Is the Culture War Lost?

Originally Published in Letter
28 September 2020

A conversation between Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sarah Haider.

Letter 1 - Sarah Haider

September 28, 2020

Dear Ayaan,

Let me begin with what I hope is obvious: I’m very excited and honored to have this discussion with you.

I’m even more thrilled that our correspondence will not be centered on the topic people might expect from us—Islam. Instead, we will be focusing on the phenomenon commonly referred to as “wokeism.” However, as many have pointed out, wokeism is not entirely different from religion, so our experiences in addressing the excesses of Islam will be highly useful.

In fact, it was my activism with religion that first drove me to investigate this issue many years ago. When I first began speaking publicly about Islam, I quickly found (as did you), that those whom I anticipated would be on our side viewed me with suspicion. My criticisms of Islam were based on the very principles that those liberals claimed to champion, and yet I was swiftly rejected by them. This behavior left me stunned and confused, so I set out to understand it.

Very quickly, it became evident that the hesitancy to critique Islam actually had nothing to do with Islam. Educating my fellow liberals would not be enough—as ignorance was not the root of the problem.

Over the previous few decades, a new ideology had taken hold throughout liberal and progressive circles: writer and cultural critic Wesley Yang called it “the successor ideology,” but now it’s more usually called wokeism. At its core, this ideology is a delegitimization project—and it targets the very foundations of humanist, Enlightenment values. Wokeism is not the only movement to exploit the same programming that makes us vulnerable to religion. But it has achieved astounding success because it has also managed to neutralize liberals, who might otherwise stand against religious impulses, by hijacking our caring instinct, and by ruthlessly exploiting social dynamics to crush dissent.

Before we dive in too deeply, I would like to elaborate on a point I made in a private conversation prior to this exchange, which seemed to surprise you. I will repeat it here for the benefit of our audience: I believe that what we are witnessing is not the dawn of open war, but its conclusion. The woke have won, and decisively. But all is never truly lost, and this is not a prelude to submission. My approach is one of pragmatic optimism: In order to fight this—and we must fight it—we need to understand what lies ahead of us.

Let me briefly attempt to justify my view.

Wokeism has won because it has captured our cultural and sense-making institutions.

Nearly all our educational, media, and non-profit institutions (including major grant-making organizations) are advancing in one direction. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds of the global elite are almost uniformly supportive of this new secular faith.

To give just one example: Although the guillotines posted on his doorstep might indicate otherwise, the richest man in the world is not the enemy of wokeism. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post not Breitbart, and his former wife has pledged to dedicate nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars to causes relating to social justice.

Let me also make a brief analogy with a subject all too familiar to us. We know that jihadists do not appear in a vacuum. They require a degree of permissiveness within their larger context to exist in significant numbers. We can therefore use the number of jihadis from a particular country as a crude measure of the overall level of liberal tolerance within it. Pulling this analogy back to the “woke,” it is no anomaly that the New York Times can hire and stand by an employee who speaks of white people as “dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” but cannot publish an op-ed by a sitting US congressman without a major staff insurrection. The conditions required for the extremists to thrive already exist. The door is open; they only need to walk through.

One may object, however, and point out that the majority of Americans are not woke. I believe that this is true. I also believe that it doesn’t matter. When so many of our fundamental institutions are in cult-like consensus, when the richest and most powerful among us routinely display public allegiance to one faith, the preferences of the average American are largely irrelevant.

We must adjust our approach accordingly. To put it rather dramatically: we are not meeting the barbarians at the gate; we are rebelling against the empire.

I’ll end this first letter here. I’m excited to explore this topic with you, and would love to hear your thoughts on how we might tackle this issue.


Letter 2 - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

October 6, 2020

Dear Sarah,

I am delighted that we are having this conversation. For a while I thought I was the only one who saw the parallels between the Islamists and the woke. I agree wholeheartedly that “wokeism” has quite a number of dogmas, rituals, a dedicated priesthood and a fellowship just like a religion. In that respect, I see what you mean when you say that our experiences in addressing the excesses of Islam are useful in understanding wokeism.

However, I must admit that I was slower than you in connecting the dots of the woke faith. While I found the adherents of purist Islam (and still do, by the way) highly motivated, well resourced, insidious and incredibly dangerous, I thought of the woke at first as just bothersome cowards who wanted to appease the Islamists because they were either scared of them or because they wanted the Muslim vote. Even the term “woke” is still relatively new to me. I may have heard it for the first time as recently as 2018. Certainly not earlier.

