Victor Davis Hanson
Remembering When the Woke Awoke
Woke is not new. Consider it an old IED buried and forgotten, but even when dormant an always latent explosive that any heavy traffic—that is, 2020—could finally ignite.
Why? Decades-long devolution from citizenship to tribal ideologies explained why extremist groups found followers and felt no common ties with most other Americans, concerning either the nation’s past or future.
So, in the demonstrations, protests, rioting, and looting that followed the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the country experienced racial shocks and polarization not seen since the pre-Civil Rights era—and yet was not particularly surprised that they occurred.
Left unsaid was that the violence of 2020 was the logical dividend of years of racial separatism in the university, tribal chauvinism in popular culture, K-12 politicization of American history, and an affluent liberal elite who had virtue signaled and green lighted racial victimization as a mechanism to exempt from scrutiny their own unquestioned privilege.
At first, even before 2020 when Confederate generals of bronze and stone fell, the public stayed largely quiet.
Of course, the people did not like the mob’s vandalism and nocturnal iconoclasm. But on the other hand, they also did not quite see why the nation—even in the ex-Confederate states—had honored Stonewall Jackson or Nathan Bedford Forrest in the first place. True, some were brilliant generals, but almost all were diehard secessionists who had been unapologetic about the supposedly righteous cause of the rebellious slave-owning Confederacy.
Still, most on the sidelines stayed quiet and assumed that the mobs would be satiated with destroying century-old monuments to the old idols of the Confederacy, and then soon dissipate.
But the lack of arrests or even criticism of the vandalism only wetted the beak of the mob—as did those who wrote that they agreed with the aims of the mob, but not necessarily with their means. Within days, the iconic targets metamorphosized from Confederates to almost any white male heroic figure of the past, and without rhyme or reason: the author Miguel de Cervantes, Christopher Columbus, the Union General Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, Father Junipero Serra, George Washington, and a host of others including African-American Civil War veterans and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Even Mahatma Gandhi became a target, apparently given his early racialist writing while living in South Africa.
Within mere days, hundreds of monuments in major cities were toppled or defaced. And still demands grew from Black Lives Matter and Antifa to rename sports teams, towns, and change vocabulary itself. Laws were supposed to vanish without the input of the legislature. The police were to be defunded, even the concept of bail discarded.
Cancel culture, energized by social media, electrified by the Internet, and honed by the previous #MeToo frenzy, now began erasing out the careers of anyone in the past allegedly found guilty of a racist slur or insensitive act. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel was outed, who decades earlier had worn blackface. A New York Times opinion editor, James Bennet, was forced out. His crime? He had allowed Sen. Thomas Cotton (R-AK) to write a guest editorial arguing that the President has a constitutional right and duty to send in federal troops to the worst areas of urban rioting.
Celebrities wrote nauseating public apologies confessing their racial sins to reclaim their livelihoods. Star New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had initially opposed taking the knee during the National Anthem. But as a result, he was quickly faced with the destruction of his multimillion-dollar sports-celebrity-endorsement empire. So, he quickly pivoted and made the necessary adjustments:
“In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy. Instead, those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy…”
When the combined ruthlessness and fear of the Salem Witch Trials, Joseph McCarthy’s inquisitions, and Maximilien Robespierre’s show trials now began to drive the protests, the results were predictable. Street names were changed, plazas rechristened. One day I drove into the Stanford University campus and noticed that the street beneath my office had now been renamed “Jane Stanford Way.” Gone was “Serra Mall”—named after the 18th-century founder of the California missions, Father Junipero Serra. Intrigued at the damnatio memoriae, I quickly checked and found that almost all of Stanford’s references to “Serra” were Trotskyzied. Had we all become collectively Orwell’s Winston Smiths, who nonchalantly noticed that certain incorrect names and events simply went into the memory hole?
I recalled my high-school English teacher Mrs. Hearne of more than 50 years past, who warned us at age 16 when we read 1984: “You’ll know 1984 not when the year comes up, but when they start changing names and dates.”
Throughout the nation barricades were put up across major thoroughfares. “Black Lives Matter” was emblazoned on main streets, often with either the help or approval of big-city mayors. Past state prohibitions about close contact and not wearing masks were utterly ignored. Tens of thousands hit the streets, oblivious to the current quarantines. They were exempted by timid mayors and governors, who had once issued supposedly iron-clad shutdowns. To square the circle of their impotence, officials now instead strangely went after small business owners who had followed suit and tried to restart their business.
