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Commentary by J. Peder Zane originally published by RealClearPolitics and RealClearWire
He’s woke. She’s woke. So are they, them, ey, ze, and xeir.
Know what I mean?
Of course, you do. The dominant flashpoint word in today’s political lexicon – woke is here, there, everywhere. From Whoopi’s lips to your ears. I say it all the time – way too much, according to my wife – but never once has anybody asked: what the heck are you talking about?
The word is becoming a problem for woke-noscenti because the more people know about the alphabet soup movement – DEI, CRT, ESG, QIA+, etc. – the less they like it. What to do? Deny, deflect, and demonize, of course. Seizing on a conservative writer’s halting efforts to define the term during an interview, they are arguing that woke is a made-up, meaningless slur brandished by the right to oppress minorities. Seeking to shut down all discussion of their movement, Touré outlawed it as the new “n-word.”
Never mind that all language is made up – words are just symbols we create so we can talk about things and ideas – and that the term “woke” was coined by African Americans to describe the road-to-Damascus moment when the scales fall from one’s eyes and society’s allegedly oppressive structures become clear.
Still, it can seem hard to precisely define this hydra-headed beast which seeks to redefine every aspect of human relations and understanding, from race, gender, and science, to politics, culture, family, and identity. Its tentacles are so far-reaching that even some writers who are critical of the movement are throwing up their lexicographic hands.
Honestly, it’s probably enough to apply Justice Potter Stewart’s understanding of pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material … but I know it when I see it.”
The current insistence that woke isn’t even a word, however, provides giving-up-the-game clarity. At root, wokism hinges on the power to command perception and language. That word you know and discuss all the time, it doesn’t exist. Full stop. The consequential policy debates that consume our attention – e.g., battles over critical race theory or gender affirming care for children – are mere skirmishes in the far broader effort to control thought; once that’s accomplished, anything is possible. Hence its core demand: are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?
To paraphrase Raymond Carver, what are we talking about when we talk about woke?
Woke describes the ongoing cultural revolution which defines reality by its usefulness in achieving left-wing goals.
The main weapon of the woke, who dominate society’s privileged channels of communication – academia, publishing, entertainment, and the media – is the article of faith that almost all reality is socially constructed, a creation of humanity rather than nature, to enable those in power to subjugate “the other.” Truth is not the goal of a never-ending quest to describe what is, but simply whatever they proclaim it to be. When there is no hard and fast truth, anything is possible. Facts are not stubborn things, but malleable building blocks which gain or lose authority based on their usefulness for constructing preferred narratives.
Thus, the woke incessantly offer versions of events that are at odds with the known record. They told us that the summer of 2020 riots were “mostly peaceful;” that antifa was only an idea; that the nation is overrun by white supremacists and Christian nationalists. They insist that women earn a fraction of the pay men get for performing the same work; that unarmed blacks are shot by the police at much higher rates than other Americans; that all disparities between blacks and whites in wealth, health, and education are completely due to racism. And they assert that critical race theory is only taught in some law school classes, that mathematics is racist and sexist, men can menstruate, climate change is an existential threat, and Gov. DeSantis wants to prevent teachers in Florida from saying the word “gay.”
The crucial dynamic is not just the assertion of fraught claims but the continued advancement of them after they have been debunked. The New York Times, for example, didn’t just declare in its “1619 Project” that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery, it pooh-poohed complaints from leading historians that this was false.
As TV’s Dr. House observed, “everybody lies.” But woke lies have a larger purpose beyond gaining a temporary advantage. They are a strategy aimed at defining reality. Yes, people have always argued over truth, but history shows that societies governed by rigid, facts-be-damned ideology crush freedom, human dignity, and progress in order to coerce submission.
This soul-crushing dynamic is inevitable because people aren’t blind – they can see they are being lied to. This is the chief reason why American politics has become so angry and divisive. The woke left is trying to impose a false world view. When people push back, they are silenced, demonized, and canceled. Dissent is not an option because the entire woke project depends on acceptance of their worldview.
Woke isn’t just a word, it’s a revolution.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
J. Peder Zane is a RealClearInvestigations editor and columnist. He previously worked as a book review editor and book columnist for the News & Observer (Raleigh), where his writing won several national honors. Zane has also worked at the New York Times and taught writing at Duke University and Saint Augustine’s University.