Doug Stokes’s alarming dissection of the “woke” takeover of British universities reminds one of the Hollywood movie Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. In the 1978 remake of the 1956 original, based on the science fiction novel by Jack Finney, Donald Sutherland and his friends in the San Francisco Bay area fight an ultimately losing battle against the “pod people”. These are gelatinous, parasitical aliens from a dying planet who alight on Earth as seed pods. They proceed to germinate and surreptitiously clone humans whilst they are sleeping, whose bodies then disintegrate. As these zombie-like creatures busily engage in the dissemination of their toxic seed to other parts of the United States and overseas in furtherance of their takeover of the world, they point and scream if confronted by a real human being who might be trying to thwart their plans. This is a perfect metaphor for what has been happening in the Anglosphere in the last fifty years in universities, and society at large, which is destroying Western civilisation. Indeed, one of the early nurseries of the academic screamers was located in San Francisco!
This essay appears in our December issue.
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It is nearly forty years since the University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom warned us about the stealthy takeover of US universities since the 1960s by intellectual relativism. In a prescient observation, he detected that it was leading to the “closing of the American mind”. There had been an increasing rejection of the foundations of a liberal education, namely the vigorous pursuit of objective truth through free and rational inquiry and the fundamental importance of great books and ideas for the understanding and defence of Western civilisation. It was being replaced by a new culture which fixated on group identity and historical grievances which saw the United States as the prime enemy. As Bruce Bawer pointed out in 2012, in an updated version of Bloom, this new ideology was destroying not only US universities but “the America of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the melting pot”. “Grievance studies”, namely women’s studies, black studies and queer studies, metastasised quickly in universities in America and abroad. They have produced several generations now of indoctrinated students, or “pod people”, who have gone on to spread in their places of work the seed of the ideology of white “oppression” of ethnic and other minorities. Regarded by its adherents as a great awakening (hence the term “woke”) of US society to the need for social justice, it has led to the denigration of US culture, the polarisation of its politics and the coarsening of public debate. It has torn the very fabric of American society.
The woke takeover of US universities and other institutions received a boost during the outbreak of mass hysteria and rioting which followed the death at police hands of a black petty criminal and drug addict, George Floyd, in Minneapolis in 2020 and its exploitation by the race hustlers of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is in the wake of this seemingly catalytic event that Doug Stokes takes up the story. He notes how President Biden on his first day in office in January 2021 signed the “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities” act. It is intended to tackle “the enormous human costs of systemic racism, persistent poverty and other disparities”. It was, in reality (and Stokes could have pointed this out) a reward to those notables who had got out the black vote for Biden in the recent election. The aim now was to transform American society in such a way as to benefit the 12.4 per cent of the US population who are black.
Federal law was to be used to force US institutions, including the universities, to change their allegedly “white supremacist” culture. In effect, this comes down to hiring more blacks for high positions in the US government, the universities and corporate America. Drawing on the inanities of Critical Race Theory and the obsession with Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), breast-beating white liberals are busy undermining the very foundations of the American republic. More than this, they insist on exporting to the rest of the world, as Stokes points out, “the centrality of identity, the ubiquity of racism and the morally compromised nature of Western civilisation”. For much of Africa and Asia, the values under attack are regarded as the eternal verities governing their societies, to be applauded, not condemned. In their insular naivety and self-centredness, American liberals cannot, or will not, see this and are damaging US interests abroad.
Unsurprisingly, the United Kingdom has slavishly followed the US lead on matters to do with race, following the BLM protests. Virtue-signalling became a new competitive sport amongst the usual suspects. Whilst the would-be revolutionaries of the hard Left sought to bring down “the system” by toppling or defacing statues, worthies like the Archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the opposition Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, either wrung their hands or bent the knee in propitiation for the sins of our forefathers. Institutions have sought to “decolonise” themselves, which seems to entail recruiting more blacks and other ethnic minorities under EDI and, in the case of the universities, removing books from the library that might offend their more sensitive readers.
