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Europe’s Descent into Wokeness

“In Austria, for example, police have shot a dozen people since 2008; none of them were black.”

“I see certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States, with their problems, which I respect and which exist, but which are just added to ours.”

— French President Emmanuel Macron in October, 2020

The woke movement originated in the United States, and it has now spread all across other parts of the Western world. However, despite its intellectual roots in French postmodern philosophy and Frankfurt School Critical Theory, it is poorly adapted to the European context. When it comes to the issue of race, for example, the tenets of wokeness mostly relate to American history and society. Yet efforts to promote this imported ideology—and the jargon associated with it—in European nations such as my home country of Austria have been surprisingly successful—to the detriment of nuanced thought, open inquiry, and rational discourse. 

The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Vienna on June 4, 2020, drew 50,000 people, which, according to one media outlet, indicated that “the message and cause behind the movement’s heightened cry for change is also painfully relevant here.” However, the underlying narrative of systemic and institutional racism, manifest in the systematic killing of black people by white police officers, does not hold up to scrutiny—not in America, where white victims of lethal police force far outnumber their black counterparts (even though young African-American men commit a vastly disproportionate amount of violent crime), and certainly not in Europe, where such fatalities are extremely rare. In Austria, for example, police have shot a dozen people since 2008; none of them were black. 

There are, no doubt, racist cops, but to assert that “Austria’s police force has a serious racism problem” is an exaggeration, albeit containing a kernel of truth. Racial profiling, after all, is a reality affecting visible minorities. No law-abiding person, no matter his or her ethnic background, should have to live under a cloud of suspicion; but from a law-enforcement perspective, it simply makes no sense to pretend that all demographics are equally represented among those who commit certain types of crime. It is not the police but, rather, those who engage in criminal behavior who give their respective ethnic group a bad name. The prosecution of criminal behavior is good for everyone, including minority communities. 

One reason Black Lives Matter (BLM), with its anti-police rhetoric, gained such traction in Austria may have to do with the fact that the killing of George Floyd is reminiscent of the case of Marcus Omofuma, a Nigerian asylum-seeker who, in 1999, died of asphyxiation while being deported from Austria. The officers responsible for taping his mouth shut were charged with involuntary manslaughter, and a memorial stone was erected in the city center of Vienna. While there are obvious parallels between the two cases, they also highlight the fact that the context in which the BLM movement was conceived differs greatly from the situation in Austria, where people of African descent—almost all of whom are recent immigrants or their children—account for a mere 0.5% (2010) of the population. In the United States, by contrast, about 13.4% (2019) of the population is African-American. In a majority of cases, their history in America goes back hundreds of years to the era of slavery. These differences matter but tend to be overlooked by European BLM activists. 

One of the organizers of the BLM protests in Vienna, the Kinshasa-born medical doctor and local politician Mireille Ngosso, tweeted: “Today is the march towards our freedom, the march towards a brighter future for you and me. The march for our children, so they may march tomorrow in unity. The march towards justice, for all to be treated equally. For the people of color, for the less fortunate and minorities.” While Ngosso’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the 1960s American Civil Rights movement (which, in itself, constitutes both an anachronism and an anatopism), her politics are more in line with the illiberal Social Justice movement, which assumes that racial disparities are invariably the result of unfair and discriminatory treatment; and, to quote Ibram X. Kendi, one of the scholars of the movement, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Thus, rather than promote equal treatment, Ngosso has called for ethnic quotas in managerial positions because “[b]lack people do not have the same opportunities as white people.” 

Ngosso’s approach reflects an orthodoxy which, according to the political scientist Charles Murray, “began in academia in the 1960s, spilled over into American politics after the turn of the century, and by the 2016 election had become a common position among people who self-identify as progressive.” Murray sums up this orthodoxy as follows: “The system is rigged in favor of heterosexual white males. The privilege accorded them accounts for who gets ahead in America and who is kept on the bottom.” The fact that Asian-American women now outearn their white male counterparts should give those who push this narrative pause. The fact of the matter is that differences in skills, attitudes, and behavior go a long way towards explaining the achievement gap between different groups in society. 

