Why the right is so terrified of "woke": There are truths it just can't face

Conservatives didn't want to hear about white privilege. So they abandoned reality and joined the orange man's cult

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published June 25, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis addresses attendees on day one of the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis addresses attendees on day one of the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Long ago and far away in a country where we all seemed to believe in roughly the same reality, many people in a political party that traditionally talked up law and order and guffawed that liberals needed to put on their "big-boy pants" to face the harsh facts of the world lost their minds. How did this happen? Well, they were reminded that there was such a thing as white privilege. They had forgotten about it, possibly on purpose.

They were told that, yes, white privilege is a thing, and it's pretty obvious. They fumed and feigned outrage at this accurate report on the state of the real world until they convinced themselves that it was a huge lie and an outrage. Coached by their favorite enablers in the media, they worked themselves up into an emotional lather until they could act their parts somewhat convincingly, even with all the unrealistic lines. Think of the Stanislavsky Method in acting, except this was the Limbaugh Method of acting out.

Of course it wasn't just about white privilege; that's just the most obvious aspect of the advantages that individuals or groups enjoy (or do not enjoy) in our society, without having to show any particular merit. When the renewed discussion of privilege was extended to male privilege, white men — incongruously led by an obese man-boy in orange makeup sporting a spun-sugar combover — embarked on their White Men's Campaign of Endless Grievances.

So many things in our society can be understood by thinking back to high school. Think of nearly any Hollywood film about suburban teenagers, in which the good-looking spoiled brats of the country-club set get their comeuppance in the third act after reveling in all sorts of bad behavior. These days, roughly a third of the country seems to be rooting for the obvious villains in a new version of that story, now unfolding in our troubled democracy. It could be called "White Men Whining III: The Retribution," but honestly we've already been gifted the best possible title: "Florida: Where Woke Goes to Die."

Joking aside, the privileges afforded by stereotypical or conventional "good looks" are undeniable. Like all other forms of privilege, they provide people with entrée, a form of soft power that can corrupt one's thinking pretty quickly. Handsome boys and beautiful girls often age into vapid adults as a result of this privilege; they never had to put any effort into being accepted. (Read W.B. Yeats' "A Prayer for My Daughter." He knew all about this.) White men may not be able to jump — according to stereotype, of course — but they are well positioned to fail their way up corporate and political ladders, often all the way to the top for the ones who are tall and blandly handsome and sport Ivy League degrees. 

The fight against "woke" (a term with a longer history than most of us may realize) is strikingly similar to the fight the right previously waged against "political correctness": It's an existential battle against allowing people to be awakened — by reading novels and history, by attending plays, by watching and listening to actual news — through open discussion of privilege or systemic racism or, to use a different but related term, the underlying and nearly invisible structures of caste in America. It is a fight to stop people from talking about those social structures, or about the combination of religious zealotry and political ideology at work to foreclose women's bodily autonomy. It's a fight to prevent young people from expressing their sexual and gender preferences, to make it more difficult for certain groups of citizens to vote, and to keep books that might make the most hypocritical and closed-minded evangelical Christian pastors uncomfortable off the shelves of public schools and libraries.

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As with the freakout over the very suggestion that the category known as "white" comes with unacknowledged privilege, the cultural battle against "woke" strikes many combatants as an existential struggle. By the rules of the age-old game of race and caste and class privilege, they cannot allow themselves to entertain the thought that the advocates of "woke" might have a point. James Baldwin illustrates this predicament in his "Letter From a Region in My Mind," writing that "even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true."

Writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry addresses this from the other side in "The Hidden Wound." his memoir of the time he spent in childhood on his grandfather's farm in northern Kentucky during the Jim Crow era. His title refers to his awareness that America had a hidden wound, the recent history of slavery, and that white Americans had a corresponding "mirror wound":

This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it. 

Berry no doubt recognizes the fight against "woke." It is a desperate attempt not to acknowledge the hidden wound.

The founders of our nation worried about the rise of a new American elite, not what Thomas Jefferson felt was a natural aristocracy based on virtue and genius but what he called a "tinsel-aristocracy" of wealth and beauty and fortunate birth. John Adams most feared the rise of an oligarchy, an elite of property-owning families who would seize control of politics. They had good reason, from their reading of history, to fear such outcomes.

