Home > Uncategorized > Time to retire “woke” – posted 3/20/2022

Time to retire “woke” – posted 3/20/2022

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell made a number of still-pertinent statements. He said:

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. When it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinion, and not a “party line”. Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”

Orwell went on to discuss how political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Rather than fresh, vivid expression, words degenerate into cloudy vagueness.

I would suggest that the use of the term “woke” is a prime example of both the vagueness and the lifeless imitative style Orwell warned about. Republican use of “woke” has become a party line, repeated endlessly.

It is now a defense mechanism to avoid a legitimate discussion about institutional racism.

Use of “woke” on the Right is an automatic reflex. Just say “woke”, regardless of the circumstance. Debate then shifts into “is it woke?” This is an example of the slovenliness of language and the meaninglessness of words.

Like an invasive weed, its use is everywhere now. The theme of CPAC 2022 was “Awake, Not Woke”. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says wokeness is “a virus”. On his podcast with guest Erik Prince, Steve Bannon said:

“Putin ain’t woke. He is anti-woke. The Russians know which bathroom to use. They know how many genders there are.”

Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina said:

“Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

Fox host Tucker Carlson has railed against woke activism and woke generals in the Pentagon. Former President Trump has said, “Woke means you’re a loser. Everyone ultimately loses with woke”. When Republican Senator Mike Rounds from South Dakota acknowledged that the 2020 election was “fair”, Trump called him “woke” and “a jerk”.

Woke and the phrase “stay woke” actually have a long history. If anyone did a deep dive, you can go way back to long before Black Lives Matter, the 2014 Ferguson protests, and the #StayWoke hashtag. You could reference Marcus Garvey, Leadbelly’s song about the Scottsboro Boys or Erykah Badu’s song Master Teacher.

Charles Blow said that woke was a word born as a way of saying “Be aware of and alert to how racism is systemic and pervasive and suffuses American life. Wake up from the slumber of ignorance and passive acceptance”.

The history of woke is not germane to the Republican use of the term. Describing something as “woke” is a substitute for thought but it is actually worse than that. To go back to Orwell, it is a defense of an indefensible status quo. That status quo has hurt working people of all races and nationalities. The racism is a double whammy.

Use of woke to change the subject has obscured the Republican descent into authoritarianism and their acceptance of violence. It is a mistake to see “woke” outside the substitution of normal political conservatism by the Trumpist insurrectionist politics best reflected by January 6.

The attack on woke is of a piece with the assault on critical race theory. Republicans are attacking something they do not understand while creating a boogeyman. I would lay odds that if you asked rank-and-file Republican voters to explain critical race theory, nine out of ten could not give a coherent answer. Yet Trump says stopping critical race theory remains a life-and-death battle.

In his March 12 speech in Florence, South Carolina, Trump said:

“Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values. It’s also a matter of national survival. We have no choice…The fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down – and they must do this – lay down their very lives to defend their country…If we allow the Marxists and communists and socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or protect our great country or its freedom.”

From beginning to end, Trump’s words are hyperbolic nonsense. Whether or not critical race theory is taught is not a matter of national survival. How we understand the past is a complicated matter and different ways of looking at history are protected by the First Amendment as a matter of intellectual freedom. You have to ask: why is Trump so scared of critical race theory? Could it be that it threatens his white supremacist world view? Talk about laying down lives is absurdly over-the-top.

Understanding American history is not about teaching children to hate America. It is about intellectual integrity. It is not enough for Trump to maintain a Big Lie about the 2020 election. He wants the Big Lie to extend to a whitewashed American history. He is always saying we have no choice when that is patently false.

I see the war on wokeness and critical race theory as an extension of Trump’s January 6 coup attempt. When people talk about left fascism, there is no comparability to what is going on with the extreme right. Nobody on the left tried to overthrow the government or violently attack the Capitol . January 6 was a clear warning shot and Trump and his insurrectionist allies have not backed off one bit.

Most of the media remain in denial about the authoritarian threat to democracy that is ongoing. We should be listening and paying close attention to the language being used by the Republican-authoritarians. Being anti-woke is about maintaining white supremacy.

James Baldwin once wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Instead of mandating a white supremacist version of our history, we should embrace the contradictions and teach a wide range of perspectives, including critical race theory. To my Republican friends I would say: abandon “woke” and say something original for a change.

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