Woke elites have a long history of intellectual activism in modern America.
The unrest that erupted in late May 2020 started in Minneapolis with the death of George Floyd in police custody. In the protests and riots that followed, Black Lives Matter and Antifa were the shock troops, “police brutality” the rallying cry. It seemed at first an uprising from below, accompanied by common criminality as stores were looted and businesses torched. But with lightning speed, our nation’s elite — leaders of Ivy League universities, major media outlets, and Fortune 500 corporations — seized on the BLM cause. Over and over they reiterated the claim that Floyd’s death revealed “systemic racism” in America. Mainstream figures pledged solidarity with activist groups bent on the wholesale transformation of our society. They assured us that the protests, the statue-toppling, and even the looting expressed the justifiable demand that we face up to our racial sins.
To accept the claims of the new “woke” movement requires ignoring the extraordinary progress America has made in overcoming the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Sixty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and despite decades of affirmative action, massive social welfare spending, and a two-term black president — the movement’s adherents maintain that our society remains captive to “white supremacy.” Few citizens dare to disagree publicly, which is no surprise. Attacks on dissenters in the press and social media have been ruthless, and some of the targets have lost their reputations and livelihoods.
The elites’ endorsement of BLM radicalism and tacit approval of street violence raise a vexing question: Why are society’s most powerful opinion-makers supporting a revolt against mainstream legal, political, and cultural institutions? Aren’t these elites themselves, in a real sense, the system? How is it that those so richly rewarded by our society have come to ally themselves with society’s angriest critics?
The concept of the alienated intellectual plays a central role in the analysis of the subversive character of modern literature in the literary critic Lionel Trilling’s 1955 book, The Opposing Self. Trilling noted that by the end of the 18th century, the moral imagination of the West (at least among those at the top, who wrote and read books) was “intense and adverse.” The prophets of Israel had hardly been complacent — but something different was at work in modernity. “The modern self is characterized by certain powers of indignant perception,” Trilling observed, and this indignation became a general attitude. Trilling gives the example of prisons, images of which proliferate in 19th-century literature. The “prison” is not just a dim stone building with barred windows. In modern literature, “social restrictions and economic disabilities” are pictured as prisons. In Dickens’s Little Dorrit, the title character is born in a prison. In later novels, characters are depicted as trapped in prisons “in the family life, in the professions, in the image of respectability, in the ideas of faith and duty.” Delight, imagination, and fullness of life require escape from these prisons, which is to say escape from what Trilling calls “the general culture.”
We are heirs to the sensibility that gives a prime role to indignation at society’s inevitable failures and conceives of human flourishing as requiring a “jail break” from social convention. Thus, a person who thinks himself cultivated and critically aware — part of the enlightened crowd — has a sense of personal identity “conceived in opposition to the general culture.” The striking commercial success of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s account of the countercultural “beat” lifestyle, revealed the large audience of university-educated people who were very much part of 1950s “conventionality,” yet who resonated with the oppositional ethos of Kerouac’s misfits.
Trilling expanded his analysis of the alienated intellectual in his 1965 book, Beyond Culture. As the 1960s unfolded, he saw that the animus he had earlier identified was becoming politicized. Any literary historian, he observed, will take for granted “the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing.” Its “clear purpose” is to give the reader “a ground and vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that produced him.”
Trilling made these observations at a time when novels played an important role in forming upper-middle-class sensibilities. He understood that the influence of novels extended far beyond alienated intellectuals. The vast market for literature of “adversary intention” revealed that works of social criticism and literature of alienation and liberation gratified the appetites of those who thrilled to their oppositional stance. Trilling called this growing consensus “the adversary culture.”
