I often find that my life at Princeton runs completely contrary to the image offered in the national conversation. I meet incredible people living incredible lives and organizing to combat heteronormativity and misogyny through The Gender + Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC), but a fellow Princeton student (whom I have never seen at the GSRC) asserts that the GSRC is “Princeton’s Woman-Hating Women’s Center” in an op-ed published by a national publication. I read the important journalism from The Daily Princetonian revealing former Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz had inappropriate relationships with three undergraduates, but the ostensibly liberal New York Times covers his subsequent firing for one of those relationships as if it were an instance of “cancel culture” directed toward Katz and his wife for their statements against anti-racism. Professor Robert George, whose Twitter claims he is “unWoke/uncancellable” and features constant griping about the suppression of the religious right at Princeton, is praised by President Eisgruber in an interview in The Atlantic as “scrupulously fair” and “respectful to other people” despite George’s opposition to queer students’ right to marry and complete denial of the validity of trans students. Meanwhile, those who fight for marginalized groups like the Black Justice League are shut out by Princeton’s leadership and called a “local terrorist organization” by the “de-platformed” Katz. This reflects an odd truth of the “anti-woke” or “anti-cancel” culture movement: figures at Princeton like George and Katz, who openly embrace the “anti-woke” label, enjoy asserting that their views are suppressed and that they are martyrs for free speech at the same time that they are platformed by the University and national publications. For a group that claims to be persecuted based on their political views, the “canceled,” as Solveig Gold, Katz’s wife, called them in a New York Times profile, are supported by organizations running the gamut of political views, from the hallowed pages of the supposedly liberal media to the explicitly conservative religious right Professor George represents.
These are the basic facts that give me a strong feeling of cognitive dissonance: my “woke” peers and I are scolded by establishment figures, whether it’s the University or the national media that covers it, and told we need to stop silencing those who disagree with us, yet many of those people have a bigger microphone than we do. We are told we have fallen prey to a religion of “wokeism,” which Professor George claims is the new “established religion” of the United States, at the same time that Christian fundamentalists on the Supreme Court use their beliefs to strip millions of people of their right to choose. Fundamentally, I feel as if I am being told I live in a Marxist hellscape when the reality I experience is the exact opposite: reactionary forces are being given free rein to establish their vision of “heaven,” both at Princeton and beyond. How can we wrap our minds around a surge in openly reactionary anger and power when there is no real threat it is reacting to?
The answer, somewhat anticlimactically, lies in the fact there is a real threat, at least to those who feel “wokeism” is a risk to their way of life. “Wokeism” as conceived by the reactionary imaginary may not be a real phenomenon, but that dog whistle was developed to label something that is: increased accountability for those who express white supremacist, homophobic, misogynistic, or ableist views as well as increased visibility for people who have been marginalized by those forms of discrimination.
Another favorite target of reactionaries, Critical Race Theory, offers a useful framework for understanding how the racial hierarchy inherent to the present formation of the United States produced the current backlash to woke culture. Writing in her book Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy, political theorist and Latinx studies scholar Cristina Beltrán discusses the white supremacy, and specifically white non-accountability, which is fundamental to the political system of the United States. Beltrán draws on the sociological notion of Herrenvolk democracy, the name given by theorists to ostensibly democratic governments that are in fact premised on the participation of only one ethnic group. (The term originates from the German word for “master race” that featured heavily in racialized justifications of 19th-century colonialism and Nazism.) With the Herrenvolk lens, Beltrán analyzes how American identity was formed based on the ability of white citizens to punish and exact absolute power over non-white non-citizens such as Mexicans and Indigenous peoples who were violently subjugated by the American empire following the United States’ conquest of the Mexican Cession. Slavery and the denial of rights to free African Americans were also foundational to the logic of American nationalism, creating what Beltrán calls “American conceptions of equality, freedom, and democracy [that] have historically been constituted through white supremacy.” Thus, throughout American history, attempts to call for white accountability and greater racial inequality have been viewed as contrary to American democracy, leading to violent backlash premised on the fact that American traditions and norms are somehow under attack. In the current attempts to assert anti-racist activism, feminist causes such as the MeToo movement, and greater visibility for queer identities in the law and media are all somehow threats to free speech and democracy, one can see the similarities with other instances of Herrenvolk logic such as the attempts by the FBI to label Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders as “communists” seeking to destroy America.
