Talking Points

Is wokeness self-defeating?

Over 100 House Republicans voted against removing Confederate statues from the Capitol, a majority of the caucus. A GOP congressman was linked to a fundraiser with a notorious white nationalist. Both stories appear to confirm liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias' argument that conservatives are steamed about critical race theory because they're the villains on race and American history.

Or do they? Critical race theorists are correct to note that racism has been a tragic and malevolent part of our country's history, with consequences we continue to live with today. But treating patriotism and any serious reckoning with this experience as if they are in tension with each other — as the "provocative" 1619 Project and various national anthem protests to some extent do — is something we will regret.

It does not leave us with a shared country or contribute to social peace among diverse groups. Anti-patriotic wokeness is also self-defeating on its own terms: In a polarized political climate, it is actually deepening insensitivities among people who feel forced to choose between love of country and racial justice.

Not everyone will choose greater sensitivity, as the woke hope. Instead some now see any change to issues concerning race as a surrender to those who see the entire American project as irredeemably connected to white supremacy. One Republican congressman cited critical race theory as a reason for voting against the Confederate statue removal. Others did so in justifying their opposition to Juneteenth. It's morally defensible to separate an admiration for the Founding Fathers from the Confederacy, despite fears of a slippery slope. But that separation is under assault and not well supported by the view that the arrival of slavery represents our true founding. Many opponents of removing Confederate monuments have long argued that those coming for Jefferson Davis would not stop there but move on to Thomas Jefferson. And while those who go from there to Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant remain a radical minority, Yglesias' own career trajectory demonstrates how hard it is for liberals to defend ground from those to their left.

Radicalism breeds reaction. It is all unnecessary. As Yglesias himself concedes, some of the premises of the 1619 Project are historically wrong and the old American consensus that progress toward racial equality represents the true fulfilment of our 1776 founding principles is the better path, even as many conservativesmyself includedargue that ideas by themselves aren't a sufficient basis for a nation-state.

The alternative will close the minds of many decent people with normal patriotic instincts to the appeals for racial justice their fellow countrymen are making.