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Q&A: Susan Neiman on Why It's a Mistake to Call the Left 'Woke'
In a new book, the Berlin-based philosopher and writer argues that the intellectual roots of wokeism conflict with ideas that have guided the left for hundreds of years.
Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer living in Berlin. She is the author of a new book, Left is Not Woke, which argues that the blurring of left and woke is a mistake. She traces the influence of two 20th-century philosophers, Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt, whose work undermined ideas of justice and progress and portrayed social life as an eternal struggle of us vs. them.
Neiman was born and raised in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. She dropped out of high school to join American activists working for peace and justice. Later she studied philosophy at Harvard University, earning her Ph.D. in 1986. After being a professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv Universities, in 2000, she assumed her current position as director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. We spoke last week at her home in Berlin; our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: What do you mean by saying that the left is not woke?
Susan Neiman: What's confusing about the whole notion of woke is that it is driven by the kinds of emotions that have been common to the left forever: the idea that you stand in solidarity with people who are oppressed and marginalized, and that you want to try and correct or make reparations for historical crimes. All of those are traditional left-wing emotions, which I share and have shared since I was a kid.
What's confusing is that the woke rely on philosophical assumptions often that they're not even terribly conscious of. These are actually quite right-wing, if not positively reactionary, and undermine their own goals. I named three assumptions that are common, both to people on the left and to liberals.
One is that we're universalists, as opposed to people who think tribally and believe that the only people you genuinely connect with are people that belong to your own tribe, however defined. Therefore, you also don't have real obligations to anybody outside your own tribe. It's connected to a very particular aesthetic idea of who gets to speak about what, who gets to represent what. The idea that you cannot represent either on stage, writing, or on screen, or teach about a tribe that you don't belong to? I hate to say it, but this was also a Nazi view: [for example] Jews couldn't play German music.
Secondly, liberals and leftists believe that it's possible to distinguish justice from power. Sometimes it can be quite tricky, but we believe that it's possible to make genuine claims to be working towards justice. Whereas the people who are called the woke generally believed that claims to justice are hypocritical assertions to obscure what are really claims to power.
Now, when Putin said he attacked Ukraine in order to denazify it or George W. Bush said he was attacking Iraq to bring democracy -- those are good contemporary examples, which are very easy to see through as pure power grabs. Sometimes it's hard to decide but to conclude from that, that there is no principled distinction between acting on principle and acting for power, is really to give up the idea of genuine politics and to see it simply as a striving for power between different tribes.
The final principle that's common both to leftists and liberals is the belief that it's possible to make progress. This is not the idea that progress is inevitable – that’s a caricature. And if progress is possible, so is regress. Whereas the idea that every time you think you're making progress, you're just contributing to a more subtle form of repression is a Foucauldian idea that's very much gotten into the wokies. You see that in claims that we have made no progress since slavery and fighting racism. There are people in Germany who say we've made no progress fighting antisemitism. Or we're still living in the patriarchy and we've made no progress against sexism. That's a dangerous way to go, it leads towards quietism and resignation. In order to make more progress, you have to believe that some has been made before.
Now, there's a fourth principle that I argue distinguishes the left from liberals: the conception of social rights. If you believe that things like fair labor laws, health care, housing and education are rights and not benefits, you belong to the left. If you're a liberal, you think they might be nice, but they're considered benefits or safety nets – privileges rather than rights, which is a completely different conception. Social rights were codified in 1948, in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. There was an international consensus at a certain point, but that seems to have been forgotten by a number of liberals.
LJ: To be clear, you're happy with being called a leftist.
SN: I call myself a leftist. And I'm happy to be called a socialist. Americans forget how many people they still admire called themselves socialists: Albert Einstein and Helen Keller, to name two.
LJ: I want to drill down on what you mean by woke, because it seems like there's two ways the word is being used. The first is by people consciously on the left to raise awareness about racial and other forms of discrimination. More recently, it seems to have become an epithet on the right to describe anything, like the Advanced Placement course on African-American Studies, 97 percent of which is not controversial.
SN: In a very short space of time, woke has become such a term of abuse that I don't know anyone who would call themselves woke anymore. Five years ago, that was different. But now it's just a term of abuse used by the right to attack any form of anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic struggles. I agree with you entirely about that. That does not however mean that nobody's woke, even if no one wants to acknowledge the label.
LJ: Can you give some examples of what woke is?
SN: I was just asked to bring up some German examples. When the major German television station decides it is not going to use the word mother, but it's going to use the word person capable of giving birth.