There is an underlying assumption that the only way for a particular demographic to advance is at the expense of another.

This is not to deny the reality of racial prejudice and its negative social consequences. However, to compare, as Ngosso does, Austria’s African (immigrant) community to the autochthonous population and conclude that differences in occupational attainment reflect white privilege—a social injustice so pervasive that it warrants anti-white discrimination—is to ignore all the ways in which the two demographics differ and how these differences relate to socioeconomic outcomes. Rather than empower those less fortunate, this approach promotes a victim culture that prevents advancement in society. 

White privilege is a flawed notion to begin with, but it makes even less sense when applied to a society where almost everyone is white (and has been from time immemorial). Privilege, after all, implies a special right, advantage, or immunity granted to a particular group or individual. Yet the concept has taken root even in Austria. As a result, “old white man” has become a term of abuse, while “diversity”—not of opinion but of identity—has become regarded as the ultimate progressive value. This new focus on identity, however, has fostered divisive identity politics, pitting different identity groups against one another. There is an underlying assumption that the only way for a particular demographic to advance is at the expense of another. This is especially disconcerting in a country where, not all that long ago, racial identitarianism and collectivism wiped out large swaths of the population. 

Woke conceptions of race and racism tend generally to be less applicable in Europe than in the United States, where they originated. For instance, to ask a foreign-looking person about his or her national origin is now widely considered a racial “microaggression.” This view may have some merit in the United States, a country that has always been multiracial and where the white majority is not indigenous to the continent; in a place like Austria, however, it is an entirely different story. People with darker complexions tend to have a migrant background, meaning that they, or (one of) their parents, immigrated from another part of the world. “Where are you from?” may be a clumsy question, but given these circumstances, it is understandable that such an inquiry could arise from time to time. It is certainly not a telltale sign of implicit racism or white supremacy.

The organization Black Voices, whose demands include mandatory anti-racism/white privilege workshops and the teaching of post-colonialism in Austrian schools (Austria was never a colonial power), has issued an open letter to President Alexander Van der Bellen, petitioning him to speak out against the “racist practice of blackfacing” in conjunction with the Three Kings caroling tradition. One of the eponymous Three Kings or Three Wise Men, Caspar, is traditionally portrayed in black make-up. Black Voices demands that this tradition be discontinued. By way of argument, the group invokes American minstrel shows, which, in the 18th and 19th century, served to “ridicule black people, degrading them as happy but dumb slaves.” Not only are they referring to a completely different cultural context but they also ignore that there is nothing degrading about the character of Caspar. 

Cultural context is always key but is often ignored. As Austria was never a colonial power, statues of colonialists and slavers are difficult to come by. However, BLM protest culture has caught on with Viennese activists who instead defaced a monument of Dr. Karl Lueger, the city’s mayor from 1897 to 1910. Lueger is widely credited for transforming Vienna into a modern city, but, like many of his contemporaries, he was an anti-Semite. “[E]specially in Vienna any political group that wanted to appeal to the artisans had no chance of success without an anti-Semitic platform,” explains historian Léon Poliakov. Despite Lueger’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, however, “the Jews did not suffer under his administration.” Indeed, “his city administration remained perfectly just and even typically democratic,” relates author Stefan Zweig, who grew up Jewish in Vienna during Lueger’s term in office (and years later fled the country when the Nazis came to power); and, according to historian William L. Shirer, “[Lueger’s] opponents, including the Jews, readily conceded that he was at heart a decent, chivalrous, generous and tolerant man.”

This is in no way to defend, justify, or downplay Lueger’s anti-Semitism; rather, it is to exemplify that history is incredibly messy, and that judging historical figures by today’s moral standards makes no sense. Knowing that robust and self-confident democracies are difficult to undermine, the woke movement aims to ensure that past injustices are always at the forefront of our minds, regardless of humanity’s progression. Wokeness is ahistorical in its moral outrage and incapable of nuanced understanding. The fact that the Vienna city government still, after several months, has not removed the graffiti from the Lueger memorial—the monument, which is situated in the prestigious city center, has the word Schande (“Shame”) spray-painted all over it—speaks to the pervasiveness of this mentality. 

