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Everything I Don’t Like Is ‘Woke’
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Everything I Don’t Like Is ‘Woke’

What ‘wokeness’ is, and isn’t.

Workers prepare the stage for CPAC 2022. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Comedian Billy Eichner used to do an amusing man-on-the-street bit in which he and a cameraman would accost passers-by in New York City and ask them inane questions, promising them a dollar if they answered correctly. “Quick,” he’d say, rushing toward someone with a dollar bill in hand, “For a dollar: Name a book.”

Usually the bystander would freeze, stunned by the intrusion and made suddenly self-conscious by the presence of the camera. “NAME A BOOK, ANY BOOK, FOR A DOLLAR,” Eichner would shout impatiently, deepening the humiliation. After a few long seconds of painful silence, as the victim regained their bearings, they’d usually manage to croak out “the Bible” or whatever and end up a dollar richer.

This clip of conservative author Bethany Mandel that’s making the rounds isn’t the same thing, but it ain’t that different.

Mandel is getting dragged on Twitter, as the kids say, for choking on what should be an elementary question for a right-wing activist, particularly an activist with a new book out alleging that “woke indoctrinators” are ruining American childhood. In her case it’s less like freezing during one of Eichner’s ambush interviews than freezing during a dissertation defense, having just written a thesis on book names.

But I sympathize. I can imagine myself all too easily being asked a challenging question, failing to answer elegantly in the first breath, then succumbing to self-consciousness and panic. I’m not quick on my feet; it’s one reason I don’t do interviews. And I sympathize because I know that most of the mockery of Mandel today is little more than axe-grinding by critics who dislike her for other reasons, such as her complaints about COVID restrictions during the pandemic. That’s par for the course when you have the misfortune of being the day’s “main character” on Twitter, a title she’s held many times. One should expect nothing but gleeful opportunistic ruthlessness from one’s ideological enemies on that platform following a failure, even a failure that’s relatably human.

Here’s where I should add that Mandel could surely define “woke” in a persuasive and comprehensive manner if given a moment to take a breath and gather her thoughts. But I’m not sure she or anyone else could. I’m not sure I can either.

Trying to define “wokeness” is like trying to define “hardcore pornography.” You can do it, more or less, but you’re mostly just trying to articulate a gut feeling of transgression.

When the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of obscenity in the 1960s, Justice Potter Stewart dodged the question of what sort of porn might qualify as “hardcore” and therefore, in his judgment, lack the protections of the First Amendment. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so,” Stewart conceded, before adding the most infamous words he’d ever produce as a judge, “But I know it when I see it.”

Being entirely subjective, “I know it when I see it” is a poor standard for constitutional law. It’s not great as an intellectual standard either, although that hasn’t stopped many Republicans from adopting its logic.

After her deer-in-the-headlights moment went viral, Mandel tried to put some meat on the conceptual bone.

That’s not bad, although it reads to me as a better description of critical race theory than it does of “wokeness” writ large. Mandel herself, in fact, has used the term “woke” more broadly than her definition should permit. When right wingers complain about, say, trans women being included in women’s swimming competitions, they’re not objecting chiefly to the idea that it would be discriminatory to exclude those trans women. They’re objecting to the underlying progressive belief that your gender is what you say it is, defined by one’s sense of self rather than by biology.

Even so, Mandel is right that reductionism based on identity is key to what the right dislikes about “wokeness.” If American institutions should be understood as enforcers of white and male supremacy; and if addressing that injustice should be of paramount concern to public policy; and if, further, policy remedies will never fully cure those institutions of their inextricable “structural” racism and sexism; then that sounds suspiciously like a mandate for letting progressives have their way with those institutions unto eternity.

Damon Linker, a centrist, has written often lately about “wokeness” and offers another definition.

