Column: Right-wing culture warriors say wokeness is dead. They can’t even define it

A woman gives a thumbs-down sign while standing.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a critic of “sick and disgusting woke culture,” stages her cabaret act at the State of the Union address on Feb. 7.
(Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

Across the intellectual heavens, the cry is heard: “Wokeness is dead.”

The story is that the movement for diversity, equality and inclusion in American society and workplaces has shot its bolt.

Corporations are downplaying their diversity programs, and some are even telling employees who pressed them for inclusive policies to go find work elsewhere.

I feel like I’m almost starting to write about wokeness in retrospect.

— Blogger Noah Smith


Teachers and school librarians are on the run, forced to screen schoolbooks for any hint that America hasn’t reached perfection in its race relations, lest they be subject to arrest.

The outcome is school bookshelves devoid of books, because those that used to be there have been found wanting, or merely because no one has time to page through them in quest of textual nonconformities with white privilege.

Keep your eye on this trend. It won’t be long before culture warriors like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) start taking credit for killing “wokeness.”

At the moment, however, they’re still riding the anti-woke hobbyhorse. On Presidents Day, when we honor Presidents Lincoln and Washington (go figure), Greene seemed to advocate secession by red states to counteract “the sick and disgusting woke culture issues shoved down our throats.” Which issues are those? She didn’t say.


DeSantis declared that he has made Florida into a place where “woke goes to die” — apparently his rallying cry for his forthcoming presidential campaign.

The evidence of his determination is provided by the acres of vacant classroom and school library bookshelves in his state, ransacked to eradicate woke artifacts in schoolbooks.

All this raises two fundamental questions: Is wokeness really dead? And what is wokeness, anyway?

The College Board said that no states provided feedback on its AP Black studies course. But it received feedback from right-wing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as early as January 2022.

Feb. 13, 2023

One problem with assessing the rise and fall of wokeness is that the term is vacuous to the point of being meaningless. To some, it signifies acknowledging and accommodating the diversity of American society and culture; to others, it bespeaks a punitive and sanctimonious campaign against white privilege.

Conservative economist Tyler Cowen grappled with the difficulty of definition in a column proclaiming that “wokeism has peaked” last year. “On the positive side,” he wrote, wokeism “is highly aware of racism and social injustice, and is galvanized toward raising awareness. On the negative side, it can be preachy, alienating, overly concerned with symbols and self-righteous.”

If Cowen was suggesting that these are two equivalent sides of the same coin, he was way off-base. Part of the problem was that he was trying to shoehorn multiple movements into a single whole.


Others have been trawling the same waters for signs of wokeness’ passing. This weekend, Noah Smith, a center-left economist and blogger, declared,”I feel like I’m almost starting to write about wokeness in retrospect.” Among his data points was that “corporate interest in DEI [that is, diversity, equity and inclusion] seems to be waning.”

Smith pointed to a recent posting by Musa al-Gharbi, a sociology researcher at Columbia University, headlined, “The ‘Great Awokening’ Is Winding Down.” Al-Gharbi’s evidence included, among other things, a database showing that references in the New York Times to terms such as “sexism,” “mansplaining,” “racism” and “multiculturalism” — all ostensibly watchwords of the Woke faith — had fallen since the 2020 election.

That illustrates the difficulty of defining wokeness. Its critics on the right appreciate its very ambiguity. They can endow “wokeness” with a sinister connotation, a process that has become common among conservative culture warriors; witness the exploitation of terms such as CRT (for “critical race theory”), ESG (for environmental, social and corporate governance) and “entitlements” (for Social Security and Medicare).

Conservative politicians use these terms to represent some sort of inchoate government overreach. But the vast majority of their audience — and even the politicians themselves — couldn’t define them. For those using them as talking points, that’s a virtue.

Utah Gov. Cox stood firm against anti-transgender legislation last year. What made him sign a much harsher law this week?

Jan. 30, 2023

Never mind that CRT isn’t an element of the curriculum in any grade school, that ESG is a responsible approach to investing in a world beleaguered by global warming, that Americans are — yes — “entitled” to Social Security and Medicare benefits because they’ve paid for those benefits all their working lives; repeat the term often enough with a sneer, and they can be made to symbolize for credulous listeners all that they believe is wrong with the world.

DeSantis, Greene and their ilk don’t even bother to explain what anyone should consider ominous about “wokeness.” When Florida education officials dickered with the College Board over its Advanced Placement Black studies curriculum all last year, they didn’t feel obligated to explicate what was wrong with it, ultimately ruling that the course was “inexplicably contrary to Florida law” and complaining that it was “filled with Critical Race Theory ” They guessed they would scare the hell out of the College Board, and they guessed right.


Anti-woke crusaders are thus free to find “wokeness” wherever they choose to look. Take Cowen, who is director of the Mercatus Center at Virginia’s George Mason University, a program that was founded and has been funded by the far-right Koch network.

