I love melancholy Heraclitus, the oldest philosopher, the man who said that nobody steps into the same river twice: the river has changed and so has the man; his blood has flowed on, and so has the river water. Nonetheless, no matter how much I maintain that the River Thames I fell into at age seventeen is a different river to the one I dabbed my feet in at age thirty-four, the scientific view, the functional view, refutes Heraclitus. The scientist says: “This river follows the same course, flows at the same velocity, enjoys the same chemical composition, and erodes its banks at the same rate as it did when you were seventeen. Anthropologically, the locals give it the same name. This river, the Thames, is the same river.” I concede that this is true, and yet even the scientist and his functional explanation must admit that at thirty-four I touched different water, at a different temperature, and of a different consistency than the water I touched at seventeen—and everything that could be said of the Thames could be said of my body. And, after all, those multitude of small changes must, in the end, add up to a functional difference: the Thames will, at last, be a different river.
It is now commonly agreed that we live in the era of wokeness. The term “political correctness” has become antique, and yet it is recognisably part of the same phenomenon. Functionally, just like the scientist and his Thames, the terms describe the same thing. A new paint job has been put on an old structure, much as fashions expire. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the terms “woke” and “politically correct” are pejorative. These are mocking borrowings of the vocabulary of leftist activists, subverted by those who resent the intrusion of this thought-form. The politically correct never considered themselves politically correct, and the woke—if they ever thought themselves as such—certainly do not think themselves woke now. They are simply good, decent human beings.
The phenomenon that underlies this superficiality is the malfunction of the West’s religious sensibilities, and, in particular, the hijacking of our rules regarding politeness. As long ago as the French Revolution, Burke observed that it was the the scribblers who fermented revolution. It is the same today. The envious class of petty intellectuals, lecturers, NGO staff, and artists—the tastemakers of society—have turned the religious instincts of the West against the West. In distant times, these men and women would be confined to monasteries, but Henry VIII let them out and ever since they have wandered the land spreading heresy upon heresy, mixing sophistry and Christless Christianity into a poisonous brew and competing with each other for the most perfect expression of the latest intellectual perversity.
Wokeness and political correctness grew from those ordinary human sensibilities surrounding politeness. A mother scolds her child for saying out loud,“That man has no legs,” as a wheelchair rolls by. Take this basic sensibility—a taboo on noticing—and then add a religious aspect, perhaps holding that the man in the wheelchair is holy and gifted special purity or knowledge by virtue of his deformity, and you have the basis for wokeness. It is not that they care about blacks, the disabled, transsexuals, and so on—it is that they are desperate for people not to notice the raw brutality of life, and, by dint of reaction formation, hold what is raw to be beautiful. Conservatives, generally cooperative and responsible people, fall easily to wokeness because they are polite. “It’s just politeness,” a leftist friend once said to me, regarding a new iteration of the ideology. But it is not so, it is politeness with a resentful edge and a fear of reality; it is the politeness that wants to kill people who notice. Yet the conservative, decent to the last, is led to his extinction by his natural deference to politeness, even if it is parasitised by ideas that will kill him.