THE FRENCH ARE IN A PANIC OVER LE WOKISME
The nation’s vehement rejection of identity politics made me recalibrate my own views about woke ideology.
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
Excerpts from The Atlantic, February 4, 2023
[NOTE: Williams] took part in “a two-day “taboo-free discussion” among public intellectuals about the crisis of Western democracies. More than 100 of us had gathered in a large tent set up beneath the window of Alexis de Tocqueville’s study, on the grounds of the 16th-century Château de Tocqueville, in coastal Normandy. . . .
[Williams was shaken when most in the audience hissed intense opposition to a speaker who spoke positively of identity politics in the USA.]
The democratic crisis that the conference sought to address has many facets: the rise of the authoritarian right, metastasizing economic inequality, the pressures of climate change, and more. But the conference, held in September 2021, had mostly narrowed its focus to the American social-justice ideology that’s commonly referred to as “wokeness.”. . .
For many of us who had come to exchange ideas, the venue felt significant. The château, with its ivy-covered walls and swan-filled pond, lies far away from the intricacies of multicultural life in modern democracies. But Tocqueville was, of course, one of the world’s keenest interpreters of the American experiment. His classic two-volume text, Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840, explored the paradoxical nature of a vibrant new multiethnic society, founded on the principles of liberty and equality but compromised from the start by African slave labor and the theft of Indigenous land. Its author, while finding much to admire, remained skeptical that such powerful divisions could ever be transcended, because unlike in Europe, social rank was written into the physical features of the nation’s inhabitants.
Many who claim social justice as their ultimate goal insist that America has done little to challenge Tocqueville’s grim appraisal. In their view, some of the country’s cherished ideals—individualism, freedom of speech, even the Protestant work ethic—are in fact obstacles to equity, illusions spun by those who have power in order to keep it and hold the marginalized in their place.
The woke left’s approach to addressing historical oppression—namely, prioritizing race and other categories of identity in a wide variety of political and institutional decisions—has stirred anxieties in the United States. But the concerns expressed at the Tocqueville estate were less about what this phenomenon means for America than what it might mean for France. As the saying goes, when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold.
The French have long prided themselves on having a system of government that doesn’t recognize racial or ethnic designations. The idea is to uphold a universal vision of what it means to be French, independent of race, ethnicity, and religion. Even keeping official statistics on race has, since the Holocaust, been impermissible. Recently, however, and to the alarm of many in the traditional French commentariat, American-style identity politics has piqued the interest of a new and more diverse generation.
And so I’d come to witness an extraordinary exchange—one that would not happen in the U.S. mainstream. Over the course of the conference, speakers had repeatedly debated whether what the French have termed le wokisme is a serious concern. A majority of the panelists and audience members, myself included, had answered more or less in the affirmative. Political organization around identity rather than ideology is one of the best predictors of civil strife and even civil war, according to an analysis of violent conflicts by the political scientist Barbara F. Walter.
By pitting groups against one another in a zero-sum power struggle—and sorting them on a scale of virtue based on privilege and oppression—wokeness can’t help but elevate race and ethnicity to an extent that expands prejudice rather than reducing it, in the process fueling or, at minimum, providing cover for a violent and dangerous majoritarian reaction. That, at least, was the prevailing sense of the group. . . .
By the end of the discussion, I was somewhat shaken. On many discrete points, I tended to agree with the [anti-wokeness] philosophers on the panel. I have made Paris my home for the past 11 years and have been raising French children there for nine of them, which is to say I feel a genuine stake in the culture. I am convinced that it would be a terrible, perhaps even insurmountable, loss to abandon the universalist, color-blind French ideal to the fractured landscape of American tribal identity. . . .
[Williams was shocked when much of the audience hissed vehement opposition to the comments of one speaker]:
. . . The person being hissed at that afternoon was Rokhaya Diallo, a French West African journalist, social-justice activist, and media personality in her mid-40s. (In America, she writes for The Washington Post.) Besides me, she was one of just a handful of nonwhite speakers and, to my knowledge, the sole practicing Muslim.
