The Narcissism Of Woke Totalitarianism
Authored by Michael Shellenberger via Substack,
"Anyone who thinks the terrifying trend of posthumous censure will end with Roald Dahl is dreaming..."
The publisher of the late British children’s author, Roald Dahl, has changed hundreds of words and passages in his books to make them politically correct. “Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender, and race has been cut and rewritten,” reported The Telegraph, whose journalists compared 10 of Dahl’s books from 2022 to their 2001 versions. “Remember the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach? They are now the Cloud-People. The Small Foxes in Fantastic Mr. Fox are now female. In Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been cut, and Jane Austen added.”
The racially sensitive censors even removed the word “black” as a descriptor of inanimate objects. “In Fantastic Mr. Fox, a description of tractors, saying that ‘the machines were both black,’ has been cut. In the new Dahl world, it seems, neither machines nor animals can be described with a colour.”
The censorship by Puffin, which Penguin Publishing Group owns, drew a sharply critical response from journalists and authors. “Roald Dahl was no angel,” tweeted Salman Rushdie, “but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.” Seethed Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator, “If you weren’t worried about cancel culture before, surely this egregious assault on some of the best-known children’s books of the modern era, this posthumous purging of an author’s output, will change your mind.”
Many on Twitter posted a quote from George Orwell’s 1984, his famous novel about a future totalitarian dystopia.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified,” the novel’s main character says, “every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.”
Totalitarianism is a strong word for the censorship of children’s books.
The changing of “The old hag” to “the old crow,” “Chambermaid” to “cleaner,” and “You must be mad, woman!” to “You must be out of your mind!” in some kiddie books is hardly on par with the censorship of totalitarian regimes. And Dahl himself made his books less offensive, re-writing the Oompa-Loompa characters in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory so they were no longer African.
But Dahl would have been horrified by the hundreds of changes made by Puffin. “His relationships with his editors included marked fractiousness on Dahl’s part,” said his biographer. “He resisted interference.” Re-writing an author’s books without his consent, whether for legal reasons or because he is dead, violates the trust between authors and publishers everywhere. That such censorship is coming from within media, educational, and research institutions, in addition to governmental ones, doesn’t make it less dangerous, and may make it more so.
The Dahl censorship is occurring against the backdrop of an increasingly censorious Wokeism. Over the last few weeks, we have seen a witch hunt against psychologist Jordan Peterson, an open letter from 1,000 writers, authors, and journalists demanding that The New York Times not report on problems with prescribing gender dysphoric children puberty blockers, and a State Department-funded “Disinformation Index,” which slandered The New York Post, Reason, and other reputable publications as fonts of disinformation, and urged corporations to redirect their advertising spending to publications including Huffington Post.
Two years ago, when activists were tearing down statutes of historical figures, people quoted from Orwell, above (“every statue and street and building has been renamed”). Since then, Woke activists have, with Dahl, started down the road of realizing another clause in that sentence: “every book has been rewritten.” Warns O’Neill, “Anyone who thinks the terrifying trend of posthumous censure will end with Dahl is dreaming.”
Totalitarianism is characterized by efforts to completely remake every aspect of society, including cultural life, and Wokeism today is re-writing texts, de-certifying disfavored individuals, cutting off funding, getting people fired, and pressuring social media platforms to deny access or secretly censor. Woke totalitarians are plainly seeking the total reorganization of society along the lines of a racist “hierarchy of oppression” that puts black and indigenous people above other “people of color,” (i.e., Latinos and Asians) as a single “BIPOC” ruling class. This is ostensibly to create the reverse of past hierarchies and is thus transparently vengeful and racist.
It is worth reminding ourselves that freedom of speech is not just “another issue;” it is the foundation of democracy. Without it, we can’t address any other problem, particularly sensitive ones concerning race and sex. And without it, we cannot truly live as free, dignified, and civilized humans.
We are not doomed to a dystopian 1984 future. But the 20th Century proves that we are not guaranteed a free and democratic one.
What can be done to stop creeping Woke totalitarianism? To answer that question, we must first understand what’s driving it.
Presentism, Narcissism, and Totalitarianism
In 2002, the American Historical Association’s president, Lynn Hunt, wrote a short article for the organization’s magazine titled “Against Presentism.” By presentism, Hunt first meant the tendency of history majors and graduate students to judge past behaviors through the lens of present-day morality and, second, a heavy interest in 20th Century identity politics.
Over time, rising narcissism and coddling culture reached a tipping point whereby elites began to view “being insensitive” as equivalent to “causing harm.” As such, insensitivity became viewed as worse than censorship and justification for it. The censorship of Dahl shows that presentism is a fundamental characteristic of Woke totalitarianism, just as it was of fascist and communist totalitarian regimes that were the model for Orwell’s 1984. “History has stopped,” says its narrator. “Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
What, in the end, is driving Wokeism? In the words of former AHA president White, “moral complacency and self-congratulation.” And both of those are born from an infantilizing, narcissistic, and presentist culture.