Awake Not Woke
Noelle Mering | TAN Books, USA | 2021, 239 pp
At this point, one might well ask: what more is there to say or write about the incoherence, dogmatism and belligerence of the woke movement? After reading Mering’s book, I would say quite a lot actually.
Mering, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, prolific writer and broadcaster on the theology of family life, is a Catholic mother of six from California. Her background and experience place her at an obvious advantage in addressing the woke phenomenon. Her extraordinary breadth and depth of research and ability to extract and communicate key insights makes this book accessible and illuminating.
We have witnessed in recent times a surge of ever more astounding doctrines and claims from woke ideologues. Just when you think we have reached “peak woke”, something even more startling and bizarre comes along.
In this part of the world, the controversy over the Scottish Gender Recognition Act, which allows anyone over sixteen to self-identity as “male” or “female”, even convicted rapists, giving them the right to be placed in women’s detention centres, may look like the final unravelling of the movement.
However, we have seen enough to know that we should hold our breath. As Mering observes in her book, mere “data” like statistics and bald facts are considered bigotry. “Reality is not the point, the agenda is.”
Behind all the chaos and contradictions, we are asked to believe there is some deeper “truth” that still stands intact, and that the motivations of those who pick up on arguably problematic scenarios are grounded in nothing more than prejudice and hate, seeking a cloak of justification.
This is a stance that we can identify across the whole spectrum of progressive advocacy, from Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon to Irish politicians who refuse to accept that local protests against undocumented male immigrants are anything other than a far-right conspiracy, to Fr James Martin SJ who likewise dismisses as “venomous” arguments that the LGBTQI+ movement represents a threat to the integrity of marriage and the family.
Mering offers some eyebrow-raising examples from her own experience of the lack of other-awareness and self-awareness of woke zealots. Despite the golden rule of “consent”, the only metric of sexual morality for the woke, a man who won’t sleep with a trans-woman on discovering “she” is a biological male is a “bigot”. How long, one may ask, before this joins the list of hate crimes?
Mering also tells how a “white man” was forced to step down as coordinator of multicultural affairs in America’s Wellesley College because he was not “representative of diversity”. The individual concerned readily accepted the validity of the objections to his appointment. The curious thing about his demotion is that “he” was in fact a biological female. But that didn’t count because “he” was now an icon of white, male privilege. An even more intriguing example of racism for woke ideologues is the imposition of “white norms” like “punctuality”, “work before play”, and “planning for the future” on other ethnicities.
One might say the flight from reality is so total that arguing back is pointless. Like the bewildered Alice faced with the pompous declaration of Humpty Dumpty, looking down on her, in every sense, from his seat on the wall, that “… a word means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”, it might seem more sensible to just walk away like Alice, alone with her thoughts, until she heard “an enormous crash” behind her.
In fiction as in life, the tension between reality and pretence is unsustainable beyond a certain point. Reading Mering’s book makes one think of the disintegration that awaits woke confusion, and incoherence can’t be far off or it wouldn’t be in a sane world.
The most interesting and revealing part of this book is the way Mering sets what we call “cultural Marxism” within Marx’s original manifesto. His economic revolution, the “dialectic of materialism” that would topple capitalism and the class system and replace them with communism was in fact grounded in what we often mistakenly think of as a later development of Marx’s doctrine.
From the start, Marx saw that the family stood in the way of his socio-economic vision. The family structure represented continuity and lineage, private property, inheritance and respect for tradition. Of its nature hierarchical, it embodied and supported for Marx, the societal power dynamic he wanted to destroy. In the family, the father represented the bourgeois, and the wife and children the proletariat, as his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels put it.
To bring about the ruination of the capitalist order, it was necessary to abolish the family. For Marx and his followers, a key way to achieve this was through the breakdown of all sexual restraint. We have seen how the culture of sexual licentiousness continues to tear apart the fabric of family life, and alienate fathers in particular from their children. In parallel with the undermining of the father’s role is the rise and expansion of the role of the state care and education of children.
Marx’s disciples, particularly those of the Frankfurt School, focussed very much on the role of education in removing children from the influence of their parents. It was in fact the influential educationalist and Marxist, John Dewey, who was instrumental in re-locating the Frankfurt School to Columbia University after the Nazi takeover in Germany in 1933, where they used the larger platform of the Ivy League academy to promote radical Marxist theories of education and sexual liberation.
God and family were the enemies that children needed to be freed from, according to the institute’s leading figures like Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm. For them, “morality is always repressive”, and so radical sex education must replace religious instruction in the schools. The sexual liberation of the libido, and the culture as a consequence, was seen as both an end in itself and a means to an end, because it facilitated the destruction of the family, which was a stumbling block to the revolution.
In our own time, it might appear that sexual liberation has become a standalone project with ever newer frontiers to push. Rather than advancing Marx’s revolution, it tends to be seen instead as part of a more general struggle for social equality and inclusion, fought side by side with those who seek liberation from the racism that is in “the Caucasian DNA” and “biopolitical” according to French leftist philosopher Michel Foucault.
