Charlotte Street Partners

BEYOND THE STREET

BEYOND THE STREET

Slaves to wokeism

Written by Alex Massie
18 June 2021

Earlier this week Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, posted on her website a withering critique of the culture of preening sanctimony and ideological certainty that, in her view, dominates social media and has infected younger adults in particular. “What matters is not goodness” she concluded, “but the appearance of goodness”. Much of this, she argued, is “obscene” and discourse is imperilled in the absence of good faith. “We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another” she concluded.

Social media is, of course, a performative space. This can be a splendid and liberating thing and the young may equally be forgiven their youth, for if students do not puzzle or even infuriate their elders, are they truly young themselves? It is the kind of thing supposed to go with the territory.

Hence, though, the manner in which “woke” politics has become a useful foil for a British government capable of appreciating that a so-called “culture war” can be used for its own purposes. The “patriotic” party will not be lectured by those determined to, as they see it, “cancel” British history or otherwise insist that this country’s past is especially, perhaps even uniquely, iniquitous. 

That the past contains any number of shameful episodes is hardly a surprise. That is what history is for and one day our own era will doubtless be judged and considered barbarous by future generations. In truth, “woke” is a term with which much of the public is blessedly unfamiliar but even for those on speaking terms with it, it has become a concept of rapidly diminishing returns. Perspective is the first casualty of any culture war. (Truth is merely the second victim.)

And, much of the time, discussions of history – and especially arguments about history where race plays a part – are, first, not really concerned with history at all and, second, a mighty distraction from issues of real contemporary significance.

So, sure, statues matter, for the symbols and the stories people tell about themselves are not trivial concerns. But if we are to argue about these it might be preferable to do so honestly and on the basis of sound history. This is not always the case. As Sir Tom Devine has observed, much of the argument over the monument to Henry Dundas in Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square has been built on some very shoddy history. Dundas was a complicated man – this is not meant as an excuse – but it has become fashionable in certain quarters, including Edinburgh City Council, to argue that because Dundas did not favour the immediate abolition of slavery, he was not opposed to the grim trade’s suppression at all. This requires one to believe that voting for the trade’s abolition in the House of Commons was not a vote for its abolition but, rather, a mere tactical manoeuvre designed to camouflage Dundas’s pro-slaving interests.

This is, as I say, poor history but there is also something self-regarding and perhaps even self-indulgent about these arguments. It is all about us and not really about the past at all, save to the extent such performances permit us to demonstrate how much better, and kinder, we are than our ancestors. Well, what of it? Is that not the very notion of progress? 

Yet kindness – a useful virtue ordinarily – can also be a form of boasting. It is also striking, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observes, that many of those preaching kindness exhibit little sign of possessing much of that commodity themselves. There is little grey in a world sorted, sometimes literally, into black and white. 

These broiling arguments impose an opportunity cost too. Notionally, there is no reason for this to be the case since more than one thing may be discussed at a time; in practical terms, however, one crowds out the other. It is interesting – I put it no more strongly than that – to witness how raging and strongly-held views about historic slavery shove aside any discussion of the realities of modern-day slavery. 

By some estimates modern slavery is now a “business” worth as much as $150bn and there may be as many as 40 million people worldwide imprisoned in de facto, if not de jure, slavery. To its credit, Theresa May’s government recognised this scourge and the passing of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act – itself a passion of her chief-of-staff, Fiona Hill – was a rare highlight in May’s ill-starred time in Downing Street. 

But then, of course, while there is an issue with modern slavery in the United Kingdom – some estimates suggest that, as an underground phenomenon, it may entrap as many as 10,000 people in this country – it is largely a problem elsewhere. Mostly in Asia and Africa, and one feature of contemporary discourse is that it is safer to criticise the injustices and wickedness of the western past than it is to focus on the Chinese or Congolese present.

If this is, in one sense, understandable it is only because intractable difficulties are always less popular causes than arguments over statues or symbols closer to home. Nevertheless, in a better-ordered environment there might be room for both. That imposes certain requirements, however. First, a certain modesty about our own history and an acknowledgment of its often brutal realities; second, and perhaps even more difficultly, a commitment to insist that poverty is no excuse for modern slavery in China or India or Pakistan or Mauritania. For if human rights are universal, it behoves those with the most to stand up for, and work towards improving, the standing of those with the least. A more serious discourse, or at least a discourse imbued with a truer sense of moral purpose, would recognise that and, perhaps, do more about it. Doing so might match the appearance of goodness with actual goodness.  

About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie

We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.

To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture for us each week. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.

Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of
The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday

We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here

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