Reading Woke in Son Kul

Escaping from Disenchanted Modernity

14th December 2022
M.L.R. Smith

The woke worldview has not yet conquered Kyrgyzstan, notes M.L.R. Smith.

‘There’s no electricity or internet there, you know?’ Lola, my wife, called out to me as we packed our things for a short trip into the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan. ‘Oh… in that case I might actually need to bring my NOB’, I replied. I could detect Lola’s scepticism. Ah, my NOB: my much travelled but Never Opened Book, which I quixotically, but habitually, pack every time I go abroad.

For each long journey away from home my NOB is a choice volume selected to accompany me across hundreds if not thousands of miles but destined to remain resolutely unread. I convince myself that I’ll have the luxury of relaxing, kicking back, and becoming engrossed in its pages. It never happens. Variously, I find myself too tired, too lazy, too jet-lagged, too hot and bothered, too distracted… too drunk.

The unfortunate candidate for this year’s NOB was Joanna Williams’s How Woke Won. For good measure, the book cover had already been mauled by Ponchik (Russian for doughnut), our adopted ginger kitten. While returning from an earlier excursion we found him abandoned at a wayside café, covered in dirt and fleas. We couldn’t help but take pity.

Ponchik’s handiwork made the book appear suitably care-worn and well thumbed. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. But into the luggage it went, ordained once more to bear witness to our exotic travels without ever being caressed.

Our destination this time was Son Kul, a remote lake high in the mountains to the south of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The place is accessible only at certain times of the year through twisting mountain passes, and rutted dirt tracks. Getting there is a feat in itself: a long taxi ride to the nearest large town, Kochkor. Then haggling frantically outside the local bus station for another ride in a ramshackle 4 x 4, to take us the next fifty miles up into the mountains. Six, dusty, bone-rattling hours later, we finally arrive in pitch-darkness at our campsite on the lake.

In the light of day, Son Kul is overpowering in its splendour and simplicity. It’s easy to overdo the ‘unspoilt by tourism’ bit. The moment any tourist sets foot on a beauty spot they subtly, if unintentionally, disrupt a natural eco-system, and any absolute authenticity is lost. Throughout the summer months Son Kul attracts its share of foreign visitors willing to wander off the beaten track to experience its charms. They stay in yurt camps, of varying sizes and amenities, dotted along the shoreline. Around the larger camps you don’t have to stroll far before encountering the human debris of discarded beer cans and vodka bottles, scattered along the periphery.

Constructing clichés

Nevertheless, the relatively unsullied environment is striking. There are no fixed structures. No boats or jet skis on the lake. No cafes, restaurants, museums, or gift shops. No telegraph poles or phone masts. The majestic quiet, the spectacular mountain backdrop, the perfect blue of the lake make for an immaculate scene. The clarity of the night-time sky is a phenomenon to behold. To do justice to the magical panorama in mere words is to feel oneself slipping into cliched travelogue.

Here you are, 10,000 feet high, at the edge of hypoxia, truly separated from the busy world beyond, amongst communities of nomadic herdsmen tending their cattle and horses that roam free across the mountain valleys. At dusk the packs of horses quietly make their way down to the waterline. It’s a ghostly, almost dreamlike, sight.

At last, in this primordial setting and freed from all the electronic impedimenta that disturbs modern life, one found the time and space to do something unique: contemplate my NOB. Settled in a deck chair, with fine cirrus cloud formations high above, the sunlight gently refracting off the ripples off the flawless lake (there, told you it was cliché), tentatively I turn the pages.

Joanna Williams’s book has been justly praised for its dissection of the contemporary movement in the West that, in the words of the subtitle, ‘threatens democracy, tolerance and reason’. But as I proceeded further into Joanna’s analysis, I was struck by a particular thought that I have never considered before: namely, that where you read a book may matter as much as its content. Reading Woke in Son Kul provoked several – I hesitate to say, profound – observations.

In the first instance, assimilating the contours of woke in such evocative surroundings, sharpens the obvious disjunction between the fixations of the contemporary social justice movement that dominates the mentality in western cityscapes, and the wider world beyond. It is not simply that in the vastness of a remote mountain plateau that woke obsessions seem trivial, narcissistic, and deluded: it underlines that they are objectively disconnected from the way that most people choose to construct their lives and communities.