Just as white American liberals seek to make amends for slavery, so do their British counterparts. There has been a proliferation of government-funded research grants to university historians to identify individuals and institutions, from the Church of England to Oxbridge colleges, who may have profited from the slave trade and slavery two hundred years ago. Even the monarchy is not immune. King Charles III has thrown open his archives to a researcher hunting for evidence of royal complicity with the slave trade. He has also called for a national day to remember the victims of slavery, as we do the Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust.
This attempt to emulate the Americans flies in the face of the very different nature of race relations in the UK. Despite the British media parroting the American line about endemic racism in society, Stokes documents how several extensive post-Brexit European Union surveys have shown that the UK is one of least racist societies in Europe and even the world. In fact, in the UK, “many ethnic minorities earn more money, have better educational outcomes, and attend universities in greater per capita numbers than the white majority”. This has been due to the great efforts made by institutions since the 1950s to welcome and try to integrate ethnic minorities.
So why have these same institutions felt the need, in the wake of the BLM protests, to adopt the American narrative of “grievance and racial discord” and to “decolonise” themselves? This mania has gripped the education system, especially the universities, the one sector which should have adopted a cool, rational and balanced stance towards the madness unfolding beyond the ivory tower. Yet Doug Stokes is one of the few UK academics (he is the director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter) to have the moral courage to analyse the origin and effects of the “decolonisation” process taking place in British universities in recent years. It requires considerable acuity to do so since ambitious administrators and their fellow-travelling academics have adopted the long-march approach to cultural change, which is hard to track and measure, let alone arrest.
The concept of decolonisation belongs to the Cold War era when, at the same time as resisting the Soviet Union, European countries, especially Britain and France, divested themselves of their worldwide empires. The two developments were linked, since the Soviets backed Third World liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America in an attempt to undermine the West. Their willing accomplices were the spoilt darlings of the baby-boomer generation who, in order to dodge the draft in Europe and the USA, played at being campus revolutionaries, screaming their support for their favourite dictator, whether it be Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Muammar Gaddafi or Robert Mugabe.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War exposed the hollowness of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory, and left these would-be rebels in the universities without a cause. Still chock-full of venom and resentment at the “capitalist system”, they latched onto the social constructivist postmodernist theories of the French enfants terribles, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. These nihilistic figures argued, in barely penetrable jargon, that in order to bring about radical change in the world one had to change the way that people, especially students, understood it. In other words, you had to indoctrinate them to think in the correct way, the postmodern way, about culture and ideas. They had to be taught that there is no truth and no objectivity, as had been argued by the Enlightenment philosophers. The latter’s rational and scientific method had to be rejected or “deconstructed”.
Foucault and Derrida were joined in the gibberish stakes by the Egyptian Christian Arab Edward Said, who applied these postmodernist theories to the history of the relationship between the West and the Third World. He is infamous for Orientalism, which is one long inaccurate moan against the West and its supposed iniquities in the Middle East. Unfortunately for scholarship, these three snake-oil salesmen have had a baleful effect on the social sciences and the humanities as they pretend to be taught by a predominantly left-wing professoriate in US and UK universities.
The process of the indoctrination of students, who eventually form what passes for the elite, continues with help from the race-baiters of the “decolonisation” movement. These tortured souls seek to eradicate all traces of the Western tradition of education in the name of anti-racism. How has all this come to pass in British universities, which in the past have been known for the high quality of their education?
The answer is that, in their panic that something nasty might be lurking in their libraries, the administrators have succumbed to a form of toxic postmodern groupthink. They have convinced themselves that British universities, and indeed society at large, are a cesspit of racism which needs to be eradicated through a vigorous purge of “white privilege”. Even though there is no evidence for white privilege, judging from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) two reports of 2019, the EHRC has called on the vice-chancellors of Universities UK (UUK), the politburo of British academe, to “decolonise” their institutions. Instead of defending their institutions against this erroneous slur of racism, UUK has sought to do the bidding of the EHRC and of a shadowy, publicly-funded business charity called Advance HE with its “Race Equality Charter”, which awards stars for good performance, just like a primary school.
