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Friday, March 19, 2021


Since the comments on my latest post were actually about the post – something of a novelty lately on this blog – I think I should try to respond.


First of all, I quite agree with Joan Robinson, who was merely echoing Marx’s observation that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever loosed on the world.


Second, with regard to Eric’s comment, you must understand that when you reach the age of 87 you search rather desperately for any signs of a positive development in the hope that things may actually get better before you pass from the scene. You must allow me my pathetic efforts to encourage my inner Tigger, even if all the evidence suggests that Eeyore would be a more realistic commenter on the world.


Finally, to the screed by John Doe. He is obviously furiously angry and filled with contempt but it is a trifle mysterious why this post evoked those sentiments. I happily admit that I had in elite education, have lived a comfortable and remarkably problem free life, and that I even have a little apartment in Paris (although not for too much longer, I think.) What on earth does that have to do with my observation about the misuse of the word “problem?” Let me make an appeal to whomever it is who is hiding behind the name John Doe: if you can get a grip on yourself long enough to compose a series of thoughtful sentences, you might try to explain what it was about my post that so distressed you. Oh, by the way, I am not quite sure what the term “woke” means. It came into use after I retired, but I am pretty sure that none of my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department would have thought of themselves as woke.


Ridiculousicculus said...

Professor Wolff,

Your colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department at U-Mass probably didn't refer to themselves as "woke", since the term entered mainstream discourse only 10-15 years ago. But it was adopted from African American Vernacular English, where it was originally used by black cultural elites to describe "parts of the black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better." So maybe a few of your colleagues were "woke" or were at least "woke" before being woke became a white thing.

The phrase has since been co-opted by white social-justice warrior types to project ally-ism and commitments to various social justice movements and today there is something of a backlash against "woke-ism" in both left and right-leaning media circles. The critique is that woke-ism allows privileged white people to virtue-signal to their friends without taking any actual concrete steps or risks to make the lives of the disadvantaged better or to change the social conditions in America that require "woke-ness" in the first place. Woke-critics point to corporate adoption of diversity initiatives and trainings while paying substandard wages; white democratic politicians wearing traditional African costumes to project support for multiculturalism while failing to achieve legislative victories that actually make people's lives better; the purported destruction of lives and careers via "cancel culture", etc., as examples of the hypocrisy inherent in white people's co-option of the phrase "woke" and its ethos.

So your John Doe basically just wanted to call you a hypocrite.

Guy Mizrahi said...

Two thoughts on this and your last post, Prof. Wolff:

1. You make a great point that the use of "problem" is incorrect considering that the features of capitalism are indeed in-line with the horrifying results we're seeing. Indeed, if we take the dictionary definition of "problem" it is understood as "a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome" which, as you outlined, is impossible to apply in these cases considering that these ends are not unwelcome or harmful to the capitalist benefiting from the system. Yes, it follows that these situations should be dealt with and overcome, but how can that even begin to occur if those in power don't recognize such events and ends as "problems" in the first place?

2. As a 20-year-old 'Gen Z-er' I think I can shine a little light on the term 'woke' and why it is used (as well as why that cowardly John Doe was using it in a gross way). I should preface that I don't fully agree with labelling people 'woke' but it is the case that many of my peers use it and it is widespread among younger generations. At the core of it, left-leaning youth use 'woke' to describe anyone who possess an awareness of social justice issues in a nuanced way. If I remember correctly (and someone please do correct me if I'm wrong!), It comes from the AAVE term 'stay woke' referring to one staying awake to such social justice issues. It's a popular hashtag (#staywoke) on Twitter sometimes and (from what I observed) gained a lot of widespread use among youth after the song Redbone by Childish Gambino (which was enormously popular a few summers ago) had the lyrics "stay woke" in its chorus. Again, I don't personally love the way a lot of white people have claimed the term as some sort of moral badge they can pin to themselves after reading one Wikipedia article about African American history or sharing some news on social media. But, I do think that left-leaning youth are trying to use it in a positive way which calls upon others to engage with the history they haven't been taught in school and to constantly be war of any supposed 'truth' relating to race/racial violence/race relations/racial history.