Constructing communities

Among the western travel cognoscenti Kyrgyzstan has gained a certain cache. A near neighbour, a slightly eccentric, extremely left-wing, former social worker who spends her retirement travelling the world without a great deal of concern for her carbon footprint, lectured me non-stop for fifteen minutes on the bus about discovering the scenic joys of this little-known country. Clearly, a secret gem known only to a few initiates. I didn’t have the chance to inform her that my spouse is Kyrgyz before she alighted at her stop. A few months back, too – if I heard correctly – journalist and broadcaster Benjamin Butterworth, the token woke member of GB News’s ‘superstar panel’ on the Dan Wootton Tonight show, had recently been on vacation horse-riding in the Kyrgyz mountains.

Back in Son Kul, in our small complex of six yurts, our near neighbours were a young German couple, and an American man and his daughter. All were travelling through Central Asia, and like most westerners who ended up there, were attracted by the peace, tranquillity, and the glowing reviews on travel websites.

Let me state at the outset that both the Germans and Americans were charming holiday companions. They were friendly, gracious, and possessed an invincible spirit of adventure (to reiterate, just getting to Son Kul under their own steam was an accomplishment). The next stop for both parties was Uzbekistan. Another challenging destination. I had the benefit of a Kyrgyz wife to facilitate my every move, be it in Kyrgyz or Russian. They had to navigate the place without the advantage of a native speaker in a region where English is still not spoken widely. Their independent traveller status was estimable. I liked and admired them.

The American dad turned out to be a veteran New York based war reporter and history writer of some distinction (I am currently reading one of his books, and it is very good). As it happened, being of similar age and disposition, we discovered that both of us had been present in Northern Ireland at the same time in the 1980s, as observers of the province’s ‘Troubles’. Picture the scene: on a far-flung mountain side in Central Asia, in a yurt, a war reporter and a professor of war studies recount the follies of yesteryear, rattling off a host of familiar, but now far-off, names and places.

His fifteen-year-old daughter was equally delightful: articulate, curious about the world, and without a hint of pretension. The German couple were more solicitous, but equally amiable. She was a special needs teacher. He was a scientist who worked in the agricultural industry and had spent part of his university education studying in China.

The woke spectrum

I wouldn’t place any of these acquaintances on the outer reaches of woke, but their political inclinations were very different from mine. Not that this mattered. I appreciate the company of others with different perspectives from my own, and who might – at their own risk – seek to challenge my prejudices.

In fact, they never came to fathom my affinities. It was not necessary. I enjoyed interrogating theirs instead. The American dad self-identified as ‘Democrat central’ and a Hillary supporter in 2016. Both he and his daughter expressed a visceral dislike for Donald Trump, for reasons of manners rather than policies, as far as I could tell.

I probed them: ‘love him or hate him, was Trump not a symptom of something important?’ Having seen for myself the de-industrialised towns in the mid-West, could they not understand the disillusionment of these communities, which had previously voted for Obama, and their turn towards a political maverick? A desperate cry for help?

Yes, they could understand, in theory.

What might win them back?

The manufacturing jobs were gone for good, the father said. The situation was bad but there was no solution for their plight.

A counsel of despair, I suggested, was not a convincing policy platform. The father was, I discerned, sincerely perturbed at the hopelessness of his own analysis.

The German couple were less vocal in their political views. We talked about the man’s job. He was confident that the ban on the export of farming machinery would have an impact on Russian agriculture. Food production would be affected… eventually. A morally just penalty for Russia’s misguided ‘special military operation’ in the Ukraine. His own company had been affected by the sanctions.

‘What about the failure of the financial sanctions on Russia, and the cravenly short-sighted green energy policies that had rendered Germany dangerously dependent on Russian oil and gas?’ A slightly awkward silence ensued. It transpired that in recent years he had moved from supporting the SDP to the Greens.

