Published July 6, 2023
The following is adapted from the author’s remarks at a panel presented by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Many conservatives have been caught off guard by the acceleration of the woke movement over the last few years. The onslaught feels to them, as Francis Maier notes, “like an ambush when it’s actually been a long march through the institutions.”
The phrase “long march” refers to the strategic subversion of Western society by the patient installation of revolutionary ideology in our institutions of power: K-12 schools, universities, courts, media, popular culture, art, and corporations.
But although the long march targeted institutions of power, their capture was not the final goal. Instead, the endgame was to colonize the hidden life of the human person. The great triumph of the upheaval we are now undergoing is the undoing of the soul.
This is why the most formidable obstacle to such cultural revolutions is not so much a party or a movement as it is the faith and the family. Of course, parties and movements are crucial in supporting and protecting both religion and family life. Their importance should not be underestimated. But the greatest triumph of such cultural revolutions is the total absorption of a person’s interior life into the political life—for the revolution seeks to envelope each one of us, to leave no thought unpossessed by ideology.
For example, most everyone—even the most devoted progressive—knows the transgender swimmer Lia Thomas is a man. But many have decided their political self must conquer the truth they know in their core. It is a sort of giving over of self to the party—a giving over of self to a lie. You can draw out the spiritual implications from there.
Though it has been a long march, the current sense of ambush cannot be altogether explained by negligent denial. There has indeed been a steady war of position in institutions that was plain to see. What wasn’t as plainly evident was the degree to which the ideological capture had reached neighbors, friends, and family members. Like bankruptcy, the warning signs were somewhat clear—but still it happened slowly, and then all at once. Some key factors converging to hasten this later stage are the rise of Big Tech, family chaos, and the redefining of the person as either victim or transgressor.
The possibilities for control enabled by dizzying tech advances have precipitously accelerated the long march. The collusion of tech, government, and social platforms to surveil, censor, and target citizens and to preserve government-preferred narratives is truly dystopian.
The reach of Big Tech is not only broad and sweeping, but also personal and granular. It is evident in the young girl addicted to TikTok and Instagram, with all their attending anxieties and isolation. Its reach is clear in the soaring rates of that same demographic seeking gender transition, or the lowering ages at which boys (and girls) are easily exposed to the most violent and dehumanizing sorts of pornography. In ways both vast and minute, the advances of tech serve to expedite revolutionary aims.
It will surprise no one to know that since the middle of the last century, the rates of children growing up in an intact family have been on steep decline. While certainly there are dire situations in which divorce improves a family’s circumstances, for the vast majority of children it is a catastrophe.
Data is hardly needed to justify this statement, as almost everyone now is witness to the trauma up close in their lives or those of family members or friends. It is the sort of thing that from a distance seems like an unfortunate but survivable abstraction. But in reality it inflicts so much hidden pain as to make one wonder how anyone endures it enough to function, much less flourish.
We might console ourselves that kids are resilient. But the havoc of divorce often (though not inevitably) reverberates through the generations, compounding its effects through time and creating kindling for an inferno of grievance culture. It is much easier to believe you are defined by suffering if you know the depth of suffering intimately. Which leads me to the third explanation for the escalation.
The woke movement gives perverse incentive to locate our moral stature in our ability to identify as a victim and to define others by their privilege. Privilege is not a label meant to prompt gratitude in another, but rather to impugn him with guilt. Victim status on the other hand bestows all sorts of actual privileges. The supposed insight granted to him by his vantage point as a victim allows him greater access to see and say what is right, and silence those speaking from a position of “power.”
As the woke see it, that power disparity can never admit to being leveled or inverted lest the victims lose their claim to victimhood. How does a victim maintain victim status? By becoming a perpetual accuser. Once victim psychology spreads, we become a society roiled in conflict—desperate to unmask the evil in others and bereft of the ability to self-examine. The celebration of the victim paradoxically leads to the rejection of true humility, for it’s only through self-examination that humility can hope to be attained. Victim psychology also corrodes the ability to discern what is true. A politicized soul is too addicted to the satisfaction of his enemies being wrong to admit of any error on his part. In such an environment, even very obvious lies can take hold and thrive.
Finally, the celebration of sexual transgression has no limiting principle and so contributes to the sense of an intensified ambush. What is transgressive today becomes boring and normal tomorrow, leading to an insatiable long march through the soul and an inevitable targeting of innocence. New boundaries must be crossed and old ways ever mocked. This all further feeds family chaos and the victimhood mentality, as hardly any member of the human family comes out unscathed.
The good news is that in such a climate many are looking anew and with greater seriousness and hunger for spiritual answers and an ordered life. Increasingly, people come to seek the good because they begin to see the undeniable reality of great evil. Once convinced of that, they need somewhere to turn. Certainly, reaching them can be the slow work of friendship or mentorship. But we also ought not cede to ideologues the vision of the good life in the cultural imagination. This is one of the reasons why visuals are key to our Theology of Home Project. People need to see good things embodied to recognize them as beautiful.
The ideologue’s vision, in contrast, does not extend beyond destruction—the destabilizing of institutions and the severing of our deepest longings from the God who is the object of all longings. In rejecting the reality of the immaterial we lose all perspective on the material world. Those who have not succumbed to the atheistic materialism of the revolutionaries have a powerful advantage of being able to take both worlds seriously and present a vision that awakens the interior life in each person that the long march seeks to extinguish.
Many good things are being built and beautified to this end, but each of us can work immediately to shore up the family—that ever-ancient, ever-new institution that is most deeply human. Invest in yours, invite others in, and find mutual supportive communities to weather whatever is to come.
The family is often called a Domestic Church. In today’s razed and ravaged landscape, a happy family is more akin to a Cathedral—drawing people in and pointing them above.
Noelle Mering is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology, an editor for the website Theology of Home, and a coauthor of Theology of Home book series.