Blowing the "Anti-Woke" Dog Whistle

Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner / Steady
Blowing the News anchor and journalist Dan Rather. (photo: Tim Knox/Redux)

An assault on the very notion of truth and all who seek it

Let’s get something straight. The weaponization of the term “woke” by the political right is not a joke. Far from it. It provides a window into the low regard (to say the least) these people have for human rights, empathy, and the truth.

You can see the self-satisfaction, if not outright glee, as they appropriate a term that began as an aspirational notion of justice for Black activists and their allies into a slur hurled right back at the community from which it came. The fact that “woke” “originated in African American English” (according to Merriam-Webster) only increases the joy of those who spit it out with derision.

This is saying, in effect: “Try to come get it and feel your powerlessness.”

The latest example comes courtesy of the mean-spirited oration of Ron DeSantis, Republican governor of Florida:

“We can’t just stand idly by while woke ideology ravages every institution in our society. We must fight the woke in our schools. We must fight the woke in our businesses. We must fight the woke in government agencies. We can never ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”

If the sentence constructions sound familiar, you might be remembering the famous World War II speech by Winston Churchill that included these stirring lines:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Texas activist Olivia Julianna recognized the similarities — and the important difference.

Returning to the dictionary, it defines “woke” as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” So, in other words, a positive. But the dictionary also mentions that while the term came to prominence in 2014 with the Black Lives Matter movement, “By the end of that same decade it was also being applied by some as a general pejorative for anyone who is or appears to be politically left-leaning.” If you watch Fox News, some has now become many.

That imbalance in the two definitions above gets to the heart of the issue. On the one hand, we have a way of thinking, an approach to gaining a better understanding, a grappling with “important facts.” To be “woke” is to be aware. On the other hand, to be “woke” is to be a type of person, one to be shunned, stigmatized, and vilified.

It makes you wonder, when the crowd cheers DeSantis’ incitement, whom they picture in their minds.

Is it a Black mother marching in the street for racial justice?
A gay parent?
A college professor?
A scientist?
A person of Jewish heritage?
A librarian?
A teacher?

I can already hear the hackles of rationalization rising from the “anti-woke” crowd. They will say that they don’t demonize all Black people, or gay people, or Jewish people, or librarians. And there are undoubtedly some members of these groups who are themselves fueling this assault on “wokeness.” But it is more complex. In the eyes and objective analysis of many people, the political right is using “woke” to attack “the other,” or basically anyone who has the temerity to not agree with them.

To be sure, there are some examples of actions under the banner of “woke” that in my opinion go too far. Are there excesses on the left? There are excesses in any group on the planet. Does some of it get ridiculous? I think so.

You can cherry-pick people, moments, and situations that seem absurd. But doing so does not invalidate the general thrust of what “woke” was originally meant to convey. It is about a core truth: that the U.S. has a long way to go to turn our perception of ourselves as a nation of freedom and justice into reality for all citizens. Americans' life experiences are vastly different. We need to grapple with our history, even when it is ugly. We should not become inured to imbalances of power. We are more resilient when we challenge our own assumptions. The truth can be elusive, but that makes the journey toward it all the more urgent.

The rants of DeSantis are thus an assault on the very notion of truth and all who seek it. His behavior cheerleads a malignant ignorance that utterly dismisses the lived experiences and aspirations of large swaths of society. It is an assault on science, on reason, and on the impartial rule of law. Historically, many on this path have followed it to very dark destinations.

Thinking of DeSantis and the “anti-woke” crusades, my mind turned to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had the great fortune of covering Dr. King in the early days of the civil rights movement. But in recent years, I find myself thinking more about the end of his life and how he was viewed at the time of his murder — something we wrote about here in commemoration of his birthday:

“It is important to remember that he was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. Dr. King would not, could not, suppress the moral clarity with which he saw the world. His messages about racial prejudice and social justice were not welcome in most corridors of power. He was a danger to the status quo and many who benefited from it. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity for racial healing and desegregation; he also issued stirring rhetoric from his pulpit on the need for economic fairness across racial lines. And he was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War.

To reread his writings and listen again to his speeches in today's political climate is to reconnect with the hard truths he eloquently levied at the American establishment. If he had survived the assassin's bullet and continued on his life path, there are reasons to believe he would have remained a divisive figure. Many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans might well be singing different tunes if he had spent additional decades actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed.”

With this in mind, I tweeted out the following:

The tweet has received over 100k likes, and many agreed, including Dr. King’s daughter:

From musician John Legend:

But not surprisingly, the tweet also garnered attention from people with MAGA in their Twitter bios. There was a fair amount of expected derision. But there were also a lot of claims that I had it all wrong, that Dr. King was, in fact, “anti-woke.” People selectively quoted his writings and suggested that because Dr. King preached about seeing past racial divisions, that he would oppose the political left today because it promotes mindful recognition of race's role in our society. Some responses went so far as to claim that if Dr. King were alive today, he would vote Republican, as in the party of Donald Trump.

The absurdity of this historical revisionism is almost beyond belief. Except I think some people actually do believe this craziness. It’s all the more reason we need the history taught in our schools that they would dismiss as “woke.”

Politicians like DeSantis, however, know better. They take another lesson from the civil rights era, that attacking the “other” can be a path to power. But maybe they also need a refresher course. Time and time again, demagogues have risen up in American history. And time and time again, they have been defeated because America “woke” up.

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