Where the word's story becomes dark (and indeed where John Doe from your last post comes into play) is the modern right's (specifically those closer to the alt-right) using the term 'woke' to make fun of / criticize those on the left who are 'ruining the world' through heightened political correctness. If a right-wing comedian thinks that comedy is being ruined because no one can say slurs on stage anymore, they may go on a radio show and make fun of a lefty comedian by calling them 'woke'. Often alt-right pundits will dismiss university educated liberals and youth as being indoctrinated by 'woke culture'. As such, John Doe was trying to say the same of you by calling you 'woke', asserting that you're part of the group trying to destroy society through 'cancel culture' or radical leftism.

As a personal example, in October I wrote a Globe and Mail piece about popular podcaster Joe Rogan and his platforming of hate-speech and alt-right pundits, receiving a ton of criticism from his right-leaning followers. By far, the largest criticism levelled against me (as well as the most common 'insult' hurled) was my advocacy for 'woke / cancel culture'. For the right, It's become a simple term to describe any and all left-wing politics/politically correct politics/progressive academia. It's turning something meant to be positive into a vehicle for demonization.

This Guardian article gives a good view of how the right transformed the term for their own use:

David Zimmerman said...


Professor Wolff has "a 20-year-old 'Gen Z-er'" as a reader.

Stop the presses!

Anonymous said...

To expand on some things Guy Mizrahi said about the term “woke”: I personally know of no one who uses the term to describe themselves these days and only hear it when right-wing or neoliberal commentators are lambasting “the youth” or “the left” or cancel culture or anti-racist activism. (My own feeling, which is not based on much empirically I admit, is that the time when people did self-identify this way that Guy Mizrahi describes has past.) Supposing mostly no one self-identifies this way, the term remains largely just as a stereotype or straw man that is meant to reduce a giant spectrum of roughly “left-wing” views to a single caricature of vapid and self-congratulatory identity politics. I won’t pretend there is not a lot of vapid and self-congratulatory identity politics out there, but to attack everyone who holds left-wing views as “woke” is just to argue by straw man and caricature, and it is usually just a tactic to save yourself from actually having to think through the more subtle and compelling versions of the views you oppose, instead concerning yourself only with counterarguments to the crudest version you can imagine up. (Also while there are many aspects of Prof. Wolff’s views and rhetoric that it is reasonable to challenge or even reject, accusing him of being “woke” clearly betrays you as an ideologue.)

s. wallerstein said...

The term "woke" or "wokerati" is also used by people on the left like Leiter, a Marxist, to criticize the identity politics left.

Anonymous said...

“Woke” pretty much at this point just means you’re drinking the kool-aid on identity politics, they’ve convinced you the whole story is about race, sex (or is it gender, please enlighten me) and historic oppression and victimization.

John Rapko said...

I've also seen the term 'wokie' and heard Adolph Reed Jr. use the term 'McWokie' (my favorite) to refer (roughly) to the white-knuckled bearers of that peculiar but increasingly familiar kind of laptop fury, identity 'politics', moral grandstanding, and anti-intellectualism.

John Doe said...