Postmodern identity politics
Both gender and race critical theory draw from the same Marxist vocabulary, using terms like “marginalisation” and “alienation” along with newly coined terms like “intersectionality” and “heteronormativity”. The fusion of the two movements is well illustrated by the example Mering gives of how being both white and “male” places an individual, symbolically at least, doubly in the oppressor class and so disqualifies the individual from being a coordinator of multicultural affairs in a top American college.
The mission statement of Black Lives Matter oddly, it might seem, asserts that “we disrupt the Western prescribed nuclear family structure. We foster a queer-affirming network.” The movement is part of a far more radical revolution to overthrow the social and cultural order under which the West developed and flourished over centuries.
For the woke, the narrative is always a reductionist one of power and oppression at every level of social economic and political interaction between individuals and groups. It is the leitmotif of history and all our institutions. Both must be re-set according to the woke narrative.
Any elements that won’t or can’t adapt must be cancelled and erased. “Present discrimination (is) the only remedy to past discrimination.” For Mering, what they want is “power reversal, not a humanising equality”. To illustrate the extent of the penetration of the ideology, Mering cites a Washington Post piece that asked white men not to stand for political office to clear the way for women and minorities.
Thus, modern America’s origin story is not the Declaration of 1776 that enthroned democratic principles, separation of powers and citizens’ rights, but “the 1619 project” that brought African slaves to the new colony. History of course is a continuum, and the past is woven into the present, but some dates are judged more meaningful and perhaps more defining than others, and the fact that some are celebrated or commemorated signifies a commitment to what they represent. For woke revisionists, however, the founding principles are hollow rhetoric bedded in self-serving hypocrisy, not genuine aspirations to strive for and over time realise, however incompletely and imperfectly.
Mering establishes the links that unite critical theorists of both gender and race. They lie in the shared “origin story” of Marxist dogma. They tap into grievance and frustrated desires and exploit them to destroy the power dynamics of the status quo, following the path of critical theory as developed by the Frankfurt School, “to identify, expose, describe, disrupt, dismantle and deconstruct” the prevailing order on all levels. In particular, they focus on “the patriarchy”, which for Mering is a “euphemism for fatherhood and family”.
Not role models
Mering makes another very illuminating link between the ideology’s fixation on sexual liberation and the personal lifestyles of its leading thinkers and activists, from Marx and Engels to the key figures of the Frankfurt School to Michel Foucault. Some of their avid followers today would cancel conservatives for far less than can be laid to their charge.
One wonders how much people know or want to know about Karl Marx, the father and husband? He had six children. Four predeceased him (he died at sixty-four). The remaining two daughters died by suicide. Some fantasist apologists for Marx have said they were victims of the endemic poverty and deprivation of an oppressive system.
The truth is, as Mering points out, that Marx didn’t work to support his family. He considered himself too intellectual for work. Despite his opposition to inheritance and private property, he readily accepted help from Friedrich Engels when the latter inherited from his wealthy parents. It was this tainted money, in Marxist terms, that filled, to whatever extent it did, the void left by his dereliction of paternal responsibility.
Mering contrasts the licentiousness and parental irresponsibility of Marx and his disciples with the Christian model of family life where individuals flourish. She cites a 2014 Harvard study that found the “number one predictor for economic mobility for poor children is the share of two-parent families in their community”.
Flourishing, of course, means far more than material and social mobility. For Mering, “family is not about men dominating women, but humans dominating the baser parts of themselves”. Stronger families, she adds, are “fertile ground for the Church”. Together, family and church are and have always been “a stabilising influence” on society.
Toxic masculinity is the result of “young males growing up fatherless”, “encouraged by sexual permissiveness”. Barack Obama, not at all uniquely among the politicians of his day, once spoke about “the crisis of fatherhood”. Nowadays, it would take a very brave politician to express such an ideologically inconvenient fact.
Lack of critical thinking
For Mering, public discourse is now centred around “critical theory” rather than “critical thinking”. Slogans are the currency of thought. People are not stupid, but have lost “the ability to think”.
She references philosopher Hannah Arendt’s comments on Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Holocaust, after observing him at his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Arendt noted that he spoke and appeared to think in the propaganda slogans of Nazism. She judged him “not stupid”, but marked by “an inability to think”. Such observations are chilling, because we can so easily recognise what she describes in the “groupthink” of so many around us today.
Mering believes that the Christian faith is a compelling counter-witness to woke culture, but warns that “a woke Christianity will reject Christ in all but name”. Again, we can relate this to experience. In fact, we can see it already happening even in our own Church as it steps out along the synodal path more eager to embrace than challenge worldly new-forged wisdoms. Her call to be “awake”, not “woke”, comes not a minute too soon.