We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
These hallowed words of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, first learned in my Grade 9 history class, were my initial introduction to American politics. For a teenager born and raised in Cambodia, a country with people full of nationalistic fervor and a government that can do no wrong in the eyes of its citizens, I couldn’t help but admire the innate humility in the American spirit, to admit that their country will always be a work in progress, which is why they must continually strive “to form a more perfect Union.”
Having come to the United States at the age of 19, I started to think of it as my adopted country. But it wasn’t long before I recognized that the America I had yearned for so long was a shell of its former self. Everywhere I turned, I was told how intolerant this nation was. Every time I went online, I was bombarded with videos of intellectuals calling the Constitution “trash.” Every day my American friends talked about moving to a different country since they could not stand it here. By all accounts, I do believe that Americans regularly fight for valid and noble causes. But when I hear people here insisting that America is a great evil all the while being born in a country seeping with privilege that millions around the world would risk their lives to be a part of, I notice that the aspiration “to form a more perfect Union” has been twisted into wokeness.
What is wokeness?
To be woke, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to be “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues.” It originated from Black communities and only gained popularity in 2014 following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the term was used in a chilling context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics. Then years later, “woke” has “evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory,” according to Vox.
There is no denying that woke ideology has bent the moral arc toward justice and prompted many Americans to acknowledge the failings of past generations. “But in the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside,” as the philosopher and cultural commentator Susan Neiman writes in her latest book titled Left Is Not Woke, “Wokeness demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. But in the process, it often concludes that all history is criminal.” In turn, this inclination propels proponents of wokeism toward dogmatism and generates a lingering sense of generational guilt that tightly grips the collective consciousness of the nation, usually manifesting as destructive self-hatred.
The first 15 words of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States are predicated on the idea of constructive self-criticism, which allows Americans to critically assess various inequalities that were shaped by historical injustices. It is the bedrock of what makes this society exceptional. Yet, its replacement, wokeness, symbolizes the descent of self-criticism into the abyss of self-loathing and detrimental guilt. It is mirrored in the changes in attitude from a healthy national confidence to a terminal uncertainty, and it brings about the shortsightedness exemplified by woke elites’ reactions to the predicament of oppressed people in other places around the globe.
Consider the following example: During the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, J.A. Adande, the Director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern University, was asked how he could reconcile enjoying the games while China is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Here is what Adande said: “I think it’s standard in sport right now. You have to have a cognitive dissonance. You need to compartmentalize. […] And who are we to criticize China’s human rights records when we have ongoing attacks by the agents of the state against unarmed citizens, and we’ve got assaults on the voting rights of our people of color in various states in this country.”
At this pivotal moment, the United States appears to be engulfed in its own fears and anxieties, causing its culture and ideas to become increasingly insular. It is as though the shining city on a hill is oblivious to the rest of the world, too busy battling its own demons to worry about others. Of course, if people like Adande insist on equating the flaws in our liberal democracy to the ongoing horrors in authoritarian states, is it really a wonder why certain sections of American intelligentsia and commentariats ignore the efforts against repression globally?
This nation still has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to police reform. And yes, there are complicated debates to be had here about voter ID law (which Adande referred to as “assaults on the voting rights of our people of color”). But acknowledging that says nothing about the reality that China is holding hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in re-education camps. It says nothing about the fact that the CCP has a systematic program of beating, torturing, and raping these ethnic minorities today. And if we have hardened ourselves to that—if we despise ourselves more than we despise that—then we have lost the plot. Then we are justifying the unjustifiable.
The ideology of wokeness poses significant challenges when it comes to addressing certain issues because of its reductionist perspective that filters the world through the prism of power dynamics rooted in identity, wherein oppression is predominantly attributed to individuals who are perceived as White, male, able-bodied, heterosexual. Such groups are considered to possess societal privileges, and even in the absence of personal or active discrimination, they are still deemed complicit in either benefiting from or perpetuating oppressive systems. Conversely, this framework posits that the oppressed are those individuals whose identities have historically suffered marginalization, namely people of color, women, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The framework then assigns a cumulative score as per the rankings of these identities.