Robert Paul Wolff:

“What on earth does that have to do with my observation about the misuse of the word “problem?” Let me make an appeal to whomever it is who is hiding behind the name John Doe: if you can get a grip on yourself long enough to compose a series of thoughtful sentences, you might try to explain what it was about my post that so distressed you.” [most recent post]

“Racism, economic inequality, and the suppression of the vote are, or arise out of, conflicts of interest, between whites and nonwhites, between rich and poor, and currently (although not always historically) between Republicans and Democrats. There are no technical solutions to these conflicts, there are only struggles in which some win and some lose.” [second most recent post]

You said that racism is, or arises out of, conflicts of interest between whites and nonwhites, that “there are no technical solutions to these conflicts,” and that “there are only struggles in which some win and some lose.” I interpreted these comments to mean that racism and race relations are a zero-sum game that involves winners and losers. For example, every time a white person gets fired from his or her job for publicly saying something controversial (i.e. does not conform to Mao’s Little Red Book of “Wokeness”) and gets replaced by a black person, then that is a win for blacks and a loss for whites. And every time a white person (whether Democrat or Republican) gets elected to the House or Senate, then that is a win for whites and a loss for blacks. (An aside: what about mixed race, i.e. half-white/half-black people?)

I strongly believe that (1) we should not view race relations as a zero-sum game that involves winners and losers and (2) we should not champion hardcore identity politics, since doing (1) and (2) will inflame racial tensions and hostilities. Once again, the white supremacists and white nationalists are also playing the game of hardcore identity politics, just from the other side. If we want the country to move forward, we need to reduce, not exacerbate, racial tensions. Trump was horrendous for many, many reasons, including deliberately inflaming racial tensions and hostilities. He was pouring whole tanks of gasoline on the racial fires.

John Doe said...


Why was my initial post scathing? Because I live in an urban neighborhood that had TWO rounds of rioting, looting, pillaging, etc. last summer. It has also had a significant increase in nonviolent crime and violent crime, including a significant increase in carjackings at gunpoint. And after the second round of riots last summer, the local BLM branch was extremely irresponsible and belligerent, basically saying, “We have never felt welcome in this wealthy, white area, and so we are going to take [i.e. steal] whatever we want. These are reparations. We demand that the city abolish the police. Until they do so, we are going to keep revolting. We are going to shut down this area.”

Now what if this happened on the campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, and U Chicago? As I wrote earlier:

“If all this happened, these universities would freak out and call in the local police for heavy reinforcements to suppress the rioting and looting. And then certain, highly “woke” professors at these universities who champion hardcore identity politics would loudly condemn their universities for such a response: “These protestors are correct. We should let them take whatever they want and also give them 20% of our endowment as reparations. However, I still expect to keep my professorship, my tenure, my salary, my annual cost of living adjustment, and my pension. If we need to cut costs due to the decrease in our endowment, then that should adversely affect other professors, lecturers, etc., not me, since I am holier than thou and ultra woke. Other professors here demonstrate white privilege and white supremacy but not I.””

Yes, this is scathing and perhaps hyperbolic but it captures an important truth: the universities would eventually put an end to the rioting and looting and yet certain professors (perhaps a small number) would celebrate the uprising and continue to champion hardcore identity politics.

And, yes, I follow Brian Leiter’s blog and, yes, he is a Nietzschean/Marxist leftist who regularly rails against wokeness and hardcore identity politics.

David Zimmerman said...

May we have a precise reference for the alleged quote from "the local BLM branch"?

Documentation, please.

David Zimmerman said...

By the way, Mr Doe.... who are you?

Anonymous said...

Notice that mentioning Leiter and Adolph Reed completely misses the point I was making above: my point was that people use the term “woke” to describe their enemies, dare I say to caricature them, not to self-identify. Just because Leiter and Reed do this from a “left” standpoint does not change this crucial aspect of how the rhetoric of wokeness keeps anyone from debating any of the most nuanced and compelling versions of the views they oppose. Jack Halberstam is a trans and queer theorist who wrote an article I just read opposing trigger warnings (while still not ridiculing them as a ridiculous or absurd idea). Is he woke because he is a left trans and queer theorist? Is he anti-woke because he is anti-trigger warnings? DOES IT MATTER?? How about: read his argument and decide whether you object to aspects of it or not, and stop labeling people woke so you don’t have to think about the best versions of the ideas you dislike. Go find those, search for them, challenge yourself.

John Rapko said...

