Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Woke?

Following the antics on today’s college campuses undoubtedly invites mental illness. It’s not easy watching a speaker at an Ivy League school get shouted down with chants of “No KKK, no fascist USA” or hearing about professors accused of bias for addressing students with the “wrong” pronoun. But, mental discomfort aside, must we really fear the Big Bad Woke? Not so much.

Make no mistake, filling society with many thousands of youngsters who have been indoctrinated with the latest save-the-world nonsense will have serious effects. Even those with minimal job skills will find positions from which they can proselytize their woke faith. Just watch public television or read the New York Times to see this pernicious influence.

Nevertheless, the higher ed news is not all bad. It could be worse, and, most importantly, what instigates our mental distress also provides hope for the future. Today’s campus insanity cannot be sustained. Historically, we have survived far worse.

We ought to begin with a clear-eyed view of what occurs. Today’s Left is a collection of ever-changing sloganeering and rag-tag mobs, far closer to a case of mass attention deficit disorder than a cohesive revolutionary movement. Bits and pieces of Marxism topped with cartoonish social deconstruction easily passed for “theory.” Vacuous proclamations abound with double standards and blatant mendacity. Yesterday, the mob’s anger erupted when campus dining services held a “Taco Tuesday” meal; today, it is outraged over a picture of old white men smoking cigars. It is probably impossible to catalogue these incidents exhaustively.

Advancing the woke agenda is also heavy on talking and light on doing. Typically, “doing something” entails doing as little as possible beyond expressing anger. Another favorite is twisting the English language, as if redefining words alters reality—“silence is violence,” for example. To use the old Marxist vocabulary, this is “infantile leftism.” If a “hateful” speaker visits campus, just make lots of noise to shut him down. Don’t even bother rebutting his research. Expressing “good views” outranks doing good, since doing good is boring and takes lots of time. Politics becomes a succession of sugar highs, as jumping from cause to cause is far more fun and takes far less effort. No wonder the term “virtue signaling” is ubiquitous—signaling is about all they can accomplish.

[Related: “The Conspiracist Fantasy of University Bureaucracies”]

The upshot is an ideological incoherence regarding anything beyond the simple-minded “doing good.” If today’s campus Left had to choose an animal mascot, it would be an amoeba. What, for example, is the underlying link between removing a “racist” statute, demanding greater funding for the LGBT+ center, and requiring all students to undergo training to eliminate implicit racial bias? This often-contradictory potpourri of novelties grows by the day. It is light years from embracing traditional ideologies, which is hardly a surprise since mastering this material requires intellectual effort. Given this concoction of murky causes, what are the odds of any two progressive activists agreeing on an agenda? Good luck to a foreign visitor on an American college campus asking student activists to coherently explain their philosophy. Campus politics entails herding cats on a grand scale and reducing everything to slogans that have all the intellectual sophistication of a bumper sticker.

Modern campus politics thus differs from the campus radicalism of the 1930s, when Marxism was all the rage, or even that of the 1960s, when the single-issue anti-war movement dominated. Today, disorganization is built in, given that there are no countervailing forces to impose coherence. If only contemporary ideologues had a Karl Marx–like guru to consolidate the jumbled mess. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent of a Communist Party central committee, one which dictates a party line to the countless groups that dominate today’s academic landscape. Will black groups obsessing over structural racism align with feminists or climate activists? A more likely scenario is that they will talk past one another in shouting matches to secure more of their school’s student activity fees.

The good news is that this chaos, despite its upsetting, roll-your-eyes, pull-out-your-hair character, ensures political enfeeblement. Yes, woke mobs can destroy open intellectual life and ruin countless professional careers, but the “army” cannot move beyond the campus. It is inconceivable that campus activists will coalesce into a larger movement once they graduate. Does anybody seriously fear that the climate change alarmists will unite with the transgender loonies and the militant feminists to seize the administrative building Mussolini-style and declare a Woke Republic? Even if they could agree on a common agenda—which is extremely unlikely—their lack of stamina and their penchant for momentary gestures renders them impotent to accomplish fundamental change. A “Woke Republic” would probably collapse after a week over disagreements on how to acknowledge the land stolen from Native Americans.