I have been cancelled many times. As far back as 2006, a group of Dutch professors and other illuminati wrote a letter as a collective to try stop me from speaking, arguing that I was suffering from phobias. On countless occasions, my attempts with my Dutch and other European colleagues to push for the assimilation of immigrant minorities into their host societies was frustrated by people using language that we would call wokeism today.

In response to my attempts to criminalize female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriages and honor violence, some feminists claimed that we must not impose our Eurocentric views on immigrants. Activists and journalists put forth arguments they said were derived from multicultural principles to compel us to respect the customs, faith and ways of doing things in immigrant communities—even if they trapped female members of those communities in poverty, illiteracy and domestic violence. Government officials set aside longstanding norms and granted the dole to young immigrant men who refused to work on religious grounds. In those decades so called parallel societies emerged in many European countries. Yet slowly—painfully slowly—sentiment has changed. Arguments that once got me cancelled are now made openly by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron. German politicians no longer defend multiculturalism; they now actively promote programs of integration for reasons I explore in my forthcoming book Prey.

In the same way, I think, the tide will turn against wokeism. And I believe it will turn more swiftly, because wokeism is a far less substantial thing than Islam, one of the world’s three enduring monotheistic faiths.

As I said, at first, I paid little attention to wokeism. Thanks to people like Helen Pluckrose, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, I now see that it is a distinct and quasi-religious ideology. It is interesting to see the symbiotic relationship there has been between the Islamists and the woke. That may be material for another letter. But for now, I want to respond to your words:

When I first began speaking publicly about Islam, I quickly found ... that those whom I anticipated would be on our side viewed me with suspicion. My criticisms of Islam were based on the very principles that those liberals claimed to champion, and yet I was swiftly rejected by them. This behavior left me stunned and confused, so I set out to understand it.

My understanding is that you and I mistook many of the woke for true liberals when in fact they are anything but.

I found and still receive abiding support from true liberals. Some are world famous like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens. You may even recall that Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work to help bring about the emancipation of Muslim women. There are many other true liberals—too many to name here—whom I met over the years in various countries whose views are completely aligned with yours and mine.

I bring up the distinction between the true liberals and the woke because I believe this is the reason you are wrong when you argue that the woke have won—that they are the empire now, and the rest of us are the underdog rebels. As long as there are true liberals out there, I do not think the woke are anywhere near any kind of victory. The key thing to remember is the resilience of the philosophy of liberalism—the sheer strength of the institutions that evolved based on those principles and the strength of the ideas and ideals of universal human rights, individual freedom, the sanctity of life, the rule of law and property rights, the democratic process, free inquiry, science, and free markets.

Islam has mounted a partly successful resistance to all these ideas for centuries, at the price of impoverishing Muslim-majority societies around the world (aside from the ones that were sitting on oil fields).

But wokeism is a far less compelling ideology. Let me give just one example, a quotation from a professor named Sunny Singh, who teaches a creative writing course at London Metropolitan University:

I get regular invites to debate on various platforms. I always say no. Because debate is an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.

It seems to me that the more the woke turn their fire against true liberals—for example, the author J.K. Rowling—the more they reveal the fundamental intellectual bankruptcy of their cult, and the more they encourage other true liberals to cease the appeasement of wokeism that has characterized the past decade or so.

In short, I am more optimistic than you because I believe both battles—against the Islamists and against the woke—can be won. And the latter are in fact the much weaker foe.

I look forward to your reply.

Warmest, Ayaan


Letter 3 - Sarah Haider

October 22, 2020

Dear Ayaan,

Thank you so much for your response. I am heartened by your optimism, but I must admit, I remain unconvinced.

I am not a cynic, and I have not given up. However, in order to effectively combat this foe, we must understand what we face, and strategize accordingly. I fear we underestimate our opposition, and overestimate our strengths.

I agree that wokeism is NOT an intellectually compelling ideology. In fact, it may not even be coherent enough to be classed as an ideology. The circular logic, appeals to the absolute authority of “identity” and privileging of “lived experience” over objective analysis are all feints, not arguments. The woke exploit the therapeutic language of “harm,” “safety” and “trauma” to disqualify discussion participants, heckle speakers and cancel events—ending rational debate before it begins.

