In my last year of graduate school, when I was plodding away at my dissertation and, although every day more disillusioned with academia, hadn’t yet decided for sure that I didn’t want to be an English professor after all, I attended the Modern Language Association convention at a Manhattan hotel to interview for a faculty job in Georgia. I met my interviewer in his room. We sat on his bed. It was weird. I felt like a hooker. He told me his area of specialization – I don’t remember what it was. Mine was modernism. He started with a simple query: “What’s modernism, anyway?”
I’d been studying modern literature for years. I’d taught undergraduate classes about modern writers. I’d written papers about them, and even published a few. But when asked to define modernism, I went blank. How to sum up something so vast? I knew so much about it that it felt impossible, at that moment, to boil it down to a few sentences. In later years, writing books on a range of topics, I would give hundreds of hours of interviews, eventually getting to the point where I felt I could almost answer any question in my sleep. But that day I was a greenhorn at interviews, and I was speechless. Eventually I came up with something. It was lame. Looking into my interviewer’s eyes, I knew I wasn’t going to be moving to Georgia.
Forty years and three months after that hotel-room embarrassment, my memory of it came rushing back when I happened upon a YouTube video in which Bethany Mandel – the co-author, with Karol Markowicz, of the new book Stolen Youth: How Radicals are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation – was asked by an interviewer for The Hill to define “woke.” In reply, Mandel choked out: “Woke is …sort of…the idea that…um…[seconds-long pause]…this is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral.”
And indeed the video, originally posted on March 14, did go viral. The woke left had a field day, crowing that this woman who’d written a whole book about wokeness couldn’t define it. They cherished her flub because it fit their narrative to the effect that “woke” is a meaningless label that right-wingers use to mock progressives’ noble values. A writer at the black website The Root sneered: “Within the past two years, conservatives have coveted ‘woke’ as their new buzzword to drive their agenda. Most of those jokers don’t even know what ‘being woke’ even means, which was proven through an interview with conservative columnist Bethany Mandel on The Hill TV’s ‘Rising.’” At a website called The Mary Sue, one Kayla Harrington jeered: “It was incredibly embarrassing for someone who’s made fighting against ‘wokeness’ the centerpiece of their brand, but not surprising to see as so many on the right seem to use ‘woke’ as a vague term for anything left-leaning that they don’t like.” At the Huffington Post, Sara Boboltz explained Mandel’s inability to define “woke” by stating that the word is simply “a racist dog whistle that riles up conservative voters.”
And so on. Afterwards, Mandel explained that she’d been thrown by a demeaning comment she’d overheard on a hot mic just before the interview started. In a follow-up article for Newsweek, she mentioned that she’d done the interview from home, in the presence of her husband and three of her six kids, one of them a two-month-old infant that she’d just put down for a nap. Good Lord! There’s a big problem right there: not only did she agree to do a series of high-pressure interviews so soon after giving birth; she tried to leap across the psychological gulf separating mommy mode from the mindset of a cultural warrior while her offspring were still in the room. That’s a challenge that even Meryl Streep, I daresay, would have trouble pulling off. For my part, I’ve always tried to avoid doing such things from home precisely for that reason.
Still, I suspect that the underlying cause of Mandel’s momentary muteness was that, like me with modernism all those years ago, she’d been immersed in wokeness for so long that, yes, it could take more than a second or two to step back and define it – to see the forest instead of the trees. In any event, after owning up to her “brain freeze” (as she described it) Mandel did offer up, on Twitter, a fine definition of “woke”: “A radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the endpoint, enforced by an angry mob.”
One of her Twitter followers, Jim Hanson, taking in the forest from another angle, offered up an equally serviceable definition: “Wokeness- An ideology that imposes Identity Politics, Social ‘Justice’, Thought Policing, Climate Hysteria, NeoRacism, Queer Pedagogy & Socialist Equity using statist/corporatist/cultural enforcement.” And another Twitter follower made a valid point: “They change their own rules nearly daily. Capturing ‘woke’ in a pithy sound bite is not easy.” Unsurprisingly, people like Brett Erlich, director of programming for the left-wing Young Turks podcast, weren’t having it. “Woke just means being aware of injustice and calling it out guys,” he shot back, speaking, alas, for multitudes.