Well, Prof. Wolff explicitly noted that he is "not quite sure what the term “woke” means," which seemed to invite attempts at characterizing the uses and meaning(s) of the term. Perhaps, amidst the rapidly shifting and mutating senses and connotations of internet terminology, it no longer has any 'positive' uses, and so no one (any longer?) self-identifies as 'woke'. One canonical positive usage is 1 Thessalonians 5:6, which urges us to be 'wakeful' (grēgorōmen (first person plural subjunctive)).--I have no opinion on this, as I don't follow the relevant debates, such as they are; but I have a number of friends in the arts and academia who are quite exercised about what they view as the malign aspects of 'wokeness', and I tried to capture what bothers them in my reference to Adolph Reed and in my characterization.--As for searching out the best versions of ideas one dislikes: I and pretty much everyone I know who works in philosophy (and surely also Leiter and Reed) routinely does this. I don't think it has anything in particular to do with challenging ourselves; it's just what we do in the truth business: considering the widest possible range of relevant evidence on any issue; considering any and all major interpretations and relevant arguments (what counts as 'major' is of course a matter of (fallible) judgment). We try not to waste our time with misologists.

John Doe said...

And Barack Obama was correct in his select comments about wokeness:

“This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically woke, and all that stuff—you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you. And I think one danger I see among young people, particularly on college campuses… but I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’ If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because 'Man did you see how woke I was? I called you out!' I get on TV and watch my show ‘Grownish.’ That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

Another noteworthy comment by Obama:

“One of the things I do worry about among progressives in the United States, maybe it's true here [in Berlin, Germany] as well, is a certain kind of rigidity where we say ‘Uh, I'm sorry, this is how it's going to be’ and then we start sometimes creating what's called a ‘circular firing squad,’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.”

David Zimmerman said...

Mr Doe--- Reveal who you are.

LFC said...

David Z.

There's nothing wrong with pseudonyms in the blogosphere, or handles like John Doe, provided they're used consistently. The same person using multiple handles or frequently switching handles would be a problem, imo, but we have no evidence at the moment that that is the case with the John Doe here.

L.F. Cooper

John Doe said...

Guy Mizrahi:

You know virtually nothing about me and yet you call me “cowardly” and associate me with darkness: “Where the word [“woke”]'s story becomes dark (and indeed where John Doe from your last post comes into play).”

I find these remarks EXTREMELY offensive and I think you should be cancelled from this blog, from Twitter, from Facebook, and from all other social media. All your posts and comments should be deleted and you should be permanently banned. You should be expelled from your college or university, effective immediately. No employer should ever hire you. You should be blacklisted for the rest of your life. You should never have any source of income. If you’re broke, homeless, and living on the streets, then that is your fault because you chose to use the extremely offensive words “cowardly” and “dark” one time in a blog comment. HOW DARE YOU!


And, yes, I am being sarcastic and satirical. But what’s utterly appalling is that the woke mob (many of whom have lousy critical thinking skills and are extremely narrow-minded) actually uses the above strategies. This is (academic) left-wing totalitarianism; they all carry their Maoist Little Red Books of Wokeness.

So this message is for you.

s. wallerstein said...


You first appeared in this blog on March 19, accusing Professor Wolff of hypocrisy.

Many of us regular commenters in this blog disagree with Professor Wolff, but I believe that all of us respect his intellectual and moral integrity.

So you throw shit at us and we throw shit back. We aren't the "turn the other cheek" club.

What more and more impresses me is that while hegemonic common sense accuses the far left of fanaticism and dogmatism, it's hegemonic common sense which is far more fanatical and dogmatic than the far left.

We on the far left have so much hegemonic common sense inculcated into us that we are always a bit unsure at heart if we are right. Some of us overcompensate by becoming fanatical or dogmatical, but the tendency on the far left is to be unsure and at times even to grant hegemonic common sense a few points.

