The Finger-Wagging Olympics
Or Why Anti-Woke Whining Won't Die
After so many attempts to give the term “woke” a proper context and history in Black vernacular activism ( see Joshua Adams in Colorlines), it’s not surprising the right wingers and centrists keep spitting it out as a dirty word—their whole project is to demonize and marginalize the left. But the puzzling thing is—why won’t “progressives” and leftists stop already? They keep piling on, and it’s counterproductive. It’s the finger-wagging that’s so hard to take—the pious pronouncements about how “we” must speak and organize. In order to keep invoking “woke” as the newest version of “id pol,” those engaged in what they call “universalist populism” of the left are constantly preaching about the alienating and inaccessible, or trivilizing and distracting politics of “culture” or “identity” or whatever.
The problem here is that there are different ways of understanding what is “universal” and what is “material”—to use examples from the 60s and 70s, we have the Port Huron Statment vs. the Combahee River Statement. The question at the heart of this problemmatic is—who is the “we” that must not alienate who, how? Marginalized populations develop ideas and forms of address—vernacular theories and languages—that can either be dismissed as “alienating” and “inacessible” to imagined majorities, or they can be seen as rich resources for new ways or thinking and acting politically, together. Black, queer, trans, Native, sex worker, immigrant, disabled and other communities produce concepts and words unfamiliar to outsiders. Those outsiders can attempt to discipline them/us, to insist they/we explain ourselves and stop distracting from other left projects! The concerns of the marginalized, though life and death, can be framed as “cultural” and not “material.” But hey, this finger wagging is received as hostile, guys. It is a way of perpetuating marginalization. It feels like crap. Insofar as the finger-waggers are concerned that the words and ideas of the marginalized can make variously conceived populist majorities feel like crap, why is feeling like crap and being put on the defensive ok for the rest of us?
The latest entry in the Finger-Wagging Olympics is Sam Adler Bell’s “Unlearning the Language of ‘Wokeness’ “ in last week’s New York Magazine Intelligencer column. I really like Sam Adler Bell’s writing—and I’m a huge fan of his podcast, Know Your Enemy. I do not imagine him to be in any way an enemy—in fact, just the opposite, he’s clearly an ally for the “marginalized” of the left. So it was particularly frustrating to read a piece in which he tendentiously and idiosyncratically redefines “wokeness” so that he can go after it. Why oh why? While the problems he addresses—obnoxious invocations of righteous superiority and contempt—are real enough, they are equally as real among the “anti-woke” folks (the difference is in which populations are being condescended or preached to). Why use a word from the Black vernacular to attack that shit? And then attach it to another set of folks toward whom he has some justifiable resentment—elite academics. But that critique too goes off the rails. Not all academics and universities are elite, many writers go from organizing to labor studies etc., “studies” are not only islands of isolated impunity but also laboratories of political creativity. He acknowledges some of this but his analysis sprays widely, hitting intended targets but also random bystanders. And the redefining and centering of “woke” plays a pretty pernicious role in the whole thing. Bummer.
Adler Bell got slammed on Twitter, both fairly and unfairly. But mainly it just all got so boring so fast. This was guaranteed by the use of “woke” as target.
So, below I’m reposting a November post of mine on demonizing wokeness. Because….well, it’s all still unfortunarely relevant:
Both Democratic party centrists and economically progressive, culturally "moderate" social democrats have doubled down on marginalizing what they are calling the "woke" left...... Why? How?
Nov 14, 2021
How did “woke” rhetoric become a bad thing?
Many words and phrases that begin on the left are taken over by the right or the center, with the goal of discrediting the ideas or the constituencies of origin—by resignifying the language. This happened with “identity politics,” which began as a term of ironic self-critique on the left, but became a term of derision. “Intersectionality” began as a method of analyzing interacting, dynamic social formations and became code for either out-of-touch academic jargon, or superficial multiculti class-exclusive liberalism. Most recently, “critical race theory” and “woke” have come in for widespread resignification and demonization.
Leaving CRT aside for the moment (this deserves a separate post), it has been disheartening to see “woke” demonized not only by the right and by centrists intent on discrediting progressives, but now also by leftists intent on distinguishing “populist” progressive universalism from “woke rhetoric.” In a new study cosponsored by Jacobin magazine, YouGov and the Center for Working Class Politics, “Commonsense Solidarity,” “woke” has taken the place of identity politics or “id pol” as a perceived drag on the popularity and electoral prospects of the left.
“Woke” began innocently enough as slang used primarily by Black Lives Matter activists to refer to the goal of evolving awareness within the context of activist mobilization. A social movement can be the best kind of university, and among BLM organizers the road of collective education about structural inequality—along class and gender lines as well as race—leads to becoming “woke,” or awake to the brutal histories that have shaped US political culture. It is unsurprising that (a) some activists began to use “woke” in either superficial or moralistic ways, and that (b) the right wing would adopt the term as short hand for the forces of BLM and Antifa perceived as a threat to Americanism. So goes the political life of language in a politically charged context. But why oh why is the social democratic left represented by Jacobin piling on here?
