Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Produced a Cultural Revolution by Eric Kaufmann - review by David Goodhart

David Goodhart

Going for Woke

Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Produced a Cultural Revolution


Forum 400pp £25

This book confirms Eric Kaufmann as the foremost theorist of what has been called the ‘great awokening’. In Taboo and his previous book, Whiteshift, he provides the history, the political analysis and the phrases and definitions to help us untangle what has become known as ‘wokeness’, as well as a route map for challenging the ideology.

His definition of ‘woke’ as the ‘sacralization of historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual identity groups’ doesn’t trip off the tongue, but his overall analysis is lucid and original. The focus is on its two main effects: progressive intolerance, leading to a curtailment of free speech and thought (summed up in the phrase ‘cancel culture’), and deculturation, meaning the prioritising of diversity and group identity over communitarian values and national belonging as a result of the divisive analysis of critical race theory (with its notions of white privilege, structural racism and intersectionality).

Kaufmann is no reactionary. Rather, he thinks that the overshoot, the over-­valorisation of victimhood, is damaging to human flourishing:

The pursuit of equality is important, but should focus on lifting the weak rather than targeting historic ‘oppressor’ groups, making room for a broader suite of values including expressive freedom and the conservative reproduction of national memory. Societies cannot reject their cultures and merit-based hierarchies in order to minister to sensitivities at the margins, but should work to build minority resilience and reasonable accommodation. If we can find our way toward this new optimum, we are likely to witness an ebbing of populism, reduced polarization, and the return of a more trusting, harmonious, and creative society. 

The phrase ‘lived experience’, often used by progressives to prioritise subjective feelings of disadvantage over data and abstract reasoning, appears only once in Taboo. But the book is deeply informed by Kaufmann’s own lived experience. I have known him for twenty years. For most of that time he was an academic specialising in politics at Birkbeck College in London, where he was something of an anomaly in an increasingly left-liberal social-science environment. A Canadian of mixed ethnicity, he believes in the reality and legitimacy of ethnic attachment (including for majorities), the value of national identity and the case for much lower immigration. He somehow got away with holding such heretical beliefs thanks to his personable manner and low profile. That all changed when he published Whiteshift in 2018 and had to weather Twitter mobs and several complaint-driven internal investigations. The mild-mannered Canadian had become a racist monster in the eyes of his detractors. He has now absconded to the security of the University of Buckingham.

Kaufmann signs up to Douglas Murray’s train analogy, expounded in his book The Madness of Crowds (2019). Murray, reflecting on the progress that liberal democracies had been making towards race, gender and sexual equality from the 1960s onwards, talks of a train reaching its destination. Instead of stopping, however, ‘it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks into the distance’. For Kaufmann the acceleration came in America in the mid-1960s. The crucial date is 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act. 

The Civil Rights Act, says Kaufmann, shifted the focus from equal rights to ‘equality of result’. Around that time, the economist Paul Krugman recalls, in all the large houses on Long Island the little statues of black coachmen were repainted white in order not to typecast African-Americans as subservient. So far, so decent. But Kaufmann also quotes the African-American writer Shelby Steele, who has characterised the Civil Rights Act as an admission of guilt by white America, which sought redemption through social programmes and affirmative action. He believes that these guilt-driven policies have damaged African-American families and created a culture of dependency. 

Not long after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, cancel culture claimed its first victim, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of a report on how rising fatherlessness in African-American families was a more important factor in holding back social mobility than racism. The report was shelved and its author was vilified. The door was now open, argues Kaufmann, to restricting liberty and meritocracy in the name of equality and protecting vulnerable minorities from harm. America had acquired, in the words of Christopher Caldwell, a ‘second constitution’. Gradually this template shifted to other countries.

In the UK, according to the sociologist Geoff Dench, as immigration picked up in the 1960s, ‘a progressive national mission was drafted around a new empire that would atone for the old … Britain’s national interest now required cosmopolitanism and disdain for narrow expressions of identity or destiny. What was truly British now was to be global and inclusive.’

Kaufmann calls the new ideology ‘cultural socialism’. Its proponents seek the same equality of outcome in race, gender and sexuality that traditional socialists seek in income and wealth. He sees it unfolding in three periods: the 1960s, with the focus on race and sexual liberation; the 1980s, with the emergence of multiculturalism and new ‘politically correct’ speech codes; and today, with the rise of critical race theory and gender ideology. Each phase has involved progressive radicalisation.

Unlike some of his fellow critics of woke, Kaufmann sees it as a militant outgrowth of mainstream left-liberalism, whose adherents have acquiesced in the violation of classic liberal values and national traditions. He exhaustively records the illiberal progressive advance through higher-educational institutions in recent decades and into so many ‘meaning-making’ fields of work.

The woke domination of the media, the law, the civil service, culture and the arts means that it is conservatives who always appear to be initiating culture wars to stop further advances. Parties of the Left can rely on fellow travellers in elite institutions to initiate change. For this reason, Kaufmann argues that the challenge to intolerant wokeism has to come through government action. He himself was closely involved in drafting the UK’s legislation on academic freedom. He is disappointed that so many Conservative politicians in the UK have failed to see the threat posed by this ideology, despite its role in increasing polarisation, reducing economic efficiency via its challenge to merit and contributing to mental-health problems thanks to its focus on victimhood. He optimistically believes, contrary to current evidence in the UK, that wokeness will divide the Left and unite the Right.

The book is full of arresting facts and observations – not least in relation to the recent hysteria in Canada over the apparent discovery of mass graves of young indigenous peoples – and is informed by a humane understanding that we are all the descendants of both slaves and conquerors. Kaufmann is, perhaps, too quick to dismiss the idea of wokeness as a substitute religion. And he underplays the extent to which it is an Anglosphere problem, with young people in Europe moving increasingly to the Right. The book can also be heavy going at times, weighed down with charts and opinion polls. But the large majority of us – he estimates it at 70 to 80 per cent of the public – who are repelled by cultural socialism should be grateful that he has done the hard work.

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