Even organizing a humdrum electoral campaign is probably beyond the reach of the campus fanatics. They might serve as low-level workers trolling street corners for petition signatures, but most would vanish when faced with the essential tedium that brings power. Disrupting “hateful” speakers does not build one’s resume for a career in real-world politics.

For some historical context, consider the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). During its heyday prior to WWII, the CPUSA boasted around 50,000 members. This coordinated, dues-paying army of supporters advanced a well-defined, radical political agenda which could shift overnight depending on orders from Moscow. The CPUSA published and distributed a newspaper (The Daily Worker), collected dues, ran bookstores, and sponsored well-organized, financially lucrative public events featuring luminaries such as Albert Einstein to advance carefully crafted agendas dictated by behind-the-scenes party apparatchiki. It also infiltrated countless government agencies to supply the USSR with invaluable information. The party’s program, with scant exception, centered on Marxist economics, not distractions like the plight of “sexual minorities.” There was even an enforced dress code, so that its operators resembled ordinary laborers to avoid alienating potential working-class recruits and standing out during police raids.

[Related: “Welcome to Bedlam College”]

But of all the manifestations of feebleness, none is more significant than the weak financial footing of those devoting their lives to various utopian fantasies. Unlike Marxists in their heyday, current radicals depend almost entirely on school generosity. Students pushing transgenderism need not fret about securing funding to screech at professors who deny the social construction of sex. They just beg the universities for a handout, and the schools happily oblige. Today’s universities have infantilized their students, and nowhere is this child-like dependency more apparent than when students fight for “social justice.” Even a bake sale may be beyond reach.

Most importantly, no hostile foreign government is willing to funnel millions into the social justice crusade. China and Russia may be evil, but they are not that stupid. Yes, China may relish watching American universities implode with mindless identity politics—e.g., spending millions on diversity, inclusion, and equity rather than scientific research—but no Yuans will flow into a gender studies department to destabilize American higher education. It’s far more likely that China will recruit professors of physics, not queer theory lightweights.

This is great news for those who want to pull the plug on campus nonsense. To use an old Chinese Communist Party propaganda term from the 1950s, campus wokesters are “paper tigers” with shallow roots beyond the ivory tower. Moreover, unlike the draft-age young men of the late 1960s who dreaded their deployment to Vietnam, contemporary progressive activists have no skin in the game. They are fair-weather fighters. It’s all about self-medicating sugar highs, play-acting in a competitive virtue-signaling environment, and doing minimal academic work.

What afflicts the campus is thus self-inflicted. This is a predicable outcome when you assemble thousands of coddled adolescents—many of whom suffer from mental illness compounded by drug abuse—while giving them too little to do and excusing their destructive behavior as “saving the planet.” Administrators harried by woke mobs should look in the mirror.

Happily, pulling the plug is hardly rocket science—just embrace the never-waste-a-crisis principle. The adults in the room should announce that, due to spiraling expenses, higher tuition, and government cutbacks on student loans, we’ll need to tighten our belts and cut student activities funding to preserve academic excellence. Fairness requires reductions across the board, from the nerdy chess club to the Drag Queens for Racial Justice. Of course, the administration will assert that such activities can continue, but, alas, not on the school’s nickel. But, after decades of subsidized insanity, it will be difficult to sustain wokeness when it must be funded out-of-pocket. Who knows, with all this newfound free time spent apart from utopian fantasies, students may actually read books and learn something.


Image: Adobe Stock

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Woke?

  1. I disagree with the thesis that the wokeism that is ruining campuses is not that big a problem because it’ll just stay on campus and burn itself out. Like disease carriers, those indoctrinated on campus are already spreading the illness across society.