Somehow race superseded even notions of public health in time of a pandemic—as over 1,200 health care professionals insisted: “We created the letter in response to emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of Covid-19. Instead, we wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the pandemic response.” The advocates of science now reinvented a new science that postulated the ideology of the outdoor-goer determined his susceptibility to the virus and danger to others.
Protestors bragged in empty fashion of far greater targets—the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, and indeed Mt. Rushmore itself. In their frenzy of revolution, the United States was declared cancerous at birth, and thus deserving of toxic surgery that well might kill the host. That the architects of the radical protests, the creators of Black Lives Matter, or the originator of the 1619 Project, or the Antifa protestors themselves were discovered to have uttered vile racist or anti-Semitic slurs in their own pasts mattered little.
Those calculating the effects on their own careers, either in fear of being outed to the Revolution, or in anticipation of gaining favor with it, began preempting the mob’s wrath, with the most bizarre array of virtue signaling seen in modern American history.
University presidents promised to capitalize black as “Black,” as if new orthography alone might ease tensions or postpone their own resignations. At a time of university financial crises, due to the lockdowns and forced closures of campuses, they promised huge budget increases for segregated theme houses, new diversity facilitators and coordinators, hiring new faculty members focused on the impact of race in America, accelerated and expanded mandatory diversity reeducation for faculty and staff, and increased African-American admissions—while damning both the systemic racism of their country and warning would-be counter-revolutionaries of the wages of dissent. Some English departments promised not to enforce traditional rules of English grammar in the grading of non-white student papers.
Retired generals who had spent their entire lives revolving in and out of Forts Benning and Bragg, suddenly announced they too had been suddenly woke to the prior insidious racist messaging of once naming U.S. military bases after Confederate renegade generals. Once unaware of their own supposed complicity in racism, they now opportunely asked that their century-old bases be renamed.
Corporate CEOs, fearful of boycotts and more looted stores, outdid each other in obsequiousness—none more than Dan Cathy, CEO of the Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant chain. He urged that white people shine the shoes of blacks in the manner that the disciples had washed the feet of Jesus. Indeed, Dan Cathy sort of did just that when in a televised moment he polished the sneakers of hip-hop artist Lecrae.
“Take the knee”—a popular culture spin-off from HBO’s Game of Thrones in which the defeated either bowed on a knee or met their deaths—was now forced upon—or welcomed by?—police, coaches, and elected officials. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the respective top Democrats in the House and Senate, led a collective knee-taking in the Capitol, replete with African Kente cloth scarves around their necks. I wondered whether Ms. Speaker would wear such things when again showing off her $25,000 pair of refrigerators and $13 carton of designer ice cream or sneaking in once more to her hair salon to break her own advocacy of quarantines and masks.
State and local officials wondered whether the uprising would win majority voter support. For a while at least they decided to weigh in on the side of the protestors and demonstrators. In Seattle, the mayor allowed a center of the downtown to be governed by a BLM warlord. In Oregon a state official ordered the required wearing of masks for all the public—with blacks excepted from the order, at least until outrage at the racialist pandering caused her to rescind the order.
In Seattle, mandatory racial reeducation was required of white public employees to force them to renounce further claims on their purported insidious privileges. In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio ordered a lockdown on all public gatherings except those organized by Black Lives Matter. It was as if the progressive Left had studied the insidiousness of Jim Crow and now sought to apply such protocols in reverse.
Sports franchise owners—themselves nearly all white, their teams overwhelmingly black—outbid each other to appear the most sympathetic to the popular furor. Some promised that players could wear BLM insignia.
Others swore that before the National Anthem was played, the so-called “black national anthem”—the early twentieth-century inspirational “Lift Every Voice and Sing” be played first. Ironically the song was written and set to music by James and Rosamond Johnson as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln (whose statues were currently being defaced). The song at its inception had served as a reminder of national redemption and victory (“our new day begun”). Unnoticed was that the song’s celebration of Christianity and optimism was oddly antithetical to the gloomy Marxism of the BLM founders.
The progressive establishment began worrying—a little bit—that the logic of the revolution they had supported and nourished was beginning to devour their own cherished icons and soon themselves as well. Losing Mt. Rushmore might be one thing but seeing the beloved Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University renamed opened up a can of worms—among them most notably careerist concerns and social status branding.
Why not then the prestigious Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. as well? Indeed, if the standard was now the racism of the past hurtling into the present to justify destroying icons, how safe could the pillars of elite progressive higher education endure—Columbia, named for Columbus, Princeton for Prince William of Orange, Yale for a slave owner, Stanford for a railroad tycoon and exploiter of Asian labor?