INDIGNITY VOL. 3 ,NO. 36: Rude a-woke-ening.
It Is Wholesome and Proper to Laugh at the Anti-Woke Person Who Couldn't Define "Woke"
YESTERDAY AND TODAY, a video clip made the rounds, in which the right-wing writer Bethany Mandel froze up in mid-interview when asked to explain what she meant by the word "woke." "This is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral," Mandel muttered, after 14 seconds of false starts, blinking, and staring up into space.
Of course it was! Mandel was promoting a book in which she attacks "woke" people for, as the subtitle puts it, "Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation." She had just stipulated to her hosts that there was a difference between being liberal, which she acknowledged that many Americans are comfortable with, and being "woke." And then: Sooo...I mean...Woke is..sort of...the idea that...ahhmm—
All the hooting about it struck the liberal-but-not-too-liberal New York magazine blogger Jonathan Chait as unseemly. "I find the pile on about this clip kind of gross," he tweeted (while sharing the video). "She may be wrong, but she's not an idiot. She just froze up on TV. It happens."
So much centrist scolding depends on this routine! Take the specific thing that people are criticizing, remove enough of the particulars to turn it into an abstract proposition, then defend that abstract proposition in pious general terms. Talking into a camera is hard, absolutely! I don't like doing it, myself. And, yes, sometimes a direct question can catch you flat-footed, even when you have a good answer ready.
But this breakdown? By this person, on this subject? What people perceived, rightly, is that Bethany Mandel can't say what "woke" means. It is a term of abuse that depends on keeping its meaning vague and elastic—it signals that those people have gone too far, for whatever values of "those people" and "too far" the listener may be willing to grant the speaker.
As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic put it:
Sometimes when people say "woke" they mean "liberals being self-righteous and vicious about trivial things" and sometimes they mean "integration," or "civil rights laws" or "black people on television" and it's convenient not to have to explain what you actually mean.
After taking 18 hours to recover, and blaming her failure on her host's hostility toward her identity as a mother, Mandel tried to tweet out her own definition of the term:
A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.
This was barely an improvement over her desperate stumbling and babbling the day before. It was one undefined pejorative word replaced by a string of equally undefined and incoherent pejoratives: If wokeness is a radical belief system, why is it only "suggesting" its critique of institutions? Which institutions? What kind of discrimination? Which disparities? What would Mandel say produces those disparities? Is the "radical redefinition" different from the "radical belief system"? What about people who want to see equality enforced by means other than angry mobs?
The closer you come to answering those questions, the less self-evident the case against "wokeness" becomes. The speed-talking human right-wing content mill Ben Shapiro tried, like Chait, to bail out Mandel, offering his definition of the term:
1. Western civilization and its institutions were and are discriminatory, and serve the purposes of those in power (typically, white straight men);
2. That discrimination is both historic and ongoing, and all group disparities are explained by it.
Aside from a few question-loading moves, like wrapping all of Western civilization into the complaint, that wasn't bad. Institutions were and are discriminatory, and serve the purposes of those in power, who were, typically, straight white men? Sure, correct, that's what institutions do. Discrimination is both historic and ongoing? Sounds right. If not, when did it go away?
As for the part about "all group disparities"—nice try with the "all," but, again, as with Mandel: which group disparities do you have other explanations for? And what would those explanations be, exactly?
The trouble facing people like Mandel and Shapiro is that when they stop saying "woke" and start trying to say what it is, a lot of the things that they want to stuff into the bag are things people tend to approve of or agree with. If "woke" is used to mean addressing discrimination, or casting nonwhite actors as hobbits or elves, or letting schoolchildren read books about famous Black people, then things start looking rocky for the antiwoke movement.
Last week, the not-exactly-radical pollsters at USA Today looked into how the public is reacting to the efforts:
a new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds a majority of Americans are inclined to see the word as a positive attribute, not a negative one.
Fifty-six percent of those surveyed say the term means "to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices." That includes not only three-fourths of Democrats but also more than a third of Republicans.
One-third of Republicans, it seems, may have a better grasp on the discourse than Jonathan Chait—who, after reading Mandel's flailing follow-up attempt at defining the term, praised her for providing substance. "Are progressives going to like this definition?" he tweeted. "No. I'd suggest arguing with her ideas instead of pretending she's a complete moron who doesn't know what the word means."
But her idea is that she can put the word "woke" over without having any stable meaning behind it. Laughing at her failure was all the argument anyone needed.
New York City, March 14, 2023
★ The total darkness outside made it seem as if there'd been a mistake with the clocks and everyone had risen at 3 or 4 a.m. Feeble sunrise brightened things to a dim gray-blue, revealing that the changeover to snow still hadn't happened. In another hour or so, there were finally flakes drifting down and then swirling. More than a dozen mourning doves huddled up on the branches out back. The first of the snow went away and midday got brighter, and then the flakes were back, fine and abundant and blowing at a sharp angle. In midafternoon they were fluffy and thick, clinging immediately to exposed cotton knit and flannel, but still unable to stick to anything in the landscape. A child in a full snowsuit stood at the curb in seeming uncertainty, and then one of their accompanying adults gripped the lower back of the suit and carried the child across the street luggagewise, near parallel to the ground and uncomplaining. Two small children in charter-school khakis and big camouflage tactical backpacks broke into a run, their Nikes slapping on the wet pavement. On the way out of the subway, the wind was carrying the flakes down around the bend in the stairs, where they stood no more chance of accumulating than they did out on the street.
EASY LISTENING DEP’T.
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SANDWICH RECIPE DEP’T.
WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of select sandwiches from Conservation Recipes, compiled by the Mobilized Women’s Organizations of Berkeley, Berkeley Unit, Council of Defense Woman’s Committee, Berkeley, CA, published in 1918, found in the public domain and available at archive.org for the delectation of all.
Mrs. R. H. Wetmore, Editor.
THE FOLLOWING RECIPES have been somewhat changed from their original form, to comply with the latest rulings of the Food Administration. During the wheat shortage it is not desirable to encourage the making of sandwiches at all. To meet certain imperative needs such as school lunches, use the fillings suggested below on non-wheat breads, crackers, wafers, muffins and biscuits.
When the restriction on wheat is lifted it will be a simple matter to reinstate bread in all the lists of ingredients.
Hard boiled eggs.
Chop hard boiled eggs fine, marinate with a few drops of vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Then mix with mayonnaise and spread.
—Mrs. W. E. Leland.
NUT AND RAISIN FILLING
To each cupful of finely chopped nuts and raisins add a few drops of orange juice. Spread bread with honey, then with mixture.
—Mrs. W. E. Leland.
NUT AND CHEESE FILLING
1 cream cheese.
1/2 cup pecan meats.
Rub cheese to a paste and add olives and nuts, finely chopped. Spread thin slices of war bread with chive butter, and an equal number of slices with cheese mixture. Put them together.
If you decide to prepare and enjoy a sandwich inspired by these offerings, kindly send a picture to us at email@example.com.
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"So much centrist scolding depends on this routine! Take the specific thing that people are criticizing, remove enough of the particulars to turn it into an abstract proposition, then defend that abstract proposition in pious general terms."
Yes, and not just Serious Civil Centrists, though they are conspicuous offenders; it's one of the first lessons you learn in Debate Team on how to defend the indefensible in any context. Somebody stabbed somebody twenty times? "Why is there such reflexive outrage over vigorous arm motion? Are we as a society really going to..." etc.
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