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Wokeism in Court

I should begin by congratulating Frank Resartus on his excellent essay “Defeating the Equity ­Regime” (May). Resartus believes “conventional right-wing jurisprudence” on “just a handful of constitutional questions” could “defeat the [­equity] regime altogether.” The idea that the Supreme Court could deal a deathblow to wokeness is ­exciting—even more so now that ­Alito’s leaked draft opinion on the ­overturning of Roe shows that conservative justices are willing to make the tough decisions. Nevertheless, I expect it will be much more difficult to excise wokeism from our institutions.

Although the courts are a necessary weapon in beheading the woke hydra, they can’t be the only one. Take, for example, the history of affirmative action rulings by the courts. Even when conservatives have notched judicial victories, bureaucrats have found ways to work around the decisions. Consider Hopwood v. Texas (1996), in which a federal court ruled that race couldn’t be used as a basis for college admissions. In reaction, Texas passed House Bill 588, which granted automatic admission to all public universities for every student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class. This allowed schools to achieve their diversity preferences without any official consideration of race.

In a recent blogpost, commentator N. S. Lyons gave twenty reasons why the advance of wokeness will continue despite public resistance. The first reason: “One does not simply walk away from religious beliefs.” Wokeism is a religion. It has churches (human resource departments, the faculty lounge, etc.). They are inhabited by a clerisy. These bureaucrats’ sole professional function is to implement woke ideas in society at large. The court rulings imagined by Resartus would not result in mass layoffs among the priestly caste. The faithful would simply devote their energies to ­creatively circumventing the spirit (if not the letter) of those decisions.

Still, Resartus rightly notes that legal losses could be “a massive embarrassment” for woke ideologues. Here, he locates another critical weapon in the fight. Shame. Humiliation. Embarrassment. The woke take themselves very seriously. They pride themselves as intellectuals. They want to be feared and respected. Treating their ideas with open irreverence, mockery, and contempt will undermine their confidence. They might not relinquish their beliefs, but they will be more reticent to speak them. This would be a huge rhetorical victory on the field of public discourse. The woke should be ashamed of themselves. We need to remind them. Incessantly.

Adam Ellwanger
university of houston-­downtown
houston, texas

Frank Resartus is correct to point out that law underpins ­wokeness, and that the most relevant legal doctrines in this area rest on shaky constitutional and statutory grounds. It’s been strange in recent years to see conservatives, upset at the triumph of identity politics, assume that old methods and theories have failed, and that new doctrines are needed—like Professor Adrian Vermeule’s “common good constitutionalism.” For decades, conservative justices, namely Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, following the plain text of the law and applying conventional legal theories, have in their dissents shown themselves ready and willing to strike down affirmative action and push back against doctrines like “disparate impact.” They have simply been outnumbered by liberals and moderates on the Court. This is in part the fault of elected officials. George H. W. Bush not only signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, but appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court.

Yet the conservative movement has been learning. It was one of its finest moments when a decade and a half later activists and intellectuals on the right prevented the second Bush from giving us Harriet Miers, clearly unqualified and ideologically risky, and forced him to instead appoint Justice Alito. While Trump was in office, the Senate confirmed judges at a faster rate than during any time since the 1970s, including three that now sit on the Supreme Court. They haven’t all been perfect, but there won’t be any more Souters. It is probably far from ideal to have a system that depends so much on convincing five out of nine justices what the correct interpretation of the law is. Nonetheless, this is the system we have. Instead of navel gazing and inventing new theories of constitutional law, conservatives should pressure the Court to apply the principles that the majority of justices already hold to start delivering the fruits of decades of activism and electoral victories.

