When Will the Woke Go Full Caligula?
The other day, I was scrolling through Twitter when I happened upon this particular tweet, directed against the former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss:
“Imagine if @bariweiss offered 10% of the defense she gives white supremacy to all the antifascist, Jewish-allied, Black and brown women of color she has made a career putting in danger,” it said. “NYT staff of color felt so unsafe around her that she had to resign.”
Something about this tweet struck me instantly: it was completely insane. No thinking person can hold that Weiss is anything but a political moderate with no sympathies whatsoever for white supremacism and neither the power nor the desire to harm anyone.
I also understood, however, the likely motivation behind the attack: Weiss has recently emerged as a strident voice against cancel culture and the amorphous but potent phenomenon known as “Woke.”
To its adherents, to be “Woke” is to be awake to the systemic injustices of American society and, by extension, the rest of Western civilization. This civilization, it is held, is a skein of oppression and genocide that must be torn down in its entirety. To impose this idea on others, the Woke use the tactics of mob harassment, public auto-de-fés, hysterical denunciation, and most of all the weaponization of cancel culture to deprive people of their platforms, livelihoods, and reputation.
Cancel culture is necessary in order to prevent the spread of racist, violent, and insurrectionary incitement. But the use of cancel culture by the Woke is quite different: it is not only an attempt to force people to assent to certain ideas in which they may or may not believe, but also ideas in which no one believes.
I am quite certain, for example, that everyone in the world — including the Woke themselves — believes that Western civilization is more than just racism and genocide. Everyone believes that, while transgender people should never be subject to prejudice or violence, biological sex is nonetheless immutable and cannot be changed. Everyone believes that Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill are not the moral equivalent of Hitler. Everyone believes that, contrary to the New York Times’ quintessentially Woke 1619 Project, the United States was not founded in 1619 on the basis of chattel slavery. Everyone, in other words, is being told by insane people to adopt insane ideas.
It is worth inquiring into the nature of this madness. When I read that attack on Bari Weiss, what sprang to mind was Albert Camus’ play Caligula, a retelling of the well-known tale of the deranged third emperor of Rome. In the play, the initially benign ruler suffers an existential crisis. Realizing that he alone wields absolute power, he decides to follow the logic of that power to its ultimate conclusion. “It’s just because no one dares to follow up his ideas to the end that nothing is achieved,” he says. “All that’s needed is to be logical right through, at all costs.”
This logic leads Caligula to believe that he is beyond good and evil. Thus, he is free to choose evil. So he does; nothing, after all, can stop him. He initiates a reign of terror over his subjects, rapes the women of the nobility, randomly orders executions, declares himself a god, kills his wife, and in the end invites his own assassination.
Rereading Caligula while writing this piece, I was shocked by the extent to which Camus had anticipated the Woke phenomenon. One can imagine the Woke repeating Caligula’s words. There is the imposition of an absolute ideology: “I wish men to live by the light of truth. And I have the power to make them do so.” A love of the spectacle of humiliation: “I invite you to the most gorgeous of shows, a sight for gods to gloat on, a whole world called to judgment. But for that I must have a crowd — spectators, victims, criminals, hundreds and thousands of them.” And the self-accorded right to crush anyone at any time: “A man dies because he is guilty. A man is guilty because he is one of Caligula’s subjects. Now all men are Caligula’s subjects. Ergo, all men are guilty and shall die. It is only a matter of time and patience.”
The Woke wield their power through social media spectacle; but nonetheless, this power is close to absolute. The Woke can mob who they want, slander who they want, deprive who they want of reputation and livelihood and ultimately destroy them. The Woke don’t need to kill people, because they can kill everything about them that is free.
But Camus also realized something that may give us hope: any tyrant must ultimately engineer his own destruction.
There are several ways this could happen. The Woke may decide to attack someone who is powerful enough to crush them — perhaps by de-platforming them, or simply by ignoring them, exposing the absurd impotence that lies at the heart of any bully or tyrant.
It is also possible that the Woke will attempt to enforce an idea so blatantly mad or appalling that even the most cowardly will turn against them. There is even the darker possibility that their mob tactics will result in something truly heinous, provoking a wave of revulsion.
But however it transpires, the Woke will not go quietly. The end of the movement may be a virtual version of Caligula’s, impaled by own subjects, screaming “I’m still alive!” even as he dies. This will no doubt be a terrible thing to witness, but we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, when it does happen, the world will enjoy just a bit more freedom than it did before.