In his column, Cowen identified last year’s recall of three San Francisco school board members as possibly “the turning point for the fortunes of the woke” and a signal that “even left-leaning voters can put up with only so much wokeism.”

He asserted that “voters were upset that the school board spent time trying to rename some schools in a more politically correct manner, rather than focusing on reopening all the schools.” He noted, in passing, that voters may also have been irked that the board instituted a lottery for admission to the city’s selective high school instead of relying on grades and test scores.

But Cowen had things upside down. All voters were mainly irked at the extended pandemic closure of the public schools; Asian voters particularly were irked that the lottery system would obstruct their kids’ access to the elite school, where they have been in the majority.

Is interest in “diversity” waning on cable TV? Not according to this chart, tracking mentions of the word on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC over the last year.
(Stanford University)

The renaming issue was a sideshow; if those other factors hadn’t existed, the renaming might not have caused more than a ripple. Incompetence, not wokeness, was on the ballot.


The latest brouhaha over woke culture involves the children’s and young adult books of Roald Dahl. Dahl’s publisher, Penguin Random House, has made extensive changes to the books for new editions, ostensibly so they conform more closely with modern mores.

Smith, the economist and blogger, notices that condemnation of the bowdlerizing from the anti-racism and “cultural left” has been “near-universal” and asserts that at peak wokeness, three to five years ago, the same action would have fostered a “heated debate” among the same cultural sentries.

Smith is right about the scale of the condemnation, which comes from noted authors such as Salman Rushdie and Philip Pullman (author of the “His Dark Materials” fantasy trilogy).

But it’s not at all clear that the same re-editing of Dahl’s books wouldn’t have provoked the same objections a few years ago, especially since the changes go much deeper than most commercially minded tweaking and include the injection of whole passages at odds with Dahl’s crass and subversive sensibility. Its doubtful that the literary community would have been silent back then.

It’s also fair to note that Dahl is something of a special case. His non-adult fiction occupies a penumbra between “not really classics” and “better than most of the crap pushed at kids.” That leaves it outside the protective bubble occupied by true classics such as “Huckleberry Finn,” which is properly judged exempt from the blue penciling of modern-day Mrs. Grundys.

Blindly protecting investments in coal and oil without taking account of the changing world is a formula for impoverishment — environmentally, socially, and especially financially.

Dec. 9, 2022

Dahl himself was overtly antisemitic and racist, qualities that crept into many of his books, sometimes subtly, sometimes unsubtly.


He evidently recognized that some features of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” might have fallen short of changes in cultural standards to an extent that might undermine the book’s continuing commercial potential. So he altered his description of the Oompa-Loompas, those minions of Willy Wonka, from “amiable black pygmies” imported from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” in the original text, to little people with “rosy-white” skin and “golden-brown” hair for subsequent editions.

As for pointing to an ebbing of corporate wokeness, alluded to by Smith and Al-Gharbi, that doesn’t suggest that business is tiring of diversity and inclusiveness, but rather that most American corporations are as pusillanimous as ever: If they’re downplaying their efforts in this vein it’s most likely because they figure that stirring up mulish pols like DeSantis isn’t worth the candle, or because they smell a recession coming on and are looking to slash non-revenue-generating operations.

Anyway, the examples that right-wing commentators use to suggest a retreat on inclusiveness aren’t all that convincing. So ExxonMobil is refusing to fly the LGBTQ rainbow flag from its corporate flagpole? Remind me when ExxonMobil ever was held up as a paragon of corporate sensitivity.

As for drawing conclusions from the frequency of words in the New York Times or any other news source, David Rozado, the New Zealand data expert who generated the charts cited by Al-Gharbi, has cautioned against drawing facile conclusions from the statistic. He acknowledges that the frequency of some words might decline because they become overused and get supplanted by new ones that mean the same thing.

That said, Stanford University’s TV News Analyzer, which tracks the frequency of terms and people on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, doesn’t show any long-term or consistent decline over the last year in terms such as “diversity,” racism” or other terms associated with “wokeness.”

What’s really happening with the movement toward more diversity and inclusion in American society? Two things. One is that it has matured. No popular movement can be maintained at a white-heat level indefinitely; eventually it settles down to a steady state, partially because the initial battles have been fought and won and don’t need to be repeated over and over again, and partially because the time comes to consolidate and secure its real gains.


Another is that the constant nattering by culture warriors has scared some corporate leaders of the movement into being quieter about their programs.

Don’t expect the politicians who have been riding this horse to abandon the field. They’ll keep harping on the same few isolated cases of “cancel culture,” because they have nothing else to offer voters.

Don’t expect them to explain just what it is that they object to in the movement to make American society and workplaces more welcoming to all. They’re playing a game of symbols, and substance just doesn’t matter.