These young men and women stand ready to topple statues of our nation’s Founders, remove monuments to presidents, rename schools, censor speech, and redraft curricula. They do so because they fervently believe that they are better than their hopelessly retrograde fellow citizens, who remain blind or, worse, callously indifferent to the alleged ills that plague our society. College and university campuses across the country have been transformed by leftist faculty into seminaries that each year anoint into the “woke priesthood” more credentialed but hardly educated men and women.
Many among our young revolutionaries, increasingly drawn from America’s Generation Z that is just coming of age, graduate from institutions of higher learning often deeply in debt, but with few marketable skills to secure them well-paying jobs. As such, they often land in a pre-professional stasis, unable to launch into adulthood, seething with frustration and anger at the injustices — some real, many imagined — visited upon them by the “system” and its “oppressors.” Together with America’s millennials, who matured during the post-2008 Great Recession and saw their economic opportunities eroded as they entered adulthood, Generation Z is shaping up to become the most radical and the furthest removed from traditional values and the American way of life. More ethnically and racially diverse than the Millennial Generation that came before it, Gen Z has been molded by an educational system that no longer instills in its students anything resembling a coherent and balanced narrative of the American nation and its founding to ensure that e pluribus unum supersedes group interests. On the contrary, identity politics is cresting as the dominant narrative taught to the young. If you are a student attending school today, your understanding of America and its past is that of an oppressive, perhaps irredeemable, land.
The religion of wokeness taught in our schools and preached in most realms of American life rests on a mutated strand of Marxism, only this time it is not the oppressed proletariat that is to be freed by the party elite and given the “correct” consciousness. Today the victim groups are those races deemed historically oppressed along with sexual minorities. Unlike the Stalinist chimera of a “classless society” that was to be birthed by communism, the woke acolytes of today are working toward a brave new world of racial justice, and of absolute equality for all genders and sexual orientations, understood in terms of equal outcomes and proportional representation. The social-media milieu that they have grown up in — Instagram, Twitter and Tik-Tok — has nurtured a culture of sound bites and moral preening. Such preening leaves little room for nuance, and gradually sharpens group cleavages. It also strengthens the conviction among millennials and Gen Z of the virtue of their cause and the moral bankruptcy of those who either oppose it or simply fail to display the requisite zeal. With political difference cast as an ethical contest between right and wrong, compromise becomes a source of shame, fueling the Leninist politics of kto-kogo (“Who gets whom.”) The result? Arguably the greatest fracturing of our national fabric since the Civil War, one that has made it nearly impossible for many Gen Z and American millennials to concede that their opponents — which is to say the rest of society — even deserve to participate in our democracy. The other side is not merely misguided but increasingly illegitimate.
Today’s American wokeness is the “Radicalism Olympics” — by definition it has an ever-receding telos, with no break of any kind, and few limitations. And like every collectivist totalitarian impulse, radicalism breeds the fear, particularly among its devotees, that one may be decreed insufficiently radical. Such evaluation necessarily leads to expulsion from the Church of Wokeness and consignation to the realm of the “other” — much as the young Stalinists denounced older communists who did not worship enough the party and the boss.
The values gap that is increasingly on display between Gen Z and millennials on the one hand, and the rest of America on the other, goes beyond the traditional left-right or liberal-conservative disconnect of decades past. The religion of wokeness professed by our credentialed class, especially those just coming into adulthood, is fueled by an unquestioned moral superiority over much of America. It is full of disdain animated by an unshakeable sense of purpose to reeducate the country and save it from the stain of injustice, past and present. This young generation of Americans — aided by their adult enablers in academia, the media, politics, and the corporate world — appeal heavily to emotion, repeating with an almost religious-like fervor the mantra of eliminating “privilege,” an amorphous and ill-defined term used to besmirch one’s opponents. Throughout, they fail to see the biting irony of their own station in life, which is among the most privileged and pampered groups in this nation’s history. It is this moral certitude that carries with it the seeds of a totalitarian impulse unlike anything this country experienced in the past, for it carries with it the categorical imperative to stamp out what it deems to be evil.
Totalitarianism wins when decent people do not dare to speak up and expose the lies around them, such as those contained within the coded language of “privilege,” “intersectionality,” or “critical race theory,” or other phrases whose repetition and ubiquity is meant to establish their truth. The success of America’s youthful revolutionaries rests on their worship of radicalism, and their ability to rely on the regnant political correctness in how we have come to use language at school, work, and elsewhere to cow the public into keeping silent. This pattern is much like the experience of Marxist dialectics in communist systems, where citizens always live in fear of not being seen as sufficiently dedicated to the cause, for the party line changes ever-faster, making it all but impossible to keep up.
Like every cultural revolution, the ideological zeal of America’s radicals should eventually subside and fizzle. Perhaps we will experience an American Thermidor. When this day arrives we will surely ask ourselves why we tolerated this totalitarian impulse for this long. But will we also have the courage to acknowledge the lives that the woke religion has canceled and the careers it has destroyed? Most important, will we earnestly face the reality that for so long we were afraid to call things by their proper names? I hope we will then at least recognize the lasting damage that this ideology has done to the American ideal of individual liberty under the law, for the American Thermidor — if it comes — will not return to us the country we once knew. Like all past revolutions, the scars that the American Cultural Revolution will leave on our society and our democracy will be permanent. ✪