Tag Archives: Nichols

When Common Sense Became “Woke”

In a recent column, Paul Krugman traced the growing anti-environmentalism of the GOP. He noted that, in the 1990s, self-identified Republicans and Democrats weren’t that far apart in their environmental views, but that since 2008 or so, Republicans have become much less supportive of environmental initiatives. After considering several possible reasons for that devolution (“follow the money” among them), he concluded that

What has happened, I’d argue, is that environmental policy has been caught up in the culture war — which is, in turn, largely driven by issues of race and ethnicity. This, I suspect, is why the partisan divide on the environment widened so much after America elected its first Black president.

One especially notable aspect of The Times’s investigative report on state treasurers’ punishing corporations seeking to limit greenhouse gas emissions is the way these officials condemn such corporations as “woke.”

Wokeness normally means talking about racial and social justice. On the right — which is increasingly defined by attempts to limit the rights of Americans who aren’t straight white Christians — it has become a term of abuse. Teaching students about the role of racism in American history is bad because it’s woke. But so, apparently, are many other things, like Cracker Barrel offering meatless sausage and being concerned about climate change.

If this seems crazy, it’s because it is. Evidently, a substantial percentage of the American population is certifiably looney-tunes…

One of the most compelling explanations for that insanity was recently offered by Tom Nichols in the Atlantic. Nichols was opining about  political violence, or the possibility of another civil war. As he noted, however,  the actual Civil War was “about something.” Unlike today’s culture wars.

Compared with the bizarre ideas and half-baked wackiness that now infest American political life, the arguments between the North and the South look like a deep treatise on government.

Nichols writes that the “soldiers” fighting “wokeness” talk about “liberty” and “freedom,” but those are really just code words for personal grudges, racial and class resentments, and generalized paranoia.

What makes this situation worse is that there is no remedy for it. When people are driven by fantasies, by resentment, by an internalized sense of inferiority, there is no redemption in anything. Winning elections, burning effigies, even shooting at other citizens does not soothe their anger but instead deepens the spiritual and moral void that haunts them.

Donald Trump is central to this fraying of public sanity, because he has done one thing for such people that no one else could do: He has made their lives interesting. He has made them feel important. He has taken their itching frustrations about the unfairness of life and created a morality play around them, and cast himself as the central character. Trump, to his supporters, is the avenging angel who is going to lay waste to the “elites,” the smarty-pantses and do-gooders, the godless and the smug, the satisfied and the comfortable.

In other words, Trump is leading the battle against “woke” folks. You know, people who have the nerve to suggest that conclusions should be based upon verifiable evidence, that many if not most of the issues we face are complicated, and that knowledge and expertise are desirable and not simply an elitist construct devised to make less educated people feel inferior.

It”s “woke” to admit that racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia still exist; “woke” to recognize that climate change is real and that it threatens our future; “woke” to criticize the “Big Lie;” “woke” to argue that women are entitled to agency over their own lives and bodies…

To those on the political Right, to be “woke” doesn’t simply describe people who have awakened to obvious realities and begun trying to ameliorate inequities. To the True Believers, the Christian Nationalists, “woke” is today’s “mark of the beast.” 

So here we are.

“Wokeness”  no longer means you’ve reached certain conclusions about contemporary society based on research, observation and  common sense. It’s morphed. It has become a label to be applied to one’s mortal enemies–and a threat to be defeated at all costs. 

 It is simply not possible for rational folks to reason with the True Believers. The old adage is right–you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into. 

Welcome to the all-encompassing culture war.