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“Wokeism” in France: The chickens coming home to roost

Assessing the massive and ongoing influence of Michel Foucault’s Nietzschean project.

Left: Undated photo of philosopher and author Michel Foucault (it.wikipedia.org); right: 2019 photo of Emmanuel Macron, President of France. (Andrea Hanks/Wikipedia)

I will confess that one of the biggest laughs I’ve had in the last several months was occasioned by a recent article in The New York Times by Norimitsu Onishi. In this lengthy piece, the author tells us that the current political and cultural leadership in France, very much including President Emmanuel Macron, is alarmed at the rise of “American-style woke ideology,” which is effectively undermining French society and fomenting violence.

Why, you are wondering, would this produce laughter? Well, what we call “woke” thinking in our American context was almost totally imported from French intellectuals who flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. One thinks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and perhaps especially of Michel Foucault. The thinking that was originally shared in Parisian coffeehouses eventually made its way into the university system of Europe and then, especially in the seventies and eighties of the last century, into the world of American higher education.

Finally, in very recent years, much of this thinking has poured out onto the streets in the form of “wokeism.” In the measure that it is threatening French society—as indeed I think it is—the phrase “the chickens have come home to roost” springs rather readily to mind.

In order to make this plain, I should like to concentrate on the one French theorist that has had the greatest impact on the formation of the “woke” mentality—namely, Michel Foucault. When I commenced my doctoral studies in Paris in 1989, just five years after Foucault’s death, the philosopher’s owlish face looked out from every bookstore window in the city. It was simply impossible to avoid him. Foucault is perhaps best characterized as a twentieth-century disciple of the influential German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche. Famously declaring that God is dead, Nietzsche denied the objectivity of epistemic or moral truth and saw human life as a ruthless power struggle. Decrying Christianity as a “slave morality,” the pathetic attempt of the weak to shame the strong, Nietzsche called for the Ubermensch (the over-man or the super-man) to assert his will to power. In a universe void of objective moral values, the Ubermensch is to embody his own values and to declare his dominance.

Foucault thoroughly embraced Nietzsche’s atheism and hence denied any objective grounding to moral values. Instead, he interpreted these, whether espoused by Church or secular society, as the means by which powerful people maintained themselves in positions of power. Like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Foucault was, accordingly, a master of suspicion, an unmasker of what he took to be pretentious claims to truth. He unfolded his Nietzschean project in a series of massively influential books from the sixties and seventies: Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The History of Sexuality, and Discipline and Punish.

In all of these texts, he engaged in what he called an intellectual archeology, digging underneath the present consensus on matters such as the nature of madness, sexual morality, the legitimacy of incarceration, etc. in order to show that in previous ages, people entertained very different ideas in all of these arenas. The upshot of this move was to demonstrate that what appeared to be objective moral principles and high-sounding language were, in fact, the ever-shifting games played by the powerful.

Now the legion of Foucault’s disciples in the Western academy continued this archeological project after their master’s death, looking especially into issues of colonialism, gender, homosexuality, and race. And what they found in all these areas, unsurprisingly, was a Nietzschean power struggle between oppressors and oppressed. Once awakened to this reality (woke), they endeavored to foment confrontation between the powerless and the powerful, and here the influence of Marx cannot be overlooked; indeed, one of Foucault’s greatest mentors was the French Marxist Louis Althusser.

Appeals to order, social norms, objective ethical values should be swept aside, for they are but a camouflage for the real social dynamics. Vive la revolution! I trust that much of this is sadly familiar to any American who endured the worst of 2020’s social upheaval.

Now, are there real injustices that obtain within our society at all levels? Of course. Should the Church and the political establishment be committed to fighting injustice wherever it appears? Of course. But is this Foucaultian “woke” philosophy, which holds to an antagonistic social theory, which deconstructs language, which denies the objectivity of moral norms, and which sees reality simply as an incessant struggle between oppressor and oppressed, the answer. Of course not. And perhaps we should be encouraged by the French alarm at the emergence of “wokeism” in their midst, for now the very society that produced the intellectual virus might join the fight against it.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 201 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

23 Comments

  1. Michel Foucault personifies the perversion of traditional scholarship by his deliberate subversion of reason and the clarity of expression that is a characteristic of the he genuine pursuit of truth. His status and influence as an academic are indicative of intellectual decline in the academy and the hegemony of a la mode postmodernists who control language and humanities departments in many Western universities. Roger Kimball’s critique of Foucault in his “New Criterion” essay and of the tenured radical culture Foucault facilitated expose the capture and destruction of curriculum and the wasting of many student minds, not to mention the ‘woke’ irrational performances that increasingly regard urban streets as their their entitled theatre.

  2. Good assessment of the ideological forces behind today’s crisis of faith and morality. However, this analysis falls short in providing a faith-based solution to the crisis. It’s easy to point to the various root causes, but why do the leaders of the Church fail to provide a clear path forward for solving the problem? We are where we are today because the Church allowed the voices of darkness, the voices of the spirit of error, the voices of the spirit of antichrist to seize the conversation and the worldview of society at large – to assume control of the institutions of education, science, politics, media, and in many cases the Church itself and its catechesis. The result we see today of darkness prevailing in the minds of men is because the Church, the light of the world, hid its light. Darkness can only prevail where light diminishes. So, while Foucault, Nietzsche, and the many other thought leaders who defied God and His Christ, are guilty of using their influence to darken the mind of society at large, it is ultimately the Church that has failed society, and it is only the Church that can reverse the course of this darkness of the mind by once again being a light of the world. I’m not convinced that the current leadership of the Church is up to the task, which is why they secure their positions of power by pushing the responsibility of change off on the laity.