The immediate context is the electoral debate raging between corporate Democrats and the insurgent progressive left. As progressives have made electoral gains, the corporate funded so-called moderates have attacked by charging that the “identity politics” and “woke” rhetoric of progressives makes them unelectable, and especially unpopular among the white suburban and working class swing voters crucial to Democratic victories. This charge is repeated regardless of the actual circumstances, as in the defeat of centrist Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race. Somehow, the defeat of this uninspiring Democratic corporate mainstream candidate was the fault of the left—the slogan “Defund the Police” and “woke” rhetoric brought McAuliffe down, and will only lead to continuing defeat if progressive candidates win primaries. Makes no sense, but what the hell…… the goal is to use everything that happens to load your own canon, rather than parse the actual forces in contention.
The dispiriting response on the Jacobin left is to agree that “woke” rhetoric is to blame for Democratic unpopularity, pointing particularly to the supposed preferences of working class voters. In the design of the new study, the “woke” contingent is separated from the “populist” group, and effort is directed to showing that populist universalist language that emphasizes “bread and butter” economic issues (Bernie Sanders), while avoiding “woke” rhetoric and identity framings (AOC and Rashida Tlaib are actually named as culprits here), can win elections over Democratic centrists. Four categories are deployed in measuring working class voter preferences: (1) Democrats moderate on economics, moderate on cultural politics (Biden); (2) Democrats progressive on economics, moderate on cultural politics (populists, Sanders), (3) Democrats moderate on economics, progressive on cultural politics (“woke moderates,” Kamala Harris) and (4) Democrats progressive on both counts (“woke progressives,” AOC and co.).
Big surprise—the populist universalists win! Who would ever have predicted that a study sponsored by Jacobin would come to that conclusion? The story is that this is a careful “study” though, and so deserving of credibility. As any student of critical social science knows, the framing of the questions, the definition of the terms and the selection of the target populations pretty much determines the outcome of survey style research. Surely the last two elections have demonstrated how so-called neutral polls can miss the main plot of current events, due to the contestable assumptions that underpin them. So it is with studies like this one, as illustrated by the New York Times account of it. Since the NYT generally aligns with the Biden centrists, David Leonhardt shifts focus away from working class Democratic primary voters, which the Jacobin study argues may well vote for populist universalists over centrists, toward so-called “swing voters.” Using the study’s own results, Leonhardt shows that the left can not win on universal benefits like Medicare for All, since swing voters (who have contradictory views) often support cutting government spending and want “affordable health care” instead. Voila! Same study, different implications! Shocking, shocking that the results in each case line up with the pre-existing political views of the analysts.
The study bases its design on a definition of “working class” that privileges education as class indicator (though other measures are also used, the primary category is with or without college), and defines wokeness as a “political style” that emphasizes anti-racism and a specialized vocabulary—”systemic injustice,” “cultural appropriation,” “equity,” “Latinx” and “BIPOC.” As many commenters on twitter noted, the working class in this study excludes teachers and nurses (might gender be a factor here at all?), but includes many landlords and business owners. And the definition of the unpopular “woke” rhetoric is heavily slanted to terminology used by BLM and other racial justice activists. Of course, the study’s authors are careful to explicitly and repeatedly support racial justice goals (with barely a mention of gender justice, it must be said), as they proceed to argue that they shouldn’t be too, well, obvious in electoral rhetoric. What they are covering over is the racial divide that appears in their data—white workers and workers of color respond differently to the prominence and language of racial justice in electoral campaigns. It’s not a simple one-to-one division, as lots of voters of color are voting for Republicans of late. But rather than confront this conflict head on, the study fudges it by advocating for “universal” language and policies that deep-six the concerns of many black voters especially.
This dismissive use of “woke” is nothing really new of course, any more than attacks on CRT from the right are new. On the Jacobin left, “woke” is the new “id pol.” And behind the whole thing is a dubious distinction between economic “bread and butter” politics, and a supposedly more superficial, divisive cultural politics. But one group’s divisive cultural issue is another’s material, economic bedrock. The coding of issues around this divide is utterly loaded. How does abortion become a “cultural” issue, when forced reproduction fundamentally impacts the material lives of women? How does policing and prisons become a “woke” preoccupation, when these are life and death issues for black and brown people?
The response here from study supporters would be to insist that we must be pragmatic, we must win elections with the actual constituencies that now exist, not the ones we wish we had, in order to get anything major done at all. But that is a very static view of political life, where candidates and campaigns appeal to some pre-existing set of preferences. The campaigns and the candidates shape the preferences. The Sanders campaign was as successful as it was because of the “cultural” successes of Occupy. The BLM mobilizations moved the needle of “public opinion” significantly—until a severe backlash demonized the activists, often via their slogans and language. And demonizing the term “woke” is very much a part of that backlash, that the Jacobin left has now joined. We might fight for a vital, progressive culture that pushes forward with the goal of changing the electorate and the electable. At its best, this is exactly what the Sanders campaign did. Trying to cut out a portion of your constituency, tarring their/our leadership and language as divisive, can not be the basis for a visionary, mobilizing, broadly inclusive movement to seize the future.