We can’t know for sure why Russia announced this morning (15 February) that it would be withdrawing some of its troops from the Ukraine border, but I, with my many decades of absolutely zero foreign policy experience, am prepared to propose a theory. On 14 February, the Conservative Party co-chair Oliver Dowden told an audience of fellow culture warriors in Washington, DC of his highly credible hypothesis – the West’s obsession with “woke” issues was “threaten[ing] to sap our societies of their own self-confidence” and emboldening our enemies. According to Dowden, engaging in “extreme introspection and self-criticism” is the sort of thing that rogue states read as weakness. So perhaps all it took to send Vladimir Putin packing was the sight of a man like Dowden (who is essentially the weedy one out of the 1990s flatshare sitcom Game On after an unfortunate encounter with a radioactive copy of Atlas Shrugged) standing behind an ironing board, ready to tell the woke left what’s what. Stranger things have happened.
There is no shortage of people obsessed with wokery, it’s true. In this morning’s papers, alongside tales of Oliver Dowden’s muscular illiberalism, you’ll find rage about Network Rail’s “director of diversity and inclusion”, and a Telegraph column by Celia Walden that asks, “how is anyone getting any work done in woke Britain?” (Speaking for myself, I like to get all my work out of the way before lunch so I can have a good, long self-flagellate in the afternoon.) It’s not confined to the UK, either: rows about no-platforming in universities have been garnering headlines on both sides of the Atlantic for years (too many grown men have yet to twig that any 45-year-old who takes a close interest in student politics inevitably reads as creepy). Even the Pope is getting in on the game, warning that “cancel culture” is threatening freedom of expression. And if you can’t trust the Pope when it comes to social freedom then who can you trust?
But complaints about wokery are sucking up a lot more oxygen than wokery itself: a 2021 YouGov poll found that more than half of Britons (59 per cent) had never even heard of the word “woke”, and only 15 per cent thought it a bad thing. More than that, despite Dowden’s warnings of a “pernicious new ideology… sweeping our societies” there’s nothing remotely new about left vs right rows about acceptable language or how to interpret Britain’s history. It’s just that we used to call the progressive position other things: all that’s new is the word. I blame Donald Glover.
Earlier labels such as “political correctness” were also hijacked by bad-faith actors on the right, in a transparent attempt to delegitimise the arguments to ensure they no longer need refute them. But in the age of the Very Online, when political careers are built more on clicks than content, this impulse has gone into overdrive. By writing this, of course, I’m not helping. We’ve now reached the point where politicians are seriously suggesting that respecting each other’s pronouns could be the cause of the Third World War.
When it comes to what really makes the West look weak before its enemies, the existence of social justice warriors probably matters less than the fact that our government is peddling this nonsense instead of actually governing the country. Putin must be shaking in his boots.
[See also: Jacob Rees-Mogg is looking for fairies]