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Woke

November 18, 2019 - 18:01 -- Admin

The use of “woke” as a term of abuse by rightwingers has expanded rapidly in the recent past. A typical example is Deputy PM McCormack’s claim (rapidly refuted by fire chiefs) that the supposed relationship between climate change and the bushfire disaster arose from “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never seen anyone in Australia describe themselves as “woke”. That’s not surprising: the term comes from the US and refers to changed consciousness of the structures of racial oppression there, and specifically to the position of black Americans. Being “woke” refers to things like the gaining of a new understanding the way blacks are portrayed in the media.

While Australia has plenty of problems with racism, particularly in relation to indigenous Australians, there hasn’t been any real transformation of consciousness here, or at least, anything sufficient to be announced as an awakening. So, the pejorative use of “woke” is yet another example of the dependence of the Australian right on culture war tropes imported from the US.

The same is true, by the way, of “political correctness”. The term was initially used ironically within the US left of people who were more concerned with taking the “correct line” than with effective action. It was then appropriated by the right to become the catchphrase we all know. In the Australian context, the term “ideologically sound” was used within the left, in just the same way as “politically correct”, but our local rightwingers never picked it up.

A second striking observation is that, having no real referent in Australia, “woke” is being used as an all purpose pejorative for anything the right doesn’t like. There’s nothing “woke” about being worried about climate change – the entire scientific community has been shouting about it for decades.

The extreme case, so far, is Janet Albrechtsen in the Oz (no link), using the term to describe veteran corporate gadfly Stephen Mayne, also notable as the founder of Crikey and previously an advisor to Jeff Kennett. Mayne certainly makes trouble for the cosy network of the Australian corporate elite, but describing shareholder activism* as “woke” stretches the term beyond any possible limit. In the current case, he is campaigning for more independent directors, while Albrechtsen (in a very confused piece) plays the gender card against him,

  • To be clear, I’m not referring to the kind of activism done by groups like Market Forces, pushing for divestment from fossil fuels. Mayne’s typically complaint is that boards aren’t capitalist enough preferring a comfortable life to their fiduciary obligation to maximize shareholder value.