I got hold of a copy of the "Woke Agenda"... and it's SUPERBAD
The question of how far we care.
So here’s how it went down. It was mid-afternoon. I was in a bar, and a bad mood. A scheme to sell a dozen polar bears to local restaurants to work as waiters had gone south, on the grounds it was inherently ridiculous. I’d been drowning my sorrows in hard liquor for a couple hours when a shady-looking guy in a black suit sat himself on the opposite side of my table.
“Are you Michael Marshall Smith?”
“Who’s asking? And why have you got two heads?”
“I don’t,” he said. “You’re really drunk.”
“Ah, gotcha. So what the hell do you want?”
“Got something you might be interested in.”
“Is is Arctic Foxes? If so, then no. Tried them before. Turns out they can’t cook for shit.”
“Bigger than that.”
He reached in his jacket and pulled out a manilla envelope. Put it on the table between us. I looked at it, confused.
“I already have envelopes,” I said.
“I figured. What I’m offering you is what’s inside.”
“The Woke Agenda.”
I stared at him, a chill going down my spine. “That’s an urban legend. Like UFOs, or people who can keep a silverware drawer tidy.”
He shook his head, an economical side-to-side. “Afraid not. An associate of mine… he fell in with a bad bunch. Wandered up to watch a beach volleyball game in Santa Cruz one morning. Turned out it was a BLM vs Antifa friendly match. The entire crowd of degenerates was either communist, homosexual, a vegan drag queen, some kind of environment-loving non-white leftist Marxist, a Critical Race Theory performance artist, a woman… or both. He’s young, impressionable, got caught up in the atmosphere, or maybe was high on the soy latte shots everybody was passing around. That evening he somehow winds up at one of their committee meetings. They didn’t just discuss their agenda. They printed it out.”
I looked at the envelope. “This is dynamite.”
He stood. “It’s in your hands now. I trust you to do the right thing.”
He walked out the door and disappeared into twilight. I finished my drink, deep in thought. The bartender noticed the empty glass, when I threw it at him.
“You want another?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And better make it a double this time.”
“You’re already drinking doubles.”
“A whole bottle then.”
“You have no idea.”
I walked outside for a cigarette. Went around the corner for privacy. Opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper.
I read it.
Then folded it in half, and half again.
When I was done smoking I held the lit end of the cigarette to the paper. It caught light. I held it while it burned, then dropped it to the ground and stepped on the ashes, grinding them to nothing with my heel.
This couldn’t get out. What the woke mob was planning was just too dangerous. It was better buried forever. That single, bizarre sentence:
WE COULD TRY BEING NICER TO EACH OTHER?
I shivered, not on account of the cold.
Then I went inside to have another drink, and to call a guy in the food truck trade to see if I could sell him the four hundred penguins who were currently shitting all over my garage.
The influential geographer and moral philosopher Professor David M. Smith once notably asked “How far do we care?”
Full disclosure — said bearded thinker was my dad. We had many conversations on the subject over the years, including him observing that one of my earliest (and nastiest) short stories (More Tomorrow) touched upon similar issues in a visceral way. This was not so much evidence of any cleverness on my part, as an illustration of my father’s voracious desire to interpret the world, and an ability to find things of interest wherever he looked. This is a man whose Christmas slide shows often featured far more photographs of Eastern European parking lots than many people would find immediately beguiling. Or indeed, necessary.
His inquiry about care meant: “What are the limits of our compassion? What does it take for us to widen the doors of our empathy? Who matters?”
And his answer was, of course, everybody.
As a geographer he was naturally coming at it from a spatial perspective, while also declaring a belief that academia itself should operate under a moral duty of care towards its subjects. He was quick (and early) to note how the Internet provided a simulacrum of physical distance, giving individuals a forum in which to not give a damn about other people in a whole new way — which was the connection to my short story. In truth, as he recognized, this was merely a tech spin on a very old problem. It’s well-known how an earthquake a thousand miles away will discomfort us far less than a minor car accident in the next street. “That could have been me!”, we think of the latter, while distance puts a damper on our compassion over distant things that happen — even if the event is worse by many order of magnitude.
It appears this is hard-wired into our psyches. A study by the psychologist Ziva Kunda demonstrated experimentally that people will both predict and wish for better outcomes for people that are “like them” — something she called the self-serving bias. We can be made to care about those who differ through distance by being shown similarities, and news agencies know this — often using it less as a tool for increasing empathy as much as one for driving up their ratings. If coverage of a far-flung earthquake features a young child or a bedraggled puppy, it triggers a greater response — because we like puppies, and some of us have children, and we’ve all been one, and our love for both is thus accessed and turned into fleeting compassion.
Issues like age also have an influence. The older you get, the more more we tend to appreciate through losses of our own that life is fragile, and can be taken away in an instant, leaving others to cope. Both enabling factors clear a footpath between us and the incident, making it easier to travel the distance, and to care.
It’s not a real road, however. Nobody’s tax dollars are going towards its upkeep. Weeds and undergrowth soon overtake it, and we’ll stop thinking about Turkey or Ukraine much until someone shows us a puppy again.