Crucially, the historic roots of American identity in white supremacy served a pragmatic function for many citizens, explaining why to this day the defense of certain exclusionary norms is important to so many. Beltrán shows that this right to police non-white bodies allowed for the illusion of fairness and equality between white citizens despite an intense class divide: as David Roediger, another scholar of Herrenvolk politics, writes in Wages of Whiteness, “one might lose everything but not whiteness.” Regardless of one’s position in the socio-economic hierarchy, American identity was founded on the ability to receive certain “democratic” rights based on one’s position in the racial hierarchy and their ability to be free from consequences for actions taken toward those lower in the hierarchy.
Additionally, other critical traditions like Critical Race Feminism, disability critical race theory, and queer theory have demonstrated how the white supremacist logic of American Herrenvolk democracy is replicated in the American forms of sexist, homophobic, and ableist hierarchies and the intersections of those hierarchies. That is to say, American identity has historically been constituted by the privileges conferred by negation: being not black, not queer, and not disabled created conditions where “whiteness as standing worked to create a racialized sensorium that felt less like privilege and more like fairness,” according to Beltrán. Thus, often those who hold “traditional” or “American” views which are actually oppressive to marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community see no contradiction between their stated belief in an open, democratic society and their denial of a place in that society to others: they have privilege but view that privilege as deserved and any attempt to deprive that privilege as unfair.
Returning to the present reactionary moment, the framework of American identity as rooted in privilege, especially whiteness, serves as a very useful analytic tool. Take, for example, the op-ed attacking Princeton’s GSRC as supposedly anti-woman. A key part of the article’s “critique” is simply listing the titles of events hosted by the GSRC which celebrate non-white, non-cis, and non-heterosexual identities. The author writes that: “Princeton published a ‘Hookup Bill of Rights.’ Recent events include ‘Drag Show Extravaganza,’ ‘Black Queer Hoe Poetry Reading and Q&A,’ ‘JK Rowling and the Dangers of TERF Rhetoric,’ and ‘Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist.”’ This listing is not then extended into some sort of argument: rather, the mere fact that these events were held on campus is meant to suggest that Princeton has somehow fallen prey to a woke culture that actively targets pro-abstinence accounts of sexuality and promotes degeneracy. If one were engaging in rational debate, they might note that simply listing the titles of events does not demonstrate their invalidity, but in the framework of American identity as privilege the listing approach is perfectly rational: any highlighting of non-hegemonic voices represents a fundamental attack on so-called “traditional views.” In fact, given the current hierarchical system is inherently fair under a Herrenvolk model, any attempt to highlight those at the bottom of the hierarchy is actively unfair. If the GSRC is merely inclusive of queer and trans people or POC, they must be actively attacking many Americans because the historical foundation of American nationalism is one that is defined by being not those identities and exercising power over them.
Similarly, attacks on cancel culture are built on a logic wherein attempts to hold people accountable for their abuse of marginalized groups are regarded as unfair. This is where the rhetoric of “reverse racism” takes center stage: according to reactionaries, in attempting to hold someone or something accountable for racism, activists are being racist because attempts to undermine the racial hierarchy of America are the true unfairness. Extending this Herrenvolk logic, trying to hold someone accountable for any form of discrimination against marginalized identities is anti-American and unfair. Thus, the white cisgender professor who exercises their “authority” over marginalized bodies, whether in the form of sexual harassment or homophobia, becomes the real underdog and hero of the story. In this way, the reality of systemic advantages can be turned into a perception that one is the victim when faced with even a minuscule level of accountability.
Audre Lorde, speaking at the 1981 keynote address for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, emphasized the privilege at the heart of backlash towards accountability: “I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, ‘Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.’ But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?” As Lorde tells it, this example demonstrates the core mechanism behind white resistance to anti-racism in which aesthetic preferences and concern for “respectability” are used to mask a fundamental unwillingness to give up one’s privilege. In its complaints about threats to “freedom of speech” and “civil discourse,” the contemporary “anti-woke” movement demonstrates that same mechanism at work: the reality of hierarchy and privilege within American identity is being defended in a masked way once again. This is not to say that anyone who has ever complained about cancel culture is necessarily a cisgender white man who is openly racist, sexist, and homophobic: that is self-evidently not the case. However, no matter the speaker, certain speech can reproduce discriminatory logics, and the anti-accountability essence of the overreaction to cancel culture is quite clearly an example of this.
The anti-cancel culture movement allows prominent reactionaries at Princeton and beyond to transform attempts to alleviate inequality into an existential threat to American identity which must be brutally defeated because, in a brilliant moment of circular logic, that identity is reliant on inequality. The American empire chugs along, yet we must believe the enemy is at the gate.