LJ: In the United States there is a similar debate around using pregnant women versus pregnant people.
SN: I wonder, frankly, whether that's not a right-wing trick, because if you want to alienate people, get rid of the word mother. But there were a lot of protests and so the particular television station gave up that change of policy. People complain that you cannot you cannot write about a tribe that's not your own. You cannot represent it on screen.
John McWhorter wrote about this very well in his book, Woke Racism. It's so hard to define woke because it's a set of contradictory claims. On the one hand, you shouldn't just pay attention to European culture. On the other hand, if you pay too much attention to it, you're appropriating it. On the one hand, if you only date white people, you're racist. On the other hand, if you don't date white people, you're exoticizing your partner. [McWhorter] has a whole list of such contradictory demands made by the woke.
The other thing that I think is extremely problematic is the reduction of all the multiple identities that we have. I don't use the word identity politics, because we all have many identities. What’s mistakenly called identity politics, or what’s woke, is the idea that you can reduce people to two identities, ethnic background and gender. And those are the identities over which we have the least control over.
We're basing people's identities not on what they do in the world, but what the world has done to them. In particular, the places where they're most vulnerable to being oppressed or traumatized. This is part of a gigantic historical shift that's happened in the last 70 years, where the subject of history is no longer the hero, but the victim. That began, like many woke impulses, as an act of justice: for thousands of years, the subject of history was the hero, and the victims of history were left by the wayside. I am writing about this in detail in my next book.
I think there were two historical events that happened around the same time which led to that change. One was the Holocaust. The other was the anti-colonial struggles of the late 1940s through the 1960s, where people said, we cannot leave people who were oppressed and victimized entirely out of historical record. That's great. But like many impulses of the woke, all of the nuances got left out.
What we have today is what's been called by many people the Olympics of suffering. The ways in which people's ability to act together on the left has been severely damaged by this competitive victimhood. Of course it isn’t just the woke who see victimhood as the main source of legitimation. Look at Donald Trump.
LJ: Can you drill down into one or two examples of where you see the excesses of wokeism, because I think some people reading this conversation might think that you're putting up a straw man.
SN: You know, this is so funny. I was just emailing with my editor this morning because I have now been accused by two different papers on the left and the right in Germany of putting up a straw man. My editor said, "I don't understand how you answer that. You cannot cannot move in intellectual circles without running into it. How can people talk about 'straw man'?" I mean, have you not seen it? The fights over casting. Another example of this self-contradictory behavior. On the one hand, a straight person isn't supposed to play a gay person --
LJ: Let's drill down into one because it's pretty current: Bradley Cooper is playing Leonard Bernstein in a Netflix movie, and he uses a prosthetic nose. I'm not sure who the critics are. Bernstein's own children said he would have said if you want to use a prosthetic nose to play a Jewish person, go ahead.
SN: I have no problems with that either.
LJ: Again, I'm not sure who these people are who are criticizing it.
SN: I don't think it's important to name names here, because it's so much in the waters; you open up any newspaper, and you see another instance. I'm happy to have a non-Jew play a Jew; I'm happy to have a Jew play a non-Jew. I am also happy to have a white person play a black person and the other way around because good art is universal. The best performance of Hamlet I ever saw was Peter Brooks’ production some 20 years ago; the lead was a young black actor. Art does not belong to the particular tribe that's being portrayed. Culture is there to be appropriated. I know a historian who simply says that culture is appropriation.
I wrote an essay about Paul Robeson, one of my heroes, who I call the hero of cultural appropriation. Robeson was a great freedom fighter and socialist whose memory has almost been wiped out although in his lifetime, his friend W.E.B. Dubois called him the most famous American in the world. Robeson thought that the only way to create universalism and to create a genuine sense of universal solidarity was to enter into other people's culture. He could sing in 26 languages. He put together a songbook of resistance, putting Spanish Civil War hymns next to gospel and Russian freedom songs.
“On the left, we see small but virulent disagreements and we need to come together to fight a growing international movement towards fascism.”
LJ: In your book, you talked about how Black Lives Matter started off as a universalist movement in the summer of 2020. [Republican Senator] Mitt Romney was marching, there's a lot of different people marching. By the fall, there were fewer voices outside the affected group [talking about BLM]. I wonder if that's not because of your description [about a universalist movement becoming tribal], but because some of these social movements just get really big at the start. Then, a few months later, they've died down and most people are talking about other things.
