“Recognized As Human, Levelly Human”

Image Source: Cover art for the book Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke by Umut Ozkirimli

A Review of Umut Özkırımlı, 2023, Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke (Polity)

Brecht saw it in 1940. “Hatred, even of meanness / Contorts the features. / Anger, even against injustice / Makes the voice hoarse. O, / We who wanted to prepare the ground for friendship / Could not ourselves be friendly.” Those dark times led Brecht to ask, “What kind of times are these, when / To talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?” His times were bad enough, but they’ve got much worse in the last 83 years. Talking about trees is definitely a crime now and will get you arrested. Just ask climate crisis protestors and Extinction Rebellion scientists. As for friendship, how much room for friendship between men and women is there these post-#MeToo days, when they suspect each other so much? Or among feminists who are squabbling over pronouns and TERF-labelling (while not giving a damn about what’s happening to their sisters in, say Mexico or West Papua)? How can friendship exist when 81 billionaires are squatting on more wealth than 50% of the world’s population and paying (if they pay) about 4 cents a dollar in wealth taxes (when a small Uganda businessman earning $80 per month pays a tax rate of 40%)? Such inequality is ground that’s too hostile for friendship. And since dark-times billionaire emperors like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Alexander and (Sir) Evgeny Lebedev, Lord Rothermere, the Barclays, Agnellis, etcetera, control the media and set their horrible tone, this human catastrophe is presented as all good and immutable. Who needs friends when you’re a billionaire and can buy almost anyone? Kindness is almost extinct.

Hostility to solidarity and friendship in a time of need is what Umut Özkırımlı suffered acutely and at close quarters in 2018 when, as his five-year-old son was dying of cancer, a colleague at Lund University falsely accused him of harassment. Never mind that said colleague, Pınar Dinç, was found guilty of several charges of defamation and gross defamation, and never mind that the whole dragged-out process has made it impossible for Umut to grieve properly for his son, leaving a legacy of panic attacks and nightmares, the university as an institution and Umut’s woke colleagues in Lund and beyond cancelled him and have never issued an apology. But Umut’s a fighter. He followed the example of Ingmar Bergman who, asked about what inspired his art, referred to his own terrifying demons, “… if I can master the negative forces and harness them to my chariot, then they can work to my advantage” (vii). He’s made a new life in Barcelona with an adoptive family (of which—full disclosure—I’m a member) and he’s now published the book, Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke which, although coming from an experience of great personal pain, isn’t about the torments of what he went through but a meditation on the kind of politics that lead to such routine cruelty and, more important, what to do about it.

Anything can trigger the wokest rage. So, in 2020, when a mob of Turkish “feminists” were doing all they could (and, in some circles, succeeded) to get Özkırımlı denounced as a “pervert” and “terrorist”, a woman historian, a feminist and serious scholar , smelt a rat in all the rabid accusations, did her own research, and then had the nerve to like a tweet in which another “feminist dinosaur” and myself had written, about Özkırımlı’s case, “We value solidarity, truth, justice and integrity; we find nothing inspiring about lies and vindictiveness. Feminism is about justice, not about destroying people”. She was mauled online, and even her family was attacked by the Turkish Furies. I, too, received dozens of hate messages, a hacked email account, and threats to denounce me for “watching porn” if I didn’t back out of a book I’m writing with Özkırımlı about sex and human rights. This poor ranting feminist hacker didn’t know the difference between researching about porn and watching porn. I told her, go ahead and denounce me, sweetie. No way am I going to back out of this book! The good news is that the Turkish historian, a marvellous woman, once a stranger is now a friend. There are still a few small plots of fertile ground for solidarity and friendship.

The first issue Özkırımlı grapples with when writing his book is about “woke”. He describes it as “the tip of a gigantic iceberg which had calved from the traditional Left—the universalist, egalitarian Left I was committed to—and found itself a new name” (3). Since neoliberalism has turned so many old values into their perverted opposite, it happened with woke too, and the new “woke” waters are certainly muddy. Until quite recently, a very different meaning was expressed in the refrain “I stay woke” of Erykah Badu’s hit, “Master Teacher” of the early 2000s, which was closely associated with Black Lives Matter, especially after 2014 when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. And Badu’s “stay woke” goes back to the 1938 afterword of the protest song “Scottsboro Boys,” by Lead Belly, echoing Jamaican philosopher Marcus Garvey’s earlier call for Black citizens to be more alert, more socially and politically conscious. The original “stay woke” was about lifesaving awareness of murderous racism.

