Has wokeism jumped the shark? In other words, have the radical Leftists who for years have exercised increasing power in our universities finally gone too far?
I dare to hope so. The recent disgraceful responses to the attacks on Israel that we have seen — from American university campuses to the streets of London and Sydney — have dramatically increased awareness that something is rotten in the state of higher education in the English-speaking world.
Some of us have been battling against the ideological takeover of academia for close to a decade. Each year, we have been getting better organised. But we have struggled to convince people in the real world just how bad things are.
The past three weeks may finally have changed that.
The expression ‘jump the shark’ was coined in 1977 when the scriptwriters of long-running comedy series Happy Days — into their fifth series and getting short of ideas — tried to pep up the storyline by having the main character, Fonzie, preposterously jump over a shark while on water-skis.
The campus Left’s response to the attacks of October 7 was equally far-fetched and over-the-top — but immeasurably more offensive.
Let’s remind ourselves what happened three weeks ago. Two Gaza-based terrorist groups inspired by Islamist ideology, committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and backed by at least one government, staged a trailer for a second Holocaust. In their savagery, they exceeded even the horrors perpetrated by the Russian butchers of Bucha in Ukraine.
More than 1,400 Israelis were killed, including children and even babies. More than 200 were kidnapped.
The idea Israel should do nothing in response to this outrage — other than ensure the flow of aid into Gaza — defies both human emotion and strategic sense. Only those wearing ideological blindfolds cannot see that.
Yet this seems to be the approach of some academics and student groups in a great many universities, not least in Britain.
Dr Kate Davison, a self-described ‘queer historian of sexuality, psy-sciences & Cold War’, who is also a lecturer in history at Edinburgh, not only tweeted that ‘Palestine & trans human rights are the litmus test and most of you are failing half of it’, but also expressed support for a statement by faculty members at Berzeit University — an institution in the West Bank — which celebrated the Hamas attacks as ‘guerilla war tactics’ by ‘resistance fighters’.
Dr Sarah Liu, a senior lecturer in gender and politics, also at Edinburgh, liked a tweet on October 7 that asked: ‘Did some people just think Palestine had to like file paperwork or something to be freed [?] this is what oppressed fighting the oppressor looks like.’
Edinburgh is by no means exceptional. ‘Special message to some of the ‘decolonisers’ in academia, young and old,’ tweeted Priyamvada Gopal, professor of postcolonial studies at Cambridge. ‘It isn’t just about returning bronzes. That’s the easy bit.’
Londoners bracing themselves for another pro-Palestinian demonstration today may be interested to know that six of the patrons of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, organisers of the demo, are academics based at Bradford, Exeter, London, Oxford and Surrey.
None of this should come as surprise, for it is the culmination of many years of infiltration of our universities by the radical Leftist ideology known as ‘wokeism’.
But it is only now people outside academia are noticing. In the U.S., elite universities are experiencing a significant backlash against their response to the Hamas outrage.
More than 30 Harvard student groups, for instance, published an abhorrent statement saying they held ‘the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence’.
Harvard’s leadership issued a bromide statement calling on the academic community ‘to deepen our knowledge of the unfolding events and their broader implications for the region and the world’ and ‘to modulate rather than amplify the deep-seated divisions’.
It was a response clearly crafted to appeal to Harvard’s overwhelmingly liberal student body and faculty.
The leadership had forgotten that Harvard’s true target market is the very small proportion of hugely successful alumni who give the university the largest donations. They soon reminded Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay.
Bill Ackman, founder of the hedge fund Pershing Square, demanded the students who had defended Hamas be named so that he and others could be sure not to hire them.
Citadel chief executive Ken Griffin, who earlier this year donated $300 million to Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, was among the donors who called Gay, urging her to issue a stronger statement. She hastily did, but the damage had been done.
Similar revolts by donors have erupted at universities from Pennsylvania to Stanford. Marc Rowan, chief executive of private equity giant Apollo and an alumnus of the university, demanded its president, Elizabeth Magill, and chair of the board of trustees, Scott Bok, resign over their failure to condemn Hamas.
He called on his fellow alumni to cut their donations to ‘UPenn’ to just $1 until Magill and Bok stepped down.
At Stanford, the university where I work, there have been several pro-Palestinian demonstrations in recent weeks, including one organised by Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine. Anti-Israel graffiti has been chalked on campus pavements. But the most shocking episode occurred in a classroom just days after the attacks, when — according to student testimony in the San Francisco Chronicle — a lecturer blamed the conflict on Zionists, said Hamas’s actions were ‘resistance,’ asked Jewish students to raise their hands, and then separated them from their belongings, saying he was simulating what Jews were doing to Palestinians.
The lecturer, Ameer Hasan Loggins, then asked how many Jews had died in the Holocaust. When students answered with six million, Loggins retorted, ‘Yes. Only six million,’ arguing that the number of victims of colonialism was larger.
He proceeded to ask every student to say where their ancestors were from, labelling each a ‘coloniser’ or ‘colonised,’ depending on their answer. When one said they were from Israel, the lecturer responded: ‘Oh, definitely a coloniser.’
If that strikes you as outrageous, you have clearly missed the fact that such thinking is rife throughout the Anglosphere academy.
‘Wokeism’ covers a multitude of sins. The academic Left is a much more complex coalition nowadays than it was back in the 1930s, when Cambridge had its covert cadre of card-carrying Communists, or the 1980s, when Oxford snubbed Margaret Thatcher by refusing her an honorary degree.
