Letter to the Editor: Response from Susan Neiman on “Left Is Not Woke”
By Samuel Clowes HunekeOctober 8, 2023
Samuel Huneke lauds the fashionable view of many postcolonial thinkers that “reason is an imposition of European power on a global scale.” Perhaps that’s why his review of my Left Is Not Woke exhibits less reason than rage, blinding him to the fact that most of his objections are answered in the book itself.
Though Foucault did speak of the suffering of incarcerated criminals, the claim that he was seriously involved in prison reform is highly debatable. I’m not the first scholar to argue that his theoretical discussion of incarceration undermines the possibility of prison reform, but I do cite the testimony of disappointed French prison reformers, whose concerns Foucault dismissed as trivial (p. 101). “Burn it all down” is not a strategy for social change.
While chiding me for elementary errors, he makes quite a few himself. In writing that “Neiman mocks other thinkers as ‘childish,’” Huneke seems not to have noticed that I was quoting Adorno on Carl Schmitt. Or would he also accuse Theodor Adorno of mistakes a first-year graduate student would avoid? His review contains a tweetable, and much-tweeted sentence: “If you equate those fighting for queer rights and those fighting against police brutality with the Nazis, you have lost the plot.” Yet one sentence earlier, he managed to quote the book correctly as saying woke tribal understanding of culture “is not far enough from a Nazi insistence that German music should only be played by Aryans.” That’s a claim for which the book argues at length, but if Huneke thinks “equate” and “not far enough” are identical, perhaps he should seek remedial instruction himself.
In writing that the book fails to define its key term, he misses the fact that the key term is not “woke” but “left.” The repeated description of the woke as “left,” “far left,” or “hard left” leaves many people who have spent their lives on the left confused about what left means today. I offered some basic principles that define the latter, though most are—implicitly or explicitly—denied by the woke. The difficulty in defining “woke,” on the other hand, is not simply the fact that it's become a term of abuse; no progressive would accept the appellation today. More importantly, as the book argues, the concept itself is incoherent. Woke begins from traditionally left-wing emotions: the wish to stand on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized, the desire to acknowledge and repair the crimes of the past. Those emotions, which I’ve always shared, are undermined by a host of philosophical assumptions with very reactionary sources. You needn’t have read any theory at all to accept them; they have slipped into so much mainstream media that you barely notice them when reading your morning paper.
Even those who can’t be bothered to read a book carefully normally attend to the first and last pages before reviewing it. Had Huneke done so, he might have noticed that his charge that I’m a liberal, not a leftist, falters on page one. I do list three principles that are common to liberals and socialists—and add a fourth that distinguishes the two. On the final page, I remind readers of what happened when what Huneke praises as the “inherently fractured political Left” were unable to unite in 1933. While the woke are waiting, as he recommends, for new ways of thinking to emerge, protofascists like Trump, Modi, Netanyahu, and Putin are reviving old ones. Unlike the Left, they know quite well how to strategize together. My book was written to encourage a general readership, whether left or liberal, to unite around philosophical first principles that just might form a bulwark against the growing threat. If we wait until concentration camps are built to call it by its real name, it will be too late.
Director, Einstein Forum
It’s always a pleasure to debate an esteemed colleague, and I thank the editors at Los Angeles Review of Books for facilitating this conversation.
There is a great deal about which Susan Neiman and I disagree. Although her response advances factual and interpretive claims that I dispute, it does not seem worthwhile to subject you, the reader, to a pedantic tit for tat. My original essay stands on its own, and I trust readers to reach informed conclusions.
In her response, Neiman accuses me of being “blind[ed]” by “rage.” In truth, I was mostly bemused while reading her book. I was perplexed as to why her work depicts today’s progressives with such unvarnished disdain and wondered if she thinks this is an effective rhetorical strategy to unite the Left. To this day, I do not understand what is to be gained by comparing contemporary leftists with Nazis; it is a comparison more often found in right-wing polemic.
We both agree that “protofascists” around the world represent a true threat. Whether it is best to oppose them by demanding conformity, debating first principles, or simply doing the hard work of coalition building, I leave to you to decide.
Samuel Clowes Huneke
George Mason University
Susan Neiman is an American writer and philosopher and director of the Einstein Forum. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Neiman studied philosophy at Harvard and the Free University of Berlin. She was professor of philosophy at Yale University and Tel Aviv University before coming to the Einstein Forum in 2000. Her works include Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, The Unity of Reason: Rereading Kant, Evil in Modern Thought, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists and Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age.
Samuel Clowes Huneke is assistant professor of history at George Mason University, focusing on modern Germany and the history of sexuality. He is the author of States of Liberation: Gay Men Between Dictatorship and Democracy in Cold War Germany (2022). His essays have appeared in The Point, Boston Review, and elsewhere.
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