The Walking Woken

by Victor David Sandiego | Published: Nov 10, 2022

Allow me to state up front that I’m not an expert on the culture wars. I’m not a specialist on what separates one faction from another in the ongoing conversation about who’s more aggrieved and why you should care, or what underrepresented group is more underrepresented than another underrepresented group. Therefore, if I stray from the dictates of what constitutes the so-called woken culture (formerly known as the PC police), please remember that my credentials consist merely of common sense and many years on the planet.

Using simple observation, I have seen more and more how people get upset, even infuriated, over smaller things, as if larger, more important issues that affect entire peoples and the planet itself are too big to take on. It seems that many people believe they must be offended at something. An off color joke. A piece of clothing. A small moment of indiscretion. Even an observation such as a black person isn’t white. For too many, outrage is a requirement these days.

Sometimes I just shake my head. With all the purity tests exacted and all the indignation over everything considered outrageable these days – which is most things – I often wonder how anything gets done.

Looking At Past Deeds

An often overlooked aspect of appraising a person’s past behavior is that other eras require other lenses, and other ways of understanding norms and behavior. Frequently those pilloried by the modern day so-called woken aren’t alive to defend themselves. And yet, off go their figurative heads to the chopping block for failing to foretell the future and understand how society would change and progress.

Others are still alive and are harshly condemned for something they did in their youth three decades ago. Of course, it depends on what they did, no argument there, but let’s not conflate a young Ralph Northam in blackface, showing contrition and working for equality today to the sneering, belligerent, and unrepentant Brett Kavenaugh, whose history of sexual assault was credibly presented. They are not the same.

People are frequently a product of their times and their society. Yes, some things are not excusable, but too many want to treat each offense with equal wattage, as if their outrage scale only goes from 99 to 100. They refuse to consider other factors such as the cultural norms at the time, and (if the person is still living) whether they have learned and grown. We’ve probably all done stupid things as a kid or a young adult, but that should not be the yardstick by which we measure a person’s entire life. When I was young I drank, got in street fights, got arrested. Am I forever condemned? Not by my measure, for I am not the same today.

The Uncomfortable Past

In San Francisco last year, the school board voted to cover several murals (with paint or panels, the murals can’t be moved) of George Washington because they depict the United State’s first president in the context of black slaves and vanquished Native Americans. The murals were painted in 1936 by artist George Arnautoff who didn’t attempt to glorify Washington with fairy tales of cherry trees, but rather accurately acknowledge his role as slave owner and the leader of a nation that exterminated most of the native population. Artists are critics of society, said Arnautoff at the time of his commission. It’s racist history and disturbing, said the walking woken at the school district’s meetings last year.

Yes, it is disturbing. No doubt. The United States has a disturbing, racist history. But painting over art work that depicts an uncomfortable truth doesn’t make the truth go away. For better or worse, history is what it is. We can study it, learn from it, vow to do better than our ancestors. To destroy art and to shield ourselves from the uncomfortable past only accentuates our weakness, emphasizes our inability to accept difficult truths, and makes it more difficult to advance. To grow, we must be willing to recognize our mistakes. To recognize our mistakes, we must be willing to look honestly at our past. Yes, we did this. It wasn’t right. Now let’s do better.

We have problems. Now. Drinking water problems, health problems, climate problems, corruption, poverty, war, an epidemic of gun violence, the rise of authoritarianism. The petty anger over something stupid a celebrity did thirty years ago or the fact that George Washington had slaves when he lived in a time of slavery are pointless and only consume energy that could be used to better purpose.

Literary Guardians of the Politically Correct

Unfortunately, the literary world, a world I’ve often thought of as a stalwart defender of common sense and artistic merit, is not immune to the siren call of the so-called woke culture. In some sectors of the literary world, author identity and ensuring cultural diversity has become more important than the art itself. Inclusiveness is great. I applaud it, encourage it, welcome it. But not for its own sake.

Poets may remember an episode from 2015 when Sherman Alexie selected a certain poem for inclusion in The Best American Poetry for that year. It was written by Michael Derrick Hudson who submitted the piece under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou. After the selection, Hudson revealed himself to Alexie who in turn wrote:

I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet's identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.

