By the time this is published, one of two things will be true: Joe Rogan will be a martyr to woke cancel culture and the machinations of Leftist PR machines, or he will have survived one of the most sustained attacks ever experienced by a public figure and possibly revealed that wokeness itself has become a paper tiger.
One way or another, the episode has revealed a waning power in the cancel-happy Left, though Rogan’s removal from Spotify would most assuredly show that they still have claws. But it is telling that simply screaming about “misinformation” was not enough to silence a figure of Rogan’s stature: racial blackmail had to be employed, and even that got pushback from the leaders of Spotify, though whether that pushback was enough remains to be seen. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome, we are going to have to reckon with the ideology that put Rogan’s career at risk, either by renewing the fight against it after a partial loss, or by mopping it up after a total victory.
If wokeness does still have juice in the tank, then part of its power surely comes from its amorphous nature. It resists definition and traffics in emotivist obscurantism not merely because most of its followers are not rigorous thinkers (though they are not), but also because this works better as a tactic. One cannot argue against what cannot be defined. It’s like nailing jelly to the wall.
It was in the service of defining wokeness that I have taken up my pen before. In the past, I have argued that the philosophy has its roots on the social media app Tumblr, where it was first embraced by the toxic fandom of the television show “Glee,” and then applied to try to force all of the world to become a gigantic high school where the popular and yet somehow still “oppressed” rule with an iron fist. I do not believe, and continue to not believe, that wokeness is a primarily academic phenomenon, both because the ideas that prefigured it have been swimming around academia without willing ears for a long time, and because most of the academic theories that prefigure it fail to predict the behavior of its supporters. Rather, wokeness seems to be more like the paranoia that animated the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy era, in that it seems to primarily appeal to young, hysterical, middle-class, and (mostly) white women. My previous essays were an attempt to see why those women would search for the ideology in the first place, and why it would attract them as such zealous followers.
However, knowing who the movement attracts is not the same as knowing what it wants. More than one exasperated conservative has asked where wokeness’s iconoclastic crusade will stop, some in book form. I believe I have found the answer to what their end goal is, and therefore what paradigm can predict their actions going forward. It may not surprise the reader that it comes from an academic source. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the academic source in question also denies the movement’s origins in academia, and not out of any fondness for wokeness. Rather, the essay in question criticizes the movement from within one of the first movements to see its rise, where that rise occurred not by means of academic theorizing, but by means of activist organizing, which produced an ideology of its own. For any conservative who has wondered what racism has to do with making America’s entire economy green at the point of a gun, or why a movement that claims to spurn neoliberalism and corporate power also faints at the very idea of questioning the “science” on an infectious disease to the point of trying to sabotage a popular entertainer, this essay is your answer.
In volume 54, issue 1, i.e. its Winter 2010 issue, the journal Orbis published a most curious essay: “Purifying the World: What The New Radical Ideology Stands For.” The essay is devilishly tricky to find, with most versions either removed from the internet or locked behind paywalls. However, through artful searching of dead links on the internet archive, I was able to download a PDF, which I have shared with Human Events.
The article was not written, as you may expect from its title, by a conservative ideologue criticizing the philosophy from outside. Nor was it written by a critical theorist in immaculate jargon. Rather, it was written by Ernest Sternberg, an obscure professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Buffalo, and at the time, an active member of the environmentalist movement. Sternberg was attempting to define a new ideology that he observed sweeping his colleagues – particularly his younger colleagues – and to answer a very important question that today would seem redundant, if not outright stupid: is this ideology totalitarian in the same way that fascism or Marxism were? Sternberg concluded that it was. More depressingly, he concluded that no one had the language to describe it, and therefore would not know how to fight it when it began to assert its hand in politics.
“For over a decade now, the press has treated global activists on their own terms, as effusive young idealists, and has failed to ask where such world-transforming enthusiasm has led in the past,” Sternberg wrote. “What passes for scholarship on the subject almost always comes from the keyboards of sympathizers. With rare exceptions, U.S. conservatives, too, have been off the mark, viewing the agitators as socialists or (in the U.S. sense) extreme liberals. These are faulty images of an adversary that has radically changed.”
What was that adversary? Sternberg himself admitted, in a prescient passage, that it was difficult to label, much less define, and that this was by design. “Most of the theorists manage to marginalize themselves through obscurantism,” Sternberg lamented. “As ever, theoretical obscurity invests the activist movement with a seemingly profound pedigree, while sheltering it from prying questions. Still, if one trolls through the activists’ practical literature, while conscientiously avoiding its theorists, a coherent political vision does emerge. It needs a name.”
