How to Wake the Woke

Well, this is impertinent, but to build Monticello,
That domed dream of our liberties floating
High on its mountain, like a cloud, demanded
A certain amount of black sweat.
—Robert Penn Warren, Brother to Dragons (1979)

Concessive ways to dismantle woke ideology exist that don’t require America to abandon her best ideas. This will not be easy. Advancing our little “bark” upstream without a paddle requires us to tack between two poles: the nature of politics and the architecture of democracy.

Two of the core principles of woke ideology are structural. Wanting to engage rather than irritate our domestic enemies, we must take these at face value. When we do, we’ll find the implications of their arguments are either benign or contradictory—at which point, debate and agreement are possible regarding which policies offer the best ways to navigate our shared problems. We need their help to break them out of their hypnotic state. To make a sports analogy: if we want to coax the woke to move “off the ball,” then we must deal with their most ingrained mental patterns.

The woke object to observable disparities in wealth and power—which they believe are the products of preexisting structural forces that exploit our unconscious biases against certain sexual and ethnic identities. In this case, the structure at issue is society itself, supposedly an oppressive system that controls all who are born into it. Such is woke reality. Consequent to that view is their argument that we should redress disparities by redistributing wealth and power—hence the woke’s use of reparations, preferential hiring, social services, regulations, and progressive tax policies. This network of compensatory structures serves as a kind of mental map for how to proceed. It’s based on the philosophical concept of “intersectionality.”

If oppression is so deeply structural and thereby present in every nook and cranny of society—such that it inhabits organic and abstract things like highway systems, educational apparatuses, voting laws, languages, ideas, and perhaps the very air we breathe—then we’ll be needing a sophisticated barometer with which to measure it.

We must register the depths and directions of our society’s structural unfairness. We must account for the relative oppressions experienced by every conceivable group or individual. Thus, intersectionality can be summarized as follows: the more “group” one is and the less “individual” one is, the better one ought to be treated generally. In the woke context, if you want sympathy, it’s best to think of yourself along the lines of “blackness is me” or “women are me.” And the more marginalized group categories you can muster—and with which to lance yourself—the better. Gouge away.

Let’s concede that structural inequalities exist. It’s the same whether we attribute the disproportionate poverty of black citizens in America to the Civil War, racism, or inner-city ghettos serviced by incompetent schools. The causes of the problem shouldn’t impact a reasoned discussion of how to improve social conditions and outcomes for blacks.

But woke ideology extends this relatively focused field of structural oppression such that it includes a medley of other groups. In America, it’s difficult for a single issue, grievance, or cause—even a big one—to sustain more than a limited number of academics, journalists, or politicians. To their credit, the woke seek gold and glory. Thus, they marshal the energy of a limited political conversation and extend it to others. Intersectionality does this—it lets them expand their political tent and it broadens their repertoire.

Just as quickly, however, intersectionality presents problems.

Assuming I want to hire, favor, or legislate to help a specific group of poor people, how can I do that when the people I’ve targeted are increasingly the most diverse on earth? No place reflects the expansive complexity of the human ethnic or sexual cosmos like America. How do I pick between hiring a man who sees himself as one-third Korean, one-third Mexican, and one-third White, or hiring a woman who sees herself as one-third Black, one-third French, and one-third Guatemalan? How do I choose between using public money to build a school in a neighborhood in which sixty percent of the citizens are Salvadorans, thirty-five percent are blacks, and five percent are whites, or using the same money to build a school in a neighborhood composed of forty-five percent blacks, twenty-five percent Chinese, twenty-nine percent Orthodox Ukrainians, and one percent Jews?

What if I simply want to assign tax rates according to my formulaic approach to historical oppressions? Do we tax blacks at zero percent, Mexicans at one percent, Cherokees at two percent, Jews at three percent, transexuals at four percent, gays at five percent, lesbians at six percent, Cubans at seven percent, Iranians at eight percent, bisexual women at nine percent, and so on? What happens to our formulas when someone claims to be a transexual, Jewish Cuban? Do we add together their percentages of privilege, average them, or pick the most abused category? What exactly?

Consider that intersectionality implies a two-dimensional geometric structure. We began by trying to define those specific people with whom we should be most preoccupied—those people who deserve more of our attention, money, and effort, people whom we should privilege over other people. We approached historical and structural oppression by supposing that a highly privileged white male of European descent can be imagined as a simple straight line, an ‘I’ of sorts. This arch-white person is then trumped on our flattened sociopolitical chart by anyone with an intersection with any other conceivable minority—that is, by any citizen who can claim an additional identity. A white female person, a white transvestite, a white Peruvian, or a white Jordanian can all be imagined as an ‘L.’ More intersections lead to more privileges. So, any conceivable ‘L’ person is therefore privileged over the ‘I’ of a white European male.

Can the reader see where this is going?

The rule of woke ideology is simple on paper. The more intersections one has, the more oppressed one is, and the more elevated one should be in the socio-political scheme of things. Conversely, a non-oppressed person must kneel before a singly oppressed person, and then a singly oppressed person must kneel before a doubly oppressed person, and so on. It might help if we had a shorthand—a kind of algebraic notation for visualizing the subordination and favoritism involved in the sacrifice we seek to activate. I suggest the following depictions. A non-oppressed person humiliated below a singly oppressed person: I L. A singly oppressed person subordinated to a doubly oppressed person: L Y. A triply oppressed person groveling before a quadruply oppressed person: Y X. And so on, ad infinitum.