John Cheever’s New Yorker short stories and novels such as John Updike’s Rabbit, Run documented the ennui of suburban respectability. Freudian psychotherapy and related therapeutic approaches fueled the conviction that American society was too “repressive.” Pride at America’s triumph in World War II soured into recrimination and protests against the Vietnam War. Movies such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest painted a dark picture of social control. These were among the cultural markers of the extraordinary growth of the oppositional sensibility Trilling had diagnosed. “The more ‘cultivated’ a person is in our society, the more disaffected and malcontent he is likely to be,” observed Irving Kristol. What Trilling wrote in 1965 is still true today: “It is a belief still pre-eminently honored that a primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture.” And not just art, but education, entertainment, and even commerce, as woke capitalism illustrates.
I first encountered “Sandalistas” (the nickname given to sandal-wearing progressives who traveled to Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas) in August 1986 at a bread-and-soup supper at a luxury home overlooking Minneapolis’s tony “Lake of the Isles.” The guests were corporate middle managers, pastors, and psychologists — articulate, earnest, and well educated.
I was struck at the time, however, by their moral double standards. They reviled the United States for having supported Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza. Their judgment was part of a larger narrative about the entirely destructive role of American interventions in Central America. America was a force for evil, as they saw it, not good. Yet they rhapsodized about the charismatic Marxist dictator Daniel Ortega and his gun-toting Sandinista National Liberation Front. In their eyes, these Marxist revolutionaries could do no wrong.
My fellow guests glared at me when I asked skeptical questions: What about the Sandinistas’ contempt for human and political rights? What about their attempt to turn the Catholic Church into an arm of the state? No answers came, and I began to suspect the motivations of hosts and their guests went beyond selfless concern for suffering peasants. Many had traveled to Central America on ideological pilgrimages with organizations such as Witness for Peace. As they recounted their experiences, their eyes lit up and their voices quickened, as if to say, “I once was lost but now am found.”
Their pilgrimages had apparently offered an exhilarating, risk-tinged contrast with their comfortable, predictable lives in America — an adrenaline shot of “authentic” meaning, which stood in contrast to the “conventionality” of the United States. They viewed the Sandinista guerillas as engaged in a noble fight for social justice and were gratified to participate in it vicariously. Most had returned home radicalized, eager to evangelize benighted friends and neighbors. The message they preached was that Americans must accept the guilt they bore, not just for Nicaraguan suffering, but also for countless failures at home. The way of atonement was to affirm revolutionary social transformation.
Sociologist Paul Hollander came to the United States after escaping from communist Hungary in 1956. Having first-hand experience with a totalitarian regime, he was baffled to encounter American intellectuals who were sympathetic to communism and endorsed its revolutionary aims. Some even championed Stalin, Castro, and Mao. Hollander saw that they were captive to an oppositional habit of mind, which led them toward a hypercritical repudiation of our nation’s institutions. Worse, this habit of mind led them to misperceive and idealize systems like the one he had fled, while overlooking or denying the virtues of their own society.
In Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba 1928–1978 (1981) and other writings, Hollander explains why so many of the best-off people in the wealthiest, freest nation in the world have contempt for their own society. Though he died in 2019, before woke crusaders’ latest forays, his analysis sheds light on our cultural moment.
Hollander recognized the importance of the adversary culture in postwar America. It is characterized, he wrote, by the “socially critical temper” produced by alienation and estrangement from the larger society. Though a vibrant democracy requires vigorous debate, the fierce criticism nurtured by the adversary culture encourages “an intense, radical and indignant” disposition, which generates social-critical passions powerful enough to overwhelm reason. Thus arises the impairment — willed or genuine — of one’s capacity to make important distinctions among degrees of social evil. The tens of millions killed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution disappear from view. The result is “an outlook or state of mind which leads to (or entails) viewing one’s own society with deep misgivings and suspicion,” condemning it as “deeply flawed, unjust,” and “calculated to constrain or reduce human satisfactions.”
