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It Is Very Easy to Define 'Woke' If You're Not an Idiot
When asked on camera to explain a word I'd written an entire book denigrating, I would simply do that.
In the vast expanse between those two definitions—one dry but accurate, the other soaking wet but humiliatingly stupid—there should be ample room for a rich, nuanced understanding of the term wokeness—its deep roots in Black resistance movements; its cringeworthy commodification as a fashion-oriented virtue signaling; its weaponization by ghoulish dipshits (see: Mandel, et all) working to paint anyone and anything they find personally disagreeable with a brush of dismissive racism.
There should be that ample room, and yet!
Thanks to the flattening way that language spreads—and is spread thin—online, coupled with the depressingly successful conservative enterprise of claiming perpetual victimhood, “woke” has become a multi-use shibboleth—one deployed largely for gaining access to and caché from various interest groups, for whom any resemblance of the term to its origins as a civil rights watchword is largely incidental. Whether used in earnest as a sign of social awareness or lobbed as a bad-faith weapon against anyone deemed “other,” woke in the year 2023 has been bleached (that is to say: whitened) to its broadest, most non-specific, most anodyne interpretation. It’s a bummer for anyone still optimistic enough to deploy the phrase in sincere service of racial justice, but the fact remains: “woke” doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Consider the straight face with which conservatives have applied the tabula rasa of wokeness to banks, the military, homework, soccer, election fraud, bad music reviews, and Mortal Kombat (which, admittedly, I had some super serious issues with as well). It’s just, like, a viiiiiiibe, man.
Woke has transcended the bounds of meaning and now encompasses all. It is the alpha and omega of everything. Writing this blog is woke. So is reading it. Not reading this blog is also woke, but in a different way. I’m woke. You’re woke too. Anyone you personally like? Woke. Someone you don’t like? Not woke (unless, for ineffable other reasons, they’re woke in some other unrelated, but equally valid, way). Lenny Bruce is woke. This list is woke. I saw Goody Wokeness dancing with the devil!
See what I mean? Everything is woke, and accordingly, nothing is—especially not the garbled word goulash Mandel crapped out a full 24 hours after her on-air brain implosion, which starts out with a passing resemblance to something coherent and then chugga-chugga-chugs off the rails and over the side of a cliff.
That’s a whole lot of words that mean absolutely nothing, which is understandable in a way. Because thanks to people like Bethany, “woke” doesn’t mean anything anymore. Sure, the problem of systemic racism it originally diagnosed, and the solution of cultural awareness and action, are as potent as ever. But the term itself? Forget it. Her prediction that “this is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral” was, in no small part, a self-fulfilling prophecy, thanks to her own work of not just failing to define “woke,” but helping make it definition-less to begin with.
Of course, that would have been pretty easy to explain when asked on air. “What’s woke? Nothing at all. Just a word I use to scare up hand-wringing op-eds and podcast appearances.” Of course, admitting that would have given up the game. And where are the book sales in that?