The political genius of these phony wars is that “woke” has no clear meaning; the term’s malleability makes it the perfect enemy. Each government has its own specific targets, but there are some important similarities. Across the continent, the anti-woke agenda is sometimes falsely framed as protecting universalist ideals, a bad-faith attempt to defend society from American-style “division.” In liberal societies, anti-wokeism is now manifesting itself as illiberalism by another name, a crucial pillar of the reshaping of right-wing politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
For years, critics have pointed to the excesses of the so-called woke American left, typically the social media mobs that call for people to be “canceled” for failing to meet arbitrary measures of moral purity. If this phenomenon has indeed unjustly upended the careers of a small number of private citizens, it also turns out to be the perfect persecution fantasy for elites and conservatives who believe themselves to be both exempt from accountability and the deserving custodians of a civilization on the verge of collapse.
Each country’s battle is somewhat unique.
In Britain, the Conservative government’s war on woke is masquerading as a dishonest attempt to defend “free speech” on universities from students opposing certain speakers on campuses — while at the same time defending a whitewashed vision of British history. Fighting for free speech would be a legitimate cause if the same government did not regularly try to attack certain views in exactly the same way it claims to oppose, notably in the form of attempting to silence discussions about what to do with the legacy of empire, whether at the National Trust or with regard to ubiquitous public statues.
“The invention of something called a culture war is simply the first line of defense against the advances that have been made by anti-racist movements in the past year,” said Dan Hicks, a professor at Oxford University who has written extensively on colonial violence and cultural restitution. “How do you push back when there’s been progress on such questions? Invent a culture war.”
Fabricating culture wars also seems to be the strategy in France, where the government’s own war on woke has become inextricably linked with its response to a devastating series of Islamist terrorist attacks.
The French government has doubled down on a proposal to fight what it calls — entirely earnestly — academic “islamogauchisme,” or “Islamo-leftism,” a term that even the higher education minister has conceded “has no scientific definition” even if “it corresponds to a feeling of our fellow citizens.” That much, at least, is true: Nearly 60 percent of the French feel that leftists and intellectuals are too soft on radical Islamism, according to a poll conducted this week.
But feelings are not facts, and the problem is that the term “Islamo-leftism” observes no distinction between radical Islamism and Islam, a distinction the government claims it cares about respecting. Worse is the term’s equation between certain kinds of academic inquiry and terrorist violence: Thinking certain thoughts and researching certain topics — although no one can say which ones, exactly — is apparently akin to treason.
Nowhere is the issue of free expression more sensitive right now than in France. The most shocking of the recent attacks featured the actual decapitation of a middle-school teacher named Samuel Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the prophet Muhammad as a part of a lesson on free expression in the face of censorship. The caricatures, strictly prohibited by the Muslim faith, had recently been reprinted by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which itself was the target of another gruesome Islamist attack in 2015.
After Paty’s beheading, the French government’s response was to style itself a defender of free expression, even of speech some see as offensive. “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” President Emmanuel Macron said shortly thereafter. But this has not turned out to be true, and Macron is hardly the free-speech advocate he considers himself to be.
Amid mounting criticism, Macron’s spokesman tried to reassure critics that no assault on academic freedom was intended. But his higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, doubled down, saying that the investigation into “Islamo-leftism” among those who study things like intersectionality and postcolonial studies was meant to “distinguish between the work of scientists and those who use this work to promote an ideology and nurture activism.” The hypocrisy is as contemptible as it is cartoonish.
The anti-wokes claim to abhor “American” identity politics, but they insist on importing American culture wars — especially those stoked by the Trump administration — into societies that hardly resemble the United States, especially when it comes to questions of race and ethnicity.
If doctrinaire wokeness is facile and sophomoric, anti-wokeness is the ideal obsession for the feeble mind and the desperate government. In Europe, we can expect this push to be with us for quite some time. This seems to be the only way the right can capture public support these days: charging at the windmills of wokeness.