In Political Pilgrims and elsewhere, Hollander recounts how this mindset prompted a parade of prominent intellectuals — among them George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky — to embrace beliefs at odds with reality, shaped by wishful thinking, and distorted by a suspension of logic. Though hyper-sensitive to their own societies’ flaws, these commentators gave the benefit of every doubt to systems and ideologies that advanced a utopian egalitarian and humanitarian vision. Reality was of no consequence; they thrilled to ideals.
New York Times reporter Walter Duranty offers a notorious example. In the 1930s, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, Duranty extolled the Soviet Union and denied Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants. He was not alone. American writer Joseph Freeman was certain he had seen the future after a visit to the U.S.S.R:
[F]or the first time I saw the greatest of human dreams assuming the shape of reality. Men, women and children were uniting their efforts into a gigantic stream of energy directed toward . . . creating what was healthy and good for all.
Duranty, like other pro-Soviet intellectuals at the time, displayed startling credulity: “[I]t is unthinkable that Stalin . . . and the Court Martial could have sentenced their friends to death unless the proofs of guilt were overwhelming.”
In the 1960s, Castro’s Cuba offered susceptible intellectuals a tempting opportunity for uncritical admiration closer to home. Saul Landau, a journalist and human rights activist, called Cuba “the first purposeful society that we have had in the Western Hemisphere for many years.” Castro had given birth to a system in which “human beings are treated as human beings, where men have a certain dignity, and where this is guaranteed to them.”
These affirmations had little to do with the needs of Cubans and a great deal to do with the needs of Americans raised in the adversary culture. Todd Gitlin declared, “We look to Cuba not only because of what we sense Cuba to be but because of what the United States is not.” Just as the Soviet Union had been for Duranty the ideal that exposed the moral mediocrity of America, Cuba was the mirror in which many 1960s activists saw America’s warts.
Marxist revolutionaries in Central America provoked similar frenzied admiration in the 1970s and ’80s. “I came back [from Nicaragua] far more ashamed of my country than at any time since the Vietnam War,” wrote Michael Harrington. “The Nicaraguans,” he insisted, “want to make a truly democratic revolution and it is we who subvert their decency.” Events would prove Harrington wrong. The Sandinistas imposed an authoritarian regime, and over the decades Daniel Ortega would become richer than Anastasio Somoza, the strongman he had replaced. But that never seems to matter. Sustaining the “oppositional self” is more important than admitting to the existence of complex social realities.
When I went to the bread-and-soup dinner to hear about the virtues of the Sandinistas and the vices of American foreign policy, the cohort enamored of Central American revolutionaries was relatively small. But as Trilling observed in the 1960s, over time a nexus of intellectuals, writers, and critics shapes popular culture, which diffuses the oppositional ethos throughout society. Today’s “woke” crusade against “systemic racism” includes not only New York Times reporters but work-a-day accountants, nurses, and soccer moms. Once universally recognized as radical, the social-critical mindset and its indignant habits of mind have become, one might say, as American as apple pie.
To a great extent, the mainstreaming of the adversary culture corresponded with the dramatic increase in young people attending college. In 1940, about five percent of high school graduates had a college degree. After World War II, Americans began to flood university campuses. In subsequent decades, millions of university-educated people entered government, education, media, entertainment, the arts, the “helping professions,” and the non-profit sector.
As secularization advanced, intellectuals and other producers and consumers of social criticism took on a new social function. The clergy’s status as moral leaders declined, and public intellectuals, journalists, and news anchors replaced figures such as Bishop Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham as a moralizing elite.
The Vietnam War marked a turning point. The burgeoning cohort of middle-class students who went to the universities had been trained in the adversarial mindset that Trilling identified. Che Guevara posters became a staple of college dorm rooms. In Hollander’s view, the war was the catalyst, not the source, of the ’60s revolution because it “tapped into already deep wells of latent social disaffection.” Activists of the era gave evidence that he was right. “If there had been no Vietnam, we [radicals] would have invented one,” said Jerry Rubin. “If the Vietnam War ends, we will find another war.” The particular moral issues at stake in the Vietnam conflict were not decisive. What mattered to Rubin was that the war symbolized the evil of the American “system.”