To know whom to privilege when deciding social, political, and moral issues, we simply apply our barometer to figure out which of the possible scenarios of relative oppressions is our point of reference. These scenarios determine everything we’re supposed to think or do. But problems arise the further we move out along the spectrum of intersectionality. What is easy initially will approach a cognitive impossibility: I L, L Y, Y X, X , ₭ *, * ֎.

Our paradox is that the dogma of intersectionality escapes itself as fast as it brings its goal to fruition. What was clear in 1930, will not be so in 2130. By the nature of the game, if it works, then it creates its own blind spot, an endpoint that contradicts its own assumption. When enough people imagine themselves intersected by multiple identities, the system will groan under its own weight. It will come full circle and reinforce the idea that it once attacked, i.e., the notion that individuals are preferable to categorical conceptualizations of them. An ‘I,’ ‘L,’ ‘Y,’ ‘X,’ or ‘₭’ person carried to the extreme is an ‘֎’ person. The latter is the ultimate minority, the ultimate other of all societies on earth that have ever had a privileged caste. At the end of the day, when we attack castes, we’re moving toward this individual. When everyone is finally so intersected by humanity’s counterpoised minorities, each with our own special claims to privileges, then we’ve arrived at a structure so subdivided that we can’t see what makes it distinct anymore. If we’re honest, we’re right back to a policy debate about how to create and maintain equal opportunities and achieve more fair outcomes for everyone. Irrespective of their multifaceted identities, which policies will help or harm the most individual people?

Nature’s labyrinth of converging identities arrives at its most maddening contradiction at the heart of American democracy. If you’re woke, you’re obsessed with “structural oppression.” That’s healthy—without an urge to fight oppression, there’s no freedom. You might feel justified addressing oppression by establishing and putting into motion the principle of “intersectionality.” But as you apply this principle to an increasingly diverse world, you’re bound to end up with so many intersecting lines of oppression that your barometer will start to look like the spoked wheel of Ezekiel. Or, conversely, you’ll find yourself trapped in your own slightly less-intersected circle, asking yourself always whom you’re oppressing by the mere fact that you exist.

The reason domes—or more properly spheres—represent democracy or universal empire is that in the abstract they lack any privileged point of reference. Each point is the same with respect to all the others. With no distinct point of reference, we lose all means of comparison—we become the same. This facilitates thinking along the lines of multum in parvo or e pluribus unum. We’re tempted, of course, to consider height or “class” below a central overhead point that represents a sovereign—an emperor or a god. But once a sphere is understood to be in motion through space and time, special overhead points are subject to change. Depending on the motion, they can even be made random. (I’ve argued that the modern origins of this spherical principle of political equality are found in the work of Leonardo da Vinci and Miguel de Cervantes.)

When we move from flat intersections to spherical equality, we’re back to a cost-benefit analysis of any given policy designed to improve life. In sum, when L becomes ֎, then we’re through race and caste, and onto reason. The woke industry is so elaborate and emotional precisely because we’re approaching the event horizon of the reality that supports that mindset. Members of the cult of woke are in a panic because their own ideology applies less with every passing day. This is a good thing. Cognitive dissonance should eventually yield to political dissidence. They will be forced to abandon their ideology and seek out another. But, as we say in America, “the force is strong with them.” The team instinct is the final barrier between them and us. The inconsistency and equivocation of its views will escape a cult’s adherents. The problem with moral judgment is that it’s rarely a private matter. It often becomes a shared strategic objective against an enemy. A judgment viewed as a matter of taste, however—all glory to David Hume—is subject to peaceful negotiation between individuals who don’t need to convert each other.

When “ideology” or “injustice” occupy every corner of life’s stadium, such concepts lose their utility and become mere matters of language. When these problems are everywhere, attacking them is futile and they matter no more. Similarly, applying the concept of intersectionality systematically to all social scenarios will render void our ability to make any distinctions that have any practical or moral value. Looking forward, we can only build a better world after first accepting the possibility of using words that are not shifting their meaning as we speak.

In chapter VII of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871), a lion notes how hard it is for monsters to cut up cakes. He might have been thinking about our fantastically intersected woke unicorns attempting to section out welfare to an infinity of aggrieved citizens. Our case is still dire because nihilism threatens when language becomes the only issue (see Thuc. 3.82). As Borges put it in “Las ruinas circulares” (1940), when life is either hell or has no meaning—often the same thing—then you’re left with neither tigers nor horses, just gray temples. You might do better to find the most oppressed person on earth and give them everything you own. You might also set yourself on fire. An alternative to self-sacrifice—a near-term solution preferred by most modern liberals—is to use the state as a charitable apparatus. But the long-term problem—a problem signaled by Alexander von Humboldt and John Stuart Mill—is that government imposes uniformity and destroys individuality. Global similitude then brings you back to what René Girard once called a “sacrificial crisis,” which occurs when a culture loses its religion and forgets its ritual—finding itself without distinctions and unable to believe in itself. Girard saw the apocalyptic effect of “leveling the group” in the Kaingang tribe of Brazil. Once the Kaingang saw they had no chance of survival, no cultural identity with which to resist their modern rivals, internal reciprocal violence became their only interest. Thucydides saw the same thing after the dissolution of linguistic distinctions among the ancient Greeks: “To get revenge on someone mattered more than not being hurt in the first place oneself” (3.82.7).

Intersectionality is doomed to become so densely crisscrossed that it will resemble a giant black hole into which all the lines entering it will merge and vanish. An ever-expanding period on an infinite page. At that point, a new architecture will be required—an architecture for the future, not the past; one that transmits optimism and hopefulness, not apathy and doomsdayism. I’m a child of the seventies. I suggest infinite slivers of mirror on a revolving sphere inside a dome under a central skylight above a large pool of ink flowing gently down a whirlpool.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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