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National Review
National Review
3 Jun 2023
Jay Nordlinger

NextImg:The Corner: What’s ‘Woke’?

Like many others, I have said “woke” a lot, along with “wokism” and “wokery.” I did it the other day, on Twitter. And some people asked me — sincerely, earnestly — “What do you mean by ‘woke’?” A fair and good question. I have addressed this question a number of times, but only in passing. I don’t recall ever devoting an entire article or post to it.

Words are subject to abuse, and “woke” is one of them. Earlier this year, the New York Post had a headline: “Woke movie-goers say ‘Cocaine Bear’ not for kids, ‘encourages drugs.’” Those movie-goers are woke, are they? Well, maybe they are, maybe they aren’t.

You know what “fascist” means, from many mouths: “I don’t like you.” There is real fake news in the world. But, from many mouths, it means “news I don’t want to hear.”

There is real CRT — critical race theory. But many people recite those initials when they see something having to do with race that they don’t like.

Ron DeSantis says “woke” every two or three sentences. He has his finger on the pulse — the pulse of the Republican electorate. The other day, Donald Trump got fed up with this. Campaigning in Iowa, he said, “I don’t like the term ‘woke,’ ’cause I hear ‘woke,’ ‘woke,’ ‘woke,’ you know, it’s like just a term, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is.”

LOL. Trump has been a promiscuous and enthusiastic user of “woke.” For example, when a Republican senator said the 2020 presidential election was fair and legitimate, Trump wrote, “‘Senator’ Mike Rounds of the Great State of South Dakota just went woke on the Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020.”

When I was in college, everyone said “PC,” for “politically correct” or “political correctness.” (Increasingly, those initials were used for “personal computer,” too.) Are PC and wokery the same thing? They are related, certainly. My sense is that “woke” applies more specifically to matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality — identity.

To a degree, “woke” is in the eye of the beholder, or feeler. You remember what Justice Stewart said about hard-core pornography: He could not define it, “but I know it when I see it.” I’m going to give examples of what I regard as wokery. Several will be drawn from the arts. Here goes.

At the University of Bristol, in England, a theatrical society was planning a production of Aida — not the Verdi opera but the musical by Elton John and Tim Rice, based on the opera. After a backlash, the production was canceled. What was the critics’ problem? The roles of the Egyptians and Ethiopians would not be taken by real Egyptians and Ethiopians. Therefore, the production would be “whitewashing.”

I say, “Go to hell,” but my post here is really not for the purpose of commenting.

At the University of Michigan, Bright Sheng was teaching a class. He is a Chinese-born composer who endured the Cultural Revolution. His class was on how to turn a play into an opera. He was using as his example Verdi’s Otello. One day in class, he showed the film of Othello starring Sir Laurence Olivier. In that film, the actor is in blackface.

Questionable? Yes. Lots of things are questionable. In fact, universities are good places — or should be — for questioning.

But some U of M students freaked out. They said that the showing of the film made them feel “unsafe.” Some at Michigan demanded that Bright Sheng be fired. He was not — but he was made to apologize, abjectly, and he withdrew from teaching the course.

In Berlin, the state ballet canceled a performance of The Nutcracker. Why? On grounds that the Chinese and Arabian dances give offense. (In truth, they give enchantment and delight, but here I go commenting again.)

At an American university, a conductor rehearsing a chorus said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, please turn to Section B,” or whatever. A student reported him to administration. Administration gave him a warning.

A high-school English teacher in Sacramento refused to teach Shakespeare — this, despite the fact that Common Core required her to do so. She said that Shakespeare was a “dead white male” who had nothing to say to her “very ethnically diverse and wonderfully curious modern-day students.” She further said that Shakespeare — Shakespeare! — “lived in a pretty small world.”

Has anyone ever lived in a bigger world than William Shakespeare?

My colleague David Mastio worked at USA Today for a long while. At some point, a group of activists at the paper decided that “pregnant women” would no longer do. It had to be “pregnant people.” Mastio observed that the “people” in “pregnant people” are also known as “women.” The activists demanded that he be fired. Instead, he was demoted. Management tried to cut his pay by $30K, but the prospect of a lawsuit stayed their hand. As soon as he could, Mastio moved on to another publication.

A couple of years ago, I was moderating a panel at a conference. In the course of the discussion, I said something like, “You know the old joke: If the Eskimos ever went socialist, they’d have to import ice.” Afterward, a young woman who was volunteering at the conference came up to me to say that I had uttered a “slur.” Namely, “Eskimos.” She was quite sweet, even indulgent. She just wanted to “educate” me, she said.


My little post here is not aimed at pleasing the Left or the Right (obviously). Pleasing the Left or the Right is pretty much impossible, I’ve found. But liberals and conservatives, you can still talk with. And I figured I owed an answer to the question, “What do you mean by ‘woke’?” I could write several thousand more words. But maybe this lil’ post’ll suffice.

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