But the nationwide attention that gloating progressives gave to Mandel’s off moment had an upside: her book sales skyrocketed. “There are definitely more dignified ways to sell a book,” she tweeted three days after the interview, “but yeah, humiliating myself has turned out to be a good sales strategy.”
What’s important here is that none of the people who bought Stolen Youth will, after reading it, ever think that Mandel doesn’t know what “woke” means. Not only does she know, moreover; thanks to COVID, millions of American parents know, too. In 2020, when children were engaged in “distanced learning” via Skype or Zoom, parents looking in on their kids’ classes “became acutely aware,” as Mandel and Markowicz put it, “that something was taking over the curricula at their children’s schools.”
They discovered, for example, that mere tots who should be learning to count to ten were being taught that, depending on their racial, sexual, ethnic, and gender identity, they were either oppressors or oppressed – and, as if that weren’t more than enough, they were being encouraged by their teachers, in many cases, to try “to best each other on who is more oppressed.” First-graders who couldn’t spell “gender” or “pronoun” were being taught “to experiment with gender pronouns.” And in the name of “sexual liberation for children,” primary-school squirts were being briefed on a range of carnal kinks.
Some kids – even in primary school – were being introduced to “identity studies,” an insidious way of fostering grievance and division that was formerly confined to college campuses but that was now conquering the K-12 curriculum. Some schools even replaced math classes with “math ethnic studies” – the ultimate example of imposing political categories on an utterly non-political subject.
In Salinas, California, a teacher of English as a second language was astonished to discover Latino niños being taught “the four I’s of oppression” – namely, “institutional, internalized, ideological, and interpersonal.” Instead of being encouraged to appreciate the opportunities they enjoyed in the U.S. – and instead of being educated in subjects that would help them to take advantage of those opportunities – they were learning to obsess over their supposed oppression.
From coast to coast, children of all ages were learning slogans, not substance. When parents complained that their tykes were being pumped with Critical Race Theory, which reduces all human interactions to the purported power of one race over another, woke teachers and their supporters denied that CRT was being taught in school – only to maintain in the next breath, in many instances, that it was a damn good thing that kid were learning CRT.
Some school districts shelled out big-time to prove how woke they were: the grifters of BLM took in millions (and bought themselves mansions); Ibram X. Kendi, the semi-literate author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, raked in $20,000 from Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia for a one-hour Zoom call, while Charlotte-Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, paid him $25,000. (Incidentally, those mocking Mandel for not being quick with a definition of “woke” should recall the wonderfully circular definition of racism that Kendi served up at last year’s Aspen Ideas Festival: “a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.”)
Both of the authors’ families were touched by wokeness. The principal at the Brooklyn school attended by Markowicz’s children canceled the daily saying of the Pledge of Allegiance. She asked why. He explained that “because the school had kids from many cultures, they did not want anyone to feel left out.” Of course, an important reason for having pupils recite the pledge is to make them all feel included – proudly united, no matter what their backgrounds, in their American identity. Marcovicz knew this well: born in the Soviet Union, she’d enjoyed reciting the pledge as a schoolgirl: it had made her feel like “a part of something.” But this is precisely what woke educators don’t want. Wokeness, at its heart, is about tearing down everything that Old Glory stands for – about replacing patriotic unity with America-hating discord.
As for Mandel, her eight-year-old daughter borrowed from the local library a book about girl soccer players,The Breakaways, that turned out to contain a lesbian sex scene. The inclusion in children’s books of adult-oriented material (including intergenerational coitus) is now routine; indeed, some parents who’ve tried to read from these tomes at school-board meetings to show just how age-inappropriate this stuff is have been shouted down for polluting the air with filth.
Then there are books like George, which is “about a fourth-grader scouring the internet for advice on prescription hormones and sex-change surgery.” George was showered with awards and named “best book of the year” by the major prepub review organs. Nor are such books a fluke: a children’s editor at a major publisher told Mandel and Markowicz that, ever since younger colleagues brought this baggage with them from their elite alma maters a decade or so ago, the editorial staff has been holding “biweekly meetings” to discuss how “to make our publishing programs more woke and activist oriented.” One rule at her job is simple: no white authors.
