How to survive the cancel cult – COMMENT – Politicsweb


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How to survive the cancel cult

Alex Myers |

25 April 2021

Alex Myers reviews Helen Zille's book "#Stay Woke: Go Broke"

Book Review: #StayWoke: Go Broke
25 April 2021
Few anti-“woke” polemics are likely to contain kind words about writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi. It is a testament to Helen Zille’s open-mindedness and sense of fairness that she is willing to seek out the views of those with whom she disagrees, and give credit to them where due. The favour is seldom if ever returned, of course. From a woke perspective, liberals are the enemy, and everything they espouse–not least the free exchange of ideas–stands in the way of “progress”.
#STAYWOKE: GO BROKE, which will be published later this month, is an important book that adds much to our understanding of the contemporary phenomenon known as “wokeness”, as well as possible ways to resist it. Having confronted wokeness in its various forms throughout her political career and overcome a “cancellation” attempt herself, Zille is also well placed to offer advice to those on the receiving end of such tactics.
It is by now a commonplace woke trope that life for a cisgender, heterosexual white male is like playing a computer game on the easiest difficulty setting. Zille turns this on its head with some fitting board game analogies of her own.
In the woke universe, she notes, the combined “virtue points” one receives for being black, female, transgender and non-binary are equivalent to “a seven-letter 50-point bonus in Scrabble”.
Supporting the wrong political party, however, automatically wipes out all virtue points one may have accumulated from simultaneously belonging to these oppressed groups: it “is like pulling the Monopoly card that reads: “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass ‘Go’. Do not collect $200”.
Zille’s main thesis is that South Africa has imported the woke ideology wholesale from American universities, where the reigning orthodoxies of postmodernism and neo-Marxism gave birth to it. This has happened even though South Africa’s demographics are very different from those of the United States: in South Africa, to be white is to belong to a minority group.
Following Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Zille understands wokeness as “applied postmodernism”. If that is correct, it seems that postmodernism has been applied in a highly self-contradictory manner, perhaps due to historical contingencies. Consider that the notion of objective truth has long been regarded as passé by numerous Western intellectuals, who insist that there are only subjective truths (or “lived experiences”).
This eventually made it possible for politicians to operate as though the truth did not really matter. When Donald Trump was elected president, however, we were suddenly expected to believe that it was he who had been responsible for ushering in a “post-truth” world, whereas it would be more accurate to see him as yet another symptom of postmodernism.
Although the forces of wokeness had steadily been growing more intolerant and authoritarian over the preceding years, the election of Trump completed the shift from postmodernist subjectivism to a rediscovery of the importance of objective truth on the woke left, with the implicit assumption that they have a natural monopoly on this truth.
Zille however is sanguine about America’s prospects of recovery from the woke sickness, opining:
“Because of America’s resilience, it will recover from the era of Wokeness and the pendulum will find its equilibrium again. The United States may even emerge as a kinder, gentler, more empathetic society as it finds its balance.”
Here I cannot not share her view. Zille insightfully refers to wokeness as a Zeitgeist shift, and the problem with any such shift is that it tends to be very difficult to reverse; all the more so in this case because as she notes, the woke ideology is bound up with the idea of progress. To oppose it is to be against progress.
Throughout the Western world, nominally liberal or conservative parties now buy into most or all fundamental tenets of wokeness, or at least pretend to do so believing this is the only way to ensure their political survival.
Moreover, any opinions that diverge even slightly from the woke narrative are increasingly not tolerated in public discourse. In a world where one can lose one’s job over expressing such a banal sentiment as “All Lives Matter”, there is a chilling effect.
Notice that even the election of Donald Trump, which, as Zille accurately perceives, was in part a “reaction against Wokeness”, failed to stop the ongoing march of wokeness through America’s institutions. Late in his presidency (July 2020), he referred in a speech to “a new far-left fascism” and “left-wing cultural revolution”, and in September of that year terminated “racial sensitivity training” for federal government employees based on so-called “critical race theory”.
But even these modest efforts, coming from Trump, were vilified by the media and chattering classes, testifying to the fact that the president of the United States himself could do nothing to reverse this cultural shift. Zille sees the election of Joe Biden as “an indication that the pendulum of American politics may be finding its centre once more, which is good news for the rest of the world that has been swept up in America’s Culture Wars.”
However, one of Biden’s first executive orders as president was to reinstate the same woke indoctrination of federal government employees abolished by Trump a few months earlier. The Biden administration also quietly removed all mention of Dr. Seuss on Read Across America Day, which traditionally falls on or around Dr. Seuss’ birthday.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises then announced that it would stop publishing six books due to their allegedly “racist and insensitive imagery”. There is so far little indication that Biden, ostensibly a moderate centrist, will do anything to resist the relentless advance of wokeness. If only US politicians were more like Zille!
In South Africa, as Zille explains, the Zeitgeist shift occurred around 2015, when the influence of wokeness exploded on university campuses around the country, playing into the hands of racial nationalists within the ANC. The ANC, she observes, had long been playing the race trump card, and just as this seemed to be running out of currency, the “Woke Tsunami” from North America hit the shores of South Africa, allowing Jacob Zuma to divert attention away from the unprecedented corruption of his administration.
She explains the ways in which this corruption was allowed to flourish in the first place precisely because of the ANC’s racial redress policies, which turned out to enrich only a small black elite, whilst impoverishing the black majority of the country’s population.
Instead of facing up to these failing policies, after the advent of wokeness the ANC was able to push a narrative, lapped up by many in the media and civil society, that what South Africa needed was more raced-based policies, collectively known as Radical Economic Transformation (RET).
This would entail, inter alia, more racial quotas in both the public and private sectors, changing the constitution to allow “expropriation without compensation” of white-owned farmland, and the nationalisation of the independent Reserve Bank of South Africa. Very similar policies were of course pursued by Zimbabwe from the year 2000 onwards, leading to hyperinflation and the collapse of the country’s economy, from which it is still trying to recover to this day.

