Julie Burchill

Wake up to Woke!

The “woke” movement is supposed to be progressive but it’s taking us backwards

The Washington Post / Getty Images

It was all going so well in the West. Women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities seemed to be moving inevitably towards parity, from the last century seamlessly into the present one. A female British Prime Minister in 1979, a black American President in 2009, more gays than you could shake a rainbow-striped stick at on prime time TV - all of them pulling down the barriers one block at a time. Right-wing bigots defending the old order looked increasingly ludicrous and desperate.

And then woke came along and it all went wrong.

As progressive thinking somehow ate itself, a looking-glass world came into being where it was fine to demonise Jews, feminists and lesbians not interested in having sex with men in dresses - leading to the surreal situation, as we enter the third decade of the twentieth century, wherein censorship, misogyny, racism and homophobia now comes principally from the Left.

The term “woke” - meaning anything other than the opposite of being asleep - was probably first used in the 2008 Erykah Badu song Master Teacher with its repeated, somewhat wearisome insistence “I stay woke” after which it became a watchword among sections of the black American community. After the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by police, woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signalled awareness of injustice it signalled a refusal to put up with this state of affairs.

It must be said that even when used by such an obviously underprivileged people as black Americans, there is something creepy about the word. Compared to “I have a dream” it sounds curiously smug and inactive, indicating that one is somehow inherently better than other people without actually having to do anything to prove it.

But it wasn’t till the smuggest, most inactive people on earth - privately-educated and over-protected students - got their hands on it that the true folly of woke was revealed in all its gory glory.

Students who might previously have marched against actual war and oppression were suddenly woke by the clammy kiss of identity politics, probably the most deranged force to hit public discourse since the Flat Earth Society. No longer up to analysing society from a no-nonsense economic Marxist standpoint - just another Dead White Male, after all - and though officially places of intellectual challenge, universities were soon refurbished as pity-party play-pens where feelings trumped facts, as they do for infants. When the veteran feminist Julie Bindel - feared and loathed by the woke for her insistence that men cannot be magicked into women - was de-platformed at a college in Texas the reason given was that it was a “safe space.”

Students who might previously have marched against actual war and oppression were suddenly woke by the clammy kiss of identity politics, probably the most deranged force to hit public discourse since the Flat Earth Society.

Though the woke think of themselves as the most enlightened group in any society, both their beliefs and the way they express them hark back to a darker time. They are uniquely peevish and paranoid - a cross between Just William’s spoiled accomplice Violet Elizabeth Bott and the Stasi. Over-indulged by parents who told them they were special, they are terrified by the adult world of competition and thus rage against capitalism; cutting their wisdom teeth in the echo-chamber of social media, their pursuit of those who refuse to parrot their claims (men can be women, prostitution is work like any other) at times resembles every witch hunt from Salem to #MeToo. A recent survey by the think-tank Policy Exchange claimed that fewer than half of British university students support freedom of speech.

It’s not just the style but the content of their arguments which make woke reactionary rather than revolutionary. It takes in activists who claim that lesbianism is “transphobic” and that sportswomen should accept second place to competitors who were born male, Fauxminists who believe that a permanent underclass of prostituted women is acceptable and that wearing a hijab is subversive, Antifa in America and Corbynite clowns who repeat ancient anti-Semitic tropes about the Jews - and princes who seem to believe in the divine right of kings when it comes to being criticised. Their analysis of class oppression is conspicuous in its absence, fitting for a group to whom only the personally experienced is political. Thus an unemployed middle-aged manual worker in the American Rust Belt has more “privilege” than Meghan Markle due to being a white male.

This is not politics; this is the roar of the entitled mediocre, desperate to hold centre stage and terrified by any challenge to their flimsy sense of self - a temper-tantrum with a socially concerned alibi. The woke are self-centred to the point where they care so much about “micro-aggressions” towards themselves that they don’t seem to care about atrocities that happen to others in “faraway countries of which we know nothing” to quote Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia.

Shawn Goldberg /


Being called “Darlin’” by a bus-driver = Evil.

Female genital mutilation = It’s Their Culture.

The old saw “youth is wasted on the young” has never been so true as it is of the woke. As well as being averse to rigorous thinking, they are the first generation to want less of everything - less sex, less booze, less travel - as opposed to the sexagenarians now pushing up the senior STD and cirrhosis rates. Also, less laughter - since this appears to be the first generation bred without a sense of humour.

The “non-binary,” in particular, are a miserable lot. When I think back to my own adolescent adventures in sexuality – picked up from divinely mixed-up teenage idols from David Bowie to Patti Smith – I remember how mischievous we were, how thrilled when our dads enquired while watching Top Of The Pops if ‘it’ was a boy or a girl. We took such delight in pretending to be gay or coming out as actually gay, even though times weren’t half so enlightened then. We had Lou Reed; the woke have the profoundly mediocre Sam Smith, who recently announced that he wishes to be addressed as “they.” It’s grimly predictable that Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side has been denounced by Canadian students as “transphobic” - being both sexy and funny, it must be bad.

The woke would be less objectionable if they lived up to their own pristine standards but they fall woefully short. In an inversion of Carl Jung’s great saying “you are what you do, not what you say you’ll do” once you have identified yourself as woke you can get away with anything. Thus the Sussexes feel free to lecture others on climate change while flying on private jets and Justin Trudeau seems as compulsively drawn to blacking up as his mother was to screwing pop stars. After the third example of him doing so was revealed this year, he admitted that he had actually lost count of the number of times he’d done it. Nevertheless, he was defended by minority spokesmen and liberal commentators.

But perhaps what I hate most about the woke is the way they have done the dirt on feminism. The irony of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is set under a right-wing American regime - with Canada, just across the border, portrayed as a sanctuary to which the handmaids hope to escape. But look at the state of Trudeau’s Canada - where public funding has been removed from women’s shelters which insist on protecting women-only spaces, crimes are no longer recorded by sex, rapists have been sent to female prisons and there’s endless harassment of feminist activists, all in the name of woke.

The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible… If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right… I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself - man, you see how woke I was…

The Handmaid’s Tale is always used as a warning against the growth of right-wing ideology but look at the female politicians visiting Iran, all of them voluntarily wearing hijabs. The woke play dress-up to suck-up to the most oppressively patriarchal of religions while brave Muslim women all across the Middle East are persecuted for taking theirs off.

Misogyny has always been the poor relation of racism so it may well take people feeling that they are ethnically different from how they actually are which will show up woke as not just sinister - but silly. In November 2019 the University and College Union in London announced: “We have a long history of enabling members to self-identify, whether that is being black, disabled, LGBT or women.” A year earlier a white theatre director claiming to be “African born again” won public funding intended to help ethnic minorities develop careers in the theatre. No wonder Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said that allowing people to self-identify their race meant that ethnic minorities “lost out.”

And now even that Santa Claus of the woke, that unimpeachably beautiful first black American President, Barack Obama, has critiqued his fractious fans: “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke… you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities… There is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible… If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right… I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself - man, you see how woke I was…’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones.” As a new decade begins, the day we wake up from our sleepwalking can’t come too soon.

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Julie Burchill

Wake up to Woke!