‘[T]hat is what concerns me most. We are all sitting in this room, and we are all – or at least we like to think we are – relatively civilised. And we can talk to each other, or at least on certain levels, so that we could walk out of here assuming that the measure of our enlightenment, or at least our politeness, has some effect on the world. It may not.’
James Baldwin, 1965.
This is a call to arms, addressed to the wavey-garmed woke. Some of you need to be knocked over the head with your own complacency before you realise it’s a problem. So I will overstate the case. Polemical force for reasonable doubt: that’s the trade-off.
To pre-empt the pious cry of “alternative facts!”: NO, I have not succumbed to the “post-truth politics” of the Trump era. First, because I don’t accept that caricatures are necessarily at odds with “truth”. My aim is not to prove the universal application of the story I offer, but rather to sketch the contours of a widespread phenomenon so as to make it recognisable. My funhouse reflections are unmoved by counterexamples; #NotAll is neither here nor there.
Second, because I am unreasonable. To be reasonable is to be removed: to objectify one’s subjects, and eschew affected involvement. It is to be uncritical: it is to collaborate with a superficial depoliticisation of politics, which has served only to entrench neoliberal hegemony. Rational harmony by way of public service announcement: educate, innovate, privatise. I accord no reverence to the looming figure of expert-as-demystifier. The point is, indeed, to change the world, but to interpret it is by no means an apolitical endeavour. We disagree ‘not only because we select different objects out of the same world but because we see different worlds.’ There is no view from nowhere.
Third, because the “post-truth” thesis is either deluded or disingenuous. Politicians lie. Respectable media outlets are pushed and pulled around by special interests. Journalism has been strangled by deunionisation, and is thus populated by writers who can afford to be exploited. This is old news. Trump’s rise was facilitated by the apparently compulsive courtship of an already discredited commentariat.
The Trump lot are far more blatant about it. They don’t even acknowledge accuracy as a constraint on political speech. At least predecessors put on a show of good faith. They performed the self-legitimating narrative of representation and responsibility; they paid tribute to the idea of freedom. But Trump?! The “Bowling Green massacre”, the “war zone” in Chicago, “what’s happening last night in Sweden”…? It’s like he’s not even trying! His entitlement to act, to pronounce, to tweet unaccountably is assumed. His deceit is transparent, and racist to the point of explicit incitement. So much for dog whistles.
This is terrifying. But to call it “post-truth” misses, indeed, obfuscates, the point. Pedestalling ourselves as persecuted prophets of rationality and civility will do very little to stem Trump’s tide of unapologetic bullshit. It certainly won’t stop his racist supporters from gulping it down, pleading for more. “Starting a dialogue” won’t stop the Republican war on women. Fact-checking won’t stop Islamophobic immigration control. Innovation won’t stop hate crime. Presidential decorum won’t stop police brutality.
So far, so familiar, you might think. You know Trump isn’t post-truth – because there’s no such thing as truth! There are merely layers upon layers of signs, with nothing underneath – or above, for that matter. Didn’t you hear? God is dead and irony is king.
The woke embrace a fatalistic cynicism. There’s no way out of this power-knowledge complex. Aestheticised personal parody, private nods to the knowing, microsubversions: ‘they have to see beauty in turds because, so far as they can see, turds are all they’ll ever have.’ Old-fashioned notions of struggle, solidarity, collective agitation are abandoned. The political is personal. The woke abandon hope – drown their sorrows in the Discourse. Caring is so passé.
You, I scorn the ignorant, backward conservative – scoff at the do-gooding liberal and their misplaced optimism of the intellect. But pessimism of the will becomes the mark of your enlightenment. You take pleasure in performing a despair that is not your own. Tell us your journey, and we will tell it back to you. Only, leave out your bile – it stings.
You strip the harm from our hurt, and oppression becomes agentless adversity. Grievance is recast as inward, impotent grief.
The woke do, however, have their own politics of piety: the individualised virtue-politics of thought and speech. ‘The notion is’ writes Dworkin, ‘that to have a decent or moral idea is to be a decent or moral person.’ The woke ‘lock books in a tangled web of mindfuck and abstraction’. In conversation, they create and maintain their own private shorthand for a series of standardised political likes and dislikes. They “call out” the “problematic”, and “yas kween” the “badass”. They chalk up their privilege and…under-privilege. They monitor these rules and sums, keep score, assuming that this ‘has some effect on the world. It may not.’
It may amount to no more than a ritualised circle-jerk.
Stylish nihilism is an ultimately self-serving ideology dressed up as ideology critique. Talking is stalling. You are implicated, but the cost of your inaction is borne by others. Nothing is risked; nothing is gained. Political apathy is a luxury we can’t afford. Wokeness amounts to a conservatism that should know better.
Yes, speech acts. But acts speak, in volumes! Where is your urgency? Your worst fears are materialising, and fast. They paid no heed to satire, to Clinton’s smug rebuttals. They nonchalantly parody themselves, pre-emptively. They’re not afraid of you.
We need to rediscover care, rage, faith, courage, active allyship and commitment. Act en masse! Coordinate or participate in effective activism – as far as you are able. Too often the burden of resistance falls solely on those already encumbered by injustice, for whom survival itself is a struggle. To those who took to the streets for the international women’s march: where have you been? More importantly: you’d better not be going anywhere. That wasn’t a day trip.
Deeds // Not // Discourse
 Murdoch 1956, 41. Emphasis mine.
 Solanas 1958, 60.
 see hooks 1990.
 Dworkin 1974, 24.
 Baldwin, 1996.
Baldwin, James. 1965. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w (recording of the full debate).
Dworkin, Andrea. 1974. Woman Hating.
hooks, bell. ‘Marginality as a site of resistance’, in R. Ferguson et al. (eds), Out There: Marginalization and contemporary Cultures. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990: pp. 241-43.
Murdoch, Iris. 1956. ‘Symposium: Vision and Choice in Morality’, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 30, ‘Dreams and Self-Knowledge’, pp. 14-58.
Solanas, Valerie. 1968. SCUM Manifesto.