Their ludicrous prose, of which you offered such a ghastly example, is perhaps intentionally opaque. As Orwell recognized, “avoidably ugly” jargon, far from clarifying one’s thinking, performs “the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” It limits discourse, discourages reflection and flattens thought before it can even occur.

Additionally, wokeism shape-shifts at a dizzying rate: correct behavior today can become an outrage tomorrow. Perhaps there is no meaning to be found—no center around which this force moves. What are “woke values” that are not also progressive values?

Wokeism is, perhaps, an anti-ideology—a will to power that can be identified not by what it values or the future it envisions, but by what it seeks to destroy and the power it demands. This makes it especially disastrous. For, when an existing organizing structure is destroyed with no replacement, a more brutal force can exploit the resulting power vacuum. In Iraq, the defeat of Saddam paved the way for ISIS. In Iran, naive socialists helped overthrow the authoritarian power, hoping to create a more just world—instead, the Ayatollah took charge and promptly executed and jailed his former allies. Once liberal institutions have been delegitimized by the woke, what will replace them?

But while its philosophy is empty, the psychology of wokeism is deeply satisfying to our baser instincts. For the vicious, there is a thrill in playing the righteous inquisitor, in mobbing heretics and demanding deference—brutal tactics that keep the rest of us in line, lest we be targeted next. Meanwhile, the strict social hierarchies of the woke are reassuringly simple to navigate: one always knows one’s place.

By contrast, liberalism flies in the face of human nature. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is a phrase so often repeated that we have forgotten how deeply counterintuitive it is. We want to punch the Nazi (or gag him), not defend his right to march.

Liberalism might ultimately be good, but it doesn’t feel good. And this is why it may find itself vulnerable to public abandonment, especially in times where it is most necessary. In addition, with the rise of an authoritarian power in China, liberalism is meeting an existential challenge on the global stage.

As you note,

Islam has mounted a partly successful resistance to all these ideas for centuries, at the price of impoverishing Muslim-majority societies around the world

This was possible partly because Islam is more intuitive than liberalism, more satisfying to our primal urges. This is an advantage wokeism shares.

You rightly point out that liberalism has formidable champions in Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and J. K. Rowling. Yet Hitchens is gone and all the others are over fifty. Likewise, this summer, when I co-signed an open letter in defense of free debate, I was disconcerted to see how few of the other signatories were even close to my age.

Bari Weiss recently noted that:

The civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes and the (mostly 40+) liberals is the same one raging inside other publications and companies across the country. The dynamic is always the same. The Old Guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.

This has been my experience, too. Woke adherence can be predicted by generation—where true liberals exist, they exist primarily among the old guard. If the woke have won over the young, they have captured the future.

And it is undeniable that indeed they have—particularly the highly educated young: the future elite. Universities have become places where ideas are suppressed and the driving force behind this is not authoritarian administrators, but authoritarian students.

Are all young people bamboozled by wokeism? No. Most people of all ages are well-meaning conformists: they would like to do good in the world, but also want to avoid social opprobrium, whenever possible.

Conformists, however, can illuminate power dynamics in our social environments. If this battle does not yet have a victor, then the conformists will remain passive. If, however, the conformists act, we can follow their direction to find where the real power lies.

As Nassim Taleb has pointed out, a sufficiently intolerant minority can wield immense social influence. Like religious zealots, the woke infuse their language with morality, creating a powerful pressure to conform, and encourage social policing, shaming and shunning tactics that discourage dissent. Defying them can jeopardize your professional reputation and even your livelihood.

By their repeated capitulations, the conformists (including world-famous movie stars, corporate executives, and heads of influential magazines) have crowned a victor: the woke.

So how can we fight this?

Instead of aiming our efforts on those already captured by wokeism, perhaps we should focus on the next generation, whose values are still in active formation, who will relish standing up to the empire of the woke as a function of youthful idealism.

In my work with ex-Muslims, we persuade curious, intelligent young people to stand up against the religious totalism that has destroyed so much of the Muslim world.

When I began my activism, even the word “ex-Muslim” was a rare sight. Now, there is a growing movement of young people happily adopting that label, addressing Islam critically with their peers and religious authorities. So extraordinary has been our success that the religious are now hosting conferences and workshops on the “problem” of rapidly growing atheism. We must employ a similar strategy against wokeism.

