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The Origins of Woke
Richard Hanania's handbook to fight back
Civil rights law has the ambition of religion, without benefit of the right to exit, and without having competed with other systems of societal organization and having proved more functional than them. It constructs and shapes racial identities, has ideal types of each gender it tries to mold into being, and claims jurisdiction over a potentially unlimited range of speech, thought, and behavior. All the while, it is of a fundamentally dishonest character. It speaks of equal treatment but requires different treatment of various groups; justifies itself as temporary and limited even as it has become permanent and expansive; and claims to be based in the rule of law while creating subjective and ever-changing standards.
Tucked away half-way through Richard Hanania’s quietly acerbic and ambitious how-to-overthrow-this-regime handbook is this jaw-dropping portrait of civil rights law’s totalitarian impulse.
Why has race and sex lunacy eaten at American life? It’s the law, says Richard. When half the economy is fueled by government spending which comes with race and sex strings attached, there’s not much point talking about anything else. It’s like talking about book selling without Amazon or search without Google. Sure there are other reasons, and sure there is downstream metastisation as what’s legally mandated becomes culturally self-propagating. But the heart of its power remains the astonishing fact that civil rights law has effectively made holding conservative and often majority-held beliefs illegal (or at least ‘problematic’).1
Richard is meticulous in his description of the way the courts and the executive took civil rights legislation and developed doctrines opposite to the intent of Congress. This is his summary of the hydra and his prescription for where its various heads may be struck:
Sometime the truth is so weird and specific that to repeat it at a dinner conversation would make you look like an internet nutter. Take this on the origins of feminism:
sex was included in the Civil Rights Act as a protected category for very strange and idiosyncratic reasons, placed in the bill through the machinations of a southern segregationist in the hopes of killing it. Nonetheless, within a few years, feminist activists were pushing for the executive brand to take the prohibition on sex discrimination as seriously as it took discrimination against blacks. Now as then, feminist activists have tended to be disproportionately career-focused, meaning they were the ones who determined the kind of “womanhood” that the law would cultivate and protect.
I’m skeptical that this one bill is the inadvertent catalyst for the dramatic revolution in workplace and inter-sex relations over the last half century. Potentially this has been a useful wedge for feminists to chip into law. But the women’s suffrage movement has a much longer history, and is the argument really that but for this amendment, there would be no other cultural or legal change in this direction? Feminisation seems to be a much deeper phenomenon than that.
Maybe activists finally got their attack vector right, a way to implement their views on race discrimination broadly (via courts, civil service, and HR functions) and those vectors were adept at flipping between race and sex modes. And so a broad legal framework enabled an activist class to fill in the details with their own values.
The tale of how the US Supreme Court took legislation enacted in the 1960s to mean its exact opposite is shocking. The biggest question raised by Richard’s book is: what else? What other derangements spring from judicial excess? What other taboos and cultural rituals are manifestations of managerial class neuroses written into law?
Australia’s High Court has traditionally been more conservative than the US Supreme Court, which really just means it’s less politicised (much less controversy around appointments and almost no layman recognition) and less inclined to just make things up in service of a political agenda. Big caveat is that where it has wielded extra-judicial power it has done so with equivalent verve — for example by effecting the greatest partition of landmass in history (native title).
Pointing the finger at an activist judicial class also begs the question: why is the judiciary like that? Richard does note that there just aren’t as many conservatives lawyers and activists as there are progressive. But has that really always been the case? What’s the mechanism for overwhelming judicial activism on this subject? How did Congress at the time — so careful and defensive in its wording — so misunderstand the beast it was handing power to?
As a manual for US conservatives and a taxonomy of US political power, Richard doesn’t contemplate the downstream effects of US wokification worldwide. As the global economic and cultural powerhouse, it is unsurprising that what animates America’s corporations so animates its tendrils across the empire. This explains pronouns in Australian corporate email signatures and race surveys in Australian workplaces. Australians are not asked to select from categories like “AAPI” or “Native American” because the survey masters are idiots, but because these prescribed legal American racial categories bleed mindlessly through global paper trails.
The bureacratisation of race essentialism is frightening. I’ve observed that most Australians are fairly agnostic to it. I think most people just don’t think about it very much, and don’t care. When I first received a race survey, I replied to the executive responsible something to the effect of “I will not wear a yellow star”, and my colleagues looked at me like I was mad. It seems unAustralian to make a fuss over something like that (Australians love being told what to do). And maybe my response was a little dramatic, but nothing less is at stake. The aspiration of colour-blindness expressed so poignantly by Martin Luther King had become almost banal by the nineties — when I grew up — and has since somehow been inverted into a contrarian position. I’m afraid in this respect I have the radically progressive views of a 1960’s black rights freedom fighter, a 1990s bore, and a 2020s rightwing firebrand.
The doctrine of disparate impact as invented by the courts means that anything a workplace does that benefits groups differently is technically illegal. The trouble is that every single employment criterion has a statistically different impact on different groups. This means any hiring criterion is technically illegal. When everything is illegal, the government can enforce selectively. It’s not that its incorrectly enforcing the law — it’s that whoever is doing the enforcing has a blank cheque to enforce against whomever they please. That is not the promise of equality under rule of law. At the fringes of right wing conspiracy commentary are stories of the Democratic fist of government, a kind of unstoppable civil service that will sic the IRS onto you (Obama) or even the FBI and SWAT teams in dystopian flexes of authoritarian muscle. There is a genuine question of what it means for the rule of law to exist in such a land. A subject for another book itself perhaps, but The Origins of Woke paints a bleak picture of the US’s ability to effectively govern via its legislature.
This is a subject that has exercised the minds of conservative intellectuals and Twitterati for years. One of the princelings of the online right, Bronze Age Pervert, recently wrote:
I’m aware that the doctrine… of the Founders or even of classical liberalism, doesn’t promote an idea of absolute biological human equality, or also “equality of outcome.” But the ideology of the present regime does…in rhetoric if not in practice, and claims that any outcome that leads to group stratification is not organic but must be the result of convoluted conspiracies (“white privilege”).
If you fail to see that you live in the Soviet Union of the 1970’s or 1980’s, or rather something slightly even more repressive than the Eastern Bloc of that time, it may be you don’t know about the threats, financial ruin, and mob violence that Trump supporters and anyone really who steps out of line has been subject to since at least 2016—but actually since some time before that.
Future historians will look back on this in the same way we look back on derangements in other societies. US government obsessions with race and sex will not look all that different to Aztecs spending a third of their time on religious practice in a hollow and fragile state, or the various derangements of Soviet ideology.
But Richard’s book is optimistic. The crazed woke monolith is inherently unstable — it’s too schizophrenic and too stupid to be sustained without an army of government enforcers. So with truth and popular opinion at its back, American conservatives can use executive action, the courts and court appointments, and legislation to fight back.
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The enmeshment of culture and law is a deep and interesting subject. Look no further than the Torah or Koran as books of law that are inextricable from the cultures of their respective peoples. The genealogy of which came first — the law or the culture — may have some interesting historical answers but quickly becomes meaningless as they evolve together.