He was jetting off to China as soon as he returned from holiday to cultivate new customers for agricultural equipment to replace losses in the Russian market. The People’s Republic of China, a place not at all like Russia, well known for its high labour standards, political freedoms, regional good citizenship and respect for the treatment of ethnic minorities.

Anywhere, except everywhere else

Regardless of where my yurt neighbours stood on the woke spectrum, they were undoubtedly part of the community of ‘Anywheres’, the professional-managerial class, which Joanna Williams identifies as a sub-elite. This grouping functions as the supporting counsellors to the governing class and enables woke to flourish in so many domains: the media, civil service, publishing, academia, business, and the arts.

Technically, I too am an ‘Anywhere’. A classic of the genre. An over-privileged, highly mobile, university doyen whose peripatetic lifestyle has taken them from Australia, to Britain, to Luxembourg, to Singapore, to the US, and back to Australia.

Of course, being an ‘Anywhere’ doesn’t mean you’ll fit in anywhere, let alone be happy living anywhere. Being a member of this sub-elite, and benefitting from its many prerequisites, means inhabiting the prosperous environs and gated communities of London, New York, and Sydney, mainly, perhaps with a few other national capitals and university towns thrown in. It doesn’t mean Lagos, Manila, and Huddersfield, or a million places in between. It really means, anywhere except everywhere else.

Even so, I am a traitor to my Anywhere tribe. Something in my background has engendered a natural resistance to conformity. Why this is so can only be speculative. Conceivably, a combination of the influence of my free-thinking father and my Methodist mother and being miseducated at the local comprehensive school in the 1970s, rather than inculcated into the norms of the upper strata as I might have been at private school, has meant that I am afflicted with an inability to transcend my lower middle-class roots. Lola still complains. She would like me to behave, and certainly dress, like a proper English gentleman. Leaving behind such lost causes, there is no doubt that I am guilty of any number of crimes against good taste and fashionable orthodoxy.

Many of my Anywhere academic confrères would probably secretly wish for ideological deviationists like me to be exiled from polite society and quite possibly, if their utopian dreams come true, to see woke trials for non-conforming miscreants, purveyors of misinformation and counter-orthodox narratives. Nonetheless, one’s destiny as a dissenting Anywhere is to be possessed of a capacity to rub along with the members of this sub-elite, while rejecting many of its prevailing assumptions and prejudices, particularly towards the working class and other lesser mortals (Brexit voters, lockdown sceptics, Daily Mail readers, lab-leak advocates, etc.).

So, how, I wondered, might Anywheres view their surroundings in Son Kul? I don’t mean the American father and daughter or the German couple specifically, but how would the woke disposition potentially engage with, say, the indigenous communities who populate the grasslands and valleys near the lake? Most obviously, the lives of the nomadic herdsman functioned in a realm where patriarchy and traditional gender roles were unmistakably visible to the outsider. The men and boys, with their weather-beaten faces, rode the horses and minded the cattle. The women folk stayed put supervising the household. Not only had these customary ways of living persisted for millennia, but it was clear that they were never going to change.

Woke versus tradition

What would the woke view be? How might the woke – or proto-woke Anywhere – mindset regard the scene? Would it disdain the lifestyle of these communities? Are they custom-ridden, backward societies, enveloped in poverty and lost in misery and patriarchy? Are they to be pitied, condemned, and reformed? If this is the case, then the progressive western traveller is certainly not repelled from visiting such places of immiseration, and partaking in the traditional ways of rural living, riding horses, and pursuing the simple life in the confines of a yurt encampment.

Or are these societies to be esteemed, precisely because they are spotless examples of authenticity, untarnished by the evils of colonialism, racism, and slavery, which the brilliance of the contemporary education system has convinced a generation of western students are exclusively European and North American historical sins? Are traditional societies therefore absolved from woke rules that would otherwise seek to denounce and destroy tradition in the name of advancing towards a one-size fits all progressivist utopia?

The contradictions in the progressive worldview and its tendency to degenerate into a juvenile reverence for the non-western other was something the late anthropologist, Roger Sandall, sought to interrogate in his study The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays. The notion of a woke consciousness was unknown at the time of the book’s publication in 2001, but the underlying cognitive dissonance in the disposition that was to evolve into woke was something Sandall fully identified. It is the paradox that on the one hand would extol Son Kul for its pristine beauty, yet on the other would see it as a great place to be plastered with wind turbines and solar panels.