Jordan Peterson’s approach provides a good model. Though I have reservations about his specific message, he addressed the anxieties of young people and guided them through the culture war skirmishes. We must do the same.

We must counter the messages they receive at school and from their peers and from our media and cultural institutions. And we must educate them on the value of liberalism.

Thank you again for your letter. I welcome your thoughts on the path forward.


Letter 4 - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

November 11, 2020

Dear Sarah,

I admire you for what you see and for your will to fight back (or as you said in your first letter, to rebel) against the “woke” trends that seem to dominate. I agree: the dangers are real and growing, but I still have hope for our future.

I maintain optimism that our institutions, born more than 230 years ago, continue to function, regardless of how mean, abusive, alarming, and pervasive the woke are—not to mention the alt-right with their conspiracy theories. Our institutions are being assaulted from every side but they continue to work. The levees have not yet broken.

As you pointed out, a number of educational, media, grant-making and non-profit institutions, in addition to many large corporations, have succumbed to wokeism, but they have not all been captured. In Europe, the situation differs from country to country, with many actively opposing these trends. In the U.S., those skeptical of radical “wokeism” still have the Supreme Court, a majority of state legislatures, one Chamber of Congress, and, under the current administration, a White House that has taken an active stand against racially divisive wokeism. If, as now appears likely, there will be a transition to a Biden Administration, he and his allies in the Democratic party will have to find a way to resist the woke wing of the party or they will be unable to achieve anything.

As we’ve seen this past week, there are always seats up for election and the American people continue to decide our fate, with the ability to move legislators in and out of power every six years in the U.S. Senate, every two years in the U.S. House, every four years in the White House. In addition to these high-profile positions, American citizens also vote at the state and local level on everything from circuit clerks, to judges, to sheriffs, auditors, and more. There is a genius in this design, in which so many thousands of people are elected. It creates not just one level of checks and balances, but multiple levels and layers. We always can come back from the brink.

There was a brilliance, as well, in allowing the people to determine their own future in a decentralized manner. Citizens’ decisions do not come from any centralized bureaucracy that dictates to them how to proceed; citizens decide for themselves and choose who they want.

This also requires the electorate to pay attention to civic affairs and get involved in monitoring carefully what exactly is being done in their name by office holders and legislators. The U.S. election results last week tell me that Americans are paying attention. They retaliated against the woke. Contrary to polling predictions, there was no “blue wave.” The self-styled progressives and democratic socialists—whose candidates fared dismally in House races—will not be able to ram through their radical policies. As seen in countless American elections, extremism, whether coming from the left or the right, is rejected.

This all makes me optimistic about our country and future. In your letter, you correctly stated that “liberalism might ultimately be good, but it doesn’t feel good.” I believe the American people, so far, have proved that they have a genuine preference for the center ground.

Feelings and sensations are illusory. They pass, but they can indeed leave a serious mark. We’ve seen countries in the past suffer from spasms of violence and revolutionary fervor. Such outbreaks come and go. The Soviet Union ultimately fell; the Axis powers were defeated by the Allies; Pol Pot was overthrown within just four years; ISIS was defeated in under six years. These systems do not last.

The sentiments of primitive romanticism (a term coined by my late friend Roger Sandall) may be tempting to some, but modernity precludes certain core principles from being tossed out in favor of emotional impulses. No matter how woke or romantic you are, civil engineering is required to uphold the modern world, meaning that 2+2 can never equal 5. You have to keep planes in the air. You have to hold bridges up. You have to keep sewage systems, nuclear power plants, dams, trains, and all of the luxuries of our modern age running. These achievements rely on scientific facts that are what they are, no matter what the woke may think of their epistemic foundations. We cannot unknow what we know.

What is baked into modernity is self-perpetuating, not self-destructive. Many young people may have their hearts and minds captured for now, but the facts of physics and mathematics will remain what they are even if their detractors insist these fields must go “woke” (the controversy surrounding mathematician Abigail Thompson shows these fields are not immune from ideological pressures). Sooner or later, these young revolutionaries do have to realize that, for real progress to be made, they will need to base policies on objective realities. If they want to go to Mars one day, it is not the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that are going to get them there.

