The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Woke

The Republican Party in general, and Ron DeSantis in particular, is building its whole image around their opposition to woke. That’s pathetic.

It’s pathetic because, while woke certainly has a dangerous and corrosive element to it (which I’ll get to), it doesn’t stack up well against the serious challenges and opportunities facing our nation. The long-term health of the economy, an aging society, a labor shortage, climate change, the national debt, a failing educational system, China and Russia are just a few issues that a sober national party would address. Instead, DeSantis is attacking Disney for being too sensitive on transgender issues. It’s hard to take these guys seriously.

Moreover, I think the Republicans are wrong if they believe that this will get them back in the White House or retake the Senate. Yeah, it plays in a Republican primary and in deep red districts, but politics is about addition and this just does not add up.

“Woke” is a hazy concept. Let me start by offering a definition. I think of woke as a hyper-sensitivity to issues of race and gender. The old saying is that when all you’ve got is a hammer you see everything as a nail. So the woke among us see absolutely every issue in terms of race or gender.

I would define three levels of woke.

What’s good about woke. The truth is that we have not, as a rule, been honest or complete enough in our telling of American history. We have glossed over or ignored things that should be included in the story. And, as regards various shades of gender, we need to be more accepting. I’m as perplexed as any middle-aged straight white guy about all the letters that come after LGBT, but I’m also a believer in old fashioned civil rights. Nobody should be bullied or discriminated against because of their race, gender or anything else that’s irrelevant. I don’t need to celebrate all the letters of the rainbow, but I do need to accept them and to support the civil rights of people who aren’t in the majority.

What’s trivial about woke. Let me be the first to admit that I get annoyed by political correctness. I’m just not ever going to state my pronouns. I will not use “they” when referring to one person. I will not ever refer to an Hispanic person as “Latinx.” But who cares? I’ll be dead soon enough and younger generations will sort out for themselves which of these things are useful. I remember when “Ms.” was a thing. Now, it’s just the formal way to address a woman. Well, actually, there’s now a “Mx.” Oh, for crying out loud…

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project is the version of woke that is worth opposing. The rest is either positive or trivial.

What’s dangerous about woke. Which gets us to the substance. It’s one thing to tell a more complete story about our country, but it’s quite another to attempt to change the very meaning of our country. I think that the correct story of America is that we are the only nation on earth to define ourselves by a set of ideas and promises instead of blood, soil and language. Those ideas are Enlightenment liberalism: rational thought, science, free speech, pluralism, etc. America makes wonderful promises that it has not yet fully kept, but we’re making progress. To redefine our country as founded in slavery rather than freedom, as the New York Times and others are attempting to do through its 1619 Project I find to be deeply offensive and quite dangerous.

It’s dangerous because it runs the risk of undermining everything America stands for. If we’re going to teach our kids that our country was founded on something as evil as slavery then how can we ask them to love their country? How can we ask them to defend it? How can we ask them to continue to build it and make it better? This virulent version of woke is an attack not only on America but on Enlightenment values everywhere. It risks taking us back to a mean tribal existence.

If woke insists on thinking of us as members of groups first and individuals only secondarily, if at all, then that doesn’t bode well for people who aren’t straight, white and Christian . Because if you strip away the ideas that America is founded on, then we become just another country defined by blood, soil, religion, language. And since we’ve traditionally been a white, Christian, English-speaking nation this kind of thinking will only give credence to those who want to define us as that. So, woke thinking actually moves us away from the pluralistic, diverse society most of us want.

Moreover, this kind of thinking is intensely divisive. It simplistically divides us into oppressors and victims based, not on anything we’ve done as individuals, but on the color of our skin or our gender. So, it’s the substance and spirit of that 1619 Project version of woke that I find genuinely problematic and worth fighting against.

Still, I’m confident that, at least for now, the vast majority of Americans doesn’t accept the hardest left version of woke, if they’ve ever even heard of it. But for those of us who worry about woke, it’s important to distinguish between what’s actually positive about it, what’s simply annoying and what’s worth actively opposing.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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