Richard Hanania
los angeles, california

Frank Resartus replies:

I thank Adam Ellwanger for his kind words. He is correct that wokeness has so pervaded American institutions that it will not vanish overnight once the laws that animate it are gone. Yet abolishing those laws, while not sufficient to defeat wokeness, is surely necessary. Take, for example, Mr. Ellwanger’s own exhortation to treat the woke with the contempt they deserve. Derision would indeed go a long way, if it were legal. But right now, as a matter of law, no employer can afford to tolerate anti-woke speech without inviting costly complaints and lawsuits. Nor can anyone who hopes to keep a job get away with vocal opposition to wokeness. The woke have advanced not because of some inscrutable process of cultural change or shift in the climate of opinion, but because the legal regime empowers them. We simply do not know what America would look like once the regime is dismantled, but until it is, there is no hope that wokeness will retreat.

I am likewise grateful to ­Richard Hanania—perhaps the most trenchant analyst of wokeness writing today—for his comments. The American right takes a strange pride in its intramural ­theoretical squabbles, as if thumbsucking essays and whither–conservatism panels were signs of intellectual vitality. Meanwhile, the right keeps losing. Hanania shows that it is no mystery why. Civil rights law—to which conservatives have until now for the most part meekly ­acquiesced—amounts to a Marxian regime demanding an equality that is contrary to nature. The only real test today of whether a particular politician or intellectual actually wants to conserve American liberty is whether he will cut the legal garrotte that has been strangling it to death.

Happiness

Ronald W. Dworkin’s recent article, “The Politics of Unhappiness” (May), helpfully identifies a major problem in clinical medicine. He observes that unhappiness with no direct cause is often tethered to something external, making it “artificial.” His argument that opioids, alcohol, and antidepressants are all a part of what he terms “stupefaction” as treatment for unhappiness is ­also very compelling. (I suspect that many who use opioids for chronic pain may be treating general unhappiness, especially since there is no clear evidence that ­opioids improve chronic pain scores).

Beyond this, I have serious concerns about the section of his piece addressing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a process that helps to break cycles of non-­productive thinking with rational counter-­statements. There is no reason the rational counter-statements need to be as grotesque as those Dworkin portrays. His examples assume that the individual is applying CBT to justify his or her deserved failures, but one could just as easily use the opportunity to provide Scripture as the rational counter-statement. I do not know if Dworkin would consider that stupefaction; Karl Marx certainly did. I was even more shocked with his negative view of the quotation “We can’t control what arrives in our life, but we can control how we respond to what arrives in our life” as a sign of shutting down the mind. I have been strongly encouraged by Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and I might choose that very line to summarize his work. I do not believe it can be argued that his Stoicism prevented him from rendering reasoned judgment on his life. I would even argue that what Dworkin sees as lowering standards (justifying lack of economic success by recognizing other virtues) could just as well be done properly as the ordering of affections (recognize success as being a good father and husband instead of a part of the technocratic elite).

Timothy Bass
potosi, missouri

Dworkin’s essay raises important concerns regarding the “stupefaction” of the masses, though I wonder if Dworkin’s position, tinged with a little of the extremeness he eschews, may represent the sort of pendulum swing that keeps us from finding central truths in our current woke climate.

For all his talk of “causes,” the author misses an opportunity to refer us back to the Four Causes that have grounded rational thought for thousands of years and would grant us now a more noble compass with which to navigate the current state of society. We can pursue science to develop our understanding of the body—neurotransmitters and all—(Material Cause), while also reverencing the unity of our spiritual nature (Formal Cause) embedded in a created objective order (Efficient Cause) for a purpose (Final Cause).

If we accept reduction of suffering in the service of healing and growth (as the use of anesthesia, for example, demands), we need to question not the instruments of pain reduction (which don’t always represent “stupefaction,” as in the case of anesthetization), but the intention behind their use. Even if opioids are widely abused, should we write them off as the source of the problem?

We could also go a step further into the personalist thought of St. John Paul II, who understood that the objective human faculties and the person as a subject with consciousness together form an integrated whole. Rather than simply rejecting psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, and technology, there’s more use in recognizing that certain subconscious factors, such as a history of trauma or even deeply held narratives from one’s family of origin, limit our free actus humanus, and that our dignity rests in the capacity to be freed from these limitations. St. John Paul II went so far as to call this one of the “primary tasks of morality and education”—to bring that which is locked in the darkness of our ­unconscious to the light of conscious awareness for the purpose of greater freedom and self-determination.

