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A viral moment reinforces the hollowness of ‘woke’ as an attack

One of conservative writer Bethany Mandel’s least disputable comments during her appearance on the Hill’s streaming show “Rising” was a prediction she made as she fumbled a reply to host Briahna Joy Gray: “This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.”

As indeed it was. One tweet sharing the video has been viewed more than 11 million times as of writing.

Mandel had been asked a seemingly simple question by Gray. She was on the show to promote a book she wrote with another conservative writer, Karol Markowicz, a book that purports to demonstrate how “radicals” are “indoctrinating” young people in America. Mandel began the interview by asserting that there is “sort of a woke reimagining of our society” that is “happening in a lot of different ways” — spurring Gray to eventually ask her what she meant by the term “woke.”

Mandel paused.

“So — I mean — woke is sort of the idea that …” She paused for an extended period. “I — this is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.”

In fairness to Mandel, most of the interviews she’s done for her book are with interviewers who use “woke” in the same vague sense as she does. So she started over.

“I mean, woke is something that’s very hard to define,” Mandel said. “And we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it. It is sort of the understanding that we need to — totally reimagine and re- — redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression.” Another pause. “Sorry. It’s hard to explain in a 15-second sound bite.”

“Take your time,” Gray replied. But her co-host, Robby Soave, jumped in, assuring Gray that “it’s definitely something that you know what it is when you see it.”

We might rephrase that slightly: “Woke,” as often deployed by the right, refers to something emanating from or related to culture war issues that you understand as or want to portray as bad. You know it when you see it in the sense that “woke” is applied to a broad array of rhetoric and actions that share no common thread beyond being anathema to the political right.

The vagueness of “woke” as a pejorative has come into relief in recent days as the failure of Silicon Valley Bank has been repeatedly attributed by right-wing actors to “wokeness.” Former Trump administration official Larry Kudlow offered a good example of this vague line of argument on Tuesday in an appearance on Fox Business.

Fox Business host Larry Kudlow: ‘Lord knows what other left-wing romping was going on in these woke banks. By the way, San Francisco Fed head Mary Daly is considered herself to be quite a wokester!’

— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 14, 2023

Was Silicon Valley Bank trying to “redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression,” as Mandel would have it? Or was this simply Kudlow knowing “woke” when he saw it?

Mandel and Markowicz do, in fact, address “woke” as a descriptor in their book — a tome they suggest could have been called “Woke War on Families.”

“The radical progressive Left — the woke — are trying to completely remake society and start a revolution,” they write in the introduction, offering a sweeping definition of “wokeness” right out of the gates. Later, they get slightly more specific as “wokeness” is compared to authoritarian states and the censorship that defined the Soviet Union.

“Merriam-Webster defines ‘woke’ as ‘aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice),’” they write — “but that’s the old definition.” Now, they write, “wokeness” has become “the enforcement of a narrow set of values and a policing of language. It is now a method to shut down any alternate opinions, even those within the same general range. It’s a system characterized by intolerance and showing one’s own superiority by denouncing those who step out of line.”

That’s not really a definition, as such. It’s an admission that “woke” is used as a proxy for the 1990s phrase “politically correct” (and they quote “liberal” comedian Bill Maher as if to reinforce that point).

“The right way of looking at wokeness and woke culture,” they write at a different point, “is as a set of deeply toxic ideas that are force-fed to the populace, in particular to children.” In other words, “woke” as defined by Mandel and Markowicz begs the question: The much-hated “wokeism” means the thing that they are inveighing against.

There actually is a lengthy history to the use of “woke,” one that originates in Black culture and percolates into the mainstream along with increased awareness about how racism is in some ways systemically embedded in the United States. But as with “critical race theory” (CRT) — itself a term focused on that systemic racism — the meaning of “woke” has been intentionally overinflated to serve as a partisan pejorative. It’s hard to define “woke” because it is intentionally broadened to encompass anything the right views derisively, just as CRT was similarly broadened.

The Manhattan Institute’s Chris Rufo explicitly described how that broadening worked in a 2021 tweet. His goal, he wrote then, was to “eventually turn [CRT] toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” This worked. Rufo also blurbed Mandel and Markowicz’s book, assuring readers that they “expose the rot that’s spreading through America’s schools.”

Rufo is also a favored adviser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who, more than any other national politician, has embraced “wokeism” as a punching-bag. He has described Florida as being where “woke goes to die,” and signed “anti-woke” legislation that basically has the effect of limiting discussions of race in Florida schools. He, like many others on the right, uses “woke” opportunistically, to describe whatever thing he wants to get his base mad at, from textbooks to the NCAA to Disney. The common thread is not that the NCAA or Disney want to “redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression”; it’s that they broke with right-wing orthodoxy.

In her interview on “Rising,” Mandel used a tweet she’d seen as an example of how “wokeism” manifests in schools — one of many times she appeals to anecdotes to bolster her position.

“One of my friends just [posted] on Twitter, her 5-year-old came home and said, ‘I like girls,’” she said. “And so that means different things to different people. For an adult — and sort of what the adults were sort of telling that child and what they understood they were sort of framing for that child — was that it’s okay to be gay or straight and more of a sexuality question.”

This is the tweet.

I was recently at my friend’s son’s 8th bday party. I was chatting with one of moms and she said that her 5 yr old daughter came home from school and said she likes girls and that her teacher said thats ok.

— LB (@beyondreasdoubt) March 14, 2023

Gray justifiably noted that, as described, there’s nothing sexual about the conversation. But Mandel insisted that this was somehow manifestation of “just constant, constant messaging about sexuality,” which certainly seems as though it might be a hammer-spotting-a-nail sort of situation.

In a thread responding to her friend’s tweet, by the way, Mandel echoed DeSantisian politics, suggesting that those who disagreed with her might be groomers.

If you don’t want to be called a groomer, don’t spend your time sexualizing little kids.

— Bethany S. Mandel (@bethanyshondark) March 14, 2023

This is tangential to the debate over what “woke” means, but is still telling. It’s an escalation from a kid being told it’s okay to like girls to the idea that there is a rampant, dangerous effort to “sexualize” children. This escalation is what defines Mandel’s use of “woke,” too.

In her book with Markowicz, the pair actually cite the Hill’s own definition of the term.

“The Hill defined ‘woke’ as someone who is ‘aware of social issues such as racial prejudice and discrimination.’,” the two write. “The reality, we know, is much more complex — and much more ominous.”

Which, of course, is entirely the point. “Woke” simply describes anything that is inherently alarming to the right — and so it’s a very good way to sell books and win votes in presidential primaries.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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