Through social media, woke ideology has spread like wildfire, allowing young people to score virtue points by getting with the program and attacking those who step out of line. Before the existence of social media, I encountered proto-woke ideas through my involvement in the punk scene as well as in American Cultural Studies classes in college, where students were taught to problematize whiteness and heteromasculinity. Following the American example, course material encouraged that everything be viewed through a Foucauldian lens—that is, in terms of power and domination. Almost two decades later, this trend has reached new heights. Intersectionality, Critical Whiteness, and Queer Theory increasingly dominate American Studies departments across Germany and Austria (I am writing from experience). It is in these and similar institutions that wokeness gets a stamp of academic approval. 

While the word “woke” has not really caught on in the German-speaking world, the term “cancel culture” has. So far, efforts to suppress freedom of speech and expression in the name of political correctness appear to mostly affect the arts, but academia is not far behind. Researchers whose findings contradict the prevailing orthodoxy risk being frozen out by their peers. Serious scholarship cannot thrive in such a climate. The situation in Europe is, admittedly, not quite as dire as in the United States, but it is bad enough to inspire resistance. In Germany, for example, a new network has formed of scholars and scientists committed to a free and open discourse without taboos. Intellectual progress, after all, depends on the free exchange of ideas.

It is astonishing that so many people go along with this clumsy and impractical assault on language, thinking themselves progressive. 

The rules of discourse are increasingly subject to politically correct mandates. There are, however, cultural-linguistic idiosyncrasies. For example, when it comes to gender-inclusive language, German is quite different than English. German has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. When applied to people, grammatical gender is often conflated with gender in the common sense of the word. For instance, the nominalizing suffix -er, which, to use an English example, turns the verb teach into the noun teacher, is grammatically masculine in German. It has thus been argued that, since the generic masculine does not explicitly include women, gender equality requires that both the masculine and feminine (or feminized) form be used. The latter is usually formed by adding the suffix -in (plural: -innen). Following this logic, instead of Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch! (“Workers of the world, unite!”), Karl Marx should have written Proletarier*innen aller Länder, vereinigt euch! (the asterisk serves to indicate that trans, intersex, and non-binary individuals are included as well). It is astonishing that so many people go along with this clumsy and impractical assault on language, thinking themselves progressive. 

Also worth mentioning is that there is no word for gender as distinct from sex in the German language; there is only Geschlecht, which encompasses both concepts. The term gender has been imported from the Anglosphere, along with the idea that social distinctions based on sex are arbitrarily constructed, a key tenet of woke feminism.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, influences from overseas play a growing role as well, a trend which appears to have started with the election of President Donald Trump and intensified during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The conspiracy lunatics of QAnon, who view former President Trump as a kind of savior figure, have been present in anti-lockdown demonstrations throughout Europe. Their presence, however, cannot be viewed in isolation; it is the other side of the coin to what we may call “woke elitism.” While QAnon and other such groups believe in elite conspiracies, wokeness conceives of society as a conspiracy without conspirators, in which ordinary people constantly and unwittingly perpetuate white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression; they must be taken by the hand and guided down the righteous path by the self-appointed arbiters of virtue. 

Wokeness is not as advanced in Europe as in the United States. Even the United Kingdom, which is culturally much closer to America than the rest of the continent, has not quite caught up (though it appears to be in the lead when it comes to policing “hate speech”). That is partly because the woke movement originated overseas and is, therefore, rather ill-adapted to this new environment. The BLM slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot,” for example, makes no sense in Britain, a country where the police generally do not carry guns. 

Yet the woke are gaining ground even in countries such as Austria and are increasingly influencing public discourse and policy. Although their ideology is divisive, regressive, illiberal, and authoritarian, their language has come to be associated with social progressivism and moral virtue, making it extremely effective. After all, who doesn’t agree that black lives matter or that patriarchy and white supremacy are undesirable? However, if virtue is defined in narrow ideological terms and carries the threat of punishment, it becomes the enemy of freedom, justice, and progress.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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