On 'Woke, Mao, and the American Cultural Revolution'
I listened to a three-hour-long James Lindsay podcast so you don't have to
This is not a post about Bethany Mandel, but I’ve got to start with her. You’ve no doubt seen the clip of the right-wing pundit struggling to come up with a definition of “woke” — a term that is allegedly the main subject of the book she was hawking at the time.
This was obviously funny, and a chance for schadenfreude at the expense of a person whose career is built on demonizing refugees, accusing people she disagrees with of pedophilia, and gleefully jeopardizing the health of others. But somewhat missed in the glee is that, after fumbling for words, Mandel did attempt a definition — a definition she further refined on Twitter the next day. “Woke,” she wrote, is:
A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.
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This was also incoherent (do radical beliefs “suggest”?), but it does get us closer to something. Not closer to what “woke” actually means — and has meant to Black speakers for nearly a century1 — but closer to what reactionaries like Mandel are thinking when they talk about it. Ever since “woke,” in its sense of “aware of systemic racism,” gained new prominence in 2014 with the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, right-wing influencers have been on a mission to redefine it in the most threatening terms possible. And the definition they keep landing on is the one that Mandel is hinting at her references to a “radical redefinition of society” by “an angry mob.”
What they mean is the Cultural Revolution.
Come on, you say, isn’t that reductio ad absurdum? Are they literally saying that we are going through a replay of the purge of capitalist and traditionalist elements from the People’s Republic of China overseen by Mao Zedong? The one that resulted in the deaths of half a million or more people between 1966 and 1976?
Well, it depends who you listen to. Some of them think it’s far worse than that.
Mandel’s co-author, Karol Markowitz, made the analogy bluntly on Tucker Carlson, saying: “The thesis [of our book] is that the Cultural Revolution has arrived in America and, as you said, they are targeting our kids.” (She confirmed on Twitter that she was referring to the historical event.) The first chapter of their book, “Totalitarians,” opens with a description of a Soviet gulag; halfway through it quotes the American journalist Rone Tempest: “During the Cultural Revolution, youths were encouraged to love Chairman Mao more than their parents.” They then recount the story of a Chinese teenager who got his mother sentenced to death as a counter-revolutionary in 1968.
Now generally, proponents of this idea retreat when pressed for details. I don’t know if Mandel and Markowitz spell out their analogy later on (there’s only a limited preview on Amazon, and I’m not buying that book). Similarly, Wesley Yang, who coined the menacing but meaningless phrase “successor ideology” as a pseudo-intellectual substitute for “woke,”2 absolutely loves invoking Communist mass murder when talking about American anti-racism (he literally named his Substack Year Zero). But he always makes sure to layer in plausible deniability; and when you point out that he is doing that, he gets very cross. (Or, in my case, blocks you on Twitter.) Ross Douthat, Peggy Noonan — they all love accusing people of starting a Cultural Revolution, but never quite say what they mean.
But there is one thinker who has been willing to put himself out there on this front. James Lindsay is a “cultural critic” with a Ph.D. in math, perhaps best known these days for popularizing the Twitter slogan “OK, Groomer” — the random pedophilia accusation that Mandel referenced above. Lindsay gained notoriety in 2018 when he and two other hoaxers submitted absurdist papers to twenty academic journals specializing in cultural and queer studies.3
In 2020, Lindsay emerged as a prominent voice in anti-anti-racist circles, promoted often and enthusiastically by Bari Weiss. Weiss has since tried to distance herself from Lindsay’s combative online persona. (Most notoriously, Lindsay, who tweets under the handle @ConceptualJames, once got into a flame war with the Auschwitz Memorial. His account was suspended last year, only to be reinstated a few months later by Elon Musk.) But four of Lindsay’s works remain on the recommended reading list of the anti-anti-racism organization FAIR, for which Weiss is the most public-facing member of the board of advisors. (Her podcast and newsletter frequently feature FAIR’s latest projects.) FAIR also highlights Lindsay in its guide “How to Talk to a Critical Theorist.” Lindsay’s co-hoaxer Peter Boghossian is also a founding fellow of Weiss’ “University of Austin.”
As it happens, I was already working on a newsletter about Lindsay’s podcast before Mandel’s on-air flub went viral. Remember the guy who called me an “evil neo-Marxist” after my recent campus talk about right-wing book bans and the silencing of history? He followed up via email a couple days later to share his sources. And the most prominent was a podcast by, you guessed it, James Lindsay. So I decided to have a listen. And, being some kind of masochist, I decided to jump into the deep end: a nearly three-hour treatise on “wokism” and Mao. I can’t say I learned much about his purported topic. But I do think I learned something about how this subset of the right really thinks about the modern left, and what they may intend to do with us.
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