“Republicans,” author John Blake wrote in a CNN column, “are masters of verbal jiu-jitsu. It’s a form of linguistic combat in which the practitioner takes a political phrase or concept popularized by their opponent and gradually turns it into an unusable slur.”
But their “verbal jiu-jitsu” provides cover for reluctance or inability to articulate an agenda offering, for example, solutions to the problems which the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few has created in the United States and globally. In the U.S., the richest 10 percent own more than 70 percent of the country’s assets, according to writer Astra Taylor.
“Since 2020, the richest one percent has captured nearly two-thirds of all new wealth globally — almost twice as much money as the rest of the world’s population,” Taylor adds in a forthcoming book, “The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart,” excerpted in The New York Times. “At the beginning of last year, it was estimated that 10 billionaire men possessed six times as much wealth as the poorest three billion people on Earth.”
Instead, the verbal jiu-jitsu warriors have honed in on “woke,” which means the opposite to what the anti-woke forces have given it. This column has previously explained that “woke” is part of African American Vernacular English or “Black English” and has been around at least 100 years. It gained widespread usage after police, in 2014, killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Protesters called on people to “stay woke” – to remain alert to the institutional racism that led to the killing of Brown and many other African American males by agents of the law enforcement apparatus which is seen as enforcing the status quo. The NAACP has pointed out — in a very woke online posting: “The origins of modern-day policing can be traced back to the ‘Slave Patrol’” dating back to the Carolinas in the early 1700s “with one mission: to establish a system of terror and squash slave uprisings with the capacity to pursue, apprehend, and return runaway slaves to their owners. Tactics included the use of excessive force to control and produce desired slave behavior.”
Woke “evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory,” Romano wrote in in 2020. “On the left, to be ‘woke’ means to identify as a staunch social justice advocate who’s abreast of contemporary political concerns — or to be perceived that way, whether or not you ever claimed to be ‘woke’ yourself. … On the right, ‘woke’ — like its cousin ‘canceled’— bespeaks ‘political correctness’ gone awry and the term itself is usually used sarcastically.”
More particularly, right-wing leaders have incorporated “anti-woke” into their election campaigns and governing policies, offering the equivalent of “bread and circuses” which the Roman poet Juvenal warned about in the second century CE. “In a political context,” Wikipedia explains, “the phrase means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy but by diversion, distraction or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace, by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses).” But Juvenal also lamented “the ‘selﬁshness’ of common people and their neglect of wider concerns. The phrase implies a population’s erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority.”
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, described woke as “selfloathing.” Her state’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, an African American, said that supremacy’ is as bad as white supremacy.” Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who, like Haley, has Indian ancestry, launched his current presidential bid with a book titled “Woke Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.” With their backgrounds, they should know better.
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, perhaps the commander-in-chief of the “verbal jiu-jitsu” warriors, mentioned “woke” ﬁve times in 19 seconds in one speech and has likened woke Americans to Nazis. He has built his entire contemporary political persona around that fourletter word as a cadre of far-right activists, colleges and institutions leads him by the hand down a conservative path of divisiveness. He signed into law a “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees” law, a cute name that emphasizes anti-wokeness: “Stop W.O.K.E.” But, asked for a deﬁnition, he told reporters woke is a “form of cultural Marxism” and “basically a war on the truth” and “putting merit and achievement behind identity politics.”
Those self-professed Christians must have read Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” They are by no means angels – though DeSantis has claimed he is wrapped in the mantle of God – and they most decidedly do not display charity, which, in the Biblical sense, is love. Their messages embody hatred for their political enemies. Some have made it possible for even the Bible to be banned from classroom libraries.
However, despite the frontal assault on woke, only 24 percent of national Republican voters said they would back “a candidate who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media and culture,” The Times reported, citing a recent poll. Only 65 percent would prefer “a candidate who focuses on restoring law and order in our streets and at the border.”
Further, many of those to whom the anti-woke message is directed live in dire economic straits, no doubt due to wealth inequality. Wisevoter.com reported that the national poverty rate is 11.7 percent but is much higher in some states: Mississippi (18.70 percent), Louisiana (17.80), New Mexico (16.80), West Virginia (15.80), Arkansas (15.20), District of Columbia (15.0), Alabama (14.90), Kentucky (14.90), Oklahoma (14.3), Georgia (14.0), South Carolina (13.80), Tennessee (13.6), Texas (13.48) and North Carolina (12.9). Florida ranks No. 20, at 12.4 percent.
The message that voters are woke to something else than culture war is evidently sinking in. Miami Herald promptly noted that, during the twohour Republican presidential debate on August 23, “DeSantis didn’t mention the word a single time … abandoning a term that until recently he had peppered into all of his speeches while describing his opposition to it as a foundational aspect of his campaign.” Only Haley dipped a toe in it, saying there are “a lot of crazy, woke things happening in schools.”
But even if the anti-woke campaign is dead, some critics are convinced that its often incendiary rhetoric will leave a legacy of lasting harm. Even as investigators were still probing the killing of three African Americans in Jacksonville on Saturday by a 21-year-old avowedly racist European American man, anti-wokeness was already being blamed.
“I’ve heard some people say that some of the rhetoric that we hear doesn’t really represent what’s in people’s hearts, it’s just the game. It’s just the political game. Those three people who lost their lives, that’s not a game,” Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan said, crying as she spoke during Sunday services at St. Paul AME Church, The Associated Press reported.
“We must be clear, it was not just racially motivated, it was racist violence that has been perpetuated by rhetoric and policies designed to attack Black people, period,” added state Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, also at the services.
Rudolph McKissick, senior pastor of the Bethel Church, declared, “Nobody is having honest, candid conversations about the presence of racism. This divide exists because of the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black people and a governor who is really propelling himself forward through bigoted, racially motivated, misogynistic, xenophobic actions to throw red meat to a Republican base.”
Even if it turns out, as is possible, that there is no link between the latest act of domestic terrorism and the rhetoric of the verbal jiu-jitsu crowd, the murders are a cautionary tale about what can happen when leaders preach race-baiting, however much they try to camouflage it.