A Bloomberg Businessweek headline earlier this year read, “How Dow Chemical Got Woke,” and underneath stated, “the conservative mega-corporation responsible for making napalm during the Vietnam War now has a gay CEO.” Similarly, MSNBC reported in January 2019 that “the military-industrial complex is now run by women.” Many in the media have celebrated these changes as progress against misogyny and homophobia, which is rampant throughout the world. But is there any genuine progress here? Does war and exploitation become acceptable when women and LGBT people are allowed partake in it? This type of shallow “wokeness” which is entirely devoid of economic and structural analysis has been co-opted by elites to push forth the most reactionary and violent systems of oppression.
Since her ascension to CIA director in 2018, the CIA has used Gina Haspel’s gender to demonstrate progress in US intelligence services. The same woman that was involved in a secret CIA detention center where inmates were tortured is now presiding over an intelligence service that is known for its remarkable contempt for democracy and human rights. How is this a progressive achievement? The CIA has routinely overthrown democratically elected governments and imposed brutal dictatorships across the Global South including in Chile (1973), Iran (1953), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1961), to name some of the most brutal regimes with the most atrocious human rights records. Is this a victory for women everywhere or for feminism? The women raped, murdered, or exiled under Pinochet’s tyranny would likely disagree.
The devastating impact of this appropriation of liberal discourse by corporate power and neoconservative hawks is astonishing. In fact, according to a poll by Politico, Democrats are far more likely to support US wars and military occupations abroad than their Republican counterparts. How can this be? What happened to the Republican “hawks” and Democratic “doves”? The truth is simple. Despite the masks different political actors might wear, the difference in policy, especially foreign policy, between the “nice liberal centrists” and the right-wing hawks was always marginal. The mainstream liberal press has hardly ever questioned imperial conquest of the Third World, except in retrospect, and mainstream Democrats have regularly cheered on wars, sanctions, and regime change operations. “Feminist icon” Madeleine Albright said she believed that sanctions that starved possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to death were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton endorsed the Iraq war in 2003. Similarly, although former President Obama opposed the Iraq war (when he was an irrelevant senator) and called it a “mistake,” he would subsequently ally with Islamists and authorize regime change in Libya when he was President. Libya, under Gaddafi, was the most prosperous African nation and now, after his demise, it has open air slave markets and is marked by sectarian violence. When Hillary Clinton was asked about military intervention in Libya, she said “we came, we saw, he died”, and then she proceeded to laugh.
The concept of “wokeness” is based on an individual knowledge and concern about social and economic issues and therefore reinforces the notions of personal achievements and marginalizes social change, in a rather absurd form. Misery and oppression ,or rather concern about misery and oppression, should definitely not be a competition. It should be noted that this is not an indictment of “identity politics,” whatever that term means, but rather the superficial use of identity to disguise injustice and present a liberal pluralist face of oppression. It is also an indictment of society’s “call-out culture,” where individuals are idolized – until they question official dogmas and fail to live up to their roles as deities, as all humans eventually will, at which point they are ruthlessly attacked and cast aside. What is instead necessary is education and a culture of tolerance rather than individual purity.
Perhaps the mothers of the 40 Yemeni children murdered by Lockheed Martin weapons when Saudi Arabia, a country infamous for its brutal oppression of women and persecution of LGBT people, decided to bomb a school bus, should answer whether they feel “empowered” by the fact that a woman is the CEO of Lockheed Martin. Perhaps the Vietnamese people who suffered under the brutal napalm attacks carried out by the United States should answer if the burns feel better knowing that CEO of the production company is gay. As Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Glenn Greenwald, states, “militarism and aggression don’t become more palatable because the institutions that perpetuate them let women and gays participate.” As Caitlin Johnstone eloquently stated, “true feminism means turning away from the toxic valuing system which elevates the most ambitious sociopaths and toward one which values empathy, collaboration, nurturing and peace instead.” Human rights, justice, and freedom cannot be realized through lionizing certain individual and celebrating diversity amongst oppressors, but rather through collective action and dismantling systems of oppression.