Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism
Walking into the children’s section of a public library, I spotted a copy of ‘Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice’’. Published in 2020, it’s almost a cultural artifact because ‘woke’ has gone from a hip term for leftism to a battered conservative punching bag in the culture war.
‘Woke’, the term, peaked in 2020. In 2017, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and appeared as a category on Jeopardy. Next year, Essence magazine announced its list of ‘Woke 100 Women’. In 2020, Disney’s Hulu aired ‘Woke’:, a tedious series about a college activist.
By 2023, wokeness has come to mean leftist extremism. It’s most often used by Republicans and hardly ever by Democrats who act baffled at the idea that there was ever such a thing as wokeness. Much like ‘Defund the Police’, a set of sounds that once defined lefty culture, has been flushed down the memory hole and everyone is pretending they never heard of it.
In Seattle, the home of wokeness, “race and equity experts” say it’s “time to get rid of woke.”
“That word has been taken,” Erin Jones, a DEI consultant who charges $1,000 an hour for her workshops, admitted. “There’s no good way to use that term. I think it’s been so weaponized at this point that there was not a positive way to use the word ‘woke.’”
What happened to ‘Woke’ is the same thing that once happened to ‘Liberal’. Conservatives seized on it and used it to sum up everything wrong with leftist extremism. Before long, no one wanted to identify as a liberal because it meant being seen as a lunatic fighting for sex ed for kids, free needles for addicts, political correctness in the office and surrendering to enemies.
Leftist support for these policies never went away, but leftism underwent a rebrand.
Unlike conservatives who have retained the same name over time, leftists are chameleons. Leftists were first characterized by that name during the French Revolution because they tended to cluster to the left during legislative debates. More specific ideological terms like socialists and communists came and went, and became tainted by association with leftist policies.
There is no name for the Left that doesn’t have negative associations even for leftists.
Senator Bernie Sanders has spent most of his otherwise useless career trying to redeem the term ‘socialist’ in the United States. And recent polls show a growing approval for socialism among younger people. But, as the example of ‘Woke’ shows, that appreciation may not last long once conservatives turn whatever term the Left uses now into a political scarlet letter.
The destruction of wokeness within a matter of years shows why conservatives should not underestimate their cultural power. Barred by the media, censored by tech companies and shut out by the entertainment industry, conservatives were nevertheless able to take the hip new term that leftists had rebranded as and make it as toxic as yesterday’s radioactive waste.
That is something worth taking a moment to appreciate.
Wokes argue that ‘wokeness’ has a long pedigree and will be back. They’re probably right.
In 1923, the Nazis deployed the Sturmlied of the SA with its concluding command, “Deutschland, erwache! Erwache!” or “Germany, awake! Awake”. That same year, Marcus Garvey, a black nationalist fascist, incorporated it as “Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!”
Black nationalists complained that white leftists had “appropriated” a black slogan, but it was the black nationalists who appeared to have appropriated a Nazi slogan.
Garvey, usually described as a civil rights activist, was an unabashed fascist. “Hats off to Hitler the German Nazi,” he had cheered and urged his followers to read Mein Kampf.
“What the Negro needs is a Hitler.” he had suggested and had himself in mind for the role.
But Garvey claimed credit for inventing fascism and argued that the Nazis had appropriated it from him. “We were the first Fascists,” the civil rights leader bragged, “Mussolini and Hitler copied the programme of the UNIA.” But just as Garvey copied Mussolini and Hitler, it’s more likely that Garvey borrowed ‘wokeness’ from a Nazi call to arms that included genocide.
Much like its Third Reich inspiration, wokeness has undergone its own decline and fall.
The Nazis, black nationalists and leftist wokes all meant the same thing by the use of the term which was to distinguish those who are ‘awake’ and aware of the crisis from those who aren’t. The hipness of the term required a certain amount of insider cachet which became impossible to sustain when Republican politicians became the ones to popularize wokeness.
When people think of wokeness, they no longer envision the BLM activists who used to appear on TV shows and on children’s books, they think of Gov. Ron DeSantis or an episode of FOX News. Republicans went to war on wokeness and in doing so, they appropriated it, they took the word and made it their own. Destroying the brand value of wokeness is not the same thing as defeating woke policies, but marketing is fundamental to leftist recruitment and expansion.
And now, once again, the Left is between descriptors. Some call themselves “progressives”: a longstanding and twice dated term that sounds like an eyeglasses prescription. Social justice still hovers around the margins but its users still remember when SJW became the derisive acronym of choice. The media, which rarely recognizes the existence of a separate leftist movement, describing its members only as ‘activists’, ‘experts’ or ‘concerned citizens’, likes the idea of an invisible ideology that, much like 1984, no one even has the words to describe.
Wokes still control most major cities and companies, the educational system and the government’s policymaking apparatus, but the backlash has inflicted some casualties. America is still a long way from 1988 when Saturday Night Live aired ‘The Liberal’ depicting a hunted Matthew Modine on the run in a conservative nation. (Like most SNL cultural guesses, it was actually wrong and conservatism had peaked while liberalism was in ascendance). The long-awaited backlash that would usher in a new ‘Reagan America’ has been promised many times in the last two decades, but has never actually been able to survive and take root.
And yet conservatives, who operate in a counterculture, should remember that they have the power to hurt the Left. The decline and fall of wokeness is a demonstration of the fragility of leftist cultural power which commands budgets in the tens of billions of dollars, controls private and public institutions, yet is deeply resented and vulnerable to some pointed mockery.
Wokeness, once a badge of pride, has become a badge of shame.
Reposted from Frontpage Magazine. Make sure to read Daniel Greenfield’s masterpiece contributions in Jamie Glazov’s new book: Barack Obama’s True Legacy: How He Transformed America.