Although Marxist socialism is still part of the package, class warfare and anti-imperialism co-exist (at times uneasily) with a variety of other ideologies based on alternative forms of identity, such as race (‘critical race theory’ or ‘anti-racism’) and gender (the ever-growing abbreviation LGBTQIA+ now stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and others’).
‘Woke’ originated as African-American slang, but is now defined in the dictionaries as ‘aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)’.
Like all cults and sects, the woke have their own idiosyncratic language and rituals. These include stating one’s ‘preferred pronouns’ at every opportunity and acknowledging whenever possible that one is meeting on land expropriated from indigenous peoples.
In marked contrast to conventional scientific understanding, race is an essential, unalterable attribute (you’re either BIPOC — black, indigenous, and other people of colour — or you’re incurably white), but gender is almost infinitely fluid. In each case, there is a hierarchy, determined mainly by the extent to which your assigned minority were ‘victimised’ and ‘marginalised’ by the white, cisgender colonisers.
This ‘intersectionality’ produces some very strange bedfellows. ‘Free Palestine is a Feminist Issue’, according to a meme I saw last week; ‘it’s a Reprodutive [sic] Rights Issue, it’s an Indigenous Rights Issue, it’s a Climate Justice Issue, it’s a Queer Rights Issue, it’s an Abolitionist issue’. Quite how queer rights activists would fare if they travelled to Gaza to join in the fight for freedom is unclear, given Hamas’s implacable commitment to sharia law.
But the woke have never worried much about the difficulty of aligning themselves with Islamists. After all, words and silence can both be violence in their world, but terrorism is just ‘what oppressed fighting the oppressor looks like’ — and the constraints of logic must be just another manifestation of white supremacy.
There are four reasons this confused ideology has established itself in so many universities.
First, an older generation of soggy liberal professors could not resist appointing and promoting younger radicals, naively equating their illiberal outlook with their own youthful idealism.
Second, various policies of affirmative action — designed to increase the proportion of female and non-white students and teachers in universities — had the unintended consequence of reducing intellectual diversity.
Third, as universities institutionalised policies such as the promotion of equity, diversity and inclusion and the decolonisation of this or that curriculum, bureaucracies sprang up that were swiftly staffed by woke believers.
Finally, a coalition formed between woke students, professors and administrators, who discovered there were almost no limits on the methods they could use to attack the surviving conservatives in their institutions.
Anonymous letters of denunciation, cancellation campaigns on social media, the bearing of false witness, public mobbings, and extra-legal investigations — I have seen all of these used against professors who dared to resist the woke cultural revolution.
For those of us determined not to surrender higher education in its entirety to wokeism, there has until now been little alternative but to organise for self-defence. True, there are a few institutions that remain intact — for example, the Hoover Institution, of which I am a fellow, and the University of Buckingham — but they are too few in number. That is why we have been busy founding new ones.
This has been the work of many hands. My good friend, New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, established Heterodox Academy as a hub for research and collaboration on the issues of academic freedom. After I called for a ‘NATO for professors’ in 2019, a group led by Robert George at Princeton established the Academic Freedom Alliance.
Two years ago, Pano Kanelos, Joe Lonsdale, Bari Weiss and I announced the creation of a university in Austin, Texas, dedicated to the ‘fearless pursuit of truth’.
Here in the UK, Toby Young led the charge by founding the Free Speech Union. It has recently been reinforced by Alumni for Free Speech and — launched earlier this month — the Committee for Academic Freedom.
The latest British initiative kicks off on Monday with the inaugural meeting of the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC), which aims to bring together defenders of western civilisation from the U.S., the UK and Australia.
In the words of ARC’s founder, Lady (Philippa) Stroud: ‘Corrosive cultural criticism in recent decades has left the coherence of our cultural stories hanging by a thread. Our lack of a common narrative has left us feeling disillusioned and disempowered . . . our institutions have huge value . . . but we no longer trust them.’
A major reason why is that our higher education system — through which half of young Britons pass — has to such a shocking extent been captured by people who hate our culture and institutions.
In short, we are living through a wave of institution-building that has the makings of an anti-woke counter-revolution. The challenge remains to persuade potential supporters outside academia that our efforts are worthwhile.
Up until this month, the response of many people who graduated from university in the 1980s or 1990s has been something along these lines: ‘Well, universities are always Left-leaning, aren’t they? And there’s always a minority of students who take ridiculous political positions. They’ll soon grow out of them. After all, we did!’
This is the kind of complacency that has made it so easy for one university after another to be captured by the ideologues and their appeasers. The reality is that this isn’t the way universities were when I was an undergraduate.
In those distant days, 40 long years ago, academic freedom was at its zenith, as was intellectual diversity. More importantly, the people who ran universities did not regard themselves as political activists or social engineers.
Perhaps I am naive, but I think there is a chance that the academic Left’s deranged response to the October 7 attacks on Israel — their reckless jumping of the shark with overt celebrations of terrorism and anti-Semitism — may finally have roused the complacent from their torpor. If those you pay for these institutions revolt, as they are doing in the U.S., they may be forced to change course.
Ultimately, western civilisation will be rescued from the mind virus of wokeism only if we are as organised as the Left has been for years.
The grim alternative is that every institution eventually succumbs to the motley pathologies of anti-racism, trans activism and Islamism that travel in the Trojan horse marked Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is a founding trustee of the University of Austin and speaker at the inaugural ARC conference on Monday.