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Opinion Wake up to these ‘woke’ distortions

People meet up outside a Loudoun County Public Schools board meeting in Ashburn, Va., on Oct. 12. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP)

The word “woke” once meant something, kind of. But now it’s just an empty, all-purpose insult hurled by conservative propagandists, anti-vaccine fabulists, lazy journalists and people who don’t want to know our history. Give it a rest, folks.

Republicans accuse Democrats of being woke, trying to make the word into a synonym for un-American and implying some imaginary threat to Whites posed by African Americans and other people of color. Elite commentators pile on in laughable attempts to establish their purported anti-elite or populist credentials. Those who acknowledge this nation’s history of racism are accused of wokeness by others who seek to ignore uncomfortable, incontrovertible facts.

It’s all a scam whose fraudulent nature was made apparent by Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of all people, who was revealed last week to have refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus — and to have blatantly lied about it. Rather than take responsibility for his words and deeds, Rodgers claimed to be “in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now” and said he was speaking out — still not quite truthfully — before the “final nail gets put in my cancel-culture casket.”

Cramming both “woke mob” and “cancel culture” into the same sentence gets him bonus points, I suppose, in the “I’m the real victim here” sweepstakes.

Sally Jenkins: Aaron Rodgers is entitled to stay unvaccinated. He's not entitled to lie about it.

Among those who have raked Rodgers over the coals is Fox Sports commentator and National Football League legend Terry Bradshaw, who presents himself to millions of viewers each week as one of the goodest good ol’ boys on the face of the Earth. If Bradshaw is woke, so is everybody else.

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Like so many new coinages that spread throughout the culture, the whole “woke” thing began in the African American community. It was, obviously, a variation on “awake,” but the term’s definition was always a bit fuzzy. It meant being alert to social injustice and racism. It also came to mean being knowledgeable about U.S. history and the role that slavery, Jim Crow repression and systemic discrimination have played over the centuries. But being woke could also mean simply being aware of what was happening at any given moment in our politics and our culture.

What’s wrong with any of that? To “stay woke” was to stay involved with issues of public concern. It meant being an active citizen and insisting that one’s voice be heard. In its original sense, or senses, wokeness was clearly a good thing.

As happens with many neologisms, “woke” peaked and waned. It served its consciousness-raising purpose and then began to fade away. These days, I never hear Black people, progressives, Democrats, LGBTQ Americans or any other constituencies of the supposed “woke mob” use the word. I mean never.

The political right uses it, though — disingenuously and as a weapon. Republicans wield it as a bludgeon against Democrats in general and progressives in particular.

Since the policies that President Biden and his allies in Congress are enacting are generally popular, they are hard to attack head-on. So Republicans skirt the specifics and instead accuse Democrats of wokeness, hoping the word’s origins and connotations will inflame the GOP base and the suburban independents who voted last year to put Biden in the White House.

Conservatives and the far-right media echo chamber also use the word in their attempts to make gender pronouns into a pitched battle in the culture war. I was raised to believe it’s only polite to call people what they prefer to be called — she/her, they/them, whatever. To the right, though, respecting how people wish to be addressed is “woke,” and therefore not only somehow wrong but also somehow threatening.

What drives me crazy is that journalists who should know better have begun using wokeness as shorthand without even examining, let alone challenging, the right-wing narrative. Commentators have posited that wokeness in the Virginia public schools gave Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin his narrow victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe — without bothering to note that what is being taught is not critical race theory but simply truthful American history, the good along with the bad. If there’s something wrong with learning our history, we’re in serious trouble.

Maybe Rodgers did us all a favor with his transparent and comical attempt to hide his mendacity — and his betrayal of his teammates, who had to play without him Sunday and lost — behind the imaginary menace of a “woke mob.” Maybe more people will see that wokeness is being used as a smokescreen to hide dishonesty, imprecision and lazy thinking.

The next time someone accuses someone else of being woke, ask them to spell out exactly what they mean. You’ll have to wait a while for an answer.