There Is No Anti-Wokeness Without Bad Faith

There Is No Anti-Wokeness Without Bad Faith

Unless your friends and family have been vacuum sealed and protected against the brain-altering venom of the Culture Wars, you know “woke” has, quite tragically, become a catchall term for anything a conservative doesn’t like. Anything that scares or annoys a reactionary is woke.

Women fighter pilots flying jets over the Super Bowl? That’s woke.

Black women winning Grammy and Oscar awards? Woke.

A gay couple kissing in an ad about life-saving AIDs medication? That’s right: Woke.

A Starbucks barista with blue highlights and a nose ring? Woker than woke.

Electric stoves? Woke, woke, woke.

Electric cars not made by far-right icon Elon Musk? Woke.

Silicon Valley banks? Wooooooke.

The rainbow of refracted light on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of The Moon album? Woke as a joke.

My daughter refusing to have her ears pierced? Woke! My son playing with a Barbie. Woke! My dad never having said “I love you”? Woke! The yawning nothingness that awaits us after death? WOKE.

You know by now, if you’re even somewhat online, that even right wingers who write books about so-called wokeness have no idea what it means. Or, more accurately, they can’t say what they mean by “woke” because it might involve a slur or six. They aren't saying what they mean, the very essence of political bad faith.

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Bethany Mandel, a gleeful advocate for genocide against Palestinians who admits to killing her grandma and who, during the deadliest months of the COVID pandemic, was bravely willing to kill your grandmother if it meant she could go to the zoo, achieved online fame last week when she bumbled and stumbled in trying to define “woke” during promotion of her new anti-wokeness book, brought to market by her fascist publisher.

It was fun and cathartic to watch Mandel – who once decried the children's book "I Need A New Butt" as dangerously woke – fail to define “woke” and look like a moron before the entire internet. I enjoyed it, you enjoyed it, we had a good time. But it was her last-second effort to save her blooper that should tell the left what the right wing fears about “wokeness,” which, again, means everyone and everything a conservative hates.

“It is sort of the understanding that we need to re-, totally reimagine and re-, re-, redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression,” Mandel said before trailing off and conceding her online infamy.

A reimagined society. A redone social order. Hierarchies of oppression. You can almost hear Mandel quake at these scary little phrases, which function as the foundation of the right’s fear of “wokeness,” or a growing consciousness of the systemic and historical aspects of why some wield power and some are crushed by it. Mandel, accidentally or not, did an excellent job of defining “wokeness” as the terror of a more egalitarian society that acknowledges systems of oppression and at least tries to make things right for marginalized groups.

The beating, bloody heart of anti-wokeness is pulsating and all-encompassing fear: Fear of status lost, of inclusion, fear of the Other treating you as terribly as you’ve treated the Other. Mandel and the far right’s army of anti-wokeness grifters would have you believe their opposition to leftist forces is based on the left’s supposed hatred of the family and America and apple pie and all that bullshit. In this way, anti-wokeness can be an intellectual – even philosophical – pursuit.

This is all in bad faith though. Their fight against the Woke Mob is based entirely on their fear of a restructured society in which they no longer have life-long, unbreakable advantages over marginalized communities. It is not intellectual in any way. It is an unfiltered expression of fear. Mandel and her ilk will fight ferociously to maintain privileges for themselves and their children and their children’s children. In her blundering way, she admitted as much. This might make more sense when one considers the right co-opted the term “woke” from early civil rights freedom fighters urging black Americans to be aware of all the violence the state could rain down on them at any moment.

The current hierarchies of oppression are just fine, says Mandel. They work just fine for me. These hierarchies should remain. They must remain.

The Crushing Sadness of Anti-Wokeism

I was eating breakfast in the lobby of a Phoenix hotel a couple months ago, the night after the Grammy awards, which horrified conservatives because it featured someone named Sam Smith dressed up in a devil costume. He danced provocatively and such. Also, black people won some awards and a few men were not sufficiently masculine with their wardrobe choices.