UUK has set about instituting “a process of mentally reprogramming students and staff”. This entails “anti-racist training”, monitoring and dealing with racial “microaggressions”, “deconstructing” these bastions of “whiteness”, and closing the “degree attainment gap” by affirmative action in favour of black and minority ethnicities. The curricula and reading lists are being fully decolonised, which seems to mean fewer dead, or even living, white male authors and more postmodern, anti-colonial and feminist authors on course outlines.
Undergraduates are being allocated the task of reporting to the senior management on whether their professors are implementing the required changes. If not, there will be “consequences”! Shades here of the Soviet youth organisation, the Komsomol. This is tailor-made for left-wing political activists to indulge in witch-hunts on campus. Already one professor has been hounded out of his job at University College, London, and found safe harbour at the only independent, private, university in the UK at Buckingham. No doubt more will follow. Needless to say, none of this is popular with the great British public, insofar as they are aware of it, but when did the commissars ever listen to them, with their “false consciousness”? This may be why the most under-represented group in UK universities is white working-class males. Discrimination, indeed!
Stokes himself comes from a white working-class background and rightly seethes with indignation at how the decolonisation mob “claim that all white British citizens are collectively racially guilty for the sin of slavery”. This is the main issue which is being used by the identity politics apparatchiks to justify the assault on British universities and society. It involves the propagation of a distorted view of Britain’s history. As a stalwart of the plucky band of refuseniks involved with the organisation History Reclaimed, Stokes sets out to correct the misconceptions about Britain’s involvement with slavery.
As he points out, most Britons are descendants of the poor working class, who did not profit from slavery, unlike the small aristocratic clique who ran Britain at the time. In fact, many poor white Britons were involved in the abolitionist movement and, serving in the Royal Navy, often gave their lives to put down this trade. Why should they carry any blame for slavery and the slave trade? And what about the African chiefs whose whole societies and economies for centuries profited from slavery? Where is the condemnation of them? It is a mark of the sheer dishonesty of the anti-racist academic brigade that they ignore this in their tracts against white guilt. They should be laughed out of court, yet they are allowed to go on spouting their poisonous lies. Why is this?
Stokes puts this down to the emergence of a worldwide professional managerial class with its “woke” intersectional ideology, based on identity politics, learnt of course in the universities. It is like some huge octopus with its clammy tentacles around every major institution, squeezing them until they conform to the new agenda of “supranational governance in a flat, post-national moral economy”. It sounds very much like the Davos agenda of the Bond-baddie Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum. Conspiracy or not, it does raise the question of whether, by advancing this agenda, the political and cultural elites are undermining the West in the face of rising threats from authoritarian powers like China, Russia and Iran.
Or is the “woke” agenda simply the result of the moral cowardice of the elites, who seek to conceal it behind the mantra of “decolonisation”? Have they lost confidence in the ability of the West to defend itself and, above all, its civilisational truths? What is needed, above all, is a strong intellectual and political counter movement to the prevailing “woke” orthodoxy. It is unlikely that this will be based in the university sector, which has been captured by the “pod people”. If any academic in a mainstream college tries to point out the fallacies of the “decolonisation” project, which is leading to the closing of the British mind, they are condemned, sanctioned and even fired or “cancelled”. It is the equivalent of the accusatory finger and the eerie scream of the clones in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
As Allan Bloom pointed out forty years ago, the purpose of a liberal education is to produce a good, rounded human being who can think. Under the baleful influence of postmodernist theories, the universities have produced several generations of brainwashed, virtue-mongering clones who jabber and spout the poison of “decolonisation” which is warping Western societies. If it is not stopped, and reversed, we could well be looking at the “End of Days” for the West.
Dr Saul Kelly is Reader in International History at King’s College London. He discussed Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar in the June issue