A world re-enchanted?

Maybe, though, we should be charitable to our culturally sensitive, putatively woke, tourist who arrives in Son Kul, and finds in its solitude something consoling, away from the disenchanted condition of secular modernity? Experiencing the wonders of Son Kul, its uncorrupted natural beauty and the pre-modern communities that surround it, can one discover the possibilities for a better way of living, in harmony with nature and within traditional hierarchies?

Or is this being too sympathetic? Or too jaundiced? In the end, would any of us westerners, woke or not woke, wish to stay in a place like Son Kul for long without the accoutrements of modern life: our mobile phones, our laptops, our televisions, our sofas, comfy chairs, coffee shops, and fast-food outlets? Perhaps a stay in Son Kul, for all its peace and calm, merely reminds us of what we miss and take for granted back in the world of easy living?

Back in Bishkek, the bustling capital, burgeoning with fast food-outlets, markets, restaurants, shopping malls, and all the other facets of modern life, we meet with our friend, Nurika. Nurika is a highly qualified medical doctor. She works in a research laboratory in Kazakhstan specialising in the study of HIV. Over dinner, we touch on the growing impact of ‘woke world’ in the West. Nurika is curious. She has heard of the preoccupations with gender fluidity, identity politics, race-essentialism, and the penchant for dividing people into victims and oppressors.

General bemusement and incredulity are her principal reactions. Also, at another level, both she and Lola discern in the woke agenda themes that remind them of their earlier lives in the Soviet Union, notably the concern for the policing of language, the willingness to compromise principles of objective science for the sake of officially approved doctrines, and the formal and informal sanctioning of those who don’t conform.

In other casual conversations with family and friends in Bishkek – a dentist, a college teacher, people in finance and business – similar replies were received whenever the subject occasionally reared its head. Unsystematic though my vox populi might have been, here, amongst members of the educated, socially conscious Kyrgyz ‘sub-elite’, one detected a series of cluster responses: mild amusement and ridicule at best, thinly disguised derision, and contempt for this latest incarnation of ‘western values’, at worst: a sign of a decadent and decaying civilisation. What a contrast, I thought, with the feedback one would obtain in the fake liberal heartlands of London, like Islington or Brockley?

What these casual observations underscored yet again was that outside the narrow circumference of the West, in both the urban centres and rural hinterlands, woke has no purchase whatsoever. The wider world beyond is not woke and will never become woke. Quite possibly, the more radical woke protagonists don’t care that theirs is a minority avocation. They are a revolutionary vanguard, and the masses are to be led or dragged to their progressive destiny whether they like it or not. Then again…

Ways of escape

A further subversive notion enters my head – probably another thought crime. Could there actually be a substantial proportion of people along the woke spectrum who are aware that their cause is disbelieved and derided by the vast majority, and who at some intuitive level doubt their own woke attachments? Somewhere, in the recesses of their soul, perhaps they have the uneasy feeling that all their social justice politicking is merely a form of displacement activity that seeks to fill the vacuous heart of their post-religious lives?

Maybe they sense the void, the Nietzschean abyss beginning to stare back at them? All the endless politics of everyday life – the rainbow lanyards, the multicoloured pedestrian crossings, the taking of the knee, the cheap radicalism of social media, announcing one’s pronouns, the mind your language self-censorship, the right-on adverts… in the end, what does it all mean? Along with all the other relentless virtue-signalling and moral posturing, woke is exhausting.

Reading Woke in Son Kul, then, incites a final revelation: is the retreat to the sanctuaries of the pre-modern world primarily a means of seeking refuge? A haven where even deracinated progressives can flee from the grotesque world they are trying to create? Not only an escape from disenchanted modernity but, ultimately, an escape from themselves?

M.L.R. Smith is a writer and academic. Son Kul is inaccessible at this time of year. Lola is currently writing her memoirs. Ponchik is alive and well and living happily in Bishkek.