How progressives lost the 'woke' narrative – and what they can do to reclaim it from the right-wing
Donald Trump Speaks at CPAC Orlando, Fla. 2022 (CHANDAN KHANNA AFP)

The first novel in recorded history was published in Japan. It was called The Tale of Genji. It was completed in the early 11th-century by a woman who was later given the name of Murasaki Shikibu. A few years ago, I found out that printing existed in Asia hundreds of years before Johannes Gutenberg assembled his printing press in Europe.

These are facts I never learned in college, let alone K-12. All tended to focus on the Gutenberg story when the history of reading and printing came up. If I suggested that we should teach this in school, many today would call me “woke.” And it wouldn’t only be folks on the right.

Many on the left who embrace it’s-class-not-race politics, and who say they value historicism and material reality, would assert that merely broaching these facts (whether true or not) can only be, in essence, about representation, “political correctness” and “identity politics.”

It’s interesting how these folks say woke, often with a scoff.

Though without the right’s disgust, the overlap on the left is “this argument is unserious and you don’t have to engage with it.”

In an article for The Nation, I explained the Black communal origin of woke in a time before it became a catchall anti-progressive buzzword:

“Woke” was used in the Black community to convey the need to be socially aware of anti-Black oppressive systems, ideas, etc. in order to at least safely navigate through them — and at most dismantle them. A simple analogy would be the code in The Matrix — just knowing it’s there can help a character survive. Woke could range from James Baldwin in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” or Laurence Fishburne’s character yelling Wake up! in Spike Lee’s School Daze, or Georgia Anne Muldrow saying “Woke is definitely a Black experience.”

Black people have also used woke in (often, but not exclusively) Afro-centric spiritual, cosmological or metaphysical discourse. The topics could be anything from “opening your third eye,” staying attuned to the energy of the people around you, or more charged discussions like not praying to white Jesus or what is the “correct” religion for pan-African people to have.

Now woke can mean anything.

Calling a person by their chosen pronouns? Woke.

A history teacher teaching the truth about slavery? Woke.

Critical of Dave Chappelle’s comedy or Joe Rogan’s podcast? Woke.

An interracial couple in a Pepsi commercial? Woke.

A Black character in Jurassic Park? Woke.

Asking why you can’t make a Black character in Elden Ring? Woke.

According to US Senator Ron Johnson, wokeness is responsible for the Uvalde massacre. This absurdity comes from the right, but some on the left have been just as reactionary toward “wokeness.”

Many on the right and left argue that progressives have been poisoned by the ideology of group essentialism. They say progressive are rejecting individualism and forcing identity politics on the masses.

A more sophisticated leftist critique argues that “wokeness” is another formulation of consumer capitalism preventing class solidarity.

You’d think the anti-woke left would spot the right’s game. You’d think they’d have the tools to disentangle what is good faith and bad faith.

The right often reduces everything on the left to “Marxism.” I hope most folks know that’s silly. However, when the right says everything progressive is “woke,” many on the left, who argue against reductionism and essentialism, end up becoming reductionist and essentialist.

There’s a part of the left that offhandedly dismisses the historical processes and material reality that spur people to galvanize democratic political power through groups that are not solely based on class.

When it comes to politics, there are good reasons why groups (for example African Americans) have had to wield power collectively. When it comes to education, this part of the left often reduces progressive historicism to feeble diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In doing this, they dismiss the possibility that to a teacher (progressive or otherwise), the operating principle underlying the best teaching is teaching the best obtainable version of the truth — something well in keeping with the left’s propensity to historicize and contextualize.

Progressivism has excesses. It can become akin to a cultural bureaucracy. The phrase “cancel culture” makes me want to sigh for an hour. But to the extent that it exists, progressives have their share of responsibility.

But in an effort to distance themselves from “liberals” and “progressives,” too many of the left uncritically accept the right’s castigation of “wokeness” and are often blind to the reactionary logic they would disavow in a different context.