    Look at what was going on inside Twitter (and you know the same thing is going on at FaceBook, Google, and other BigTech companies). Look at the US military, which has embraced DEI wokeness so much that now it can’t meet its recruiting goals. See what goes on every day at Fortune 500 companies, which brought in DEI managers as a show of virtue signalling, and are now stuck with such managers implementing the woke agenda as company policy.

    Even major law firms are affected: recently, a leading Biglaw firm fired a woman partner who dared voice support for the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Another chased off probably the leading Supreme Court advocate of our time (Paul Clement) for the crime of winning the Bruen case (Second Amendment). https://www.wsj.com/articles/2nd-amendment-bruen-new-york-gun-case-supreme-court-decision-kirkland-and-ellis-rule-of-law-constitution-11656017031

    Wokeism is creating a tribalism that may not conquer our society, but is surely corroding its foundations. In short, what happens on campus is not staying on campus.

  2. I don’t wish to deprecate Professor Weissberg’s analysis, but the tone of it put me in mind of a half-forgotten exchange with a colleague and old friend, where I detailed my early skirmishes with the Woke vanguard. Ah yes, Rob, he said, most unedifying. But don’t you think it will all blow over? Keep your head down, my boy, and get on with job. Of course, my friend was a Chemist. We all know what they’re like.

    The obdurate fact is that it hasn’t ‘blown over’, and exhibits few signs of doing so. And keeping one’s head down and getting on with the job hasn’t worked even for the Physicists, the Mathematicians, or the Chemists, who are next in line for the ‘de-colonisation’ treatment – this, in case you’re wondering, is an enema applied to the brain.

    Revolutions take many forms. While, as Professor Weissberg points out, the thinking underpinning the Woke revolt may be shallow, confused, and occasionally insane, it has many concrete aims – some immediate, some long-term – and not only did it long ago escape the campus, it is finding the political means to drive us all mad. If Professor Weissberg doubts this, he hasn’t been paying attention.

    I recently visited Scotland, where ‘world- beating’ wokeness is the avowed aim of Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of its devolved administration, and her little band of disciples. While they act to create a Woke fiefdom, deep and devastating social ills are casually ignored, and the general public appear trapped in a dull torpor.

    Many other examples are available.

  3. ” Today’s Left is a collection of ever-changing sloganeering and rag-tag mobs, far closer to a case of mass attention deficit disorder than a cohesive revolutionary movement.”

    No — Attention Deficit Disorder actually is too much attention — overwhelming the neurological network not unlike data congestion on a computer network.

    Schizophrenia — the shattered mind — is a better analogy.

    And I don’t blame the students as this problem has existed for 30-40 years now, and none of them have even been alive that long, let alone on campus. The faculty, staff, and administrators have and they are the ones to blame.

    For 30 years I have been comparing higher education to the Detroit auto industry of the 1970s and the real “grownups in the room” — the parents and the employers — are starting to realize that higher education itself has become a fraud and a hoax. Even if the students actually read their textbooks — have you read any of those textbooks recently?!?

    Employers are increasingly waiving the requirement that applicants have a college degree.
    Parents are increasingly questioning the costs of higher education, and Congress still has yet to reauthorize the Higher Ed Act (from which all financial aid comes).

    But don’t blame the students — they aren’t the ones responsible for all of this….

    1. Sorry, but the students aren’t mindless victims in all of this. They are active participants which makes them, at a minimum, culpable.

      This same argument has been used to justify the student loan forgiveness idea. The students weren’t responsible. No, they were just innocent victims in all of this who were taken advantage of by the evil universities.

      Well, they signed on the dotted line to take the money. And a recent poll found out that more than 70% would use the money saved if the program is instituted, to fund travel and eating out more often.

      The students do not consider the colleges a fraud and a hoax. Otherwise they wouldn’t attend.

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