The undue simplification inherent in this theoretical assumption has engendered a phenomenon whereby having privileged identities automatically implies that one’s character is flawed, while victimhood is lauded as conferring a sense of moral righteousness. It finds a poignant exemplification in the notion of the regressive left—a term first articulated in 2007 by Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist and activist. In his observations, Nawaz witnessed a pervasive moral myopia that permeated the emergent cultural and ideological movement, which would later come to be known as wokeness. Notably, he discerned a tendency among certain left-leaning individuals to abstain from criticizing Islam, purportedly due to its association with people of color, while exhibiting a greater propensity to scrutinize Christianity, as it is commonly regarded as a “white” religion. This selective approach to criticism based on the racial or cultural background of religions demonstrates a shallow worldview that fails to apply consistent standards of analysis.
To illustrate this point further, we can turn to the case of Sam Harris, an American philosopher known as one of the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism. Harris has gained recognition as a vocal critic of organized religions. Yet, he is labeled as a pseudoscientific racist solely when he offers critiques of Islam. In fact, Harris’ public notoriety as a contentious figure took root during a heated exchange on the satirical TV show Real Time With Bill Maher, where he found himself embroiled in a debate on Islam with actor Ben Affleck. It was during this exchange that the Hollywood star accused Harris of Islamophobia and racism, thus marking a turning point in the wider American public’s perception of Harris’ views.
Or consider this anecdote: Over the course of 2022, one of the topics I debated most with my American and European friends was pertaining to FIFA’s decision to award World Cup hosting rights to Qatar, a country where homosexuality is prohibited by theocratic law. A country where migrant workers involved in World Cup infrastructure projects faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation, and the inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system.
Presented with these facts, many of my friends’ attitudes toward the situation could be described as nonchalant at best, and their responses were, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” and “We aren’t really in a position to say anything when our Founding Fathers were colonizers and slave owners.” Interestingly, some even expressed sympathy toward Qatar’s laws and Islamic theocracy, citing the importance of “cultural respect and sensitivity” while in the same breath, they vehemently condemned Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
This kind of sentiment was further echoed in FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s nearly hour-long tirade against critics of the controversial tournament. There, he claimed: “What we Europeans have been doing for the last 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before starting to give moral lessons.” It was then that I realized wokeness is not just a phenomenon unique to the United States; it has consumed the entirety of Western civilization.
Why are people in the West so fixated on the misdeeds of our forefathers while largely ignoring the abuses and exploitations we are witnessing around the globe? It is because our hyperawareness of historical injustices compels us to seek out signs of oppression (despite its decline) at every corner of our society. And sometimes the zeal to right the wrongs of our past makes us nitpick at every minor instance that can be deemed problematic, resulting in the nearsightedness of the world at large. For one thing, the logic of wokeness usually goes like this: Given our own ills, what moral high ground does the West have to lecture Qatar? And if we have no right to lecture these autocratic countries, why shouldn’t we vacation in Qatar or other Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and revel in the luxury that migrant workers—whose living conditions amount to indentured slavery—create? Why shouldn’t we enjoy purchasing the cheap goods produced by Uyghur forced labor in China?
Unfortunately, this logic normalizes tyranny. It says that anyone who doesn’t abide by every single aspect of woke dogma in the West is a slaver or a fascist. But those actual slavers and fascists in the Middle East and China? Well, who are we to judge? We detest our own society so much that we aren’t willing to accept that other places may be worse.
The error in this rationalization lies in attempting to absolve a moral offense by appealing to the faulty character of the West. It is nothing new; it goes all the way back to the late 1970s when any criticism of the Soviet Union was warded off by reference to some of the West’s shortcomings. The only thing that is different now is that in a culture where wokeness permeates our largest institutions, we seem to have internalized these bad-faith critiques weaponized by whataboutism, thereby blinding us to foreign affairs.
People like me who have experienced life outside of the Western world challenge the simplistic woke narrative of an ill-gotten Western civilization because we tend to recognize how progressive it is here compared to our homelands, forcing woke elites to confront the reality of other countries. Yet, more often than not, they perceive our recognition to be bolstering oppressive discourses of cultural imperialism/racism and colonial power because they frequently regard the West as an exclusive civilization that has perpetuated a series of injustices.
Take Australian writer Van Badham, for instance. In 2018, she wrote that “the words ‘western civilization’ denote a racist colonial project to crush, change, enslave, eradicate or genocidally erase other cultures.” She went even further to say that “to ‘civilize’ is a verb that divorces people from the values of their own community and indoctrinates them into another’s. Historical rhetoric polarizes the ‘civilized’ westerner as superior to the dehumanized ‘savages,’ ‘primitives,’ and ‘barbarians’ of the term’s late 18th-19th century common use.”