In laying this new ideology at the feet of practical activists rather than theorists, Sternberg was making an important distinction. This was a philosophy of doers, not thinkers. As such, Sternberg wrote, it was easier to tell what it was against than what it was for:
“Its enemy is the global monolith called Empire, which exerts systemic domination over human lives, mainly from the United States. Empire does so by means of economic liberalism, militarism, multinational corporations, corporate media, and technologies of surveillance, in cahoots with, or under the thrall of, Empire’s most sinister manifestation, namely Zionism.” Sternberg posited several different labels for the new ideology, both from its opponents (“Zombie Left,” “New Barbarism,” “nihilists,” “transational progressivism,” “neoprogressivism,” “oxymoronic Left,” “cadaverous Left,” and “red fascism”), and from its supporters (“anti-globalization,” “alter-globalization,” “no-borders,” “eco-socialism,” “grass-roots globalism,” “global resistance,” “global justice movement,” “global intifada,” “transnational activism,” “protest networks,” “movement of movements,” “peace and justice movement,” and “coalition of the oppressed”). However, for Sternberg, none of these terms captured the ideology’s real purpose, and so he proposed a decidedly clunky but nevertheless revealing term: “world purificationism.” Sternberg:
“What the movement actually opposes is not global connections, per se, but a sinister force extending its mechanical feelers through all local communities and thereby exerting unjust power over them. Though a mouthful, world purificationism would do well in expressing what the movement wants. It wants to achieve a grand historical vision: the anticipated defeat of imperial capitalist power in favor of a global network of beneficent culture-communities, which will empower themselves through grassroots participatory democracy, and maintain consistency across movements through the rectifying power of NGOs, thereby bringing into being a new era of global justice and sustainable development, in which the diverse communities can harmoniously share an earth that has been saved from destruction and remade pristine.”
Sternberg gave as an example of world purificationist rhetoric the remarks of Irene Khan, then-secretary general of Amnesty International, who told the Financial Times: “If you look today and want to talk about human rights, for the vast majority of the world’s population they don’t mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can’t read a newspaper, to talk about the right to work to a man who has no job; human rights mean nothing to them unless it brings some change on these issues.”
As Sternberg marveled, “this astounding assertion seems to mean that political prisoners (on whose behalf Amnesty International gained worldwide respect) are insufficient in themselves to merit a humanitarian campaign when so many hungry and unemployed people do not care about them.” In short, “political prisoners need to check their privilege.”
Sternberg also identified world purificationism with two distinct but revealing forces: the World Social Forums, and the regime of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. However, he also took pains to note that despite its affinity with Marxism, the movement was not Marxist. Indeed, according to Sternberg, “no single theoretical language gives coherence to the movement.” Rather, Sternberg argued in effect that world purificationism was not animated by principle, but rather by a very concrete idea of the utopia they wanted to bring about, and which all means were permitted to bring into being. To assemble a picture of what that utopia looked like, Sternberg drew on a wide variety of books by activist authors, including (but not limited to) titles like A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible by Walden F. Bello, Globalizing Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World by David Solnit, and Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements by Derek Wall.
So far, so good, but a skeptical observer might note that much of this sounds like generic Leftist gobbledygook. How can we be sure it’s a match for wokeness?
To answer that, I will make several observations. Firstly, one of the major debates in anti-woke circles is whether wokeness can properly be called a “religion,” seeing as it seems to have both a very clear eschatology and a Manichean moral view. Sternberg anticipated precisely this debate when he defined world purificationism somewhat paradoxically as a “non-religious chiliastic movement, which preaches global human renewal and predicts apocalypse as its alternative.” “Chiliastic,” for the uninformed, is another word for “millenarian,” IE the Christian notion that Jesus will reign on earth for 1000 years before the end of the world, or (in more secular terms) that humanity can experience utopia here on earth. As Bill Buckley might have put it, world purificationism might not have believed in traditional religious end times, but it still sought to immanentize the eschaton. In other words, it was a technically secular ideology but its animating spirit was a religious fantasy.
