Fact of truth: No woke Russians.
Those fighting the culture wars should be careful they don't inadvertently cancel our freedoms.
Given a real war has started it may seem indulgent — disrespectful even — to mention the culture wars. Mere differences in cultural beliefs clearly pale when compared to the sight of tanks rolling down main roads as overloaded cars queue in the opposite direction.
Yet it’s an interesting and timely topic, for the ongoing campaign against ‘woke’ has a paradox at its heart that undermines the very freedoms it claims to defend. In turn, this speaks to the cultural clash between the West and Russia and highlights the former’s failure to contain Putin’s ambitions. It also shows where the West’s efforts to defend democratic liberalism should be placed.
For, in waging a largely-confected war against those who press for social change, ‘anti-woke’ commentators perversely have aligned themselves with the same rogue states that have liberal democracies in their sights. Rogue states such as Russia, which invaded Ukraine this week. Russia, where liberalism is scorned, political rivals are poisoned and locked up, and any attempt to instil equality is quickly squashed.
This is the strange position that Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden must find himself in, having spoken recently at an event at the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank. In a widely covered speech only weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Dowden claimed that woke ideology was weakening the west at a time when it faces threats from aggressive states. “Rogue states are seeking to challenge the international order. And at the precise point when our resolve ought to be strongest, a pernicious new ideology is sweeping our societies,” he said.
Lamenting the actions of “social justice warriors” he argued that, while they claimed to be “awakened to the so-called truths of our societies… wherever they are found, they pursue a common policy inimical to freedom.” The “decadence” this represents is a distraction, he argued, preventing those in power from keeping an eye on the ball at a time when “attention should be focused on external foes.”
Pressure for change across society is indeed being expressed, and not just in the UK: some 7,000 people came out to march for LGBTQ rights last year in the same Kiev that is now encircled by Russian troops.
But blaming those who campaign for “social justice” for weakening the West seems a little rich given the utter failure of national governments and multilateral organisations such as NATO and the UN to curtail Putin for well over 20 years, with this week’s unsurprising attack on Ukraine merely the latest in a range of geopolitical transgressions, each of which the west has failed to prevent.
Worse, those that blame cultural dissent for weakening their democratic juju might consider more closely the encouragement their own countries provided to the regime behind the crisis now unfolding in Ukraine. A 2019 report, finally published in redacted form in 2020 after parliamentary pressure, found that Russian influence in the UK was now “the new normal” and blamed the government for badly underestimating “the response required to the Russian threat”. The UK government was, said the report, “still playing catch up.”
In 2022, that remains the case. Despite regular demands over the last few years, and calls in parliament on the very day that Russia attached Ukraine, legislation to reveal the ultimate ownership of the thousands of UK properties registered to shell firms has still not been introduced. This despite the Government’s own warnings that “The UK continues to see a significant volume of Russian, or Russian-linked illicit finance channelled through the UK economy, through various regulated and unregulated sectors, including company formation and related professional services, as well as property.”
Most would agree that dirty money presents far more of a distraction to the democratic process than debates in academia around portrayals of colonialism in the nineteenth-century novel. Yet continued legislative inaction in the face of an open, identifiable and very real threat makes a mockery of the sanctions now being hastily unveiled to punish Putin.
As this inactivity not only enabled Russian influence but undermined the UK’s own security, the real irony lies in the suggestion that the culture wars hamper the fight for freedom. At the risk of stating the obvious, Putin’s regime has no time for the same “woke” values that Dowden’s speech attacks — although Russia expresses its contempt in actions, not words. Any attempt by Russian LGBTQ groups, students and journalists to campaign around issues of freedom of choice, study and reporting is stymied, and protestors are thrown into jail. While homosexuality is legal in Russia, for example, persecution is rife, and a 2013 law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” prohibits the promotion of homosexuality. There is no law against LGBT discrimination.
It’s an uncompromising position, but one that attracts those in the West who ostensibly value freedom, but appear to have no idea of its cost. Take ex-Trump advisor and right-wing firebrand, Steve Bannon. Only days before the invasion of Ukraine, he praised Putin as being “anti-woke” and anti-LGBTQ. Talking with Erik Prince, founder of private military firm Blackwater, Bannon celebrated the fact that “Putin ain’t woke.” He praised Russia for the absence of pride flags. “The Russian people still know which bathroom to use,” Mr Prince retorted.
Contrary to what anti-woke commentators suggest, the mark of a fundamentally strong society is surely its ability to question its past, challenge the conditions that define the present, and imagine a better future. Less prosaically, a country such as the UK, with a seat on the UN security council, nuclear weapons in its arsenal and a GDP of $3.4 trillion shouldn’t be derailed by the adoption of new pronouns or the summary removal of a statue of historical unpopularity with locals.
To reappraise the impact of the British empire and question its legacy at a time when only 5% of the Windrush generation have received compensation is not an act of “decadence”, it’s the sign of a liberal democracy free and able to question itself. Similarly, same-sex marriage, which Dowden’s own government rightly made possible in 2014, only proves the strength of “our democratic society”. The “vitality of values” he holds so precious is surely strong enough to extend respect to those who choose to go by another pronoun. It’s a change of article, after all, not the end of civilisation.
Of course, some of the fringe work of the ‘cancel culture’ Dowden attacks in his speech is nonsensical. The cloth-eared no-platforming of dissenting voices in University debates is ridiculous. More importantly, it is self-defeating, as it prevents those with questionable opinions from being challenged. But it deserves to be filed alongside those erroneous newspaper reports that the EU planned to ban bendy bananas. Both are extreme and entirely unserious forms of campaigning.
In declaring social change to be an enemy to freedom, commentators need to be aware of the dangerous company their opinions keep. In the film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Alexander Lemtov, the Russian singer whose castle is lined with well-endowed classical statues modelled on his own looks, is asked if he is gay.
“There are no gay people in Russia”, comes the clearly self-deluded retort, mimicking the 2017 comments of Chechen president and Putin loyalist, Kadyrov. “Fact of truth. No. Gay. Russian”, he continues.
“I He/Him”, insists the closeted gay man. Reminded by a friend that he deserves to be happy, Lemtov replies that “Mother Russia has other plans.” For Lemtov, any notion of freedom has been cancelled. Wokery was not to blame.