This line of thinking has become so ingrained in our collective psyche now. Concepts are broadened and lexicons are arched on top of each other. The definition of the word “Western” has become vague and ripe for overuse by woke idealogues to mean other things like “racism,” “oppression,” and “colonialism.” They characterize this position as defining Western civilization by every bad cultural and political feature that happened to emerge from the western part of the Eurasian continent.
By simply displaying support for values that are direct outputs of the West—which include civil rights, equality before the law, procedural justice, and liberal democracy—people like me are found guilty by woke idealogues for upholding a “vile” institution. They misconstrue our support for Western civilization as a promotion of White civilization’s supremacy, White nationalism, cultural racism, and colonialism. And therefore, we must be opposed at all costs. This argument epitomizes how one’s fundamental reasoning and moral compass may be befuddled when immersed too deeply in wokeness.
Following suit, the Chinese Communist Party and theocratic leaders of the Middle East can effortlessly undermine their dissidents’ fight for liberty and civil rights by deploying “Western” as a smear and accusing them of being in a secret league with the West. Hence, when people here only see the West—thereby Western values—through the lens of wokeness, they demonstrate the distorted moral vision of overlooking global tyrannies. Ultimately, they belittle the universal aspirations of the dissidents who hunger for the ideal of freedom—or in other words, their own “Western values.”
Contrary to what Badham believes, “to civilize” does not mean divorcing people from the values of their own community and indoctrinating them into another’s. In fact, it means bringing them and their societies to a more advanced and progressive stage of social and cultural development. And Western values do just that. They are values that transcend race and culture, that move people toward progress, liberty, tolerance, and human dignity. Or as Ibn Warraq, an Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, put it:
The great ideas of the West—rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, human rights, liberal democracy—together constitute quite an achievement, surely, for any civilization. This set of principles remains the best and perhaps the only means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to live in freedom and reach their full potential. […] When Western values have been adopted by other societies, such as Japan or South Korea, their citizens have reaped benefits.
If the West is the home front of the free world, the most urgent question we ought to ask ourselves is: how can we prevail in an ideological struggle with our rivals when our dominant culture is so self-loathing?
We can’t. I once saw a quote by Russian-born American researcher Ariel Durant that said, “A great civilization is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within.” When a society stops believing in itself and its values, it risks self-immolation and ruin. All around the globe, countless people seek the freedoms that the West takes for granted. In the meantime, our refusal to see the enormous progress we’ve made throughout the span of our history is undoing the foundations that have made Western civilization the birthplace and bastion of liberal democracy, while shielding the world’s most audacious abusers of human rights from criticism. In doing so, tyrannical forces that run counter to the current liberal world order are empowered, from China’s increasing outward aggression and internal repression to Russia’s own brand of illiberal populism, and the stirrings of Islamist groups keen to restore their caliphates.
Each time I reflect upon the Preamble, I am inevitably reminded of the boundless potential for progress within America. President Bill Clinton eloquently captured this notion in his inaugural address on January 20, 1993, boldly proclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” This momentous speech is a reflection of a bygone era, a period during which the United States still envisioned itself as the vanguard of the free world. Its artistic creations, literary works, and overall cultural influence, akin to the arrow of history, guided our collective voyage toward the coveted road of rectitude. And yet so much of the conversation in America today feels unmoored from the idea that change is possible. It manifests as a landscape fraught with tension and imbued with deep pessimism—almost teetering on the precipice of nihilism. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The path toward “a more perfect Union” is not paved with guilt or shame. It is paved on our fortitude to stare at our moral and practical shortcomings in the eyes and repair them. It is paved by our resolution to retain the capacity to combine self-criticism with self-affirmation, demonstrating pride in what we have done and will continue to do.
Jay Sophalkalyan, a Cambodian writer, previously served as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief at JPI online magazine. Currently a graduate student at NYU’s XE: Experimental Humanities, his academic pursuits center around journalism and political theory/culture. His research delves into the profound influence of the digital era on journalism, exploring its pivotal role in shaping political culture and philosophy. Jay extends his expertise as a contributing writer for Quillette magazine, showcasing a commitment to thoughtful analysis and insightful commentary in the evolving landscape of societal discourse.