  3. The upshot of this move was to demonstrate that what appeared to be objective moral principles and high-sounding language were, in fact, the ever-shifting games played by the powerful.

    The irony of this synopsis of Foucault’s ideas is that wokeism introduces far more such ‘shifting’. Look at the gender theory language. Look at the online dictionary change designed to entrap the testimony of a Catholic U.S. Supreme Court nominee. As Michael D. O’Brien once put it in The Family and the New Totalitarianism:

    It [the New Totalitarianism] directs its subjects to many roads, but the roads do not lead anywhere. It creates an impression of a broader world, but it is a vast prison, on the borders of which are impenetrable walls – impenetrable most of all because its residents have come to believe that there is nothing beyond it. It maintains power by continuously shifting the ground on which its subjects stand. Right, wrong, good, evil, and the identity of persons and things are each re-examined in an ongoing inquisition.

  4. A great article. It is worth mentioning again via CWR Carl Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”, a work which gets to the historical roots of the type of thinking mentioned by Bishop Barron, how it was promoted and spread to poison our modern world.
    CWR reviewed Trueman’s book not long ago. It is very strongly recommended as it gives a profound and comprehensive understanding of the issues.

  5. “Wokeness” is making inroads into the sciences. I wonder how safe a car, plane, skyscraper, bridge, road, etc. would be if they were designed, built, and operated according to “woke” standards?

  6. Foucalt’s grinning face gives me repulsive chills. Told I have a sixth sense, although in this instance I’m confidant even my dog would bark in alarm. That France gave him attention indicates the spiritual demise of a great people already in effect. Somewhere I read perhaps Maritain that the horrendous torture and cruelty inflicted by Gestapo, Nazi military against apprehended or suspect Resistance broke the spirit of many and raised question whether God exists. Good Bishop Barron I suspect borrowed the roosting chickens line from Obama’s former preacher the Rev Jeremiah Wright. Whether France is the source of Wokism it’s a viable thesis. Although Woke in Am goes back further with the advent of pre WWII cultural Marxism. Chicago’s Saul Alinsky didn’t discover the concept of race baiting as a political tool. The Socialist Labor Party of Am 1877 was introduced by immigrants many oppressed E European Jews. Eugene Debs Norman Thomas in the 30’s were prominent Cultural Marxists. The term Cultural Marxism used today refers to class distinction based on racial identity Caucasian and all others, the former White Supremacists whether they’re aware or not. Egalitarianism irrationally based on denial of distinction among the distinct. At any rate our chickens are far more advanced than french chickens insofar as deference due to their cleverness some now receiving end of life care in Portland OR.

  7. “Good Bishop Barron I suspect borrowed the roosting chickens line from Obama’s former preacher the Rev Jeremiah Wright. ”

    It’s an old phrase. Can be traced all the way back to Chaucer.

    • Chauser in The Parson’s Tale, around 1390, wrote that curses are like “a bird that returns again to his own nest”, is not exact. An earlier better example was in the Wisconsin Patriot 1855: “Barstow has always been a belter, and he need not complain to find his chickens coming home to roost.” Robert Southey’s poem The Curse of Kehama, 1810 “Curses are like young chicken, they always come home to roost.” The phrase as worded by Bishop Barron has its origin with Malcolm X using the phrase concerning President John Kennedy. It was Malcolm X’s answer, that the President’s death was a case of “chickens coming home to roost”. That the violence that Kennedy had failed to stop had come back to him, this resulted in the Elijah Muhammad silencing him (Black Leader Analysis). Rev Jeremiah Wright borrowed the precise wording from Malcolm X.

      • To clarify, The phrase as worded by Bishop Barron has its ‘popular’ origin with Malcolm X, made a common byword by Rev Jeremiah Wright.

  8. That which has been expounded in the above article by Bishop Robert Barron reminds me of what is practiced by the majority at the USCCB — wonder if the bishop realizes the similarities?

  9. Dear Bishop Barron,

    I am very much in sympathy with your commentary. The notion that there is no basis for distinguishing right from wrong, that it all depends on subjective opinion, is one of the most pernicious assumptions of our age. Moreover, the woke ideology’s approach to sexuality lacks common sense, as it ignores nature and tradition. Its historically inaccurate treatment of race exemplifies sloppy social science and is chauvinistic and ethnocentric. Moreover, the woke combines its limited understanding with an incivility that violates the standards of the liberal philosophy that has been the foundation of movements for social justice for more than two centuries.

    But I would want to make a distinction between, on the one hand, a sweeping aside of objective values in the name of a socially impossible and decadent individualism; and on the other hand, a reconstruction of consensus from the perspective of the worker or the colonized. The former is the craze of the woke ideology; the latter is the project of Marx and the Third World. The former is a cultural revolution, that is, a revolution only in the sphere of ideas; the latter is a revolution in theory and practice, which seeks to build a more just, democratic, and sustainable world on a foundation of an alternative consensus grounded in universal human values, rather than in the legitimations of the powerful. The former foments hate and divides families and nations, and it stands against the most profound insights of philosophies and religions; the latter is the only hope for humanity in the context of its profound civilizational crisis.

    Charles McKelvey, Professor Emeritus, Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “Wokeism” in France - JP2 Catholic Radio
  2. Edward Feser: Tales from the links
  3. The chickens come home to roost – Make The West Great Again
  4. Edward Feser: Tales from the links

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