Then came the Trumpening of the GOP in the 2016 primaries and the shock of the presidency going to a man who began his campaign by fear-mongering about Mexican rapists, promised a travel ban against people from Muslim countries, and treated women like garbage to be used for pleasure and discarded at will. The cultural left responded by insisting that moral attitudes and presumptions in the United States needed to be changed in a fundamental way. Lines needed to be drawn. Toleration curtailed. Excommunications imposed

Quite quickly and organically, a catechism was written, often by young progressive staffers working for powerful educational, journalistic, and cultural institutions. Using social media (especially Twitter) to create the illusion of a massive groundswell of grassroots support for progressivism, left-wing staffers convinced the leadership of these institutions to adopt their moral convictions and impose them both internally (on less morally fastidious employees) and externally (in public-facing gestures and statements).

This is what I mean when I use the term “woke”: the effort by progressives to take ideological control of institutions within civil society and use those positions to mandate that their moral outlook (and accompanying empirical claims about race, American history, and human sexuality and gender) be adopted throughout the broader culture.

That’s how I think of “wokeness.” It’s not just a belief system, it’s a tactic. 

Progressives have some very particular and controversial ideas about race, gender, oppression, and victimization that aren’t shared by much of the country, including members of the Democratic Party. But rather than concede that those subjects are matters of public controversy, in some cases they resort to social and professional sanctions to try to compel dissenters to accept their orthodoxy. (Adult dissenters, I mean. Schoolchildren can and will be indoctrinated into that orthodoxy.) Thomas Chatterton Williams cut to the heart of it when he made this point recently about the enforcement arm of “wokeness”: “Cancel culture is really about when someone is called out by a mob for transgressing a not-yet-agreed upon norm.”

Consider Scott “Dilbert” Adams. Adams is a red-pilled fellow traveler of the Trumpist right whose comic strip was dropped recently by newspapers across the country. But apart from a little grumbling by the usual suspects, he hasn’t become a “cancel culture” cause celebre among Republican anti-wokesters. Why? Because the norm he violated is, in fact, broadly agreed upon in 2023. “Based on the current way things are going,” he told a YouTube audience, “the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from black people.”

Adams was reacting to a poll that showed only a small majority of black Americans agree with the statement, “It’s okay to be white.” But that was no defense in a country where white people getting the hell away from black people hasn’t been within the Overton window of mainstream political thought for a few generations. 

What we mean when we talk about “wokeness” is progressives trying to assert cultural hegemony by using institutional or economic pressure to wrench the Overton window to the left with respect to not-yet-agreed-upon norms. It’s coercive, a point Mandel and Linker each acknowledge in different ways. You might think the question of whether, say, trans men are truly “men” is a live debate, but the left is here to tell you that it’s quite settled in their minds. And if you continue to insist otherwise, you might find yourself with problems bigger than people dragging you on Twitter.

That’s an earnest definition of “wokeness.” There are less earnest ones.

A cynical view of conservatives’ preoccupation with “wokeness” is that they favor the term because it’s vague. Mandel, Linker, and I can sit here all day and noodle egghead definitions of the concept, but if you’re a cutthroat Republican populist who practices white identity politics, having “woke” as a loosely defined catch-all is useful to your cause.

If “wokeness” is ultimately just a matter of “I know when I see it,” it can mean one thing to me and another thing to a racist and we can still join hands as part of the right-wing coalition, each blissfully unaware of what the other has in mind.

The term’s slipperiness led journalist John Harwood to say that “it’s like defining ‘socialist’ as those who believe in 99% tax rates and then applying the label to people who want to raise the top rate from 37% to 38%.” By lumping all of the left’s cultural preferences into the much-hated category of “wokeness,” Republicans might begin to move the Overton window themselves. Today “wokeness” means equating trans women with women; tomorrow it could mean any long-established progressive cultural victory. The further you go toward the right-wing fringe, the more likely you are to find people who’ll insist, contra Williams, that lots of norms most of us take for granted haven’t truly been “agreed upon.”

I don’t think that’s fundamentally the game being played here, though. (Maybe a few people are playing it.) New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg is closer to the mark in believing that anti-wokeness has simply become a placeholder ideology for a party that can’t agree on what it believes.

Conservatives are relying on fantastical ideas about wokeness to tie together a movement that has otherwise lost much of its raison d’être.

After all, the nearly 50-year project of ending Roe is complete. Stirring crusades against Communism and then against radical Islam have subsided. The cult of personality around Trump has splintered. Many on the right would still like to obliterate the welfare state, but they’re deeply defensive about it. Hatred of wokeness is a brittle foundation for political identity, but it’s almost all that’s left.

