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Don't Say Woke
As someone who is interested in the use and abuse of words, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the term “woke.” Like, what exactly in the hell does it mean? The conservative right is trying to turn a benign word into a pejorative, and, I think they are having some luck with their task. The ideologues on the right assign the word to groups or activities or conditions they despise and want to marginalize, if not harm. This means, if you are “woke,” you support the rights of people who are not generally recognized by the Republican political infrastructure.
Ronald Reagan convinced his political party to ignore minorities and gays and lesbians and the financially disadvantaged and the physically handicapped. These were people whose lives were in the ditch, and true Republicans did not look over into the ditch, they just kept their eyes on the road, heading toward that shining city on the hill. But the most important question America has ever asked about itself is what do we do about the people on the side of the road struggling to get up out of the culvert where it’s cold and muddy? We blame them for their failures, even though we know not what might have caused their misfortunes. Our belief is always it is not America’s fault; it is the problem of the person who has failed. Americans have themselves convinced that X amount of effort equals Y number of results. The formula, however, is imperfect, and results are varied.
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We sometimes try to answer the question of what to do about these people we are afraid to acknowledge exist. LBJ offered up the Great Society with its National Defense Student Loans and Basic Educational Opportunity Grants along with Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, and he launched a war on poverty. FDR gave us Social Security to provide a baseline of financial safety in retirement, legislation that grew out of the profound poverty Americans were experiencing during the Great Depression. The goal of both programs was to help families and individuals who were unable to manage earning an income or pay for their health care. FDR signed the Social Security Act in August of 1935 and envisioned a social insurance system to provide a safety net for retired workers and protect against poverty in old age. There were also provisions for unemployment insurance along with aid to dependent children and grants to states for various social welfare programs.
Those were two “woke” presidents who knew that the economic scales of the nation were never going to be equally balanced, and it was a worthy cause to try to help the lesser citizens fighting to earn a living and make a life. Isn’t that what all presidents and politicians are supposed to have as goals? Not, apparently, on the political right. Instead of ignoring the less fortunate Americans, the Trump party has decided to target them with anger and disdain. You are now woke if you care about anyone who can’t get a job, or is attracted to their own sex, or feels they are trapped in a body of the wrong sex, or thinks guns are dangerous and are destroying children, or thinks no one ought to have the authority to censor books and ideas, or maybe they have no income beyond a Social Security check, or can’t afford health care and can only see a doctor and get treatment with Medicaid, or are a minority who has been disenfranchised by suppressive voter laws or hiring practices that favor white employees.
Caring about all of these makes you “woke.”
What woke really means is “decent,” or maybe “decency,” or a derivative thereof. Why has a significant part of the American electorate decided they need to hate certain types of their fellow citizens, and if they don’t, they are woke? It’s too easy to say Trump empowered those groups of haters, even though he did. But those sentiments were clearly already present in our body politic. Trump did not create them overnight. He simply gave them license to openly express themselves, and now they put on camo gear and march around with automatic weapons slung over their backs while they walk into Starbucks for caramel lattes, and some of them physically attack the very heart of the democracy in the national capitol.
There are laws moving through the legislative processes in Florida and Texas that will lead to suicides and children separated from their parents because government doesn’t like how a father and mother are caring for their troubled offspring. The government will be empowered to remove those children from their homes and put them into state protective services. Is there a more sympathetic personage than a child reaching puberty and being confounded by their sexual feelings? They discover, not only are they not attracted to the opposite sex, but they live in a state or a nation that thinks they are perverted and not worthy of being a part of its culture and economy. How did we create a governing construct that believes sexual orientation is a choice rather than a biological outcome? Worse yet, why does government fail to acknowledge that some people are born in a body that is a wrong sexual manifestation of what they feel? Instead of caring for these children, we treat them as freaks, and legally threaten the doctors and nurses who offer them care.
My sense is that the greater part of our country’s population is sympathetic to those who struggle with everything from work to health and even sexuality. We don’t want to fight, we want to fix, and heal. I choose to believe that is the American instinct at this point in our history. Our political process is seeking unifiers with a unifying message. Leaders who communicate, not anger, but understanding, are those who will rise in our process. Don’t make enemies, make friends, earn support, not disdain.
I have friend, Chris Greta, a long time advertising guy, who brought up the issue of American decency in our discussions during the last election season. He thought it would be a great tagline for Democrats to unite behind. We tried to interest Beto O’Rourke in using the language to close out his speeches. His rhetoric was inspiring, but his messages were often impractical. What if he ended every speech with the line, “Let’s bring decency back to Texas.” There would have certainly been many voters in the other party that were inclined to be tired of the anger of the GOP leadership and its many policies that harm instead of help. They might have crossed over toward Beto. Who knows? O’Rourke never responded.
We are mostly decent people, not woke, whatever in the hell that is. Democrats need to find language that mitigates the impact of such linguistic abuse. President Biden can use decency in his re-election campaign. Now, in fact, is a good time to start. As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy continues to talk about cutting Social Security and Medicare to pay for Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, the president only needs to point out the contrast between those two political choices. One presents decency, and the other is clearly indecent toward the people who spent their working lives paying into a retirement fund only to be told they must go back to work. Mr. Biden can shake his head in disgust or wonderment over the craven nature of McCarthy’s ideas, explain why they are wrong and conclude with a simple call to action for every person in the country.
“Let’s bring decency back to America.”