Peter Savodnik is one of my favorite essayists working today. He writes for Vanity Fair and has had bylines in every other prestigious magazine you used to read religiously. I’d noticed his name over the years, but when I read this essay, in which he explained how Woke America is like a Russian novel, I was blown away, as I hope you’ll be by Peter’s blistering piece below. This is the kind of essay you’ll want to sink into. If you can print it out, even better.
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And without further ado, here’s Peter:
The mountain of witches is piling up. At the top of the heap is Sharon Osbourne, the Captain Underpants guy, the Bachelor host, or whatever C-list celebrity failed to condemn “Gone with the Wind” on Instagram with sufficient fervor. But by the time you read this they’ll surely be eclipsed by another faux-outrage pieced together by the microaggression-hunters poring over old text messages or yellowing screen-shots of Halloween parties past.
Most of these disappearances won’t matter much, because the disappeared are already known. Even if their contract isn’t renewed or their agent indignantly — and very publicly — cuts ties with them, they’ll be fine. They’ll resurface.
The people who won’t are the countless, less visible who have lost jobs, lost businesses, lost reputations, lost friends. The schlubs. The cautionary tales. Those who have been cautioned, made to comply, squeezed into the Procrustean Bed of identitarian absolutism.
We know who’s to blame for this surreality: the True Believers. The children of Park Slope and Echo Park with their graphic tattoos and nut allergies and an odd inability to form complete sentences. The neurotic, anxious twentysomethings who went to college to be told that “truth” is a white male construct, who seem devoid of poetry or irony, who believe mean words, words with which they disagree, are like ICBMs. Those whose lives are circumscribed by galactic reservoirs of ignorance — about the past, the culture, themselves, about why they believe what they know to be good and indisputable. Those who know only how to perform, and who rely on acronyms and slogans and logical fallacies when asked: how can you be sure of that?
But children are children. They can only be blamed so much.
The real wrongdoers are the Enablers. The so-called adults. The tech founders and college presidents and newspaper editors and museum directors and bank CEOs who pretend that the fight for “justice” is just. Who pretend that the “equity” crusade is about fairness and not about defending the grotesque inequality between those who have been trained to think correctly and those who have not.
We forget this sometimes. We forget that there are people with the power to turn off this nonsense. Those who made room for the new radicals in the first place, who fired the miscreants, who issued apologies, who pleaded for understanding, who stayed silent, who adopted the new lingo, who made promises, who laughed nervously, who promised to do better, to “do the work,” to unlearn.
They are vulnerable to this idiocy because of fear. They fear becoming staid. They fear being on the wrong side of history. And anyway it’s hard to say no, to tell one’s audience things it does not want to hear. They fret about the microscopic: the tarnishing of their brand, the shrinking of their network, a difficult conversation, an angry tweet. They seem oblivious to that which matters: legacy, value, meaning, the stewardship of the institutions they ostensibly lead.
The Enablers fail to grasp that, by enabling, they marginalize themselves. That every time they kowtow to their subordinates in a ploy to remain relevant they advertise their creeping irrelevance. The gap between their superficial and actual power, between their status and the waning value of that status, is widening. Soon, they will be like the president of Germany, whoever he is.
They wouldn’t put it this way. They prefer to inhabit a make-believe world. They prefer to imagine that we face one crisis when, in fact, we face another.
The real crisis is the unraveling of the postwar American order: the hollowing out of vast swatches of the American hinterland, the unaffordability of our big cities, the emergence of this lackluster in between, this gig economy, which feels like a very prolonged, bad joke. We have been tunneling through the liminal dark for two decades, hoping that the uncertainty, our great national nausea, would give way to a new stability, a post-postwar order. So far, it has not.
But doing something about this real crisis is hard, and the Enablers are weak. They lack imagination, and they care too much about hoarding status and clinging to power to do anything to solve the real problems, which might require sacrifice.
So they accommodate the True Believers and embrace the never-ending search for hate. They pretend to be all in. But they’re not, and everyone knows it.
The disconnect between the True Believer and the Enabler — between what the Enablers pretend to be and what they are — is reflected in their vacillation, their defensive crouch: New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet telling reporter Donald McNeil he’s got his back before he doesn’t; Condé Nast chief content officer Anna Wintour hiring Alexi McCammond to run Teen Vogue before parting ways with her before she’d even begun; the Biden campaign condemning Linda Sarsour one day before apologizing for condemning her; Goldman Sachs getting pummeled for implicit bias by one of its managing directors before announcing a $10 million Fund for Racial Equity.
The Enablers worry that just reacting to the True Believers’ demands, playing defense, won’t suffice. They worry the True Believers are onto them. (They are.) To persuade the True Believers they’re also True Believers, the Enablers go on offense. They’re intentional. They elevate. They center. Cadillac embracing Tamika Mallory! Jack Dorsey giving Ibram X. Kendi $10 million! Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu turning Black History Month into Black History Always!