I’m no fan of Alexie, who built his career exploiting the ability of his Native American heritage to provoke genocidal guilt among the literary guardians, but I do admire his honesty. He said aloud what others frequently only whisper, or deny outright. Identity opens the door. It may not keep the door open – he did also say he truly enjoyed the poem and therefore was also looking at its artistic merits – but his admission that the perceived identity of the author caused him to be more amendable to the piece speaks volumes.

Please Read The Submission Guidelines

The [literary magazine name] will not read work that is ableist, misogynistic, queer-phobic, or racist.

Really? Here’s a real life example (copied verbatim from a large literary publication) of a perfectly useless piece of information that appears with more and more frequency. It’s not there to actually dissuade authors from submitting inappropriate work; it’s there to announce to the world that the magazine has jumped onto the correct bandwagon lest anybody think they aren’t sufficiently virtuous in their literary dealings.

Do they really need to announce that they don’t accept hateful material? Apparently, and absurdly, they feel the answer is yes. It’s gotten to the point where people feel the need to not only express what they stand for, but that which they don’t stand for as well, as if we don’t know that the opposite of love is hate. A quick read of the magazine will tell any thinking person what type of material they publish. Plus, we’re talking about literary magazines, not Stormfront. With their announcement of the obvious, they also announce that they consider their potential authors too stupid to realize the magazine doesn’t accept Mein Kampf fan fiction.

Also, in doing so, as in the above quote, they don’t even realize the preposterousness of what they are saying. They won’t read work that is ableist, misogynistic, queer-phobic, or racist, yet they fail to explain how in the hell they’re going to know whether it’s any of those things without reading it. But again, they don’t need to because their announcement is only present to prove that they’re swimming in an approved cultural current.

Social Maniacal Media

Of course, much of the cultural war fallout wouldn’t be possible without social media to help spread it far and fast. A broad cross section of Twitter has converted into a stomping ground where the careers of insufficiently sensitive (aka human) celebrities, as well as regular people, are ruined for what may have been a one-off impulsive or reckless action.

Danny Baker tweeted a joke about Prince Harry and Meghan's new child. Social media retweet outrage ensued. Fired.

Kenneth Storey tweeted that Hurricane Harvey was “instant karma” for Texas voting Republican. This could be plunked right into the lame joke category and forgotten, but no. Only safe jokes allowed. Social media retweet outrage ensued. Fired.

Christian pastor Russell Berger tweeted that he thought celebrating gay pride was a sin. I have no time for religious bigots, but he didn’t incite violence, only expressed his views. Plus freedom of speech and all that. No. Social media retweet outrage ensued. Fired.

By the way, notice how I preemptively wrote that I’m not in favor of religious bigotry. These days, if one expresses a single iota of support for a controversial figure such as said pastor, many people immediately assume you support his entire agenda. Nuance is lost on the all-or-nothing crowd. Outrage is not only ready to spring into action for what you say, but for what you don’t say, too.

Machine Needs Fuel

The outrage machine is like a junkie running all over town looking for a fix. It doesn’t care about quality; it just needs something on which to get fired up. Overblown outrage pounces on each minor miscalculation or misstep, each perceived slight, as if all were equally egregious.

They’re not.

Some things are horrible and need to be called out. Racism. Rape. Sexual perverts. Neo Nazis. Other things are merely bad taste or momentary bad judgment. Can we not at times forgive and forget?

I Hope So

Although hypersensitivity seems to be baked into the collective psyche these days, we can do better. After all, we are rational and compassionate human beings, capable of distinguishing between that which is dangerously wrong and extreme – and that which is merely uncomfortable or unorthodox.

I advocate that we let small, inconsequential offenses go, that we direct our collective outrage at greater issues, ones that affect society and humanity as a whole. It may be satisfying to know that you can contribute to a shaming or an ousting, thereby affirming that you have some power in what can be seen as a world of powerlessness, but many of these modern day purification rituals are ultimately unproductive. Society, the arts, and real diversity are better served by tolerance, and by forgiveness, not blind adherence to new wokism dogma.

Skip this part

One last example, this time of a sort of perverse reverso case of alternate wokism (although it wasn’t know by this name at the time.) Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was denounced and his endorsements lost because he dared to ask “What kind of person celebrates death?” when people took to the American streets cheering after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Wild. I asked myself the same thing at the time, as I’m sure did many others. Doesn’t mean we’re terrorists or side with terrorists, just means we don’t celebrate death.

But so sorry, we say with this kind of reaction. You must always sail in the direction of the prevailing winds.

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