But this, too, could describe any number of Leftist ideologies, communism among them, so let’s get more specific. To see where purificationism truly prefigures wokeness, we have to take a look at the first “tenet” of world purificationism that Sternberg outlined – its opposition to what it calls “the toxic.” A term which refers not just to meme phrases like toxic masculinity, or toxic whiteness, but which encompasses opposition to those things along with radical environmentalism and obsession with avoiding pollutants (the true motivation underlying COVID apocalypticism). Therefore, I ask the reader to bear with me through the following passage and see if anything sounds familiar:
“Like ideologies past, purificationism contrasts the degenerate present with the ideal future. Though its writings do not put it just this way, they do present history divided between the toxic and the pure. According to this doctrine, the world is divided between the empowered global system which is the purveyor of toxicity and disempowered communities that suffer its consequences. The world system that perpetuates oppression is known as Empire. It exercises domination through corporate tentacles, media manipulation, state power, and military prowess. It is selfish, greedy, ruthless, racist, and exploitative, and heedlessly pollutes the earth. It imposes its media-saturated culture, dehumanizing technologies, and exploitative production systems on subject peoples.
The outlook that upholds Empire is known as ‘liberalism’ (known in the United States as conservatism). Someone who has sympathies with liberalism might associate it with, among other things, individuals’ right to freely express political beliefs under laws that protect such expression; and the freedom to contract with others for personal and business affairs under legal institutions that protect contract and property. To the new ideologues, however this is wrong. Liberalism panders to desires for freedom, while it actually contaminates human motivations, making people greedy and selfish.[…]
Under the thrall of Neoliberal Empire, people live in poverty, food is contaminated, products are artificial, wasteful consumption is compelled, indigenous groups are dispossessed, and nature itself is subverted. Invasive species run rampant, glaciers melt, and seasons are thrown out of kilter, threatening world catastrophe. At Empire’s forefront is the United States, which ingests the bulk of the world’s resources; uses advanced military technology to police the world; flexes its global fingers to scratch profits from the poor; and uses surveillance technologies and anti-terror laws to keep its own citizens in check. Whereas Empire’s overseers are white (or symbolically so, if for example they happen to be black or Asian), the weak are people of color, proving that the system is racist.”
If you don’t recognize anything, allow me to quote to you from the Green New Deal itself:
“It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal . . . to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
Sound familiar? But the comparisons only get eerier when you look at how purificationism understands its utopia. Sternberg again:
“Whereas capitalism creates and destroys and is constantly changing, the new order will be sustainable. It will run on alternative energy, organic farming, local food markets, and closed-loop recyclable industry, if any industry is needed. People will travel on public transit, or ride cars that read lightly on the earth, or even better, ride bicycles. They will occupy green buildings constructed of local materials and inhabit cities growing organically within bioregions. Life will be liberated from carbon emanations. It will be a permanent, placid way of life, in which economies are integrated into the earth’s ecosystem.”
And here is where the parallels get downright eerie (emphasis mine):
“The new world will also achieve cultural purity. By ‘culture’ purificationism does not mean interesting folkways, nor simply heritage, and certainly not any literary and musical canon. Rather, culture is the offspring of folk-spirit: that mysterious life-source from which identity, meaning, and pride emerge. It is found in indigenous life-style, local habitat, feeling of community, and the heady experience of fringe art. Even communities that may have little left by way of traditions can look inward, perhaps just to their shared experience of oppression, for the folk-spirit from which to extract identity and pride.[…]
In this new world, individuals’ beliefs will grow naturally from their cultures. As against rampant Americanization, indigenous ways of life become secure. What is more, communities will be protected from criticism leveled at them by means of abstract, rationalist reasoning.
Were it not for this cultural protection, Empire would define communities with first-world stereotypes, turning diverse peoples into Westerners’ preconceptions of subjugated Orientals. It would subject them to rationalist expectations, impose onto them corporate media products, and make them to adhere to Western conceptions of freedom – which are Trojan horses for cultural hegemony. By dressing up its system as if it were a universal culture, Empire reveals its racism and chauvinism. In doing so, Empire undermines a culture’s indigenous dignity, defiling what would otherwise be pure. Indigenous peoples are like endangered species. And their cultures are like sensitive ecosystems, subject to destruction by Neoliberal contamination.
In the run-up to the new world, victims especially enjoy the status of ethereal purity. They do so by dint of their victimhood, a sign that they are antagonists of Empire. Allies of Empire who claim to have been victims (i.e. Zionists) are merely using their alleged victimhood to justify oppression, since they are constituents (or overlords) of Empire, and Empire only empowers itself; it cannot victimize itself. It should be clear, though, that when acts of resistance occur against Empire and cause mass civilian casualties, the maimed and the dead are not victims of purity, something that is, by definition, impossible. Rather, such casualties are understandable blowbacks of Empire’s aggression.