After graduation, many critically disposed students became teachers, professionals, and government bureaucrats. In 1976, Peter Berger noted: “Many of the radical impulses of 10 years ago have now become firmly institutionalized.” The oppositional mentality had become so pervasive as to trigger “a far-reaching delegitimation of some of the key institutions and values of American society.”
There were no doubt good reasons to criticize American society. Given our fallen condition, there are always flaws in our institutions, sometimes grievous flaws. But it is striking that those who have tenure at elite universities, run foundations that award fellowships to artists, staff government bureaucracies, and control our media speak of themselves as “countercultural” when, in truth, they are at the center of contemporary culture-making. This is a central feature of the adversary culture: It sustains the “oppositional self,” which feeds on critical denunciation of the status quo.
Today, the hyper-critical mindset is so widespread that it has become, as Hollander described it, “a diffuse sensibility, a predisposition rather than a clearly thought-out ideological or philosophical position.” For people socialized into it, this mindset amounts to a new form of conventional wisdom: “instinctive, intuitive, non-intellectual — as all profoundly held cultural (or subcultural) beliefs are.” Thus our odd situation: Mayors, college presidents, corporate leaders, and media titans express paradoxically conventional and “establishment” affirmations of revolutionary causes.
Hollander recognized that political commitments often spring from deeper, unarticulated, non-political sources. In his words, “predisposition influences perception.” The moralistic crusades undertaken by people whose positions in life put them at a great distance from the issues they claim to care about are often not so much about a search for justice as a working out of their personal needs and dissatisfactions.
Hollander traces the rise of the adversary culture to the discontents generated by modern life — most especially, secularization. The alienation of contemporary intellectuals, in his view, is a response to the frustration and emptiness created by the lack of meaning and purpose in modern, materialist society. The postwar universities tended to reject traditional Judeo-Christian sources of meaning. But in the absence of religion, what can explain sin and guilt? The fault must reside in society. This projection of sin onto society allows the oppositional self to find meaning. He will maintain his purity by maintaining his adversarial stance. And he will find meaning in life by crusading against America’s sins.
This moralistic and crusading dynamic takes place against the backdrop of American cultural history, with its strong strains of utopianism and powerful romantic elements. American individualism is marked by an optimistic view of the individual’s potential for self-realization, and a conviction that evil social institutions needlessly constrain our best impulses. This mindset can easily evolve into indignation about all restraints, as Trilling recognized. It can link individual liberation to a radical transformation of society that promises to abolish all restrictive categories. Transgender ideology is the most obvious example.
In today’s morally relativistic world, identity is no longer tied — as in the Judeo-Christian tradition — to the development of personal character through the cultivation of courage, prudence, self-control, and other virtues. Instead, intellectuals believe they can choose their identities. Often, they are drawn to the gratifying identity of the “social justice warrior,” which requires merely the adoption of “advanced” opinions. With the adept use of pronouns and the right profile on social media, today’s oppositional self distances himself or herself from society’s sins.
Marxist-influenced thought has an important appeal in this context. As Hollander observes, Marxism’s ideological framework offers a “seemingly scientific foundation” for organizing moral passion and guides intellectuals in identifying “just” causes. Marxist ideology’s depiction of life as a power struggle between oppressors and victims — a core tenet of today’s “woke” movement — can serve to justify an unrelenting, self-righteous denunciation of the inevitable gap between aspirational American principles and real-world outcomes.
The upshot is a paradox very much evident today. The adversary culture alternates between moral absolutism and moral relativism — swinging from virulent criticism of “oppressor” groups to passionate enthusiasm for putative victims and their self-described champions, at home or abroad. “Systemic racism” is an ever-present and all-powerful threat that must be “eradicated,” while the destruction of stores, public buildings, and monuments presents no real moral problem. Policemen who make bad decisions in high-stress situations while doing their jobs are subject to searching, hostile criticism, and sometimes prosecution, while local prosecutors refuse to press charges against Antifa protestors who hurl bricks and assault police.