It is God’s providence and grace that help us in that task. Yes, by perseverance through suffering, possibly also with the aid of medication or mindfulness, informed professional accompaniment, technological advancement, or any other means he ordains. We should be more careful not to throw out the freedom with the Freudwater.

Gregory Bottaro
fairfield, connecticut

Ronald W. Dworkin replies:

Regarding Mr. Bottaro’s letter, I make a distinction in all my work between everyday unhappiness and clinical depression. Are antidepressants stupefying agents? Yes, in the sense that they keep a person’s conscience from seeing what it doesn’t want to see. But anti­depressant stupefaction is vital in clinical depression—a real disease that can be fatal. My concern is with the far greater numbers of people who take antidepressants for everyday unhappiness. In the same spirit, I make a distinction between people getting opioids for anesthesia and those self-injecting to escape their troubles. Both are forms of stupefaction, but I am no extremist (or fool); of course there is a difference between the two events. I do not simply write off all antidepressants and opioids, as Mr. Bottaro implies.

Moreover, rather than ignore the “darkness” that creates “limitations” for people (to use Mr. Bottaro’s words), I do just the opposite. When unhappy people take antidepressants, they sometimes stay in the darkness. The drugs can arrest their impulse to change their lives when their lives need changing. And the drugs are often prescribed with no exit strategy; people just stay on them. Mr. Bottaro’s excessive sympathy for psychopharmacology (and entertainment technologies) risks keeping people mired in darkness. It risks keeping unhappy people stupefied and in a rut.

Mr. Bass makes a good point about CBT that also applies to philosophy and religion. But I have never disagreed with his point. Certainly I do not view all forms of advice designed to help people think differently as stupefaction.

People would never do anything if they considered only their weaknesses. To act, people must think in terms of action, and to do so people must sometimes change how they think and ignore their weaknesses. Timidity in life is a great obstacle, and often the only obstacle. If new thinking enables strong and positive action, that is certainly not stupefaction.

Religion can incite such healthy thinking. CBT can too. Both can help people create the “inner space” in their minds needed to detach themselves from difficult life events, and to more readily endure them and persevere. But then there is advice meant to help people escape life (and reality) altogether, and not just to create a little distance from it. People perversely invert the value system or shut their minds down altogether—a self-poisoning of the mind. Sometimes CBT encourages this, on a mass scale.

Revangelicalism

Justin Lee’s “Holy Fear” (May) takes me back to my college days, when I remember Mad Max as an open-air preacher on campus at Indiana University. It’s easy to look back at the fundamentalism and “­legalism” of our youth and see their defects. It’s harder to ­appreciate their virtues, and more difficult still to appreciate how tomorrow’s generations will look back on us with the same skeptical eye we now cast at our forebears. A sanitized, “gospel centered,” moral therapeutic evangelicalism—an indicative stripped of any inconvenient imperatives, without the “Christ of High Strangeness” as Lee puts it, will itself one day be subjected to the judgment of its successors.

It strikes me that those who most complain of fundamentalism and legalism are often those who left those movements behind to join the educated classes, and who more or less have their lives “put together” by the standards of middle-class society. I grew up in a working-class, fundamentalist Pentecostal environment, in a church serving people with serious problems. The formerly incarcerated and the drug addict, for example, are people who not only understand their need for the power of the Holy Spirit to break the hold of sin in their lives, but ­also viscerally know what too many Christians only comprehend theoretically and abstractly: Sin kills. He who does not want to fall into destruction should treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Aaron M. Renn
indianapolis, indiana

What Aaron Renn explained in his February 2022 article, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” Justin Lee illustrates by personal experience in “Holy Fear.” Namely, that as we have shifted from the “Positive World” of Christianity as status enhancement to the “Negative World” of Christianity as social stigma, the seeker-sensitive approach of modern evangelicalism has failed miserably. Lee’s call for a return to a “Holy Fear,” a robust “moral order,” and greater “structure” amid a culture awash in a “sea of undifferentiated possibilities” is to be commended, as is his emphasis on fear of the Lord and the goodness of God’s moral law.