A Zimbabwean 100 trillion-dollar bill from 2008 (Zimbabwe now uses the US dollar as the medium of exchange)
Yet any opposition to these policies was ascribed to sinister “White Monopoly Capital” (WMC), a quasi-Marxist term that became ubiquitous in print–the ANC-connected Iqbal Survé had by then taken over the Independent News & Media group–and social media from 2016 onwards. It later emerged from leaked documents that the British public relations firm Bell Pottinger had entered into a lucrative “reputational management” contract with Zuma’s son, which would involve pushing the narrative that WMC was to blame for the economic circumstances of ordinary black South Africans, and that only Zuma and his allies were capable of vanquishing “economic apartheid”.
In recounting the attempt to cancel her, Zille shows just how effective this messaging was. Having just concluded a trip to Singapore in her capacity as premier of the Western Cape, she wanted to share some interesting lessons she had learned about how another formerly poor British colony managed to turn itself into an economic powerhouse within just a few decades of independence. She tweeted, as part of a series of tweets on the subject:
“For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”
By the time Zille arrived back in Cape Town, a national scandal had been manufactured out of this tweet. South Africa’s cloyingly woke media were of course largely responsible for taking the tweet out of its proper context and attributing racist intent to Zille.
But interestingly, she notes, some of the strongest opposition to her came from within her own party, the DA. Its hapless leader Mmusi Maimane was cajoled into admitting that she had been “bigoted” for expressing an opinion that Nelson Mandela had also expressed in relation to the mission schools of his youth: although “colonialist in their attitudes and practices”, he wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “I believe their benefits outweighed their disadvantages”.
Zille was then suspended from her party membership, even while remaining premier. The DA formally charged her with violating the party’s constitution and social media policy. They also claimed to have polling data showing that her statements had damaged the party’s standing among black voters, but refused to share this with her lawyers.
As Zille later discovered, this polling data actually showed the opposite of what they were claiming: 57% of black voters polled agreed that “the legacy of colonialism was not only negative, but also positive”, a somewhat stronger statement than that Zille had made in her tweet; while 38% said that her tweets would in fact make them more likely to vote for the DA.
There is a lesson here for other countries as well, namely not to confuse Twitter outrage–no matter how intense–with actual public opinion. As Zille also mentions, the only Vice Chancellor to have handled the campus unrest of 2015 successfully was Adam Habib, who circumvented a handful woke fanatics by holding a referendum of the entire student population, thereby easily demonstrating that the majority wanted the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to reopen so they could continue their studies.
One wonders for instance what would have happened in the US, if during the moral panic over racism after the killing of George Floyd, instead of simply giving into the slogan “defund their police”, many American cities had actually conducted their own polling, or at least considered the results of Gallup polls from August 2020 showing that 61% of black Americans “want the police presence [in their area] to remain the same”.
South Africa dodged a bullet in late 2017 when Cyril Ramaphosa narrowly defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the party leadership contest. Ramaphosa still pays lip service to RET, but it is widely believed that he will not try in any serious way to implement it. Even so, as Zille explains, South Africa is in such dire straits economically that a serious change of direction is urgently needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has of course made things much worse, as well as enabling further corruption. Though some–including many left-leaning whites still infatuated with President Ramaphosa, in much the same way that many Americans are enthusiastic about Biden because he is not Trump–still think this can happen under ANC rule, Zille is under no such illusions, especially since woke ideology continues to hold sway.