Then, in 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary included “woke” as an adjective meaning “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke (often used as an exhortation)” [original emphasis]. Unsurprisingly, the Right lost no time in hijacking the term, so now we have Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s “war on woke” extending to Holocaust textbooks because they include “special topics” using terms like “social justice” and “critical race theory”. But a more distressing manifestation came when the “woke” Left turned it into a kind of identity politics practised in the form of aggressive, kneejerk, socially and politically unconscious (mindless), virtue-signalling “cancel culture”: “the action or practice of publicly boycotting, ostracizing, or withdrawing support from a person, institution, etc., thought to be promoting culturally unacceptable ideas”, according to the OED. As Özkırımlı says, it “seemed to be nothing more than the latest incarnation of censorship and witch hunts, the hallmarks of reactionary, conservative thinking throughout centuries. The problem was that both woke and cancelling emerged from progressive circles, in particular those who embraced some form of radical identity politics …The woke Left was a spitting image of the reactionary Right in its disdain for dissent, its bunker mentality and Manichean simplicity” (5-6).

This book isn’t an exercise in breast-beating but more a quest to find a way back to a politics of justice, solidarity, decency, and human rights. In the early days of writing it, Özkırımlı found Loretta J. Ross and her New York Times piece “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture is Toxic”. He cites her in the early pages. “‘Can we avoid individualizing oppression and not use the movement as our personal therapy space?’, she asked, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and acknowledging the usefulness of ‘call-outs’ as a tactic to hold the powerful accountable. ‘But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses’ … And this breeds a culture of fear which leads people to close off, and close ranks, hampering social justice work. Instead of ‘calling out’, we should ‘call-in’, she wrote, engaging ‘in debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama’” (10). For Özkırımlı, Loretta J. Ross “was the ideal mentor for the disillusioned, yes-privileged-yet-eager-to-learn leftist. Her life, the tenacity with which she held to her unflinching faith in and love for her fellow human beings were a perfect reminder of the ideals the Left had long forgotten” (14). Coming from suffering and with Ross as his guide, Özkırımlı’s book is much more than a diary of a “personal journey. It is also a call to all those disenchanted with populism and radical identity politics to break free from dogmatism and fanaticism, and adopt a new progressive social justice agenda based on our common humanity and vulnerability while respecting our differences” (15).

The first three chapters explore the embrace by Right and Left of exclusionary identity politics, demonstrating and lamenting how the Left converges with the Right in “the context of the broader crisis of democracy and growing polarization around issues of national identity, immigration, race, gender, and sexuality” (44). On the Right, the Capitol Hill riot of 6 January 2021 is a clear example, when 93% of the rioters were White and 85% male, and “Whiteness is now a salient component of American politics … and Whites are motivated not merely by prejudice or racial animus … but by ‘in-group favoritism’”. Since the signs are so clear on the Right, some people, supposedly on the Left, have seized the day to do business with the awfulness, so “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” (DEI) training has become an industry. Almost all the Fortune 500 companies have DEI programmes, and gurus of “anti-racism training” like Robin DiAngelo are making a pile (up to $30,000 per speech) with books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (1.6 million copies sold just after George Floyd was murdered) and Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm (which informs us that “racially progressive, well-meaning, nice” people do most harm to People of Color), and a “partial” list of “clients” including “Amazon, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Hollywood Writer’s Guild, the YMCA and Unilever” (95).

But DiAngelo’s spiel isn’t only crudely essentialist, asking high-paying White “clients” questions like, “On a weekly basis, during what percentage of your day do you feel racial shame?” but it’s also a snoot-cocking at the hard yards done by many Black activists:

The language of traumas, fixed and unfixable identities is no different from the Right’s evolutionary psychology-inspired talk of hard-wired group attachments and sense of belonging. As such, it’s antithetical to the original identity politics of Combahee women, painstakingly woven into a progressive political programme; it’s an affront to generations of Black feminists, from Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Harper to Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Loretta J. Ross, who have spent their entire lives trying to build bridges and work together with, not only other progressives, but also pro-life, conservative and, yes, overtly racist people to achieve a modicum of change (85-86).