And yet I also felt that something fundamentally unfair had just transpired. France, like America, is constantly evolving. Any attempt to make sense of it will have to take [the rejected pro-woke speaker] Diallo’s arguments seriously. She had tried to share an understanding of French life—one in which growing segments of the French population feel excluded and censured—that her interlocutors could not or would not accept, but that their behavior seemed to confirm. . . .
The incident at the Tocqueville conference caused me to recalibrate some of my assumptions—and to appreciate more keenly just how easily anti-wokeness can succumb to a dogmatism as rigid as the one it seeks to oppose. Many of the debates here take place as if in a parallel universe, eerily familiar but with several illuminating differences. They are a useful prism for contemplating the excesses and limitations, as well as the merits, of the social-justice fervor that has gripped the United States. . . .
By the end of the discussion, I was somewhat shaken. On many discrete points, I tended to agree with the philosophers on the panel. I have made Paris my home for the past 11 years and have been raising French children there for nine of them, which is to say I feel a genuine stake in the culture. I am convinced that it would be a terrible, perhaps even insurmountable, loss to abandon the universalist, color-blind French ideal to the fractured landscape of American tribal identity. . . .
I am working on a book about the ways American culture and institutions changed after the summer of 2020, and how that transformation has, to an unusual degree, reverberated internationally, and particularly in France. The incident at the Tocqueville conference caused me to recalibrate some of my assumptions—and to appreciate more keenly just how easily anti-wokeness can succumb to a dogmatism as rigid as the one it seeks to oppose. Many of the debates here take place as if in a parallel universe, eerily familiar but with several illuminating differences. They are a useful prism for contemplating the excesses and limitations, as well as the merits, of the social-justice fervor that has gripped the United States.
France’s vehement reaction to wokeism has to do with the country’s complex relationship with America itself.
The French left exerts far less power than American progressives do over the media, academia, culture, and elite corporations. Diversity as an end in itself, and minority representation in particular, is still far from a mainstream preoccupation here. Outside one prestigious school—Sciences Po, in Paris—affirmative action scarcely exists. Perhaps because of comparatively muscular labor laws (which Macron has sought to weaken), people do not fear being canceled for controversial speech, either in universities or in the workplace. . . .
Many in the French mainstream are correct to note that wokeness is philosophically incoherent—trying to end racism by elevating race—and, if taken far enough, dangerous. The politics of identity that undergirds the obsession with social justice obliterates individuality.
It subordinates human psychology—always an ambiguous terrain—to sweeping platitudes and self-certain dictates; it boxes all of us in. Worst of all, it smacks of determinism, trapping the present in a never-ending past that steals the innocence from any collective future.
Le wokisme has not gone well in America. Cancel culture is quite real in the U.S., and its effects have been toxic to debate and, in many cases, to institutional decision making. Resistance to wokeism’s more ambitious designs—the elimination of merit-based screening at elite public high schools; the “defunding” or even abolition of the police—has been widespread and, to many progressives’ surprise, ethnically diverse. . . .
The key to healthy and sustainable social progress is understanding to what extent a potentially useful idea can be pursued before tipping over into self-defeating extremism. A constant trap for would-be guardians of the liberal order is a reaction that itself becomes extreme.
As Mathieu Lefevre of More in Common, a nonprofit working in France and elsewhere to reunite divided societies, explained to me, wokeness “rearranges [all] the chairs at the ideological dinner party.” On the one side, it fosters a kind of leftist illiberalism that is almost religious in nature, in that it brooks no dissent—the sort of ideology that center-left liberals have historically opposed. And on the other side, “being anti-woke allows a proximity between the center and the far right. You start with a [colloquium] about le wokisme, and you end up questioning foundational liberal principles like freedom of expression.” You end up banning terms such as institutional racism.
This isn’t merely a theoretical pitfall for the French center-left and center-right. In 2021, then–Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal ordered a government investigation into public-university research that sought “to divide and fracture”—in other words, research focusing on colonialism and racial difference. The institution tasked with carrying out the investigation ultimately refused to do so, but as the sociologist François Dubet wrote in Le Monde, “How can we think that it is up to the State to say which currents of thought are acceptable and which are not?”
