It is said that politics is downstream of education and culture. True indeed, education shapes and structures the mind while culture gives it substance, guidance, and purpose. Both affect and influence the society we live in and politics become an end result of that process. It is what we feed it.
The high school completion rate in America is close to 93% whereas the rate for a Bachelor’s degree is around 37%. Culture, on the other hand, is consumed and enjoyed by all, and thus influences all.
I am as old as Star Wars. When I grew up, boys and girls wanted to be Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Indiana Jones, Ripley from Aliens, Ghostbusters, etc. For Millennials, it was Harry Potter, Hermione, and other popular characters. All of them are flawed heroes, with strengths, weaknesses, and journeys that kids can hang onto and help them navigate through their troubles while they transition into adulthood.
Culture greatly influences adults as well. Who has never experienced or met someone for whom a novel or film has changed their outlook on life? How about a song that seemed to have been specifically written for you and you will forever associate it with some moment of pain, sadness, or joy? Many of us have more than one song in our libraries that fits that description. Culture also affects us all. For instance, think of The Matrix and the concept of the “red pill”, an idea and image so powerful that it is now part of common parlance and gave birth to countless memes.
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Why is that? We artists are regular folks. We go through the same struggles, challenges, wins, losses, failures, and redemption as anyone else. We simply happen to have a creative personality and we use it to express ourselves through our preferred medium. In turn, this work of art can speak not only to one person, but to many, millions, even billions; it all depends on talent, the current zeitgeist, and quite a bit of luck.
In America alone, the entertainment industry generates more than $700B in revenue and, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers, an additional $100B will be added to that total by 2023. This figure only reflects the mainstream industry and doesn’t take into account the countless local and regional efforts that fly below their radar. That’s a lot of culture!
However, politics is no longer downstream from culture and has been dictating both culture and education for quite some time through Woke ideology and activism that is obsessed with identity. Different people focus on their own particular identitarian axe to grind, but the narratives are similar and so are their demands, particularly in regard to culture and education. It is through influencing education with ideology that Woke activists seek to indoctrinate another generation to be activists. And those who work in the cultural space happily oblige and have been transforming cultural expression in arts and entertainment to conform to their views.
Culture in the West is now increasingly Woke, and its influence on our society is now unidirectional, which is a matter of concern for creative people, and should be a concern for everyone, since so much of what is being produced is less free expression of culture, and more promotion of ideology, and in the process, feeds “Woke Capital”.
I would define “Woke Capital” in two ways. First, it is the institutionalization of the Identity Politics activist ideology into work practices, regardless of whether the entity is private or public. Second, it is the use of real financial capital to support concrete inward or outward actions. For example, Microsoft will no longer hire a law firm if it does not meet its diversity requirements. In 2020, Jack Dorsey donated $10M to Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, to promote a brand of “antiracism” that actively promotes racial discrimination. Woke capital can be used pervasively by tilting the field towards identity activists and their activism, or in a direct fashion, by directly funding the activism itself. In the case of the former, it becomes a clear attack on meritocracy itself.
The term “Woke Capital” has been floating around for a while and has recently been picking up steam. Ross Douthat wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2018 about the “Rise of Woke Capital”. Six months ago, Vivek Ramaswamy, published his “Woke Inc”, in which he shed light on “stakeholder capitalism” and the rosy promise of a more “equitable” tomorrow. Woke activism paints itself as solving society’s problems, but it doesn’t solve any problems, and in many ways, it creates those same problems. Like charlatans, woke activists manipulate the gullibility of the masses, robbing everyone blind, selling junk cures for social problems, and pushing ideas that divide people, creating hate. Stephen R. Soukup, author of “The Dictatorship of Woke Capital”, gave a detailed analysis of the takeover done by Progressive ideals in our society and the lack of response from the Right. The issue of “Woke” ideology and its activism is hardly new, and it has grown and continues to do so.
All the above authors are concerned about institutions, in the broad sense of the term, yet none pay attention to culture. In the books by Ramaswamy and Soukup, the word “culture” is only used a handful of times and done so in a specific social context. The word “arts” is used once in Soukup’s book, but in an unrelated setting.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry’s contribution to Woke capital is in the billions every year. Its influence on our society, by the spreading of views and ideas transmitted through their output, is incalculable and far eclipses any other sector of activity. Given the potential for impact on the population at large, regardless of income, age, and educational level, shouldn’t it be a priority for these authors? In fact, shouldn’t it be a priority to anyone who values free creative expression and does not believe politics should be dictating culture or abusing education with contentious political activism?
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Some believe that “stakeholder capitalism” is just a fad, a trend that will fickle over time and be replaced by the next thing. For a great many people in the arts and entertainment industry, it is not a fad. They truly believe in their progressive ideals and they actively instill them in their business practices. The future generation of managers, supervisors, and CEOs have been educated, or more thoroughly indoctrinated, in Ivy League colleges for the last two decades, with no signs of slowing down. When students graduate, indoctrinated with ideology, and join the workforce, do you think they will bring it with them to the workplace?