Warmly, Ayaan


Letter 5 - Sarah Haider

December 27, 2020

Dear Ayaan,

Yes, as you summed up so succinctly, if we want to go to Mars it will not be the theories of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi that will get us there.

There is something supremely grand, even magical, about space exploration. It is an endeavor so large that one cannot help but experience a diminishing of the ego. Yet wokeism does not look outward at the vast, unknown universe, but pulls its gaze firmly inward. It has an element of provincialism, which is as troubling as it is illusory.

One gains favor among the woke not for discovering some truth about the universe, but for discovering “truths” that are personal, subjective. Our media is routinely peppered with ceremonious unmaskings of some public figure’s “true self” and with confessions of deep, personal traumas. This self-indulgence is handsomely rewarded, as it confers the right identity label or “lived experience” that qualifies one to speak above the rest.

Far from seeking liberation from immutable characteristics like race or sex, these now serve as a form of authority. Unsurprisingly, hyper-specific identity labels are now displayed with pride where one might have once placed accomplishments or interests. From this self-indulgent, confined vantage point, it is no surprise that sloppy scholarship follows.

Take, for example, the New York Times’ 1619 Project. As I read through the articles, I couldn’t help but notice the narrow scope of their study. How can they understand America or racism, I wondered, if the only racism they examine is the American variety, and the only history they consider is that of America? How would their logic fare if applied to the broader world? If America’s “true founding” was the date we brought slaves to these shores, then what are the true foundings of all other nations on earth, the majority of which have histories marred by slavery, sometimes of a sort far more grotesque?

Of course, America is far from perfect and I agree, of course, that we should aim our scrutiny on our own country first. But I contest the idea that there is a unique, unredeemable evil here that does not exist anywhere else. I also contest the idea that we can learn something about humanity and human nature by fixating solely on a single small aspect of it. Many have criticized Americans for our provincialism—our lack of interest in understanding the outside world. It is somewhat ironic that in that sense, the writers of the 1619 Project (and the woke more generally) are quintessentially American.

Far from getting us to Mars, this tendency is unlikely to get us closer even to social justice here on Earth. How can we hope to find solutions to injustice without first gaining an accurate understanding of its nature, form and origin? And is it possible for this knowledge to be accurately gained without rigorous debate that questions even the most sacred fundamentals?

Too often, the woke dismiss debate altogether, refusing even to entertain the idea that one may share a common goal without also sharing their beliefs as to which methods will achieve it.

Most damningly, they refuse to engage with reality when it contradicts what their faith requires them to believe. Take, for example, the absurd conclusion reached by New York Times columnist Charles Blow after the election exit polls appeared to indicate that minorities and LGBT Americans voted in greater numbers for Donald Trump in 2020 than they did in 2016. Did the rise in minority votes for Trump inspire Blow to re-examine whether race was as relevant a factor in voting as he imagined? Did he consider that it might indicate that Trump support may be a phenomenon he does not entirely understand? No.

“All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it,” Blow concluded. “It reaches across gender and sexual orientation and even race.”

When an exclusively racialist ideology such as white supremacy appears to be “reaching across” race itself, it may be time to reconsider one’s assumptions. But the woke faith will bend logic before it will bend its dogma.

In my last letter, I shared some thoughts on how wokeism has managed to become so pervasive. Let me add another element that leaves us vulnerable to its rapid spread: our prosperity—indeed, our privilege.

Far from taking America for granted, I, like you, was not born in this country and never imagined it to be my birthright. Despite spending most of my life here, I received my citizenship only a few years ago and the prospect of a possible future in a third world country—one of the very worst for women—was never far from my mind. For me, it has been impossible to forget all that is remarkable about America: the genius of her constitution, the endless opportunity she offers, the strength of her people.

So I wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is not an outright rejection of liberal, Enlightenment values, but a symptom of deep ignorance and privilege—an inability to comprehend the value of something many here have never lived without.

As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals.

“The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors,” wrote Mill. But if our success really is to blame, then we have cause for hope. It is possible that the challenge posed by the woke will serve to invigorate us, to wake us out of what Mill calls “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.” And that awakening—or shall I say awokening?—cannot happen a moment too soon.

Thank you again for sharing your time and insight with me in this exchange. I have learned, and hope to continue to learn, a great deal from you.