The Republican Party is a party without a platform, quite literally. Huge constituencies within the broader right are directly at odds on important questions. The GOP’s most promising young politician may or may not mean the things he says, and probably prefers to leave primary voters guessing lest he alienate any winnable constituencies. This is a movement that desperately needs something to unite around.

Enter “wokeness,” an evil so insidious that it somehow lies at the heart of every problem in American life.

“Wokeness” didn’t cause SVB to fail but it’s hard to find a Republican politician in the past five days who hasn’t invoked it when trying to explain the bank’s failure. Perhaps that’s further evidence of how much contempt right-wing elites have for their own base, believing them too ill-educated to grapple with a concept as complex as interest-rate risk.

But Goldberg’s explanation rings truer. The politics of SVB’s collapse are complicated even for an avowed populist like Hawley. Is the proper populist position to decry the bailout of SVB’s depositors, treating it as a giveaway to evil Silicon Valley? Or is the proper populist position to celebrate the bailout on grounds that it averted bank runs on smaller Main Street banks, keeping them in business and preventing consolidation of the financial industry by evil Wall Street mega-banks instead?

Better to play it safe, avoid the whole subject, and feed the yahoos some applesauce about “wokeness” that everyone can nod at instead.

The great irony of this strategy, in William Saletan’s brilliant formulation, is that it amounts to the GOP practicing what might be called critical woke theory. As noted earlier, one reason conservatives disdain critical race theory is its distorting reductionism: CRT views all elements of American society through the lens of a single progressive hobby horse and promotes policies inspired by that distorted view. What else are Republicans doing with their “wokeness” obsession, Saletan wonders, but offering a right-wing culture-war version of the same thing? 

If the right can’t agree on Ukraine or entitlement reform or gay marriage, we can agree at least on the core tenet of critical woke theory. Namely, that “wokeness” is The Great Challenge of Our Times and defeating it requires Republicans of all stripes to join hands and support whatever garbage populist authoritarian the GOP nominates in 2024.

Is that strategy working, though?

For all the energy Republicans have spent over the last few years to try to unify Americans around the cause of anti-wokeness, the results thus far are thin. The party underperformed terribly in the midterms, especially the most ardent populist critics of “wokeness.” (With one very notable exception.) And a poll published last week suggests “woke” isn’t as radioactive a concept as the right might wish.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed say the term means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” That includes not only three-fourths of Democrats but also more than a third of Republicans.

Overall, 39% say instead that the word reflects what has become the GOP political definition, “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.” That’s the view of 56% of Republicans.

Independents, by 51%-45%, say “woke” means being aware of social injustice, not being overly politically correct.

The fact that even a third of Republicans prefer the left-wing definition of the term makes me wonder whether anti-wokeness is the province of the Very Online right, the sort of thing you care deeply about if you gorge relentlessly on populist media and not very much at all if you don’t. The first group is already in the bank for Republicans in 2024. The second group, the one that’s seemingly not responding to this pitch, is the one the GOP needs to worry about.

Then again, Goldberg’s thesis wasn’t that the party is rallying against “wokeness” as a strategy to gain votes. It’s a strategy to avoid losing votes, to keep disaffected members of the conservative coalition inside the tent lest some begin to wander off. It’s ideological cement to hold a crumbling edifice together, not material to build a bigger wing.

I hope so, at least. The other possibility, via Linker, is that Republican populists are endlessly hyping the illiberal excesses of “woke” leftists because they’re keen to build right-wing support for illiberal counter-excesses, like DeSantis using official power in Florida to pressure companies into biting their tongues if they oppose his agenda. The more threatening “wokeness” is to American institutions, the theory goes, the more justified Republicans are in using arms of the state to meddle with those institutions to try to root it out. On that reading, populist alarm over “wokeness” isn’t a matter of right versus left. It’s a matter of the post-liberal right trying to reorient the Republican Party toward favoring its approach to government over that of classically liberal conservatives.

Like I said yesterday, the schism is here. Pray that the more virtuous side wins.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.