Resolute Square

Be Neither “Woke” Nor Asleep. Be Awake

Supporters of democracy have an opportunity to reject both extremes
Published:November 2, 2023

Robert S. McElvaine

I have long identified myself as “Awake, not ‘Woke.’” Democrats and all supporters of democracy, freedom, and equality should do the same. The outrageous positions supporting the utterly depraved terrorist attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians taken by some “Woke” students and others, which has quickly metastasized into hate-filled antisemitism and threats of violence against Jewish people provides an opportunity to draw that line.

On Monday, President Biden took an important step toward doing so, announcing several actions across various government departments to deal with the alarming increase over the past few weeks in antisemitic incidents on college campuses.

Seeing the world in binaries—simplistic dichotomies—has been the source of innumerable horrors throughout history. That is the way both the “woke” and the “anti-woke” see the world, and, as the former correctly say in another context, it is time for us to move beyond the binary.
The truly obscene statements by a some “woke” students must be condemned by all decent human beings. By forcefully doing so, Democrats and other believers in democracy can separate themselves from the stupidity identified with the term “woke” and at the same time show that the rightwing extremists currently dominating the Republican party are the ones who countenance terrorist acts.

A few examples:

  • A statement issued by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine praised Hamas for “launching a historic attack on the colonizers” and refers to the brutal murderers “paragliding into occupied territory” to slaughter innocent people as showing “the creativity necessary to take back stolen land.”

  • A Chicago Art Institute professor posted, ““Israelis are pigs. Savages. Very very bad people. Irredeemable excrement…. May they all rot in hell.” (She later apologized.)

  • At Cornell University over this past weekend, unfathomable posts were made in online forum, threatening to rape female Jewish students and behead Jewish babies in front of their parents, calling for following Jewish students home from campus to slit their throats, and threatening to “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews [sic].”

A Cornell student has been arrested by the FBI and has admitted to writing these despicable posts.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means what Hitler and the Nazis called Judenrein, “ridded of Jews.” It means extermination, as of vermin, viruses, or bacteria. There would be no freedom whatsoever for Palestinian people or anyone else if such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah took power in Israel. There would be no democracy, women’s rights would be severely curtailed, abortion would be banned, LGBTQ+ people would be subject to being killed, books would be banned and burned. It would be what the MAGA movement wants in America on steroids—what Ron DeSantis envisions for Florida, only vastly worse.

This poster unintentionally suggests what being "free" would mean in Palestine with Hamas in control.

Political Scientist Charles Lipson outlined the insane alliance that has developed between the self-styled “social justice warriors” and Muslim extremists, groups that agree on nothing except their opposition to the West and Israel, in a recent insightful piece on Real Clear Politics.
The authoritarian right has utilized the undeniable excesses of some of those who say they are “woke” to discredit being awake to the world of fact. Changing what people believe about the past and present is essential to the project of authoritarians. That entails putting citizens to sleep.

They seize on a ridiculous slogan such as “Defund the Police,” chanted by a few of the self-styled “woke” to charge that Democrats are opposed to protecting people. In the world of fact, almost no Democratic officeholder ever supported the idea of defunding the police. 
In the world of fact, many of the extremists on the right—who, unlike the relationship of those on the woke left to the Democratic party, actually do dominate the current Republican party—support reprehensible actions.

After the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, including children in a daycare center, rightwing Sen. Josh Hawley (R, MO), then 15 years old, wrote a column in his hometown newspaper arguing against calling the “militia” members who carried out the heinous crime domestic terrorists. Hawley and many other Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and newly chosen House Speaker Mike Johnson (R, LA), similarly defend the thugs who invaded the United States Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the Republic on January 6, 2021.

That horrific event and the conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election of which it was a part are among the portions of history about which the “anti-woke” forces have succeeded in putting millions of Americans to sleep. 

In a brilliant essay in the wake of the abhorrent Hamas attack, Ori Hanan Weisberg succinctly stated what all humans need to understand:
“One cannot seek justice for peoples if one isn’t seeking justice for people.”

As Heather Cox Richardson says of Americans in the 1850s at the end of her new book, Democracy Awakening, “after decades in which they had not noticed what the powerful were doing to destroy democracy, Americans had woken up. They realized that the very nature of America was under attack. ... Once awake, they found the strength of their majority.”

If we will reject both “woke” extremism and the attempts by rightwing extremists to put us all to sleep, Americans in the 2020s can again find the strength of our majority and come out of the latest chapter in our Forever Civil War over whether a diverse nation based on the ideals of the equality of people and rule by the people set forth in 1776 can long endure.