In his book "American Dialogue: The Founders and Us," Joseph J. Ellis writes of the late-life letters between Jefferson and Adams and what would turn out to be their final exchange, about the issue of actual or potential human equality. Adams wrote that the rise of an aristocratic elite was inevitable: 

The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed thro' all time. Whether the power of the people, or that of the aristoi should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions…. To me it appears that there have been party differences from the first establishment of governments, to the present day…. Everyone takes his side in favor of the many or the few. 

Bolstering his argument, Adams pointed to the five "pillars of aristocracy" that philosophers had known from antiquity: beauty, wealth, birth, genius and virtue. Any combination of the first three elements, he wrote, would overwhelm the last two. 

We now live in exactly the country Jefferson and Adams feared — a nominal democracy in which proportional representation has been gamed to death, where politicians are purchased (or at least legally bribed) through "donations" from corporations and billionaires, and where we increasingly find ourselves ruled by an unnatural and unworthy aristocracy, many of whom not only lack any discernible virtue but gleefully represent negative virtues. 

Donald Trump used his wealth and birthright (he was a millionaire by age 8) to play-act as a successful businessman and skirt the law time and again. He desperately wanted us to believe he was the master of "The Art of the Deal" when his only true art has been in grifting his fans and followers and in obstructing justice with endless lawsuits and whiny claims of persecution. Thanks to the laziness engendered by his wholly undeserved privilege, he has failed many times as a businessman and, mercifully, failed to overturn the 2020 election. Elon Musk had the right combination of interlocked wealth and birth, and his only "genius" lies in taking credit for the engineering work of others. We now know much more than we ever wanted to about his utter lack of virtue. 

The political aristocracy is eager to point at its ideological enemies, calling them the "woke" elite. Most of us know who the real elites are, even if they affect a drawl and try to bro-up with working-class voters.

If Ron DeSantis is elected next year, he would become our second youngest president, after John F. Kennedy. While JFK, largely at his wife's request, ushered in a brief, shining period when art and culture were showcased at the White House, DeSantis and his wife, Casey (who appears to model herself on Jackie Kennedy), would gleefully defund all art that does not conform to "patriotic" propaganda purposes. 

These days the actual political aristocracy — or at least their well-paid minions in Congress — are always eager to point at their ideological enemies, calling them the "woke" cultural elite. But most of us can see who the truly powerful elites are: upper-caste white men from Ivy League schools, even (or especially) if they affect a drawl, raise a fist in solidarity with insurrection, comically ride a Harley or otherwise try to bro-up with the working-class voters they hold in obvious contempt.

As Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson wrote in her 2020 bestseller "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent," people like Trump and DeSantis and, well, like me, benefit from "the universal response to hierarchy — in the case of an upper-caste person, an inescapable certitude in bearing, demeanor, behavior, a visible expectation of centrality." Those kinds of hierarchies, especially in Black-and-white America, have always existed among and within all groups, including immigrants.

Speaking of "a visible expectation of centrality," remember this?

In the centuries since the notion of "whiteness" was created, poor and working-class white men and women learned the importance of rejecting the truth about white privilege. Wilkerson quotes Yale scholar Liston Pope in 1942, writing: "The mill worker with nobody else to 'look down on,' regards himself as eminently superior to the Negro." Or as Lyndon Johnson famously remarked to Bill Moyers, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

Donald Trump has treated that sentence as scripture. Trump is an example of white male privilege taken to its most shameless extreme. He has such an exaggerated sense of his right to do and say absolutely anything, absorbed over a lifetime of unquestioned privilege, that he'd be happy to see his cult followers burn the country to the ground rather than take any responsibility for his own actions. 

Did you notice my reluctance to say that I am also part of the upper-caste group? I wrote that "well" before "like me" — and there it is, an example of Berry's mirror wound and Wilkerson's rules of the road for high-caste Americans, even in a person who considers himself a progressive. No one wants to admit privilege, especially if we feel it may have been squandered. But the fight to confront and admit such truths, whether or not that's what "woke" means, is a fight not just to live up to the best possibilities of America, but to become more fully human.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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