The enabling has been going on, out of view, for years. But in 2020, during the Summer of Biblical Forces, the summer of pestilence, isolation, fear, death, protest, riot, chaos and the fires of a thousand cities converging on the American psyche, the Enablers openly embraced the True Believers. They advertised their love. They tweeted it. Or at least their assistants did.
The True Believers, who had been proselytizing and canceling and Twitter-mobbing for years, were catapulted to the highest echelons of the American power structure. The famous-people cancellations sky-rocketed. So did the denials of those cancellations. Cancelling, we were told, wasn’t canceling. It was holding bad people “accountable.”
Now, the long knives were coming out, and the angers were crescendoing, and there was this feeling, in the ether, that everything — processes, norms, the constitution — had to be torpedoed in the service of The Cause. “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so,” the constitutional scholar Chelsea Handler tweeted Tuesday to her eight million followers.
A paralyzing fear percolated down. To the office scribes. The time-clockers. The people who were seething and stuck in their apartments. The whispering, the accusing, the snitching, the bad-faith mischaracterizing. The twentysomethings who had taken to saying, you can’t say that, and the fortysomethings scrambling to adapt, who wondered about their ancient emails and Facebook posts and yearbooks and all the late-night conversations they’d had in college, in the nineties, which someone might remember, which could be construed to mean they were Klansmen (they were not Klansmen), and the Boomers who had been bra-burners and then yuppies and then Obama Democrats and then MAGA-hats, who were terrified of Covid and outraged by the lockdown.
The Enablers, in this moment of great national angst, were relieved the True Believers were angry at other people. They were happy to feed the beast. To enable the Jig of Wokeness.
The jig was believable — even the Enablers believed it at first — because it grew out of something very real. When the folk singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter warned black people, especially black men, in the late 1930s to “stay woke,” he was giving voice to a pain and fury that coursed through the whole black American experience. He had just recorded “Scottsboro Boys,” about several black men falsely accused of and sentenced to death for raping two white women in Alabama. It was spare and fast-moving and it had an almost upbeat timbre — just Lead Belly, with his 12-string guitar, singing, warning, soothing, chiding. In an interview, he said he’d met the defendants. “I advise everybody,” he said, “be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”
Today, the True-Believers (or “True-Believers” — one can never be sure) draw on the fear and imagery of the Jim Crow South to lend their wokeness a patina of justice. But they distort the meaning of things. Wokeness, to the likes of Lead Belly, meant vigilance. In the current climate, it means deplatforming or firing people for nonexistent crimes, for questioning dogma, for not signaling one’s antiracism with enough passion. It is not about equality of opportunity, but equality of result. It is about redistribution or revenge justified by centuries of other people’s suffering.
This line of reasoning is indefensible, and the Enablers know it or should know it. And if they don’t, they’re unfit to lead. You do not share in the suffering of other people, even if you have the same skin color, so you do not derive any moral authority from that suffering. And even if you did derive some moral authority from it, it would not justify making other people suffer.
But the Enablers won’t — can’t — say any of this. To the extent they still possess any authority, that authority derives from their support for the True Believers.
For a while, the Enablers succeeded in creating the impression that the forces of liberalism and illiberalism could be woven together. That they could be harmonized. But that illusion is over. The plate tectonics are shifting away from them, toward the True Believers, and the True Believers are pushing up against the wobbly, castle walls of the Enablers. Peering in through the windows.
It is true that our new Salem is not the old Salem. The witch hunters in 2021 do not possess the state’s monopoly on violence. They cannot arrest or try the wrong-thinkers, but they may not need to. They have the technology and political will to make other people unemployable, to upend their personal lives, to curb that which is said or debated, to force grown-ups to voice unpopular opinions behind closed doors, in hushed voices, away from their children, lest their children repeat something they shouldn’t have heard.
In the future, when everyone, or most everyone, has forgotten the America that was, there won’t be any wrong-thinkers. There will only be shades of right-thinkers. Those who know that the stories Americans once told about themselves were lies, that the great, existential quest, the striving for a more American America, the New Jerusalem, the paintings it painted of itself, the Hudson Valley, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the sprawling, harried novels it wrote about this deeply flawed, beautiful, wondrous experiment, the sonorous, dissonant symphonies it composed, the ticker-tape, black and white movies it projected onto its screens — it was all a ruse.
We should be grateful, these post-Americans will tell themselves, that we do not live in this place, that we never knew it. That we have been liberated from the fictions of this bloodied land. That we are finally, at long last, free.
I did a bunch of speaking this week, including at St. Olaf College and to Yale’s Buckley Society.
I also chatted with the gentlemen of the podcast Good Fellows: the historian Niall Ferguson, the economist John Cochrane, and Gen. H.R. McMaster. If you’re interested, you can watch it here: