The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. and British right ramp up the war on ‘wokeness’

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On both sides of the pond, the “woke” wars are raging. The long tail of the racial justice demonstrations last summer is still winding its way through American and British politics after both countries experienced a societal jolt. Statues of enslavers, imperialists and white supremacists were knocked off their pedestals. The cries in the streets were heard in the political and corporate halls of power, where lip service, at the least, was paid to recognizing legacies of racism and exploitation — and the ways in which those legacies persist to this day. But the backlash is now in full swing.

In the United States and Britain, the right-wing establishments are embracing a doctrine of anti-anti-racism. Grievance over “wokeness” and “cancel culture” — two amorphous terms, with the former now often invoked as a pejorative for overzealous left-wing dogmatism, usually around issues of identity, and the latter as a condemnation of liberal censoriousness and intolerance — is now the coin of the realm on right-wing U.S. media. It’s also driving a slate of Republican legislative initiatives, including bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory in certain public institutions and control the way schools instruct American history.

All of this, at best, is tangential to the real domestic issues shaping the country’s politics, whether that’s President Biden’s statistically popular effort to inject massive stimulus into the economy or his Republican opponents in state legislatures moving to tighten voting laws. But the potency of the culture war is undeniable — and Republicans are directing their outrage toward companies that spoke out or withheld their business from Georgia after the state’s Republican legislature passed a controversial election law.

“Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared earlier this week, no matter that the bulk of his political career, like so many in Washington, has been spent furthering the interests of a clutch of oligarchic billionaires and numerous corporate lobbyists.

“Woke is a nebulous term stolen from Black American English, repurposed by conservatives as an epithet to express opposition to forms of egalitarianism they find ridiculous or distasteful—in this case, the idea that constituents of the rival party should have an unfettered right to vote,” wrote the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. “Wedded to the term capital, it functions as an expression of the hollowness of conservative populism, which is opposed not to the concentration of corporate power so much as to the use of that power for purposes of which conservatives disapprove.”

In Britain, a similar game is afoot. The country’s right-wing tabloids, which routinely rage about the supposed leftist disposition of public institutions, are up in arms over “woke” activists questioning the legacy of figures like Winston Churchill or staining the story of the British Empire with inconvenient — and curiously little-discussed — facts about the depravity of colonial rule.

After losing his job at one of Britain’s most popular morning shows over his incessant attacks on the erstwhile Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, broadcaster Piers Morgan gave his first major interview to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, a leading right-wing proponent of the U.S. culture war.

“So if most people in Britain — and I think you speak for America, too — see what’s going on here, they see that it’s a scam, they see that wokeness is really an effort by the people who are already in charge to gain more power and wealth for themselves — it so clearly is that — why is everyone putting up with it?” Carlson asked.

Morgan responded that it was “terrifying” that “people feel so cowed by the fear of the woke mob that they can’t express an honestly held opinion without being immediately branded a racist.”

But in Britain, it’s the Tories who are in power and, in some instances, weaponizing “anti-woke” sentiment. A cabinet minister in January proposed legislation to protect historic statues from the “baying mob.” In February, it emerged that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was planning legislation that would condition public funding to universities on “free speech” — a reflection of long-standing conservative grievance that also exists in the United States over left-wing orthodoxy on campuses, but an effort, in its own right, to police thought and expression.

Then, last week, a government-commissioned report concluded that there was “no institutional racism” in Britain, buttressing a long-standing talking point of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The study triggered a widespread backlash, with even some experts whose work it cited questioning the commission’s conclusions.

What’s driving this war on “wokeness”? Politics, obviously. “Republicans are trying to recast the removal of [former president Donald] Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter as a narrative of liberal tech companies silencing a prominent conservative, instead of those platforms punishing Trump for using them to incite violence and encourage overturning the election results,” wrote Perry Bacon Jr. for Five Thirty Eight. “If Republicans suppress Democratic votes or try to overturn election results in future elections, as seems entirely possible, the party is likely to justify that behavior in part by suggesting the Democrats are just too extreme and woke to be allowed to control the government.”

“These attempts to breathe new life into suspiciously old fights aren’t merely about telling the Tory base what it wants to hear, or distracting Tory backbenchers restless about the lifting of lockdown, although they usefully serve both purposes,” wrote Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff. “They’re also about trying to dictate the terms on which normal domestic politics might resume, as the pandemic begins to recede.”

That means making life harder for the opposition Labour Party, which is desperately trying to cobble together its ungainly coalition of cosmopolitan, urbane voters in places like London with members of the more traditional working class in other parts of the country, who defected in droves to the Tories in the last election and would be potentially more animated about the “woke” agenda.

During a Thursday webinar, Labour member of Parliament David Lammy said his party can’t shirk calls for racial justice even as it seeks to appeal to the White working class. “We have to act together,” Lammy told Today’s WorldView. “It would be a huge travesty if we vacated the stage and were not making these arguments. It’s not pinning one against the other, but standing together and facing modernity.”

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