course I know that many signers of that document, including its author, were slaveholders and had no intention of treating African Americans as equals or recognizing their unalienable right to liberty. Of course I know that it would be hard to find one of the signers who believed that, in practice, “men” stood for both men and women, so normal was the subordination of women in the world they knew. 

But what should we do with such historical knowledge? One possibility is to say that our Founding Fathers’ declaration was window dressing for their power play against King George. They believed their economic self-interests would best be served if they could legislate for themselves. One doesn’t even have to argue that they knew their appeal to universal values was window dressing. Self-deception is no obstacle to deceiving others.

From such a starting point, U.S. history is not a story of the gradual although still incomplete realization of its ideals but a continual contest for power among distinct groups. That is a woke way to view and to teach our history.

It was not Martin Luther King’s way, although he was clear about how long and how woefully those who held power had betrayed the values they professed. Here is how he put the matter at the 1963 March on Washington: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Cynicism isn’t synonymous with realism. As I’ve argued before, leftist identity politics is a mirror image of rightist identity politics. In no regard is this truer than their cynicism. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be the most cynical person now prominent in U.S. politics. “Florida is where woke comes to die” has been an immensely successful power play, disguising in principled terms his appeals to white and straight supremacy. DeSantis is both wrong and right about Florida — wrong because he has lent confirmation to the woke assertion that all discourses are discourses of power, right because he has diminished the power of those the woke left presumes to champion — peoples of color, women and non-heterosexuals.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email  Rothschild aherbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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