This concept of “distance” operates in other ways, including a conceptual distance from life experiences that differ from our own. We’re not all gay, or female, or non-white. As a result it’s hard to imagine ourselves within that experience, never mind going on to consider how being a member of those (and other) groups has put people at a disadvantage their entire lives, and during the lives of those who came before them. There are those of us, dastardly conspirators of the Left, who are open to the idea of trying to understand these people through the ways in which they are similar, rather than how they differ: and further wish to acknowledge the systemic disadvantages under which some other people live, and to try to change them.
That’s all it is. The so-called “woke agenda”. It’s saying “Okay, you’re different to me, that’s cool, tell me about it. And that bad stuff the world’s done to you in the past? That definitely sucks. Let’s confront it, understand it, and not do it again.”
This is not “communism”.
It’s just kindness.
The problem is the others who say: “Fuck that. You’re not the same as me and that’s wrong. Sure, your life may suck on the back of it — that’s a you problem, pal.”
This seems to be the heart of modern Republicanism and right-wing thought in general. A fervent desire not to close the gaps between us, but to widen them… and enshrine them. Instead of building stronger roads between communities, the right’s Fuck You Infrastructure Bill plots the destruction of any highway, street or straggling footpath between them, atomizing society into homogenous clusters of individuals who are all the same (preferable white, God-fearing, gun-loving, and heterosexual). And to then pass a law against the building of any more roads between us, ever.
There’s feral cunning in the right’s approach. They’re better at messaging than liberals, because they shout. Their party is a monolith of dislike for everything they’re not, whereas people on the left naturally try to be inclusive, which muddies the waters. The right picks a short, simple word or phrase and uses it like a cudgel, battering all nuance out of debate. Just as the discussion over a women’s right to choose over her reproductive health has been shanghaied into an argument against those who proclaim themselves “pro-life” (despite evidence that they stop caring about kids the moment they’re out of the womb), they’ve now come up with the battle cry of being against the “woke” — a nebulous catch-all for anything or anybody they don’t like, or who isn’t exactly like them.
In the process they’ve covertly switched the debate around, redefining empathy and compassion as wrongs, and are busy packing school boards and banning books to stop children coming across, even accidentally, evidence there might be other people out there, real people with real lives and real needs and rights, who aren’t exactly the same as their mom and dad. The next legislative season in Florida, currently the slavering forerunner in “anti-woke” politics, will see a wide range of educational exclusion being built into law. DeSantis has an avowed policy of banning the teaching of race, gender and sexuality in schools. He is deliberately blowing up the roads.
DeSantis and his ilk are dangerous, fully inhabiting the space described by John Rawls, a moral philosopher my father greatly admired, when he said that “The intolerant can be viewed as free-riders, as persons who seek the advantages of just institutions while not doing their share to uphold them.” (A Theory of Justice, 1971). But the truth is they are riding the “woke” hobby horse for all their worth mainly because they’re assholes who crave power — power that will only come by people voting for them because they’re saying precisely these things.
And so the bigger and more important question is why their constituents think they want those things. What has led them to believe their own lives will be better, and that they will personally be happier, if empathy and equity is denied to other people? Why does life feel like a zero sum game to them? And how can we change that perception?
Of course the “follow the money” approach has a bearing. Asking who benefits, who profits, from division. Fox News, of course. Billionaires, yes, and random idiot Republican congressmorons too. But the bottom line remains the same: you can’t sell people something they don’t, in their heart of hearts, kinda want.
Why do they want it? How do we change their minds?
I’m enough of a liberal to believe that the arc of human progress is towards greater unity, greater compassion, a righting of old wrongs, conducted through a desire to understand and live with each other in more positive ways. That’s all “woke” boils down to. It’s a matter of not being assholes to each other, of extending the boundaries of our compassion — meanwhile standing up for those whom some wish to place or keep at disadvantage. As Rawls further noted, “Justice does not require that men must stand idly by while others destroy the basis of their existence.” (q.v.)
Yes, I’m fully aware this boils down to a plea of “Why can’t we just be nice to each other?” — but unless you’ve got a good answer, the question stands. The issue of how far we care will be the defining one of this age, together with a more practical concern: how we go about extending the boundaries of care, be they physical, virtual or cultural.
The first thing we can do is vote, of course. Not only as if our lives depend on it, but as if the lives of others do, too. That’s social justice in its purest form. But what else? How do we puncture the “woke” slur, reframe the human journey back to being the pursuit of simple kindness toward all, and start work on an Empathy Infrastructure Bill? This is what we have to figure out.
Because as another bearded thinker famously declared (not my dad this time, though he often quoted the phrase) — in an epigram that’s now on his tomb in Highgate Cemetery:
“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.
And no, like 99% of liberals, I’m not a Marxist.
But when he’s right, he’s right.
Great piece. Btw - about those Penguins:
A man was driving down the road when a policeman stopped him. The officer looked in the back of the man’s truck and said, “Why are these penguins in your truck?”
The man replied, “These are my penguins. They belong to me.”
“You need to take them to the zoo,” the policeman said.
The next day, the officer saw the same guy driving down the road. He pulled him over again. He saw the penguins were still in the truck, but they were wearing sunglasses this time. “I thought I told you to take these penguins to the zoo!” the officer said.
“I did,” the man replied. “And today I’m taking them to the beach.”
A good article. Thanks. Plus, I'd love to see those Eastern European car park photos! And I didn't know "Shanghaid" as a verb, I need to fit that into my parlance.