I was shoveling oatmeal into my gullet when a trio of white guys behind me offered their nuanced analysis of the Grammys.

“Are white people allowed to win Grammys anymore,” one man said the morning after white guy Harry Styles took home the Album of the Year Award and white lady Bonnie Raitt won Song of the Year.

The other guys laughed heartily before another query was posed, for these Culture Warriors were simply asking questions: “Are white people allowed to even attend the Grammys anymore?” he said to more laughter. That two-thirds of the Grammys audience was white did not factor for these fellas, enjoying their pancakes and coffee. In the minds of these men, eating breakfast in the lobby of a nice Arizona hotel while besieged by cultural forces seen and unseen, the forces of wokeness had not only iced out white folks from winning Grammy awards; they had disallowed white people from even entering the event.

It doesn’t matter that none of this is based in anything resembling reality. The threat of encroaching equality animates every part of these men’s lives. Their politics are entirely shaped by these fanciful imaginings of white cultural genocide, a dangerous concept born in the darkest pits of neo-nazi online communities that has seeped into the Republican mainstream.

It called to mind an unattributed quote that seems quite trite after the past decade of skull-shaking culture wars and all the analysis that has come with it. Nevertheless, it rings true: “When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."

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Seeing queer folks and people of color encroach on formerly entirely white parts of public life is truly a horror show for millions of Americans, their worst nightmares come true. There’s something more to it though. The right-wing backlash against multicultural representation is so intense because they can't imagine a society without – to use Mandel’s term – hierarchies of oppression. These people cannot conceive of a society in which one group is not crushing another group into dust for shits and grins and money and stature and tradition and a naked show of sheer cultural and political power. It's a way of thinking dictated entirely by the fear center of our little reptile brains. The idea of a racial and sexual reckoning turns off the right winger's rational brain.

Someone like Bethany Mandel, who seems to hate everyone but her husband and her horde of children, sees people who look different and love differently and she sees a direct threat: People who would seize power – her power – and wield it violently against her.

As a teenager, I drove cars around the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region for my dad’s car wholesale business, picking up used cars here and there and getting them – one way or another – to my dad’s car lot or to another used car dealership. At 16 and 17, I was by far the youngest driver of the bunch, and I worked alongside virulent working class racists who, while not as educated as Mandel, expressed the same fears she has in far more terse, honest ways.

One fellow driver, Darren, who had a cocaine problem and wore cut-off metal band t-shirts no matter the weather and sported a fu manchu straight out of 1976, had heard me during our lunch break half heartedly defending black folks protesting police violence in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and took it upon himself to educate me on the slippery slope I had embarked upon.

During a run to a far-off car lot somewhere in northern Maryland, Darren turned down the Tony Kornheiser Show – “Jew radio,” he called it – and addressed me like a concerned, extremely bigoted uncle. “You know when they take over, we’re fucked,” he said solemnly, as if our fates were sealed in what would be a post-white American order. “How would you treat us if you were them?” I wasn't sure if he was talking about Jewish folks and black people or Latinos. Maybe all three. It was hard to say for sure.

I had never considered such an apocalyptic scenario: Me and my poor white family being sidelined and/or oppressed by all-powerful black and brown politicians and corporate leaders and NBA stars. As a teenager, I was aware of the endless suffering and exploitation generations of black Americans had suffered, and somewhat aware of how that impacted people of color in the 21st century, but I hadn’t thought of the retribution they would deliver when the tables were turned – a scenario Darren feared was mere years away. We had to arm ourselves, he told me. We had to be ready.

I hadn’t thought about the terrifying prospect for ten minutes before I dismissed it as the ravings of an ignorant, fear-mad racist who loved Ronnie James Dio.

