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People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. – James Baldwin

We hear a lot of words tossed about today that have acquired new meanings. “Woke” used to be something you did in the morning. The opposite, I guess, would be asleep. Nothing much changes when you are asleep. Nothing progresses and, assuming you are not prone to nightmares, you can forget some of the more uncomfortable aspects of life and just … dream on.

The original definition of the word suggests an awareness of the changing world around you. Woke is a transition from the clueless and comfortable immobility of sleep, so it is small wonder that conservatives have adapted it into something potentially threatening. It has become the new “Red,” the dog-whistle that the right hurled at those who dared to undermine their fanatical notion of patriotism in the 1950s.

You have to wonder if there are little contingents of political hacks in seedy backrooms whose job it is to think up these silly attack modes. I use the word silly because on what planet other than the one where the current Republican Party has set up housekeeping would a word that is synonymous with a state of awareness be considered dangerous.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “woke,” in its new slang incarnation, as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

And there, as Hamlet so famously said, is the real rub.

The woke hysteria has attached itself to another perceived facet of conservative peril in America. Not with a word so much as with an acronym: the dreaded CRT.

Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that has, to my knowledge, never been taught in public schools. To hear the outcry from the right, however, you would think that teachers were instructing their students in the finer points of animal abuse.

The opponents of CRT honestly believe that an adamant refusal to accept this country’s abysmal history of racism is consistent with true patriotism. “Gone with the Wind” should be the historical record, not “12 Years a Slave.” It is a triumph of mythology over truth.

I am not sure by what measure they even recognize bigotry. It isn’t always the spectacle of a blazing cross or hooligans in bed sheets.

Our past president began his campaign by evoking the specter of “Mexican rapists” and just recently called the Taiwanese-born wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “the Chinese-loving Coco Chow.” He and his real estate mogul father were both charged with housing discrimination by the Justice Dept. in 1973.

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When asked about his history of flagrantly bigoted actions and remarks, he told a reporter that there was no one less racist than he is. I guess he needs the flaming cross.

The genuinely tragic part of his legacy is the fact that the Republican Party has realized that it can benefit from jettison principles like tolerance and acceptance. The tactic is not all that different from their pandering to white voters in the South who were infuriated by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society domestic programs that, among its other worthy goals, abolished inequality in the United States.

Bigotry and racism certainly polluted the air in America long before our former chief executive darkened the horizon. If it hadn’t existed, the opponents of CRT might have a point. The past president’s unfiltered bigotry fanned the smoldering embers and men like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is making sure the flame of intolerance is still burning brightly.

DeSantis, who is now wading through an estimated $100 billion worth of debris in his state wrought by Hurricane Ian, is suddenly very receptive to federal aid when he adamantly opposed it after Hurricane Sandy cut a swath of destruction across New York and New Jersey in 2012. Hypocrisy, thy name is Ron.

He is the kind of politician who doesn’t take a breath without considering the most self-serving direction in which to exhale. An appeal to the most base of his base was very likely the motive behind a stunt he engineered that sent around 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard with bogus promises of work for them. It’s almost as if Ian was God’s own rebuke for his appalling cruelty, but I am sure that DeSantis arrogant head, towering over 5 feet from the floor, is unbowed as long as his poll numbers are up. The incident will undoubtedly be excluded from history books in Florida schools.

No one ever recognizes anything by denying its existence. And that is really what the rabid opponents of CRT are determined to do. They don’t want children being taught a particularly unpleasant aspect of their country’s history. It isn’t so much a matter of frosting the cake as not baking the cake at all.

Their determination to banish the issue of racism from classroom discourse betrays the fact that, on some level, they are aware of how shameful it is.

There is an underlying fear component here, too. It is a fear that the day will come when, lo and behold, they themselves are members of a minority in the United States. With that realization, it must be terrifying to imagine that they might be victims of the same abuses other minorities have been subjected to throughout our history.

The denial of racism’s insidious prominence in the history of our country is, in itself, an aspect of racism. Nothing is more certain than the warning that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Denial never alters truth, it only jeopardizes the future.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for Vermont News & Media. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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