In recent months, COVID-19 has shifted the adversary culture’s energies into high gear. Virus-related lockdowns have unleashed restless energy. Since George Floyd’s death, young people socialized into the adversary mindset have thronged the streets for protests and riots. These youngsters belong to a generation notoriously lacking in meaning and purpose. They long to be part of something bigger than themselves. At the same time, older Americans — stuck at home — have reacted to the pandemic like Old Testament figures in times of plague. They manifest a millenarian readiness to assume guilt for society’s racial sins by donning sackcloth and sitting in the ashes.
This dynamic is especially evident in Minneapolis. The ostensible goal of the protests, riots, and policy changes has been to end racism and build an “equitable” society. But evidence suggests that the real driver is the hallmark of the adversary culture: a reflexive animus against the American system, whose institutions are viewed as oppressive. The Minneapolis City Council has labeled white racism a “public health emergency,” with one council member calling it the “disease” that underlies “all the racially inequitable results we are living with today.” Yet, as Hollander warns, the council members’ simplistic view of life as a power struggle between oppressors and victims, whites and blacks, blinds them to complex social realities, including black family fragmentation and black-on-black violence. These must be addressed if the racial outcomes the council deplores are to change.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has designated “systemic racism” one of “the greatest long-term threats” the city faces. Yet he is unable to identify a single public official or process that can objectively qualify as racist. Liberal Democrats have governed Minneapolis for almost 50 years, and racial “equity” has been a centerpiece of their agenda. Frey’s “willful amnesia” — so characteristic of the adversary culture — sustains the need to remain “oppositional.” It also masks how profoundly the adversary culture has failed. It relieves our civic leaders of responsibility for their own leadership, which over the last 50 years has created serious problems for black Americans and others who don’t live in the upscale neighborhoods where BLM signs are on prominent display.
The Minneapolis City Council has accused the city’s police department of institutional racism and voted to defund it (though police defunding was not on the ballot in the 2020 election and the council’s vote will not set policy going forward). Not surprisingly, homicides and shootings — nearly all black-on-black — have risen dramatically. At the same time, elected officials have stood by as rioters and arsonists have vandalized, looted, or destroyed at least 1,500 businesses, many minority- or immigrant-owned, with the damage estimated at $500 million or more. At one point, Mayor Frey characterized the rioters’ “anger and sadness” as “not only understandable, [but] right.”
As if to vindicate Trilling and Hollander, amid the destruction, a new, quasi-religious source of meaning has sprung up. In a city where many churches remain closed in response to COVID-19, activists have barricaded a several-block area and erected a shrine to George Floyd. In describing the site, which has drawn pilgrims from around the nation, a local official unwittingly articulated the impulse at the heart of the adversary culture: “We have an obligation to keep sacred what is sacred.”
During the season of protests after the George Floyd-inspired riots, I wrote a critique of the “woke” movement that was published by the Star Tribune. “Sandalista” leader Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, now an emeritus professor of “justice and peace studies” at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, wrote a response.
During the Sandinista Revolution’s glory days in the 1980s, Nelson-Pallmeyer had written a book that denounced “U.S.-Style totalitarianism” and praised Marxist Sandinistas for redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. In his 2020 Star Tribune op-ed, he updated and reformulated his message. He was mainly concerned to denounce the U.S. for oppressing black citizens and praise social justice activists for fighting to eradicate “systemic racism.” His current crusade is no more likely to aid its putative beneficiaries than his ill-fated Nicaraguan crusade did. It serves the needs of the adversary culture, which in turn serves the emotional needs of college professors, at the expense of those actually needy in our society.
A version of this article first appeared in the February 2021 edition of First Things magazine.