Have we reached peak woke? In Hollywood, that seems to be the emerging consensus. Thanks to the box office success of Top Gun: Maverick and the disappointing performance of Pixar’s Lightyear, in which Buzz Lightyear’s commanding officer is a black lesbian, the studios think audiences may be tiring of being lectured to. The same is true of the streaming platforms, with the biggest hits of the year being shows that take the mickey out of corporate virtue-signalling (The Boys) or just celebrate old-fashioned American heroism (The Terminal List). In this context, the reaction of Netflix when some of its employees staged a walkout over Dave Chappelle’s un-PC jokes in his recent comedy special was a straw in the wind: the company told them that if they weren’t prepared to tolerate a broad range of tastes and viewpoints, maybe Netflix wasn’t the right place for them.
In the tech sector, too, a pushback against social activism seems to be under way. A sign of things to come was the 2020 memo by Brian Armstrong, CEO of cryptocurrency firm Coinbase, saying he didn’t want his company to promote political causes, such as Black Lives Matter, because it was a distraction from its ‘core mission’ and created ‘internal division’. ‘We have people with many different backgrounds and viewpoints at Coinbase, and even if we all agree that something is a problem, we may not agree on how to actually go solve it,’ he wrote. Given that the memo was sent a few months after the death of George Floyd, it caused a predictable uproar and Armstrong offered an exit package to those employees who felt they could no longer work at Coinbase. Sixty took up the offer – 5 per cent of the workforce – and the initial conclusion was that Armstrong’s intervention had been a mistake. But he had no difficulty filling those positions and his keep-politics-out-of-the-workplace memo now looks like an act of bold leadership.
According to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur I had breakfast with a couple of weeks ago, leading venture capital firms are abandoning their insistence that tech companies have to demonstrate what they’re doing to advance the cause of anti-racism before they’ll invest. Having progressive polices on EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) is a luxury that start-ups can no longer afford. With a global recession looming, these canny investors have jettisoned identity politics and are focusing on the bottom line. ‘All this woke crap will be gone within 12 months,’ says the entrepreneur.
The UK is a bit behind the US when it comes to these trends, but the way the candidates in the Conservative leadership election are falling over each other to demonstrate their hostility to identity politics is a positive sign. They know that in the hustings they’ll all be asked whether a woman can have a penis and they’re getting their answers in early. Even Penny Mordaunt, who said ‘trans men are men and trans women are women’ at the despatch box last year, is furiously trying to shore up her credentials as a defender of women’s rights. The early success of 42-year-old Kemi Badenoch, who has shown more courage than any of the other contenders in calling out this nonsense, is testimony to how unpopular it has become within the party. Not a few Tories believe that putting clear blue water between them and Labour on these issues is an election-winning strategy.
But while these are encouraging signs, this is no time for complacency. Entertainment companies and tech start-ups have a powerful incentive to reject progressive dogma – they’re familiar with the maxim ‘Get woke, go broke’ – and the same goes for political parties that want to appeal to voters who haven’t been to university (and even some who have).
However, among the liberal metropolitan elite – particularly those who are paid by the state, whether directly or indirectly – there are few signs of a counter-revolution. On the contrary, in schools, universities, museums, galleries, arts organisations, Whitehall, quangos, the BBC, the NHS, public sector law firms, large charities etc, the long march through the institutions is complete. There are occasional successful skirmishes, such as the recent fightback within the National Trust, but the chances of a Coinbase-style revolution across the sector, with left-wing activism being ditched in favour of a return to the ‘core mission’ (i.e. serving the public) are slim.
If we really want to take down this new priestly caste, the only solution is to reduce the size of the state radically and force them to earn a living in the real world.
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