This is because wokeness, which lends credence to the idea that the root of all evil in South Africa is white racism, provides the perfect cover for the ANC to continue plundering state resources and destroying the country’s economy with impunity. Any outspoken white person, meanwhile, including Zille herself with her proven track record of lifelong opposition to apartheid (for more on this, see her autobiography), is routinely accused of racism by various useful idiots in the South African media, to the point that the accusations begin to stick in the public mind.
Nevertheless, as someone who stared down her would-be cancellers, Zille has some excellent advice for anyone facing a cancellation attempt, which can be summarised as follows:
1) recognise what is happening and remain calm, even though those around you will panic;
2) ask yourself whether you have really said anything said or done anything objectionable, or merely undermined a woke narrative or article of faith;
3) do not apologise or resign as this only feeds the perception that you have indeed done something wrong;
4) seek legal representation if you can afford it (for now, at least, the law is still on your side);
5) do not try to reason with an online mob, which may after all consist largely of bots;
6) do not back down and continue to state your case forcefully.
Zille regrets that in South Africa “every opinion is judged on the basis of the skin colour of the person who expresses it.” But this is in fact only part of the story; the reality is in some ways worse: it is not enough to be a black person if one happens to express an opinion that diverges from what black people are supposed to think. A black dissenter tends to be either ignored or derided as a “coconut”.
Thus, one way to combat wokeness is to ensure that antiphonal black voices can be heard. After some serious initial mistakes in this area, the DA is now doing just that: for example, by promoting the brilliant young Gwen Ngwenya (who was side-lined under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane) to the head of its Policy Unit.
Zille’s notion of the US as the “epicentre” of wokeness is at times a little strained. She acknowledges that ANC “policies were Woke before anyone in South Africa had ever heard of the word”. And at one point she refers to an episode that took place in May 2017 at Evergreen State College, where the academic Bret Weinstein was driven off campus for refusing to abide by a “Day of Absence”, on which whites are expected to stay away so as to provide a “safe space” for blacks.
“Videos of every stage in this horror story”, she writes, “were sent around the world, and of course it was not long before South African students were staging similar productions for the world’s social media platforms.” The example she then proceeds to give (a four-minute-long video entitled “Science Must Fall?”, well worth watching) in fact occurred at the University of Cape Town in October 2016, eight months prior to the Evergreen incident.
Attention is drawn to this minor error only to make the point that South Africa is a country paradoxically both influenced by the latest trends from the US and at the same time rather isolated and wrapped up in its own little world - as the “Science Must Fall?” video indeed nicely demonstrates.
Zille’s focus on race throughout the book suggests that in South Africa, it is chiefly this aspect of wokeness that has been incorporated into an ANC narrative that has long held sway among the country’s intellectuals, both black and white. Having grown up in Cape Town in the 1990s, I can distinctly remember Tony Leon being called racist by left-wing whites who proudly voted ANC; merely for criticising then-president Thabo Mbeki. Some things never change!
Alex Myers is a UCT alumnus

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