David Heinemeier Hansson

December 21, 2021

Are we past peak "woke"?

Could John McWhorter have gone on MSNBC or The View or PBS or NPR a year ago to talk about a new book called Woke Racism? Would a book with a title like that even have been welcome at that moment in such chambers? I doubt it.

But now it is. McWhorter has not only written an important book that's rightfully garnering broad attention, he's also secured an important platform by joining The New York Times as a columnist, and through these outlets, brought an oppositional argument to what five minutes ago were unassailable, widely adopted axioms of antiracism.

That's both an incredible personal achievement for McWhorter, and an indication of how quickly sentiments can change. The religious fervor of "woke", as McWhorter might put it, reached a stunning cultural dominance over the past year or two. So perhaps it was inevitable that all that energy couldn't be kept that high forever, and what we're seeing now is the natural comedown.

But I think it's also accelerated by the fact that one of the chief planks within "wokeness", defunding the police, has had such a rough go with reality of the past six months in particular. Whether that's the dramatic increase in murders in places like Philadelphia or car jackings in my old neighborhood in Chicago or retail theft in San Francisco.

The abstract moral motivation behind defunding the police has met the concrete experience of lawlessness and violence. It's hard to maintain your theoretical ideals if they're in conflict with the practice of living in a deteriorating city. The theory is bound to yield for most people.

Take San Francisco. Michael Shellenberger's new book San Fransicko is having a bit of a moment too. The entire conversation about homelessness, retail theft, burglaries, and open-air drug markets is one inherently connected to defunding the police, and it's been shifting rapidly, as things have gotten worse.

The mayor of San Francisco just published an "enough is enough" declaration a few days ago that reads like it was directly informed by Shellenberger's new book. What a dramatic change in tenor compared to what went before it.

So it's not just the cultural winds that are changing, it's the political ones too. That was perhaps most prominently shown in Virginia where the topic of Critical Race Theory in schools spawned a coalition of "momma bears" who tilted the election in favor of a Republican governor in places that had voted strongly for Democrats shortly before.

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter discussed this change in sentiment on The Glenn Loury Show last week, and it's hard to disagree. It does feel like some things are swinging back in some ways.

You'd hope that this swing back, though, is one that doesn't just accelerate equally hard to the other side. Like Nixon's landslide in 1972. That it's possible to come to an understanding that this intensity of animosity can't be sustained forever. That the counter to one kind of extremism isn't its negation, but its moderation.

Part of that moderation hopefully is a return to a world where not all topics inevitably follow a path all the way to Politics. That we can enjoy all manner of interests without having to rationalize them through some ideological lens. With its designated demons, articles of faith, and other religious dogma. Because it's not only is it unsustainable, it's also stunting.

There will forever be things that are wrong not just on the internet, but in the world. There always has been. The world is made better when some attention is spent some of the time attending to these issues. But it can't be all of it, everywhere, all of the time.

If we've passed peak "woke", and I sure hope we have, may it be followed soon thereafter with peak politics too.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.