What’s more, a critic might note . . .rigid devotion to the principle of universalism entails a certain blindness to often valid minority concerns—about a lack of recognition, inclusion, and dignity. Though there are no official statistics on the matter, according to a 2016 French study, young people who are perceived as Black and Arab are 20 times more likely than everyone else to be stopped by the cops. In November 2020, a video went viral showing the unprovoked pummeling of a Black music producer by armed police in Paris.
I, too, ultimately believe in universalism, and I worry that obsessively tracking demographic differences can lead us to ascribe nearly anything to racism. But events like this have lent credence to the identitarian left’s argument that addressing unequal treatment is nearly impossible when you can’t measure it.
And so the activists and those listening to them have looked to America for a vocabulary to express what is happening in their own country, whether or not that vocabulary fully makes sense here. Wokeism’s perpetual, often performative outrage; its lack of nuance; its reflexive inclination to silence dissent—these are serious flaws for those who care about liberal democracy. And yet these same qualities have attracted good-faith attention to issues too long neglected in America, and often still unmentionable in Europe.
I remain convinced that an authentically color-blind society—one that recognizes histories of difference but refuses to fetishize or reproduce them—is the destination we must aim for. Either we achieve genuine universalism or we destroy ourselves as a consequence of our mutual resentment and suspicion.
Attempting this will be painful and, at times, feel counterintuitive. Woke impulses are irrepressible today, and they will likely remain so as the grand global project of building multicultural democracies continues. The question, then, is not how to stamp out these impulses, but how to channel them responsibly, while refusing to succumb to the myopia of group identity. A riff on the apocryphal Winston Churchill quip about liberal ideology describes the challenge aptly: You have no head if you wholly embrace it, but if you categorically reject it, you have no heart.
In principle, it is hard to deny the superiority of the French model of universal citizenship—liberté, égalité, fraternité. Yet in practice, the exhausting and sometimes disingenuous American reflex to interpret social life through imperfect notions of identity nonetheless manages to perceive real experiences that otherwise get dismissed and, when suppressed long enough, put us all in peril. It would be a mistake for either culture to remake itself entirely in the image of the other. The future belongs to the multiethnic society that finds a way to synthesize them.
“Can you spell lynching?” lawyer’s shocking note in Texas execution case
Appeals court submission exposes racial toxicity in case of John Balentine, a Black man sentenced to death for 1999 triple murder
In April 1999, John Balentine, a Black man on trial for murder in Amarillo, Texas, sat before an all-white jury as they deliberated whether he should live or die.
Should he be given a life sentence, in which case he would probably end his days behind prison bars? Or should they send him to death row to await execution?
Balentine had been convicted days earlier of murdering three white teenagers who had threatened to kill him because he was romantically engaged with one of the teenagers’ white sisters – an interracial liaison widely frowned upon in heavily segregated Amarillo. Now it was the sentencing phase of the trial, when his fate would be decided.
As the trial ground towards its climax, a pair of Balentine’s defense lawyers shuffled a note between themselves. “Can you spell LYNCHING?” one of them quipped in his crabby handwriting.
Before handing the note back, the second lawyer inserted a word: “Can you spell Justifiable LYNCHING?”
A facsimile of the exchange is contained among 223 pages of evidence submitted to the Texas court of criminal appeals this week as part of a last-ditch attempt to save Balentine’s life. The prisoner was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection next Wednesday [February 8, 2023], and though a local court this week ordered the death warrant to be recalled on procedural grounds, the state is pressing for the judicial killing to go ahead.
Accompanying the package of new evidence, Balentine’s current legal team has filed a petition which outlines the many disturbing anomalies behind his death sentence. The “justifiable lynching” note written by his own defense lawyers – which the petition decries as “unconscionable” and “stunning in its disgust for their client” – is just one example of the racial toxicity that the lawyers argue permeated the proceedings.
