As Critical Race Theory Thrives, Author Takes on the ‘Woke Elite’

Noelle Mering's 'Awake, Not Woke' is a must-read for Catholics seeking to understand the movements and philosophies that led to the current societal upheaval.

Book cover of 'Awake Not Woke.'
Book cover of 'Awake Not Woke.' (photo: Courtesy image)

Awake, Not Woke

By Noelle Mering

TAN Books, 2021

256 pages, $27.95

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Just over a year ago, I saw the term “woke” for the first time on a friend’s Facebook page and had to Google it (confirming that I am certainly not very “woke”). The term describes the dogma and praxis of a large swath of society: activists decapitating Columbus statues, wanting to defund the police movements, and supporting The 1619 Project, to name a few. “Wokeism” refers to an ideology that reduces human relationships to power contests. Its goal is the complete fragmentation of society by unleashing the anger of the oppressed, who will overthrow traditional institutions in the name of freedom. 

The woke movement in America and Europe is particularly disconcerting because it feels so radical, so sudden and so irrational. Taking many by surprise, it seems like some unanticipated and uncontrollable disaster. In Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology, Noelle Mering calms the distress of the present moment by tracing the origins and identity of woke ideology while demonstrating its ultimate emptiness. 

As with most moments of crisis in human history, wokeism is simply the current manifestation of St. Augustine’s “City of Man,” the natural (though certainly post-lapsarian) result of the long decline in human flourishing that traces its roots to the Enlightenment. 

Mering’s analysis begins in the 19th century, tracing wokeism’s roots to the philosophy of Hegel and his heirs, Marx and Lenin. Her history of philosophy is both readable and incisive: She has carefully selected the key players and accurately outlined the ideas that led through the massive bloodbath of the 20th century to the societal upheaval seen today. 

Key to Awake, Not Woke’s historical analysis is the story of the German Frankfurt School’s 1935 arrival in New York City. John Dewey, called the father of the modern American school, was instrumental in bringing the Frankfurt School’s ideology to Columbia University and its ideas about critical theory to the teacher college: “Critical theory, the hallmark of the Frankfurt School, transformed the understanding of education away from the goal of knowledge and toward the goal of change. Educators became activists, training legions of students to adopt the revolutionary spirit by criticizing all that is.”

Through the early and mid-20th century, influential educators pushed their agenda beyond education into every aspect of culture: “All art and media were to be transformed into avenues of change by turning them into vehicles for cultural criticism. Rather than showing beauty, art should be judged by how effectively it reveals misery and injustice.” Looking at the last decade’s list of Oscar-nominated films as well as recent headliner stories of woke demands for apologies from the obliging Lin Manuel-Miranda and Tom Hanks, it is self-evident how effective progressives have been in using ideology to weaponize cultural institutions.

Mering also dissects and exposes the incoherence of woke philosophy. “Critical race theory” (CRT) has become a household phrase over the past 18 months: Images of shouting parents protesting CRT at school board meetings have publicized the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi and others. The basis of CRT, however, is a broader “critical theory,” the Frankfurt School’s dogma through which wokeism “seeks to establish man as both victim and god.” 

Critical theory teaches three dogmas: 1) that progress demands the human person be subordinated to the group, 2) that reason be subsumed by the will, and 3) that power overthrows authority. In practice, these dogmas have resulted in the now-familiar and ruinous accusations of “cissexism” and “racism,” but also and primarily in the ongoing targeting of the traditional family. 

Mering points out that the corrosion of the family “is intrinsic to the agenda of woke ideology precisely because of the way the family is meant to uphold the dignity of the person and serve as a bulwark against political tribalism. The creators of critical theory sought to foment violent activism by convincing the masses that they are victims of widespread hatred. A healthy, well-formed family, in contrast, is preventative; it provides the belonging and care that prepares” even a wounded child “to walk confidently into adulthood.”

The architects of progressivism were well aware that the breakdown of the family would inevitably lead to the rise of a fierce tribalism, in which “membership is not based on love but on grievance.” The mob replaces the family, and, as Chairman Mao understood so well, the mob “is the natural habitat for the woke. It exemplifies each of the three distorted binaries considered: it is impersonal, unreasonable, and power-hungry.”

In order for revolution to occur, the masses must be convinced that they are defined not by their dependence or responsibilities, but primarily by their victimhood. The woke elite must “sell them on their despair,” while also convincing them that “... our reason for existence is expression: to acknowledge, reveal, and live out our authentic selves based on our personal desires, especially our sexual desires.” True freedom means accessing, celebrating and acting upon our passions and raging against anyone who represents authority, innocence or virtue, this thinking goes. Once the transcendent is destroyed, there is only power. For the woke, truth belongs to the victor. 

Mering’s writing is endlessly quotable, but she is especially eloquent in describing wokeism’s hatred of children. “Innocence, in the world of critical theory, is dominance. We see this most clearly in children. Their innocence is a threat to woke ideology.” The drag-queen storybook hours, calls to expose children to “kink” at public “Pride” parades, and graphic sex education for young students are all manifestations of the desire to destroy childhood. Abortion, of course, is the ultimate violence toward the innocent: Mering offers a heartrending picture of the murder of infants as the keystone in wokeism’s triumphal arch. The movement is a child-eating Moloch: In the end, she says, this is a spiritual struggle.

Darkness, however, does not have the final word. Mering intersperses each chapter with clear presentations of the Catholic alternative: the true meaning of authority, the family, human sin and a redemption that extends to both persecutors and the persecuted. Her vision carries the weight of the witness of the martyrs and confessors through the centuries. The Person of Jesus Christ broke into human history and illuminated an eternal horizon for the soul that no ideology can cancel. The woke landscape is the City of Man, mere “rust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15). The City of God, for which every human person, woke or awake, longs, shall not pass away: “And somehow in that longing for that city we catch a glimpse of it. Not in the machinery of the city of man, but in the wide landscape of the city of God. One is steel and [rust], the other is field and forest.”

Awake, Not Woke is a must-read for Catholics seeking to understand the movements and philosophies that led to the current societal upheaval. Mering ties abstract and spiritual concepts to specific and diverse examples from recent events. The result is an accessible and powerful tool for reading the “signs of the times” and warding off despair.