The fourth chapter contains one of the book’s main arguments, “which is that the woke Left has much more in common with right-wing illiberal populism than both sides would like to admit” because the “dominant forms of identity politics today constitute a radical departure from the original anti-capitalist, vision of Black feminist lesbian activists who first coined the term in 1977”, especially when identity has become “a commodity that can be bought and sold” (15-16). By the fifth and final chapter, in large part thanks to the inspiration of radical Black feminists, this discussion of present Left wokeness has laid a solid basis for Özkırımlı’s call for “a return to universalist progressive politics dedicated to community activism and coalition-building …”, seeking “to reclaim social justice and make it the foundation of a political program that promotes redistribution, recognition, and participation within the framework of a democratic socialist welfare state” (16).

One of the great strengths of Cancelled is its return to Black, feminist, lesbian, ideas of socialist organisation which—in The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)—used the term “identity politics”, but very differently. “We named that ‘identity politics’ because we said that it is legitimate to look at the elements of one’s own identity and to form a political analysis and practice out of it.” Far from being something concocted out of a political fad for short-lived fame, the Combahee River Collective identity goes back a long way. It was named after a raid, led by Harriet Tubman, which freed 750 slaves at the Combahee River in South Carolina, on June 2, 1863.

Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity … In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

Barbara Smith, her sister Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier the three authors of the Statement believed that working towards the shared goals of justice and liberation required respect for and recognition of each person for who he or she was. This allowed understanding of, and cooperation and solidarity with other groups and people with similar and different views, rejecting single-issue politics for a project that considers the “interlocking” systems of oppression and webs of power and privilege, in which Black nationalism and White feminism, for example, overlooked the realities of Black lesbian women. Internationalist and anti-capitalist, the Statement was an early version of what was later to become “intersectionality”.

In his final chapter, “Toward a New Progressive Left”, Özkırımlı calls for “recognition and accommodation of differences, unlike various right-wing formulations which aim for either the eradication of differences or their dissolution within the majority identity”, and emphasises the “need to stick to the individual as a unit of analysis, and redefine common humanity in a way that would define membership in various identity- or value-based groups” (163). His model is intersectionalist “for it admits that each individual is subject to various interlocking forms of oppression” (180). In the end, “I believe it is more urgent to address the problem of legal deforestation which destroys about 5 million hectares of forest a year … than the recognition of ‘eunuch’ as a new gender identity”. He is “more troubled by the 1,700 environmental activists murdered in the past decade … than finding the most inclusive pronouns to address each other”. Yet he is also “aware that the ‘lesser’ concerns are, in many ways, symptoms of the major concerns.” (182-183).

For what it lays bare about the current state of Right and Left politics which expresses all the meanness, nastiness, ugliness, and cruelty in these dark times of the global neoliberal system, this is an important book. But it’s even more important because it draws on generally overlooked, profound political thinkers of the recent past to present a new, more decent, friendlier, more open, and generous kind of politics. In describing woke activism as “an individual empowerment-driven, narcissistic middle-and upper-middle-class pastime” Özkırımlı will no doubt be lambasted and pilloried by both Right and Left. But he’s not scared. He’s been through so much that he lost fear on the way. As an excellent, well-written, brave, and thought-provoking book, Cancelled should be a bestseller, but that, of course, would mean the impossible: a blessing from the neoliberal markets that are driving the politics the book opposes. So maybe it will end up as a beautiful anti-neoliberal message locked in a bottle and cast into the poisoned neoliberal sea. But we don’t know who’ll find it, read it, wake up, be properly woke, who’ll be alert, and will fight, like earlier fighters of the Combahee River raid and the Combahee River Collective. This book is for them, and for anyone who listens to them, and anyone who sings and listens to the song “Master Teacher”: “Everybody knows a black or white, there’s / Creatures in every shape and size / (I stay woke)”.