Woke or Canceling the Culture

By: Vince DeSanctis

The terms "woke" and "cancel culture" have received prominence in Republican attacks upon Democrats, and these terms are being invoked as part of a Republican effort to justify retaining an image of America as a nearly flawless nation. Challenging attempts at exposing American history, warts and all, may have produced a citizenry more responsive to entreaties to "Make America Great Again," but choosing to ignore questionable past practices taints our self-worth.

Republicans have been applying the word "woke" to individuals who have expressed an interest in how race has played a part in American history. They could simply appreciate a more complete and honest depiction of our history, but the word is being used pejoratively to ridicule anyone who uncovers negative traits of historic figures - or is distressed over the deaths of African-Americans from police actions, or is critical of maintaining statues that directly or indirectly honor a history of slavery.

"Cancel Culture" is another term being used by the GOP to suggest that liberals have a desire to erase the achievements of American heroes. They resent attempts to expose aspects of the past that cast doubts upon those who proceeded us. They argue that we do not need reminders that many of our founders owned slaves, or that Americans once engaged in efforts to destroy native American cultures, or that our government’s immigration policy once excluded nonwhites and anyone who was not northern European or a practitioner of a protestant faith.

These critics generally oppose seeking any information that would broaden the narrative of American history to more accurately reflect the roles of nonwhites - African slaves, native Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics. As this is being written, efforts are currently underway in Texas and Florida to prevent the introduction into school curriculums of what is called critical race theory, i.e. sound scholarly investigations of white-nonwhite interactions in our nation’s history.

These critics insist that we don't want to be “woke” to what may have happened. We would rather leave unchallenged the narrative of America as it has been shared over hundreds of years. Applying today's values and standards to historic circumstances is not a good idea, they assert, because slavery introduced into the colonies was simply an extension of what was normal. Slaves were a natural occurrence from biblical times to colonization in the Western Hemisphere, and overwhelming native Americans was simply western culture demonstrating its rightful dominance over indigenous people. Claims of American exceptionalism are diminished, though, if we are unwilling to acknowledge our past.

Land taken from Mexico was justified because they attacked us in Texas. Native Americans did not own the land they occupied, therefore it was available for the taking. Asians, particularly Chinese and Japanese, did not share western values and a belief in a Christian God, and therefore should be denied citizenship. Acknowledging our past is not a handicap, but not challenging these narratives truly is evidence of a “cancel culture.”

Ignoring or criticizing people of color and their roles in our history impacts our lives today. How could so many Americans not know about the Tulsa massacre of 1921 before it became a major story in our media? It took the movie "The Codebreakers" to inform many Americans of the role of native Americans in World War II, and most Americans know about the heroic exploits of Audie Murphy because of a movie. Fewer might remember a movie about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated such unit in WW II composed almost exclusively of second-generation Japanese Americans. Few of us are aware that slaves were used to build the US Capitol. And how many know that President Woodrow Wilson deliberately separated blacks and whites who worked for the federal government? Or that he had expressed enthusiasm for the depiction of the Confederacy as a "Lost Cause" (although the Confederate Constitution banned making slavery illegal). A Confederacy as a "Lost Cause" (although the Confederate Constitution banned making slavery illegal). And what of the role of the Ku Klux Klan after a White House screening of the movie "The Birth of a Nation"? It took the movie "Hidden Figures" to inform Americans about the role of African American women performing complex mathematical work for NASA during the 1960s.

Is knowing about the contributions of this small sample of nonwhites playing exemplary roles in our history being "woke?" Efforts to know our history are not attempts to "cancel culture." Rather they are efforts to seek and discover the role of all Americans in shaping our nation. Cultural stereotypes may simply need to be exposed and understood if we are to make progress.

Have our opinions of some famous Americans changed because of an increased awareness of their lives? Perhaps, but as a result we are also better informed about the dilemmas confronting slave owners such as Jefferson, Madison and Washington as our culture evolved. Have opinions of Columbus, Jackson and Wilson been modified by greater knowledge of how they treated nonwhites? Possibly, but we are better informed citizens.

Were many Marylanders shocked to discover our state song’s allusions to President Lincoln as a despot and supporters of the Union as the "Northern scum?” If this is being “woke,” so be it; but our culture wasn't cancelled. Denying our history would be essential only in order to preserve the false narrative that we are and will remain a white Christian country, and that only whites should be credited with making this nation great.

The election of Barack Obama in 2009 was a threat to this narrative. We were advised that he was a Muslim, although he was a practicing Christian. We were told that he espoused an anti-American worldview because his father was Kenyan, that he was not born in the United States, and that he was not a citizen. An outraged white supremacist wasn’t likely alone in this conclusion: “I can't accept a black man as my President.”

It is ironic that those who are claiming that liberals want to cancel our culture are in fact the ones canceling whatever doesn't fit into their narrative. Not being aware of our history prevents us from fully understanding how these efforts threaten our democracy, and restricting access to voting when voter fraud is a rare occurrence amounts to little more a revival of the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws that made voting by blacks almost non-existent for nearly a century.

Anyone whose sense of self-worth or ability to hold onto power is premised upon dominance over nonwhites is saying that we must re-impose controls restricting the power of those not like us. Cancelling is the Republican strategy of choice.



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