On the other hand, hegemonic common sure is so sure of itself and has its viewpoints confirmed daily in the mainstream media that it never wavers, never hesitates, never doubts its own rightness and thus tends towards fanaticism and dogmaticism. Of course the mainstream media calls Biden's and Obama's fanaticism and dogmaticism "common sense" and "realism".

Ásgeir said...

I think it says a lot about John Doe that he immediately associates the *feeling* of being offended with the kinds of offence anti-racists, feminists, etc. talk about. One idea is individualistic, while the other is about how groups of people are oppressed, etc.

The problem with using racial slur about a particular black man is not that he as an individual feels bad (although that is also bad) but that it perpetuates his oppression. Doe's satire therefore misses its mark.

But his remarks also show that one idea is subjective, the one John Doe is satirising, while the other is objective (but to forestall Doe's objections: objective doesn't mean true): either one is oppressed by such speech or one is not. One's own feelings toward it don't matter.

John Doe said...

Guy Mizrahi:

This message is for you.

Jonathan Haidt nails it in his remarks.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I watched the YouTube video that John Doe linked to and I found it brilliant and very helpful. I retired in 2008 so all of this apparently came along half a dozen years after I had left the classroom. Since more than 2 million people have watched the video I imagine it is not news but it is tremendously useful. Thank you

s. wallerstein said...

I also found the video to be very insightful. I was a bit afraid to say that because of a fear of appearing politically incorrect, but now that Professor Wolff has taken the lead, I also thank John Doe. In fact, I'm now watching a longer interview with Haidt.

John Doe said...


“I think it says a lot about John Doe that…”

What is with the use of the phrase “I think it says a lot about X that…”? When I was in college and graduate school, I never used this phrase as a rhetorical strategy or heard others do so. It seems mainly young people (e.g. social justice warriors) use it nowadays, and it seems they use it to virtue-signal and demonstrate that they are holier than thou. For example: “I think it says a lot about you that you said X and thus you’re a racist/sexist/misogynist/etc. You are morally deficient and you should be cancelled.”

“he immediately associates the *feeling* of being offended with the kinds of offence anti-racists, feminists, etc. talk about. One idea is individualistic, while the other is about how groups of people are oppressed, etc.”

“one idea is subjective, the one John Doe is satirising, while the other is objective […]: either one is oppressed by such speech or one is not. One's own feelings toward it don't matter.”

A group of people (e.g. blacks, Hispanics, Asians, females, LGBT, etc.) always consists of individuals. If a white male says something that a black person or female finds offensive (e.g. racist or sexist to some degree), then that black person or female will feel personally offended at the *subjective, individual level* and perhaps extrapolate it to his or her identity group. So the feeling of offense is initially and primarily occurring at the subjective, individual level, although other individuals may share this feeling of offense. So your distinction between the individual and the group and your distinction between the subjective and the objective are not hard, clear-cut distinctions in this context.

Furthermore, it can be problematic to extrapolate offense at the individual level to offense at the level of one’s identity group. Given the white male’s comment, other black people or females may not feel offended at all or may feel offended to a lesser degree. Not all black people or females think alike or have the same sensitivity level. I see this often. Someone (e.g. a white male) makes a joke or says something controversial or somewhat politically incorrect; a female or black/Hispanic/LGBT/etc. person takes serious offense at the comment and expresses outrage on social media; other members of the same identity group also express outrage; but then other members of the identity group say, “Now, now, let’s not overreact. I do not consider what he said to be seriously offensive, racist, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, etc.”

Finally, you seem to miss the main point of my satire. If someone says something *mildly or moderately* controversial or somewhat politically incorrect, just one time or several times, then should he be cancelled? Should he be permanently banned from social media? She he be fired from his job? Should he lose all his sponsors? Should he be blacklisted for the rest of his life, without any source of income? Should he end up broke, homeless, and living on the streets?

In my view, no, he should not be so cancelled.

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