’I’m terrified of the woke radicals at my kids’ school”: Rarely a week goes by when I don’t hear some variation on this gripe from fellow parents in New York City. Invariably, they lower their voices, lest prying ears catch them objecting to the official ideology.
These are solidly liberal Manhattanites, mind you. They just don’t want their children being told they carry the unwashable stain of racial sin. And they’d really rather have their kids master real knowledge, instead of being taught to meditate endlessly on their own race, gender and sexuality.
As the only “out” conservative they know, I’m often the only person these parents can pour out their anguish to. And I’m wearying of the job.
I worry just as much about the rise of the woke. Yet I’ve come to view the ambient liberalism these New Yorkers take for granted as a big part of the problem. It doesn’t suffice to overcome wokeness, because it forms people to be selfish and self-maximizing, to avoid deep commitments of any kind.
Put another way, there’s a reason these parents confine their gripes to the one conservative they know. At the end of the day, they’re prepared to tolerate woke rule if it means passing on their elite status to their progeny.
If the history of 20th-century totalitarianism should’ve taught us anything, it’s that radicals can usually get the better of such people, by playing on their yearning to “get ahead” in life. Whereas the true dissidents and resisters — those who refuse to profess that two plus two equals five — draw strength from faith, tradition and true authority.
It’s a lesson I’ve inscribed, quite literally, in my own son’s identity, by naming him after Saint Maximilian Kolbe — among the greatest of Christian martyrs.
Born to a pious family in central Poland in 1894, Kolbe joined the Franciscans at age 16. Following doctoral studies in Rome and ordination as a priest, Kolbe returned to his homeland, where he started a newspaper, a radio station and a monastic community outside Warsaw. He campaigned against Communism and secularism and went on far-flung missions to the Far East.
Then came the German invasion of Poland and, with it, Kolbe’s greatest hour. In 1941, the Nazis arrested and sent him to Auschwitz; Father Maximilian Mary Kolbe became Prisoner No. 16670.
One night in July, an inmate escaped from Kolbe’s block. The camp’s deputy commandant, Karl Fitzsch, carried out his protocol for when inmates escaped: randomly selecting 10 men to die of starvation as collective punishment for the one escapee.
Kolbe wasn’t among those chosen to die. But when he heard one of the condemned cry out, “My wife! My children!”, the priest stepped forward.
“What does this Polish pig want?” Fritzsch asked. Kolbe replied, “I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” And so he did, laying down his life for a complete stranger at Auschwitz.
When I learned Kolbe’s story, I decided to name my son after him. I was awestruck by how he climbed the summit of human freedom (at Auschwitz, of all places) — and how he did this precisely by denying himself, by binding himself to the moral absolutes of the Catholic Church and the love of the Cross.
Kolbe’s brand of freedom — rooted in self-surrender, sustained by the authority of religious tradition — is at odds with the account of freedom that prevails among my peers. Plenty of people still carry out great acts of sacrifice, to be sure. But the animating logic of contemporary America, if taken to its logical conclusion, renders the action of a Kolbe insensible.
We equate freedom with the mere ability to choose from the widest range of options, unhindered by the authorities and restraints that guided traditional peoples. For the premodern traditions, not least the West’s classical and Christian heritage, freedom meant choosing what one ought to do — freedom for the good. And that meant self-mastery, above all.
We, by contrast, seek self-gratification and “well-being,” usually defined in material, utilitarian terms. In practice, our version of freedom leaves the modern subject confused — every generation has to reinvent morality — and swaying to the ideological winds.
To be bound to religious tradition and authorities, as Kolbe was, is to have a moral backbone. The person who knows where he comes from and where he’s headed won’t easily bend along the way. And he is prepared for sacrifice, even unto death.
Are we prepared to sacrifice anything in resistance to our century’s totalitarians? The wokes, for all their absurdities, have a moral vision, for which they’re prepared to make sacrifices. It’s a twisted morality, to be sure, but it’s more than their live-and-let-live opponents on the Upper East Side possess.
Unless we recover our deeper roots and bequeath what we find — “tradition” literally means handing on — the wokes will win.
Sohrab Ahmari is The Post’s op-ed editor and author of “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos,” to be published Tuesday. Twitter: @SohrabAhmari
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