SN: No, I don't think so. I think people are still talking about Black Lives Matter, and rightly so. I think two things happened. One is that the right began slamming Black Lives Matter as an instance of what they were calling identity politics, and even started yelling white lives matter. That was not helpful. Studies show that more than half of the people on the streets were not people of color, in the middle of a pandemic for which there was at that point absolutely no vaccination or cure. Still the right started slamming it as identity politics. We can all remember the horrible picture of Trump holding a Bible upside down. It's insane.
But then the leaders of Black Lives Matter also reacted by talking about white allies. You can think of this as an insignificant linguistic problem, but it's actually very significant. It suggests that white people have different status in the movement. It's not real solidarity. An ally is someone whose interests align with yours temporarily, like the United States and Soviet Union [in World War II]. Moreover, it suggests that the only reason that black people are on streets is because it's in their own interest. It's naked self-defense. Of course, it's in their interest and it's self-defense. But I truly believe that many people who were out there, whether black or white, were for justice and the question of crimes against humanity.
Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem that Adolf Eichmann should have been indicted for crimes against humanity rather than crimes against the Jewish people. I entirely agree with her. When I support Black Lives Matter, it is because I think shooting unarmed people is a crime against humanity.
More black people, particularly young men are threatened by police violence. So it's a different claim than 'All lives matter.' Of course, all lives matter. But it happens black lives that are being endangered more at the moment. That is a crime against humanity. That is not simply a crime against people of color, in the same way that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity, not just against Jews. Anybody who cares about humanity at all is going to condemn the Holocaust.
LJ: I agree that it's a crime against humanity. But at the same time, these are specific groups being targeted, and not all groups.
SN: I haven't denied that. It's an empirical truth. The question is, on what grounds do we who are not being directly targeted stand beside them? Do we stand beside them? This is where woke is self-contradictory. Do we stand beside them because we're universalists and we care about more than our tribe? If we don't have a notion of universalism, we lose a notion of genuine solidarity.
LJ: Do you think it's that people in BLM are using the word ally in a slightly different way than you're conceiving it? Maybe even in an unconscious way?
SN: I've had this conversation with a few people. I know a few people of color who have said to me, "Thank heavens, you're criticizing the word ally. It's really problematic." One of my daughters said, "Oh, well, it's just a linguistic difference." Sure, I see that one often uses words without thinking about their implications. I was trained as a philosopher; I'm extremely interested in the way that ordinary expressions carry meaning and have consequences beyond the ones that we’re immediately aware of. It's important for people to think about the implications of a quick use of words like ally, because there are a lot of assumptions that we're not paying attention to.
LJ: There have been several articles that some of these discussions of woke are losing salience on the right. I think many people are getting lost in acronyms like CRT [Critical Race Theory], and many people who do not follow politics very closely are not paying attention. Do you think that this conflict is losing salience because people are so confused about it? Or do you see it as growing?
SN: Well, it depends on what country you talk about. It did start in the United States. From there, it traveled to England, and it's a big deal in Holland, France and in Germany. Those are the countries where I’ve directly discussed the questions – and people bring them up even when I don’t. The book is also coming out soon in Spain, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, Iran and Korea; so, it clearly has is relevant to discussions there.
I think the dangers are that one is arguing a lot about symbolic gestures and splitting people whose heart is on the left, but they're alienated by a lot of the woke discussion. The impetus to writing the book was conversations that I was having with friends from different countries who said, "Yeah, I guess I'm not left anymore, because of the woke" and they are not people who would turn --
LJ: To Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump?
SN: No. But they feel like they have no political home. They withdraw, feel resigned, and do not want to engage in linguistic battles over pronouns. They would like to engage in real, substantive issues, but they don't see a place for them to do that.
Other people say that the woke focus on certain issues is elitist and uncomfortable. [They say,] "It's not my world and it doesn't do anything about the problems that I genuinely have. Therefore, maybe I'll swing with the people who are dumping on the woke." I thought carefully, got some criticism, and worried about my critique from the left being instrumentalized by the right, which is one reason I say on the first page I am socialist and a leftist. So far it hasn't been instrumentalized. This is not about woke-bashing, although some people have taken it that way.
It's about trying to appeal to everybody who considers themselves liberal or left coming together to fight the real enemy on the far-right. It's an international problem with Putin, Modi, Orban, Nethanyahu, and Bolsonaro. (Brazil was the only good news of the year on that score.) We see a growing alliance of the tribalist right. On the left, we see small but virulent disagreements and we need to come together to fight a growing international movement towards fascism.
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