Suppose you have two friends who study HR at the same university and they join corporate America after graduation. One goes on to become head of HR for Sony Pictures, which has ~9K employees, and the other joins a corporation of the same size but outside culture. They both institute woke practices in their workplace, which in turn influence their employees, corporate culture, and perhaps even their product(s). The latter oversees a company that has an insignificant impact on American society while the former is responsible for people who will go on to create, produce and distribute AAA culture that will be seen by hundreds of millions of people, and not just in America but worldwide.
We cannot view or treat corporate America in a monolithic fashion, or treat ideological activism as though it is limited to Human Resources for that matter. Woke activism in the arts and entertainment industry clearly influences our society to a much greater degree, despite its smaller proportion in the corporate world as a whole. Shouldn’t the size of that influence warrant greater scrutiny?
I have discussed individuals, writing on the topic, but what about institutions such as think tanks, research centers, councils, and all the ones in between? They are made and run by our intellectual elite and I believe that their implicit goals are to ponder, research, and offer solutions meant to improve the effectiveness of our society and to propel it forward with bold ideas. One would think that since culture is a fundamental part of our society, such institutions would be preoccupied with how political activism is directly attacking cultural expression and the mechanisms of culture, but that does not appear to be the case.
Last May, the Claremont Institute held an event for its newly formed Center for the American Way of Life, titled “What to do about Woke Capital” the main goal of the Center is to quote: “Fighting woke doctrines and the institutions that they possess, and which they use to impose those doctrines onto the American public”. The conference was divided into two panels, the first explained Woke capital and how it came to be while the second was about what should be done about it. To their credit, the MC acknowledged in his opening statement that the “Left now almost fully owns the most powerful institutions in the country”, and he went on to list many of them including the cultural industries. While there is a tiny bit of awareness there, the following first panel had but a few quips about how culture is woke and that was the extent of the inclusion of culture in the discussion.
The second panel was much the same. The first speaker spoke about the high level of Woke capital, touching on CEOs, ESG, asset management firms, etc. The second panelist was Christopher Rufo, and while I greatly admire his work, drive, and ambition, Mr. Rufo’s focus is on CRT in the workplace and K-12 so there was no talk of culture there. The last speaker even laid down a comprehensive seven-point plan on how to dismantle Woke capital, from applying shareholder pressure to boycotts, to building parallel institutions, etc. From the get-go, he opined that none of those are effective as people on the Right are not “there” yet, and I agree. Yet again, none of his points touched on culture.
Last month, the Manhattan Institute held a Twitter Space titled “The Sociology of Woke Capital”. None of the panelists or Q&A talked about culture. How can we talk about the sociology of something without talking about culture? The entire discussion ended up focused on education, which is important since Woke activism is rife in that field, as Mr. Rufo has demonstrated numerous times, yet the culture industries continue to be missed, giving it free rein to influence the public and people’s children.
In America, the top 20 think tanks operate on an annual budget of $900M, the median one for the others being close to $30M. Think tanks have assets too and the median there is valued at about $60M, having twice the collateral makes sense. These numbers are from research done 10 years ago and they have surely gone up since then. How much of that enormous amount of resources is spent looking at the impact of political activism on culture? Close to $0. Some of it is applied to research on social culture, but none are interested in how the arts and entertainment are being subverted to serve identitarian politics, and cultural expression is being turned into propaganda to promote that ideology and its activist narratives.
None of this comes as a surprise. Last year, I surveyed close to 200 think tanks that are Right of Center (Centrist, Conservative, and Libertarian), and found none that had culture as a field of study. Moreover, of all the fellows I looked up, none of them had experience in cultural industries, save two.
What is not surprising is why this is so. Creating art or working in the creative space requires a high level of openness, a personality trait that is almost universal to people with a Liberal or Progressive mind. In contrast, people on the Right score higher in conscientiousness, which is about order, competency, and discipline, and thus, on average, much less conducive to creativity.
Seems like something as simple as affinity and aptitude has created a blind spot in those institutions. While I believe their role is vitally important, they, and any individual who pursue similar goals, would be well advised to acknowledge that blind spot, and recognize the very real concerns of Woke ideology and “Woke Capital” influencing and dictating not just the internal mechanism of the arts and entertainment industry, but the culture it produces and distributes to everyone. They would also be well advised to seek the perspective of those outside their circle who have an affinity for culture and yet are close to them in their political leaning. Perhaps it is there that a solution to Woke culture and its contribution to Woke Capital can be found.
Remember that politics is (supposed to be) downstream of education AND culture. If they fail to come to terms with their blind spot, or worse, deny its existence, they will only be taking care of half the problem. If they miss such a major aspect of this issue, all their efforts to keep meritocracy alive, to save the institutions from the pernicious effects of woke identity politics, and leave a better society to their children will be in vain. If there is to be any creative freedom, any true cultural expression, politics must be kept downstream from culture and education.