"There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves."
William the Dictator
We know that there is this thing called The Woke Mob, The Woke Left, The Woke Establishment and The Thoroughly Woke.
We know that it will punish you for using inauthentic ingredients in Italian meat sauce
We know that it will force drugs and hormone therapy on adolescent boys who like playing with dolls.
We know that it is an alien ideology which most ordinary people are afraid of.
We know that it has somehow taken control of the mind of Neil Gaiman and forced him to hire a dark skinned actress to play a comic book character who was originally drawn with light skin.
But what actually is it?
For some time, I have amused myself during the long winter evenings by asking strangers on Twitter what they mean when they use word Woke. I have received a variety of answers.
Some people have frankly admitted that it is just a synonym for "of the Left" or "to the Left of me." It means "applied neo-Marxism" or "radical left wing politics".
One person told me that was a form of mental illness, but we didn't get very far in finding out who had diagnosed it or what the symptoms were.
I have been told that it is the converse of common sense, and that to be Woke is to be hypocritical. "It means the need to appear virtuous trumps safety, truthfulness, and common sense" said one correspondent. He had objected to a sign in a college library that said that people should use the toilet they felt comfortable with, and that no-one else had any right to tell them they shouldn't.
Very frequently have I been told that I already know what Woke means and am being disingenuous. (This is Tony Blair's line: he can't or won't define Woke and P.C, but ordinary people (he assures us) know exactly what they mean.)
When I was a child, hearing the Christmas Bible readings and singing the Christmas carols, I asked my parents directly what it meant for Mary to be a Virgin. They wouldn't tell me. I think they pretended they didn't know. I was able to piece together the kind of work the word was doing in the poems and readings: Mary was young, holy, and it was surprising that she would be having a baby. I can piece together what the word Woke is doing: I know how it is used. But no-one has yet taught me the facts of life: I can't say what the thing is.
Not too long ago, before all the fuss started, a nice folksinger introduced a song about some men who went whale hunting, possibly having sailed out of Balina or huddled round a little pot stove. "I know this isn't very Woke" he said, and you could hear the quotation marks round the word. It mean right-on or sound or even PC. "The kind of thing most of us in this room approve of." We don't agree with hunting whales, but we are going to sing the song anyway.
Some sensible people have appraised me of the history and origins of the word. A comment on this very blog said that it meant "Aware of the power structures which bind us". And this is definitely what it means, or what it used to mean. But that doesn't get us very far. "Chris Chibnall ruined Doctor Who by making it too aware of the power structures which bind us" might possibly be a coherent sentence. "The mob who are aware of the power structures which bind us can rage all they want, I am still putting Branston pickle in my lasagne", not so much. And I don't think that the singer meant that the song was insufficiently aware of power structures.
The best suggestion was that Woke means "preachy". This is helpful, because it covers many of the usages and provides some insight into what the kinds of people who complain about things being Woke are complaining about. Greta Thurnberg is a bit of a scold. Jodie Whitaker explains the moral out loud at the end of each episode. I can see what those two things have in common. I can even draw a line between "telling cooks they shouldn't add carrots to lasagne" and "telling cops they shouldn't murder black people, save for some reason".
"Everyone's gone a bit preachy and judgemental" might be a statment I could get behind. I think that Jodie Whittiker's impassioned speech to camera about how Rosa Parks was a Good Thing is a little bit corny; but then so was David Tennant's speech about how Agatha Christie was a Good Thing. And to be honest I could do without Captain Kirk telling me how brilliant the US Constitution is, or Charles Ingalls explaining that God wouldn't destroy a little girl's optic nerve without a jolly good reason. But no-one would ever called patriotism or piety Woke.
On this modest definition, Woke would have to be defined as "preachiness on the part of liberals or left wingers". In fact, it would mean "The Left have started to talk about equality and the environment in the way that The Right have always talked about flag and family."
This is not a bad point. I could go some distance with the the person who says "Black Rights Matter and Extinction Rebellion are making some very good points, but they need to learn not to be such jerks about it." I would have been largely on Tony Blair's side if he had told The Left that they weren't going to win anyone's hearts and mind by adopting a holier than thou stance. " But I would still be suspicious that the accusation of excessive piety was a tactic. I would think that Woke was the strategic pretence that anyone to the Left of the speaker is threateningly pious. I can't plausibly argue that White Supremacy is good. I can't even plausibly argue that White Supremacy does not exist. So instead I say that anyone who believes that White Supremacy is bad is sanctimonious and that sanctimony is the Real Threat. That gets me off the hook of having to explain why I am right and you are wrong
But I don't think that Woke Equals Preachiness cover the case. It is just barely possible that when Tony Blair says that Woke represent a bad, sinister, alien ideology that goes against what Ordinary People believe in, he means "The one thing that ordinary people really don't like is being preached at." It is conceivable that when Mr Sullivan spoke of a Woke Establishment that controls everything, he meant "powerful people are more sanctimonious and judgemental than they used to be." But I think that is not what he meant at all. That is not it at all.
[Unrevised final draft]