When the words "woke" or "wokeness" come up on facebook, many people immediately declare them meaningless, simply right wing epithets designed to discredit leftists. Liberals who are not woke, however, such as myself, are reminded every morning that wokeness rules our major urban newspapers and most of the television news operations, as well as academia. Yesterday the New York Times provided an excellent concise example of wokeness in a column by op-ed regular Gail Collins about presidential rankings. Historians have just generated a new set--because I have never been designated a "presidential historian," I was not consulted. Collins commented on the list from her perspective, and I am going to quote some of her comments in detail for non-commercial use only.
Here is her first substantive paragraph.
"Of course, Abraham Lincoln came in first. Lincoln almost always wins. After that, reservations begin to rise. George Washington came next, as usual, but you can’t ignore the slave-owning. Then it’s Franklin Roosevelt (depends on how much you like the federal government) and Theodore Roosevelt (depends on how much you like imperialism)."
Now as it happens, I do think that ranking Theodore Roosevelt fourth is much too high. Having researched his presidency myself now, I think his primary contribution had to do with how he taught Americans to think about the great issues of the twentieth century. He recognized excessive corporate power as a serious danger, although he proposed rather tentative solutions and had relatively little impact on our economic structure. He correctly identified the US as a great power in a world of great powers that might have to fight in a great intercontinental war at some point in the future. He pursued various forms of imperialism in Latin America, although he didn't annex any new territory and regarded our possession of the Philippines as temporary. As for Franklin Roosevelt, he not only vastly expanded the federal government, but also did more than any other President to reduce economic inequality and created the postwar world as Collins (born 1945) and I have known it all our lives. Given that our own generation has undone most of his legacy, it is not too surprising that she doesn't value it any more.
Collins then says that she has "always really disliked Thomas Jefferson. (Yeah, yeah, I know, the Declaration of Independence.)" The first reason she cites is a pair of very sexist comments in letters to two different women, one of them his own daughter. The second involves Sally Hemmings and I'll take that one up in a moment.
This is a fine example of a woke feminist perspective. Collins doesn't care that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (which, of course, he did not do as President). She also doesn't care--and may not even know--that Jefferson brought to an end our first era of truly bitter partisan political conflict, one perhaps as bad as the one we are in now. Nor does she care, apparently, about the Louisiana Purchase, or Jefferson's attempts to find a way to protect America's interests during a world war without going to war, or that he signed the law outlawing the importation of slaves from Africa that Congress passed just as soon as the Constitution allowed it to do so. Because Collins is a woman, apparently, she thinks she has a right--if not a duty--to judge Jefferson mainly on his attitudes towards women--even if those attitudes were anything but unusual in his time. Jefferson remains a key historical figure because his ideas on other topics--such as how societies should be governed--were unusual. Nor is it far to say that he contributed nothing to women's rights. The idea of equal rights between women and men, I would suggest, was inconceivable so long as society was divided into different orders with different rights. That was the idea that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution struck down. And contrary to what many wokesters will tell you, as soon as they did so, both women and others who did not yet enjoy those writes began pointing to the language of those documents to argue that they should be included, and within another 142 years, they were. None of that could have happened if Jefferson and the other founding fathers had not taken the crucial first step.
Collins continues as follows: "Take that, Thomas Jefferson. And, of course, I haven’t even gotten around to the part about fathering at least six children with Sally Hemmings, a woman he had enslaved."
The substitution of "enslaved persons" for "slaves" had become fashionable by 2015, although it was still controversial then. It is now mainstream, justified on the grounds that it gives slaves more dignity. The use of "enslaver," or phrases like "a woman he had enslaved," goes further, and seriously distorts history. To say that Thomas Jefferson "enslaved" Sally Hemmings would imply, to me, that she was originally a free person whom he personally turned into a slave. Of course he did not. She was the daughter of a slave (and, as it happens, of Jefferson's father-in-law), and thus, under the laws of Virginia at that time, she was born a slave. No one in colonial America had the right to turn a free person into a slave. Collins herself refers correctly to Washington as "slave-owning" rather than "enslaving," but Jefferson doesn't get the same courtesy.
The old phraseology--that men including Washington, Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves--remains more accurate because it describes legal reality, however repugnant we find that legal reality today. Wokeness, however, has no respect for law as such, only for morality as it is now understood. Laws contradicting that morality are unworthy of mention, much less obedience. And if men violated present-day morality--e.g., by owning slaves--nothing else they did can be very significant.
Collins concludes by comparing John Quincy Adams to Joe Biden. "John Quincy Adams was our sixth president, who came into the job with a strong history in foreign affairs and diplomacy. He won an election that left the opposition irate — Andrew Jackson’s fans never quit complaining about the 'corrupt bargain.'” Well--not exactly. Adams lost the popular vote to Jackson, failed to win an electoral college majority, and was chosen by the House of Representatives after Henry Clay swung his supporters to Adams. Adams then made Clay Secretary of State, and his popularity never recovered. And after Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, he immediately asked Congress to abolish the electoral college! Adams was the first of five presidents--Trump was the last--to win election while losing the popular vote. It would be foolish, however, to expect an editor at today's New York Times to know anything about this--facts are quite passé.
The essence of wokeness is self-centeredness based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It stems from the postmodern idea that those attributes determine everyone's perspective. Originally it held that every perspective is equally valid, but now it privileges [sic] the perspectives of oppressed groups, since oppressors--straight white males--supposedly never think about anything but maintaining themselves in power. It thus denies the very idea of universal principles such as those reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It also denies the relevance, really of any history before the great awakening of the late 1960s, except as a record of what we should not be. In so doing, it threatens to sweep away the whole legal and political basis on which modern society--including the idea of equality--was built. This is a huge risk for all of us, and particularly for the less powerful. All our major intellectual and artistic institutions are now contributing to that risk.