But in contrast to the moralistic therapeutic deism that the “Nones” and #Exvangelicals are rejecting in droves, Reformed Christianity strikes the right balance. In place of Luther’s Law-Gospel paradigm (over-simplistically understood as grace is good, law is bad), Reformed Christianity has historically communicated a threefold understanding of God’s moral law. As Calvin explains in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the law convicts of sin, constrains moral evil, and instructs the Christian in holy living. This final, positive role, often referred to as the “third use of the law,” is often lacking in modern evangelical parlance and is in urgent need of recovery.

Salvation comes to the Christian, according to Calvin, as a duplex ­gratia: a double grace of justification and sanctification. The two are distinct but inseparable. So important was this point to Calvin that when he published his Institutes, he placed the section on sanctification before the section on justification. How far we have fallen from a robust understanding of the goodness of God’s law.

The answer to the modern truncated gospel of cosmic affirmation is not white-knuckled moralism or discipline for the sake of discipline. The answer is the Cross. The Cross is where love and justice meet. The Cross is where our rightly wrathful and holy God poured out the punishment due our sins on his only son. And the Cross is where our obedience to God’s law was purchased at the price of Christ’s own blood (1 Peter 1:14–19).

The answer is not dampening the thunder of Sinai, or brushing over the anguish of the cross, but sitting in silent wonder at the holy love of our holy God. And then picking up our cross and following him.

Caleb Morell
washington, d.c.

Justin Lee replies:

The “negative world” is not merely hostile. It is cold, atomized, isolating. It wields loneliness as a weapon. Naturally, I am grateful to Aaron Renn and Caleb Morell for their letters; intellectual fellowship, across whatever distances, is a balm. And I’m pleased to hear that Mad Max is still circuiting the wastes of Midwestern memory.

Renn observes that fundamentalism’s loudest critics often abandoned the movement “to join the educated classes.” This is the key to understanding the divisions within American evangelicalism. From its inception—for both good and ill—evangelicalism has been a populist movement. But the professionalization of church leadership, which has kept pace with the world’s shallow meritocracy and phony credentialism, has alienated large swaths of the Body of Christ. On this score, the admonition of Scripture is rather straightforward: “Have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). The pity is that so many evangelical leaders have little else than credentials to show for their efforts. Seminaries increasingly devalue, or even abandon, the study of biblical languages. Today’s ministers are handy with organizational flowcharts but couldn’t diagram a Greek sentence to save their souls.

Nearly three decades have passed since Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and the movement is as scandalously anti-­intellectual as it has ever been, with the important difference that its midwit elites are all-in on the philistinism. If American evangelicalism is to survive as more than a chaplaincy to partisan politics, it must rediscover its unruly democratic underpinnings and direct populist energy toward restoring its institutions, never losing sight of how integral the life of the mind is to discipleship.

After reading Morell’s brief for Reformed Christianity, I revisited Marilynne Robinson’s essays on John Calvin’s influence on the American founding. I used to dismiss Calvin for his incoherent ontology, but Robinson taught me to admire his moral, sociological, and political genius, which gave us such innovations as: “The idealization of marriage; an economics based on asceticism and a sense of vocation, that is, of sanctified calling; a kind of personality formed around self-scrutiny and concern for the state of one’s soul.” Calvin’s ­influence can be felt in much of what is best about America.

“We tend to imagine that political culture must in effect be inherited, passively received,” writes Robinson. “This assumption has as a corollary the notion that the social order will sustain itself if we do not think and theorize about it, and in any case will not benefit if we do.” Morell recommends Calvin for his insights into holy living. I would add that as evangelicalism struggles to overcome its own decadence, it has much to learn from the work of a man who led a successful experiment in civic restoration, and whose social thought is uniquely fitted to republican ­institutions.

Photo by Silverbanks Pictures via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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