To many Americans, the rise of the “woke” must seem like a frighteningly realistic remake of the classic science fiction movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It does not take much exposure to leftist college activists and their like-minded sympathizers to feel like a significant percentage of the population has come under the spell of a ruthless alien ideology.
The forced resignation of The New York Times’s editorial page editor James Bennet by staffers who objected to his publication of a conservative op-ed, the push by Princeton University professors to create a committee to oversee “racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of the faculty,” and the berating of DC diners who declined to raise their fists in support of Black Lives Matter demonstrators — all of these highly publicized incidents are but glimpses of the much larger campaign to delegitimate U.S. history and its associated ideals.
What binds and fortifies the self-declared woke is a cynical academic philosophy known as “critical race theory.” Refined over decades from deconstructionism through political correctness to identity politics, it falsely brags to be the first to discover that the human mind can never know anything for certain.
So, having declared a limit to knowledge, critical race theory proceeds to assume that all cultures, no matter how noble they may appear, are inventions of the dominant power structure designed to keep other groups in line. Even in the United States, critical race theory insists, long-held beliefs in limited government, free markets, and the importance of family are simply camouflage for male privilege and the suppression of racial minorities. To be truly enlightened, the theory concludes, one must relentlessly denounce these and any related values.
Upon hearing this for the first time, most normal people quite naturally feel as if they’ve missed a step. Indeed, how does accepting the unprovability of all worldviews justify the thoroughly discrediting of any one of them? Shouldn’t acknowledging the mind’s limitations only make the truly wise person humbler and more curious?
For those not bothered by such questions, however, critical race theory has a built-in way to ensure they need never deal with them again: simply treat any skeptic as an unconscious dupe of the white, male power structure. In other words, jump as quickly as possible from debating ideas to attacking character.
We’ve Seen This Movie Before
If this convenient ideological insulation sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The rise of critical race theory is far from the first time that a flawed and seriously destructive social theory has flourished by declaring that any observed fault should be interpreted as a psychological defect in the observer.
One need only go back to the 1890s, when much of the intellectual world was smitten with a belief system known as “psychoanalytic theory.” Based on the research of a Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, who claimed that emotionally disturbed patients experience symptom relief while sharing uncensored dreams and word associations, it argued that every person was motivated by desires, drives, and needs that were repressed in childhood.
Promising the kind of authority that could be claimed by anyone with a knowledge of humanity’s “real motivations,” Freud’s ideas were quickly taken up by a variety of groups, both inside and outside of medicine, to advance their interests. This was especially true of the media, which regularly sought the opinions of psychoanalysts to give their magazine, newspaper, and broadcast reports credibility.
By the 1960s, psychoanalysis was being used to justify social changes at least as dramatic as what today’s woke have proposed. When counterculture gurus like Timothy Leary, R. D. Laing, and Will Shutz began suggesting that it might be healthier to just express one’s repressed childhood desires, rather than put a lid on them, young people across America, some already protesting the Vietnam War, readily agreed. The result was nearly a decade of epidemic drug use, campus rioting, and cultural attacks on traditional morality.
A Failure to Deliver
While Freud’s psychoanalytic theory always had its share of thoughtful critics, defenders of the theory often resorted to a tautology-ridden, woke-like defense: anyone who challenged Freud was said to be denying his own unconscious conflicts and was, therefore, to be ignored. The retort proved to be so persuasive that at one point, the chair of psychiatry at every major U.S. medical school was occupied by a psychoanalyst.
What finally did manage to discredit psychoanalytic theory — ending its ability to justify any kind of social revolution — is worth recalling, for it suggests how the current popularity of today’s critical race theory will collapse. Beginning in the 1990s, as pressure grew on health insurance companies to pay for psychological problems as well as physical ones, efforts were made to more rigorously evaluate the different therapies.
The studies that followed showed that nearly every emotional complaint could be treated far more quickly, effectively, and economically without psychoanalysis, which seemed to be no more useful than doing nothing at all. Psychoanalysis thrived for nearly a century as an intellectual justification for a multitude of movements, but it couldn’t survive the failure to deliver on its foundational promise: improved mental health.
How School Choice Could Expose Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory has a foundational promise: advancing wokeness will automatically improve the lives of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. This is, admittedly, a much harder contention to debunk directly, given that we’d somehow have to get inside the minds of all the self-identified woke and then document how their outlook has failed to help different social groups. There is an indirect test, however, that has been going on for quite some time.
More than a generation ago, the late economist Milton Friedman suggested that all parents, especially poor and minority parents, be allowed to take the funding their communities would normally spend on their child’s education and direct it to any placement they wished. Because of opposition from teacher unions, people have come to think of his “school choice” policy as just another educational reform.
As Friedman himself understood, however, it is an approach to learning that encapsulates all the values critical race theory most intensely despises: academic achievement, family cohesion and support, religious faith, and respect for tradition. To the extent, then, that school choice tangibly delivers for America’s minorities what critical race theory does not, its very success undercuts any reason to be woke.
At present, there are 66 experimental school choice programs in America, involving more than half the states. While the programs cumulatively involve only a tiny fraction of the country’s 56.4 million K-12 students, more than 150 studies have shown that the minority children who have participated not only score as well academically as their white peers academically but are just as likely to graduate high school, go to college, and graduate with a degree. Equally impressive is the fact that minority participants report far fewer problems with prejudice or discrimination.
How long the woke of today can remain oblivious to what truly improves the lives of racial and ethnic minorities likely depends on how long it will take the growing number of Friedman-like programs to become widely noticed. In Florida, where school choice plans are more common but still represent a fraction of the state’s children, black and Hispanic moms stunned local progressives in 2018 by providing the margin needed to elect conservative Republican and school choice advocate Ron DeSantis the state’s current governor.
That brings us to the 2020 election and the fact that Republicans have abandoned their usually elaborate party platform to back just a few critical items — among them, expanded school choice. Few seem to have any idea just how much a GOP victory, then, would jeopardize the viability of wokeness. For the sooner more Americans see what really leads to racial and ethnic equality, the sooner critical race theory will join psychoanalysis in the historical dustbin of discredited intellectual fads.