Mapping a Woke Wonderland

Mapping a Woke Wonderland

Written by Brenda M. Hafera |
Monday, September 26, 2022

The book does not aim to explain identity politics writ large or the evolution of feminism. Rather, Trueman’s niche is to explain expressive individualism, an important concept that touches both. This narrower focus fulfills the purpose of the book. As noted in the introduction, it is a concise book geared toward non-academics who are seeking to understand this strange new world that has seemingly come into being very rapidly. 

While divided on certain issues, conservatives are generally united in the belief that French and German intellectuals are to blame for our current mess. Customary offenders include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In this aspect, Carl R. Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution offers a familiar analysis.

Still, his arguments are profound, and the slender book is a valuable guide for understanding our tumble into this modern world, this woke wonderland. Trueman is an Englishman, a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book seeks to explain the Sexual Revolution and the assault on the human person. In doing so, he does not limit himself to feminist thinkers, providing the standard account of the development of the first, second, and third (or subsequent) waves of feminism. Nor does he delve into the Lockean debate that is so common among conservatives. His focus instead is on the ascendancy of secular “expressive individualism.” His is a unique, nuanced, and convincing contribution to the dialogue on the Sexual Revolution.

Prophets of Expressive Individualism

Trueman sketches an accurate portrait of our post-Sexual Revolution world and explains how the ideas of select intellectuals, strengthened by technological and historical developments, now almost instinctively inform our moral imagination (what he calls “social imaginary”). The examples pervade not only our politics, but also education, poetry, and literature.

The first portion of the book is an intellectual history of the progression of “expressive individualism,” which details how that notion was politicized and sexualized, using helpful examples to illustrate. The main culprits fall into three groups: René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Romantics; G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche; and Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich (with some Herbert Marcuse and Simon de Beauvoir sprinkled in later for good measure).

According to Trueman, the modern idea of the self is defined by expressive individualism. Descartes, Rousseau, and the Romantics are responsible for giving pre-eminence to feeling and the inner psychological life of the individual. By their account, our true self is characterized by our spontaneous emotions. Believing that human beings are born good and later corrupted by society, these thinkers insist that the inner self is inherently moral. Hence, tutoring or controlling one’s desires is an oppressive and backward approach that should not be used to subvert free and authentic expression.

Still, this first wave of thinkers stubbornly held to the belief that our common humanity provides a guiding moral structure. Confronted with nature, the French surrendered. Enter the Germans.

For Hegel, human nature evolves over time and will be fully realized at the end of history. His student, Marx, continued his work but insisted that economic relations have the most “profound impact upon our self-consciousness and our identity.” According to Marx, all human relations are economic relations, and when economics shapes everything, everything becomes political. Marx held that the advantaged secure their position by using religion and its inherent moral claims to subdue the masses. For example, the poor are taught they will be rewarded in heaven so they will accept their lower conditions in the city of man.

Nietzsche too views religion and morality as manipulative ways of maintaining power, because all human relations are fundamentally about power. God is dead, and so humans, free from all constraints, can create themselves in their own image, becoming gods themselves. The strong will do so, finally shattering religion’s residual moral (including sexual) codes, knowing that those codes are mere preferences and that human nature is malleable.

Trueman’s final intellectual stop is with Freud and Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst even Freud considered extreme, who internalized and politicized sex. Freud believed that sex is foundational to human happiness, a happiness centered on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Reich was a Marxist who contended that sexual morals maintain the bourgeois capitalist structure. So for Reich, children are taught to be deferential to their fathers so that they will later bow to state leaders; the nuclear family is built on and enforces authoritarian principles and so must be dismantled.

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