Sternberg did not use the word “safe space” to define this utopia, because the term was not as widely understood as it is today. But we can. In effect, this is all description of an ideology whose utopia is just that: all of the world transformed into a giant safe space, where everyone can play with their crayons while eating organic food and never being told that what they say doesn’t make sense. It’s pathetic, but what’s more important is that it’s absolutely impossible. Which is why, necessarily, someone has to use force to keep this utopia pure. But don’t worry! The purificationists want you to know that this will be done through “democracy!” Sternberg again:
The new world will have political structures very different from the republican regimes that lead Empire.[…] [T]he new world will be purely democratic. It will be a grassroots democracy in which participants will have direct voice through the bund with which they identify, and no bund will dominate others. The democratic process will proceed through meetings freed from the manipulative reigns of law, procedure, precedent, and hierarchy. These will be forums in which non-hegemonic discourse will flourish. And the forums will be assuredly democratic because bona-fide grass-roots progressives will facilitate them.
On a world scale, oppressed peoples’ bunds will discover commonalities across borders. Transnational rules will increasingly overcome chauvinist laws bounded by nationality. Climate and energy flows will come under transnational management; rules regarding labor will transcend borders; nation-states will weaken.
See? So it’s all going to be democratic! Everything will be fine. Oh:
The activists do not mean electoral participation, but peoples’ active engagement in political matters that affect their lives. Whether a road to be widened, school curriculum to be introduced, beach to be redeveloped, crime to be reduced, or employment to be increased, community members should, it is thought, be directly involved in making the policy decision. More often than not, grassroots participation takes the form of a meeting in which much talk goes on and then a consensus is announced by the meeting’s facilitator, without any troublesome recourse to parliamentary rules of order.
The cynic might observe at this point that it sounds like the “facilitator” is the one with all the actual power, and can just make whatever policy they like while everyone else is shouting at each other. So we must ask: who exactly are the “facilitators” to be? Who’s going to make sure discourse remains “non-hegemonic,” or that those evil rationalists start colonizing the world by trying to understand things or demanding that other people make sense? Who, in Carl Schmitt’s famous phrase, decides the “state of exception.” Well, actually, the answer is anything but democratic:
“Led by NGOs, which are unaccountable to an electorate and escape political checks and balances, these progressives want to establish global laws that overcome US constitutional jurisdiction.[…] Organized cadres of rectifiers, known as NGOs, will serve as the world’s humanitarian enforcers and equalizers.”
In other words, under the patina of “democracy,” the movement really seeks to create something more comparable to activist supremacy, or as Sternberg called it, “participatory absolutism.” That is, if all the world is to be reduced to a kindergarten class where all the different cultures play together, the teacher analogue, who will make sure little Uncle Sam has to share, and takes away blocks (and land) from little Israel, is the activist NGO class. In short, like so many ideologies, the will to power underlies this one.
And just who would be the purificationist dictator? Well, I will refer back to Sternberg:
“The purificationist leader must in fact be nothing like a dictator or strongman. She must, instead, be a caring facilitator, one always ready with a smile and a kind word, one who has the sensitivity and charisma, and has the dedication to the purest of ideals, to be able to express her constituent folk-communities’ genuine intentions. Should occasional friction develop among communities, with even some regrettable bloodshed, she will blame the enemies of humanity. And should future conflict arise and some communities prove themselves intransigent, then her regime will have to put principle temporarily aside, and place the highest possible priority, at whatever cost, on securing those on whom all future purity and justice depends, the global palingenetic community itself.
Sternberg does not say what form this “securing” will take, so I assume the purificationist leader in question will prove her power by accusing the intransigent communities of wanting to date her.
But seriously, if any philosophy prefigures the anti-intellectual, ochlocratic, deliberately obscurantist, often incoherent, and most definitely totalitarian philosophy of wokeness, it is what Sternberg calls “world purificationism.” And, indeed, Sternberg even points to an important point that any opponent of wokeness might have recognized but probably didn’t have the words to express until now:
“For twentieth-century fascism and communism, science supplied the best justification, whether socialist science or race science. Today’s justification is humanitarianism.[…] Impassioned hatred of enemies combined with self-exculpatory moral deception about mass violence – these are the portents of a movement that claims the purest of world-transformative ideals.”
