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CLARENCE PAGE: What is ‘woke’? More than a joke

Every time I think the overused term “woke” has just about played out in politics, it seems to come roaring back into our politics with new vigor — and new confusion.

The latest newsmakers to unintentionally get entangled in that confusion appears to be conservative writer Bethany Mandel, in an appearance on “Rising,” the Hill’s daily online news show.

She was promoting “Stolen Youth,” a new book she co-authored that tries to skewer the left’s “woke agenda.”

Because the book argues at length about how that woke agenda supposedly indoctrinates kids to make them feel miserable, she was asked a question that I thought she would have expected:

“What does that mean to you?” co-host Briahna Joy Gray asked. “Would you mind defining woke?”

Oh? A look of terror comes across Mandel”s face. She was blindsided, as if her next thought somehow got derailed on its way from her brain to her mouth.

“So … woke is…uh, …” she stammers around for a bit, then in her frustration acknowledges prophetically, “This is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral.”

Indeed it did, partly because she vividly demonstrated what critics of conservative anti-woke crusaders have been saying all along. The word itself is a trick, nothing more than the latest of numerous terms to be created by the left — such as “liberal” itself — and appropriated by the right to be turned into buzzwords for use in ridiculing or demonizing the left.

Substitute “liberal” for “woke,” and you have your answer, although it doesn’t sound as new or exciting.

And, let’s face it, excitement, not enlightenment, is the whole point, as long as it can be used against the left.

“It is time to eradicate Joe Biden’s sinister “equity” Executive Order that has led to the woke takeover of the U.S. Government!” former President Donald Trump said in a recent post on his Truth Social account.

“The Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” said Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her Republican rebuttal to President Biden’s State of the Union address.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate, even created the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act to help businesses, employees, children and families “fight back against woke indoctrination” and make sure “Florida is where woke comes to die.”

But I thought the right’s freakout over “wokeness” was stretched beyond belief when House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, suggested that Silicon Valley Bank had collapsed because it was “one of the most woke banks.”

Comer was chastising SVB’s “ESG-type” policies, a package of environmental, social and corporate governance-driven investing that has been embraced by billion-dollar asset managers, much to the alarm of certain conservatives.

DeSantis, for one, charged that Silicon Valley Bank’s diversity, equity and inclusion requirements “diverted from them focusing on their core mission.”

That’s a heck of a stretch. Whatever you might think of initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field for women or people of color, there’s no evidence they had anything to do with the actual causes of the bank collapse. Try rising interest rates, bank deregulation or over-investment in long-term government bonds, just for starters.

But I do not mean to imply that the “woke” left is exempt from criticism. Both sides of the political fence are infiltrated by a certain number of performative idealists, less interested in improving the lives of those who genuinely need help. In reality, they are more interested in self-congratulatory word policing and other gestures to show how hip they may be to the latest jargon of those whom the right derides as “social justice warriors.”

I think the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had something like that in mind when he delivered a prophetic commencement address at Oberlin College in June 1965. Titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he said in part that, “There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”

Indeed, whether you believe that “Black Lives Matter” or prefer to declare that “All lives matter,” I believe Dr. King might well say something like this: Actions matter.

For that, it helps to stay awake.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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