Darren, like Bethany Mandel and every other grifter making money in the Anti-Wokeness Industrial Complex, is utterly unable to picture a fair society in which no one is oppressed, where no one’s lifespans are shortened because they lack access to basic health care in exchange for Bethany and her family having health care access, where everyone has bodily autonomy and the federally protected right to love who they want to love. It’s sad, this inability to conceive of a civilization free of “hierarchies of oppression,” as Mandel so eloquently said. To think so little of the human race and its potential to create a lasting, somewhat fair world has to be a miserable existence. I would cry for Mandel if she weren’t so loathsome.

An unshakeable belief that white folks will be on the wrong side of these hierarchies of oppression is a key ingredient in the bad faith dispatched so freely by anti-wokeness pundits. Their worldview – one they cannot admit in their rantings against "wokeness" – is one in which you are dominating or dominated. You do the crushing or you are crushed. You keep the Other’s face buried in the mud or you will soon be choking on said mud. Rule or be ruled. Kill or be killed.

How bleak. How terribly hopeless.

Economics and Wokeness: Never The Two Shall Mix

Notice that economic opportunity and power is never, under any circumstances, wrapped into the anti-wokeness screeds of right-wing TV pundits and politicians and pseudo-intellectual fascist writers. Tucker Carlson, in fact, makes great pains to talk the talk of an economic populist, attacking global capitalism pacts and technologies that undermine the labor power and incomes of American workers (we know which workers) while separately spreading vitriol about anything black or brown or queer. Carlson's entire primetime Fox show is alternating between calls for genocide against LGBTQ people and feigning support for working-class whites. He does it so well, his bad faith as pure as it gets.

The American working class, consisting of a disproportionate number of brown and black people, is by no means part of the Woke Problem. Wokeness is a strictly identitarian phenomenon; it has nothing to do with class or economics. The right wing has made sure to create a clean separation here so its propagandists – Carlson primary among them – can continue pandering to poor white folks who can feel doubly aggrieved by modest gains among those who don’t look or speak or dress like them. It’s a critical distinction that must be maintained if the grand fascist project is going to accelerate political dealignment, appeal to a critical mass of working Americans, and evolve into a dominant national force that will not be bothered with elections or other democratic norms.

Wokeness and economic populism must be bifurcated if the white working class, ever susceptible to fascist messaging, is going to oppose the progress of LGBTQ folks and their brown and black neighbors. Poor white people, as always, are but a pawn in the American right’s twisted little game.

It confused me as a kid when my grandmother spoke glowingly of Oprah Winfrey. A raging churchgoing racist whose husband – my grandpa – regularly used slurs at the dinner table and looked expectantly at his grandsons for the proper reaction, my grandma would regularly talk about Oprah like a TV deity whose wisdom had proven invaluable to American women for generations. My grandma never missed an episode of Oprah. Sometimes she canceled plans with my mom and dad so she could watch the day’s episode. It was a revelation when my parents showed her how to record Oprah on VHS.

How could my grandmother, a woman who in the early 1990s had moved to Maryland’s eastern shore when her Montgomery County neighborhood had become slightly more diverse, adore Oprah? Why did she respect Oprah? Why was Oprah her hero?

“Oprah,” my grandmother once told my mom, “is not black.”

Oprah is rich, my grandmother explained. She dresses well and speaks eloquently, which meant my grandma appreciated Oprah’s flawless code switching. Oprah has nice hair, she has rich white friends, she is a powerful media magnate. Whatever Oprah was, my grandmother had decided she could not have been black.

My grandmother (and tens of millions of other white ladies) had never felt threatened by Oprah because she hadn’t forced black culture on them and had spoken and presented herself in an acceptable way. Oprah was by no means woke in the 80s and 90s – at least, that’s how my grandmother perceived it. That Oprah had become fabulously wealthy and powerful in the world of media didn’t scare my grandma because Oprah, in her view, had properly assimilated.

Any fear that a prominent black woman would destroy white cultural hegemony had been quelled. Oprah, in my grandma’s eyes, was on the right side, the one that would uphold white cultural dominance forever and ever, amen. Oprah did not need to be feared, and therefore was not woke.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.