And let’s not forget the librarians, who, as the authors rightly contend, “ought to be (and used to be) guardians and fighters for freedom of literary expression” but “today are fierce defenders of the ability to expose children and teens to sexually explicit content.” And, moreover, to anti-Western propaganda: citing a 2021 American Library Association resolution about “white supremacy and fascism,” a librarian in her fifties told one of the authors: “I barely recognize my profession anymore.” Last year, we learn, members of the ALA elected as their president a lesbian Marxist named Emily Drabinski whose main preoccupations, in her own words, are “climate change, class war, white supremacy, and imperialism.” Where’s the library cop from Seinfeld when you need him?
The authors met Alvin Lui, who had moved his family from the Bay Area to Carmel, Indiana, to escape wokeness in his children’s schools – only to have it follow him there. People in Carmel, Lui observed ruefully, “are kind hearted and the leftist ideology takes advantage of that.” This seems to be a nationwide pattern: aggressive blue-state lefties pushing their worldview on polite red-state conservatives. To fight back, Lui founded Unify Carmel, one of the first groups in the U.S. to challenge school boards over “shockingly explicit books…in their school libraries.”
But when parents, in growing numbers, attended school-board meetings to complain about this agitprop, the mainstream media bemoaned the influence of these benighted fools over their kids’ lives. In September 2021, at the behest of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the National School Board Association sent a chilling letter to the Biden Administration requesting that the Departments of Justice, Education, and Homeland Security, along with the FBI, take action to “protect” school-board members from parents. The premise here was absurd on its face: in the entire country, there’d been exactly one violent incident at a school-board meeting. But this wasn’t about addressing a real danger to the health and safety of school-board members: it was an authoritarian attempt to intimidate and silence parents who were trying to protect their children from woke ideology.
In some school districts, gratifyingly, the parents succeeded, electing new school- board members who did what they could to restore real education. But even replacing the radical board members wasn’t always enough. In one district, a board ordered BLM and rainbow flags taken down, but school administrators ignored the order. When parents in Newburg, Oregon, elected a new slate of board members, big shots in far-off Hollywood donated huge sums to unseat them – a perfect illustration of the determination of coastal busybodies to spread their ideological claptrap to every nook and cranny of middle America.
In addition to woke teachers and librarians who’ve gone over to the dark side, parents even have to deal with woke pediatricians – many of whom, for fear of being considered “fatphobic,” now tell overweight kids that it’s okay to be obese. When the FDA and CDC decreed that children should wear masks and undergo “distanced learning,” few pediatricians dared to disagree. Not that all members of the profession have exchanged solid medical judgment for obedience to ideology: wWhile researching this book, the authors met a number of pediatricians who were deeply disturbed by “how politicized their profession had become.” The American Academy of Pediatrics, we read, is “insanely left-wing,” more preoccupied with activism than science. A May 2021 AAP meeting on the treatment of babies born severely prematurely was canceled because there weren’t enough women on the panel and not a single black.
This is a war on a million fronts. In a way it’s not a new one. Nazi Germany, the USSR, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia all used children to achieve their nefarious ends. The Nazi had the Hitler Youth. Under Stalin, brats were taught to snitch on their parents. And the Khmer Rouge put tiny urchins in uniforms, handed them rifles, and set them loose on the enemies of the new order.
Why? Because all those totalitarians understood that kids’ minds are sponges. For conscientious parents and teachers, childhood is the time when those minds should be filled with useful knowledge and lessons in character that can prepare a child for a satisfying and productive adulthood; but for woke teachers, librarians, school psychologists, and others, childhood is the perfect time to fill those minds with ideological toxins, thereby turning happy little nippers into vicious, pint-sized rebels. The only problem is getting around the parents.
No surprise, then, that teachers eager to transform their charges into woke warriors hold up the likes of Greta Thunberg and David Hogg (that obnoxious schoolboy turned gun-control advocate) as role models. Mandel reports that when one of her sons was in the first grade, she asked him frequently what he’d learned in school that day, and the answer was always the same: “Greta.” Using kids like David and Greta to push “leftist talking points” is a brilliant strategy: leftists know that their ideas couldn’t ever win among the American people if discussed in open and honest debate; but if a teenager like Greta can be given a platform from which to scold the left’s opponents as immoral monsters, they can’t lose.
Which, quite simply, is why American kids are such rich targets for the woke rebels. And why, if American freedom, prosperity, and civilized harmony are to be preserved (or should I say “recovered”?) – and if those kids are to be permitted to grow up into mature, responsible, and well-adjusted adults – this madness must be defeated.