So, now that we have seen Sternberg’s early warning about world purificationism, we must ask a follow-up: now that it has exploded into the world in the form of wokeness, the Green New Deal, and arguably the Great Reset, what does reading this early account of it tell us.
Firstly, it shows us the extent to which wokeness dehumanizes those it claims to care about. Many commentators such as John McWhorter have accused wokeness of infantilizing the underprivileged – blacks chief among them. In fact, even this is too optimistic. The woke do not see black people, or whoever their Twitter feeds told them to love this week, as children. They see them, per Sternberg, as endangered species: as poor, dumb animals who will die out if left to their own devices without their protection. Moreover, as Sternberg notes, even in 2010, the movement was demonizing the US and Israel with equal fervor while courting Islamists, which means that its successor, wokeness, should adopt the same antisemitic pattern despite its supposed love for the oppressed. Jews, it seems, are not “endangered” enough for the purificationists, or for the woke. This also explains the fanatical maternal rage that underlies so much of the otherwise childless woke movement – it is very easy to view endangered species (or endangered cultures) as pets, and therefore as an inferior substitute for children. This is a movement of cat ladies, except instead of cats, it’s entire races and cultures they’re obsessed with.
Secondly, in viewing the entire woke movement through the environmental, purity-obsessed lens of purificationism, we see one easy unifying principle that explains its obsession with “green policies,” its contempt for “problematic” speech, and its COVID alarmism all at once. I can’t do better in summarizing this than woke journalist Andrew Marantz, who wrote:
“In one of our conversations, Mr. Powell compared harmful speech to carbon pollution: People are allowed to drive cars. But the government can regulate greenhouse emissions, the private sector can transition to renewable energy sources, civic groups can promote public transportation and cities can build sea walls to prepare for rising ocean levels. We could choose to reduce all of that to a simple dictate: Everyone should be allowed to drive a car, and that’s that. But doing so wouldn’t stop the waters from rising around us.”
In other words, when you express an opinion the woke don’t like, you’re not simply disagreeing. You’re spewing pollutants into the air – pollutants which have their strongest negative impact on the most endangered species. This is particularly obvious in the case of Joe Rogan, who in this framing has exposed people to evil (non-woke) ideas (viruses of the mind), and to a literal virus, possibly the purest example of a pollutant imaginable. Moreover, in calling for the end of COVID restrictions, woke people see Rogan as trying to force them out of their pure locked down apartments and into the messy, polluted world where they might have to socialize with people who spew racism into the air, just as they might have to inhale viruses or pollutants. Which is to say that this is an ideology whose root is hypochondria – it is so obsessed with COVID because COVID is a metaphor for its enemy: a virus that never dies, but always finds new variants in which to conceal its toxicity and infect the world. It’s just that in this case, the “virus” is the desire to (literally) breathe free. It’s ironic that this movement’s greatest enemy is Donald Trump, seeing as he’s a germophobe himself, but at least he doesn’t seek to burn the entire world order to the ground with the sociopolitical equivalent of rubbing alcohol.
Thirdly, in knowing what the most sophisticated woke activists want, we can remove their mystique and force them to defend their utopia on practical and moral grounds. Seeing as wokeness has, to this point, thrived on seeming to be for nothing and against everything, this is an important counterattack for the anti-woke to have at hand. It is easy to argue that everything is horrible and polluted and unjust by comparison with a fantasy kindergarten class where no one is mean to each other and there are no tradeoffs or hard decisions, but that world cannot exist. In fact, it’s so pathetically obvious that it can’t exist that we might get a few comic thrills out of forcing the woke to try to defend how it would be created, or how it would be maintained.
Finally, I hope this exegesis of Sternberg’s overlooked essay has given us all tools to understand and describe what we are against without falling into the trap of using imprecise language like “neo-Marxism,” “postmodernism,” or other terms that hint at the problem but do not capture the specific and detailed nature of the utopia the woke movement seeks to impose, and which imply incorrect things about its doctrine. The world purificationist impulse, or the woke impulse, or whatever you want to call it, might express itself in feminized, soft, humanitarian language and cry and stamp its foot prettily when disobeyed, but as Pink Floyd might say, it’s just another brick in the wall. Or in this case, just another brick – another locally sourced, organic, no pesticide brick – paving the road to hell.