Debate Magazine

The War on Woke

Posted on the 20 March 2023 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX

A few weeks ago, Bethany Mandel released a book, Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation, a primer on the perils of wokeness.  When, in an interview with Briahna Joy Gray, Mandel repeatedly used the term “woke,” she was asked to define the term.

She couldn’t.  At least, she didn’t.

Mandel says she had a brain freeze.  She has taken a lot of abuse from the left, she says, and was fighting off a panic attack as the interview unfolded.

I buy that explanation. Soldiers on the frontlines of America’s increasingly toxic culture war are bound to be traumatized.

The war on Woke
Bethany Mandel (right) struggles to define “woke”

But Mandel would have struggled to define  “woke” even if she had been fielding softballs from Sean Hannity.  That’s because the word is being used in two distinctly different ways.

The term “woke” emerged in Black culture to describe those who are aware of social injustice, in general, and of America’s shameful racial history, in particular.  Woke people get what’s going on.  They understand how we got here.  They know that systemic racism is firmly entrenched in American culture and conduct themselves accordingly.

But when conservative opinion leaders like Bethany Mandel decry woke ideology, the word takes on a very different meaning. 

In this more expansive understanding, woke ideology divides the world into oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressed are people of color, women, undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and, most significantly, members of the LGBTQIA+ community.  (If you add “QIA+” to LGBT, you are definitely woke.)

According to this more expansive definition of wokeness, the great moral challenge of the day is to combat oppression wherever it is found, and that means getting in the face of oppressors (especially affluent, straight, cis gendered, white men) whenever possible.  Oppressors hurt vulnerable people.  And when the sons of privilege are allowed to live in peace, injustice proliferates, it metastasizes. 

The only solution to this nightmarish reality, the woke believe, is to abolish oppression from the face of the earth.  That means educating children and re-educating adults.  Since all forms of oppression cohere in a seamless web of iniquity, the battle against oppression must be waged on all fronts at once.

This second understanding of wokeness is often denounced as “illiberal” because it is held to be in tension with the principles of democracy and mutual tolerance that make life in a diverse society possible.  The woke reject the goal of gradual, incremental progress in favor of immediate top-to-bottom revolution.  For the woke, all forms of over-under hierarchy must be immediately abolished, and anyone who says otherwise is the enemy. Or so say the decidedly un-woke critics of wokeness

Wokeness, thus defined, becomes the enemy of established institutions like churches, the NFL, and public schools.  Since oppression is built into the DNA of all institutions, the woke are said to believe, all social structures must be raised to the ground and built anew.

Bethany Mandel is an Orthodox Jew determined to raise her children in accordance with the ancient wisdom of her adopted faith. So, you can see why wokeness, defined in this second sense, would be deeply threatening to her.

But there are big problems with this second understanding of wokeness.  Although you can find plenty of people on the left calling for a jihad against oppression in all its myriad forms, most of these people teach in the humanities departments of major universities.  In a highly diluted form, their influence filters down to social media, but has little meaningful impact on the political and cultural life of the nation.

Although the principle of intersectionality (the idea that all oppressions are intimately connected) is frequently invoked, in the real world, activists pursue extremely narrow goals related to highly specific problems. Many who demand civil rights for their particular tribe show little concern for other interest groups.

Most people on the political left work within traditional institutions. They participate in the give-and-take of democratic politics.  They value diversity and aren’t trying to silence the opposition.

Even as they work for reform, most progressive faith leaders reflect a deep appreciation for the tradition that nurtured their faith.

But there is a second, more insidious problem with the conservative critique of wokeness.  In the popular mind, the term is vague and ill-defined.  Conservative pundits, preachers, and politicians realize that any evocation of social injustice is unpopular with the base. Most conservative voters, congregants, and consumers of cable news don’t want to hear about the LGBTQ community, the rights of women, the plight of refugees, the scourge of police misconduct, or the tragic racial history of America.

By decrying wokeness, conservative personalities signal that they share this widespread impatience with social justice talk.  But, on those rare occasions when they are challenged to define wokeness, they can say they were only referring to liberal intolerance.

In other words, by trashing wokeness, conservative leaders are able to counter calls for social justice with plausible deniability.

Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump want the luxury of being overtly anti-woman, anti-civil rights, and anti-gay without having to defend their bigotry.  Woke-bashing allows them to have their poisonous cake and eat it, too.

As a creature of the conservative media world, Bethany Mandel was trying to current denunciation of all things woke. She may not have realized the sleight of hand she was working until she was forced to define her terms. Instinctively, she realized that most members of her conservative audience would be unfamiliar with the second, more ideological definition of wokeness. She either had to define “woke” in the traditional way (a keen awareness of social injustice) or make it clear that she was talking about something else. She didn’t want to come right out and trash social justice advocates, but she knew that’s exactly what most people on the right thought she was doing. Mandel was perfectly capable of distinguishing between legitimate social justice advocacy and the rarified fringe ideology she dissected in her book. But, if she had made that distinction, the conservative audience she writes for would have lost interest. Unsure how to answer the question, she ended up looking like a deer in the headlights.

Hopefully, the next time a conservative leader like Trump or DeSantis bloviates about wokeness, they will be challenged to define their terms.

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