Any good populist politician or news anchor knows how to take a complex, nuanced idea and turn it into an us-versus-them rallying cry.
In the aftermath of the supposedly stolen 2020 election, CRT was the first. The acronym is short for “critical race theory,” a 40-year-old, university-level academic theory about the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States.
CRT isn’t part of any American high school curriculum. But thanks to Fox News, millions of viewers believe it is, and a right-wing movement to control local school boards was spawned. Proof wasn’t important, and CRT became a rallying cry.
So with woke, a nearly century-old word from African American slang that means “to be alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” I grew up in the South in the 1960s and learned to be woke to the casual discrimination that was common then and unfortunately remains today.
The word came into vogue again in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement, but has since been conflated to mean liberal or progressive views on everything from business strategy to military recruiting.
Typical of the right-wing weaponization of the word is this sentence in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “We are making Florida the state where the economy flourishes because we are the state where woke goes to die.”
Technically, what he is saying is that Florida’s companies should not be concerned in any way about racial prejudice and discrimination. But it’s unclear how that will benefit Florida’s economy.
The latest example of grammatical weaponization is ESG, which stands for “environmental, social and corporate governance principles” and was first mentioned in a 2004 report from the United Nations. Proponents of this concept want companies and investors to take these three principles into account instead of focusing only on the bottom line.
Examples of ESG thinking are that investors should reject a company that exploits child labor in Asia even if it’s more profitable, that investors should prefer a company that pays good wages and supports its local community even if it’s less profitable, and that investors should require transparent corporate accounting and governance. But the right-wing calls this “woke capitalism,” arguing that we should only be concerned about the bottom line.
DeSantis once again twists this complex investing idea into a rallying cry, writing in the op-ed, “ESG is a way for the left to achieve through corporate power what it can’t get at the ballot box.”
CRT, woke and ESG are complex, nuanced and fundamentally important concepts. Americans really should be concerned about persistent racial discrimination and reward companies that are good corporate citizens.
To say racial discrimination doesn’t exist, and to make maximum profitability the only goal of business, is to sanction a very dreary and dangerous world.
The irony is that the populist leaders know this. Consider the internal emails in the Dominion libel case that show Fox News anchors knew the election wasn’t stolen but still broadcast lies so as not to lose viewers.
“That whole narrative that (Trump lawyer) Sidney (Powell) was pushing, I did not believe it for one second,” host Sean Hannity said, according to unsealed court documents.
DeSantis, a Harvard-trained lawyer, surely knows what the language he uses actually means, but perhaps he thinks sprinkling CRT, woke and ESG into every speech makes him a populist Shakespeare.
America should just tune out Fox News, DeSantis and the rest of the right-wing populists and focus on the true meaning of language.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.