The petition does not argue that Balentine is innocent. Nor does it challenge the facts of his conviction: that on 21 January 1998, he broke into the Amarillo house of Mark Caylor, 17, Kai Brooke Geyer, 15, and Steven Watson, 15, and shot them to death with a 32-caliber pistol as they lay sleeping.
“This is not a whodunit,” said Shawn Nolan, the lead counsel appealing Balentine’s pending execution. “But this is a standout case. We often see some racial animus creeping into the system, but in this case it is so overt, it is really striking.”
Racial conflict was present at the start of the grim sequence of events that has now brought Balentine, 54, to the edge of the death chamber. The trigger was his relationship with Misty Caylor, a white woman, which incurred the racist wrath of her brother Mark.
The 17-year-old had a violent past. He had recently been released from a juvenile boot camp after firing bullets at a house. Incensed by his sister’s association with a Black man, he acquired another firearm and told several acquaintances that he planned to use it.
Detectives found a note at the crime scene in which Caylor had written: “I am gowing [sic] to kill the neger”. He added the number 187 – hip-hop slang for “murder” based on section 187 of the California penal code.
Another brother, Chris Caylor, testified that shortly before the shootings he pinned a piece of paper referencing the Ku Klux Klan to Balentine’s front door.
“This case was racially motivated from the beginning,” Nolan said. “These people were coming after John because of the interracial relationship, and his defense lawyers at trial really dropped the ball on presenting that evidence to the jury.”
Balentine confessed to the murders soon after he was arrested, and the Texas criminal justice machine cranked into gear. Here again, issues of race and racial bias were present from the start.
The trial prosecutor removed from the pool of potential jurors the only two African Americans available – creating an exclusively white jury. When it was put to the prosecutor that the strikes were discriminatory – and thus unlawful under the US constitution – he countered that he had based his decision on an innocent question.
He asked prospective jurors: did they have any doubts that OJ Simpson had been guilty of the 1994 murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend (Simpson was acquitted, though later found responsible in a civil trial)?
Both Black individuals said that, yes, they did have doubts about Simpson’s guilt, and were thus removed from the jury pool. Yet the prosecutor did not explain why he chose not to strike other potential jurors who were white and who expressed exactly the same reservations.
When Nolan began digging into the case as Balentine’s appeal lawyer a few years ago, he was dismayed to discover a wealth of mitigating evidence that had never been put to the jury. In his opinion, such evidence would not have condoned the triple murders but might have placed Balentine’s homicidal behavior in context.
“We found compelling evidence of unbelievable poverty in John’s childhood, horrific physical and sexual abuse as a child, evidence that he suffered from long-term brain damage – none of it presented to the jury because his defense lawyers did such a terrible job. That’s why John ended up on death row.”
Nolan’s claim is supported by some of the jurors. Steve Fulton said in a deposition in September 2021 that “I didn’t know Balentine was molested or beaten or any of that. If I had known, I would not have voted to give him a death sentence.”
Another juror, Tara Smith, who was deposed in June 2021, said she was saddened to learn years after the event that they had been unaware of critical information about Balentine’s past. “It seems unfair not to have heard things about John, like sexual abuse he suffered, or racism in his childhood, or brain damage that causes poor decision-making.”
A large swath of the petition is reserved for discussion of Dory England, the jury’s foreperson. The account bears comparison to Twelve Angry Men, the 1957 movie that revolves around the deliberations of a jury at a murder trial – except in reverse.
Like Juror Eight, the character played by Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet’s celebrated film, England managed to sway the votes of several of his fellow jurors. Unlike Juror Eight, however, he used his formidable powers of persuasion not to spare the defendant, but to send him to death row.
According to the testimony of fellow jurors, England succeeded in cajoling at least four of the 12 to change their vote from a life sentence to the death penalty. The petition bluntly states that “the jury foreman was a racist, who believed that it was up to him to make sure that Mr Balentine would be killed, and, to that end, bullied jurors who thought a life sentence was appropriate into changing their minds”.
