BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
Titling her book on the assumption that it has, Joanna Williams delivers a powerful critique against this cultural cancer which has now metastasised itself into every aspect of our lives.
It may seem absurd to afford a tabloid buzzword like Woke with any degree of intellectual seriousness, but Williams’ arguments – peppered with persuasive evidence and delivered in a scholarly and detached tone – somehow manage to elevate this tired term to the academic plane.
The book’s opening pages trace Woke’s roots back to 1920s African-American culture – in which it then had the less contentious meaning of ‘political consciousness’ – and follows its appropriation (and degradation) by the white middle classes. What started as a word to rally the oppressed towards political action is now, Williams writes:
“Associated with an emergent elite that is socially and geographically mobile, highly educated and social-media savvy”.
If the term ‘elite’ strikes a nerve in woke folk, then Williams’ stinging critique will leave them squirming in eternal neuropathic pain. After establishing that wokeness is a means for the elite to veil their privileges in a cloak of imaged oppressions, she then proceeds to tear it from them like a magician revealing his tricks:
“One important difference between today’s elite and an older establishment is the readiness of today’s cultural gatekeepers to deny their status. Many figureheads of the new woke elite […] enjoyed middle-class, privately educated upbringings, yet they use their identities to distract from their social-class privileges and claim victimhood.”
A clash between the elite and the masses becomes How Woke Won’s guiding theme, with the book acting as a sort of spiritual successor to John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. In fact, my only criticism of Williams is that it seems something of a missed opportunity for her not to have explored some of the parallels between today’s woke elite and those of the early twentieth century described by Carey.
Compare Williams’ line “the language of woke allows members of the cultural elite to identify one another and differentiate themselves from the politically incorrect masses” with Carey’s “the early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture”. Carey describes how the old cognoscenti began using purposefully obscure language to put literature beyond the reach of the newly literate masses. Niche, woke terms have the same elitist effect; to use them signals one’s membership of the club.
It is satisfying to see Williams expose the kind of shifty contortions by which these people operate:
“The woke elite accuses critics of ‘starting a culture war’, despite the fact that those raising questions about changed policies and practices are often commenting after the event, on actions that have already been set in motion – it is their values that are being called into question.”
This makes rather hollow the progressive’s claim that wokeness is just a figment of the right-wing reactionary mind. How many times have we heard some mirthless toad like Owen Jones say cancel culture doesn’t exist only to then enact its wrath upon anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in his erratic firing line? Of course, obscurants like Jones don’t say they are cancelling someone. They use that weaselly refrain of the would-be fascist:
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences”.
Well, that seems almost too obvious to say, unless what you’re really saying is that the consequences should be more consequential than mere criticism – which the woke mob often are. Some of the mob’s many victims of that are detailed within the book’s pages. The most salient of which – salient because it makes clear that cancel culture is not constrained to the lofty heights of academia – is the story of an Asda employee fired for sharing a Billy Connolly joke which was deemed to be ‘anti-religion’. Needless to say, the joke was not directed at the religion of our state, but it’s rather telling the woke see heresy as a threat.
The book’s latter chapters reveal how deceptively pessimistic a title How Woke Won is, with wokeness described as so perilous a position that it feels like one is reading the final days of the Romanovs. The elite may be charging forward with this new doctrine, but the public are not behind them. Williams concludes her book on an uplifting note by assuring us that the fight against woke is winnable, and by supplying us with the tools with which to engage.
How Woke Won makes essential reading for any ordinary, decent person who is tired of having this moralistic scorn drizzled down on them from up high. Wokeness is not, as the progressives argue, just some tabloid spectre haunting the minds of shock jocks and raging columnists; it’s something that manifests itself in real people’s lives – often to livelihood-ending effect.
This is the first book published by Spiked, and well chosen as it is emblematic of their commendable determination to challenge enemies of free speech everywhere.
You can purchase How Woke Won at Waterstones.com
James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.