From a young age growing up in Amarillo, England harbored racist tendencies, the petition suggests. Among the package of evidence presented to the Texas appeals court is the deposed testimony of Lola Perkins, who looked after England as his guardian when he was a young teenager.
Perkins recalled a fight that England instigated at school in the early 1970s, at a time when his Amarillo middle school was being desegregated. She said: “Dory started the fight because he did not like Black people, the ones he called [the N-word]. He was racist against Black people because that is how he was raised. It’s how a lot of us were raised in Amarillo, back when Blacks and whites did not mesh.”
England went on to join the Marine Corps. In a legal declaration in May 2021, just three weeks before he died, he said that his combat experiences had informed his attitude as foreperson at Balentine’s trial.
He had pushed for Balentine’s execution, he said, because he was convinced that if the prisoner were ever released from custody he would personally have to track Balentine down and kill him. “If I ever saw Balentine on the street, I’d shoot him myself,” he said.
England went on: “I knew if the others opted for life there was a chance he could get paroled, I would need to hunt him down. I’ve been in combat and I’ve come face to face with killers and I’ve killed more people than I can recall, so I understood what needed to happen to keep people safe.”
Such a violent fantasy of hunting Balentine and gunning him down not only bore echoes of the “justifiable lynching” note shuffled between the prisoner’s defense lawyers, it was also based on a fallacy. At the time of Balentine’s trial, the earliest the prisoner would have been eligible for parole on a life sentence was after 40 years, and even then his chances of being released were less than slim.
“Texas doesn’t parole people on murder cases, they just don’t,” Nolan said.
England described in his own words the extreme methods he used to browbeat fellow jurors into changing their vote. He recalled how when the 12 women and men first entered the jury room and began their deliberations on the sentence, four of them opposed the death penalty.
“I am pretty stubborn and pretty aggressive. I don’t play well with others. I made it clear that we were chosen to take care of this problem, and that the death penalty was the only answer.”
He added: “I made it clear that what we were doing was biblically justified.”
[NOTE: From England’s obituary, May 2021: Dory spent his life instilling strong Christian values to his children. He was always supportive, and pushed them to pursue their goals and breakthrough the limits. Dory attended every PTA meeting, sporting event, “mothers” meetings, plays, and concerts that any of his children were involved in. Dory found his greatest pleasure in life when he was watching his kids fulfill their dreams. He was a devoted dad and the biggest support for all his children and grandchildren on the sidelines. Dory took great pride in being a grandfather. His grandchildren all knew they were dearly loved by Papa. He was blessed with 17 grandchildren . . . . ]
Guardian: England also recalled how he dealt with one of the female jurors who was so disturbed by the possibility of Balentine being executed that she wrote a note saying that she did not want to impose the death penalty. When England discovered the note, he did not arrange for it to be passed to the judge as forepersons are supposed to do.
“I ripped it up and it didn’t leave the room,” he said.
England’s fellow juror, Tara Smith, also noted in her deposition that there had been holdouts to a death penalty among the 12. “A couple of those folks may have felt like they couldn’t express that they didn’t want to sentence John to death. The foreman was a really strong personality,” she said.
England was himself aware of the impact his demeanor had on other jurors. After the sentence was handed down, prosecutors came to talk to the 12 and asked them whether they felt they had been able to project their opinions inside the jury room.
“He wouldn’t let us!” a female juror exclaimed, pointing to the foreperson. England recounted that story in his own deposition, adding the wry remark: “I’m pretty tough in that way.”
With so much material pointing to the mishandling of Balentine’s sentencing phase at trial, and with so much evidence of racial animus in the case, Nolan is left reflecting on the state of the death penalty in Texas. Under constitutional law, racial discrimination is barred from the judicial process, while the ultimate punishment is supposed to be reserved only for the most heinous, cold-blooded crimes.
“This is not the worst of the worst,” Nolan said. “His life was threatened, there was so much mitigation that never reached the jury, and the racism is just so pervasive. A court needs to step in and put the brakes on this.”