Hands off our national myth, er, story – the dynamic driving anti-wokeness

November 30, 2023 5:00 am
A child waves an American flag during a Fourth of July celebration with frontline workers and military families, Sunday, July 4, 2021, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chandler West)

Anti-woke conservatives want to whitewash history to preserve their dream of American exceptionalism. But we can celebrate our nation's ideals even while acknowledging that we've fallen short of them. (Official White House Photo by Chandler West)

Legitimacy and the fear of losing it.  

That’s at  the root of efforts to whitewash teaching that would otherwise tell stark, uncomfortable truths about U.S. history and the impacts that linger today.  

I’m referring here to the legitimacy of American exceptionalism.  

There are many who demand homogeneity even on what we agree is our national story.  

Their unhinged fear is that lack of agreement will lead to doubts about a whole lot of stuff we tell ourselves about our governance – will lead, for instance, to thoughts that our social inequities have been and are, still, baked into our psyches and institutions.

This is a major reason for the attacks on so-called “woke” education. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made this a feature of his presidential run with his “Don’t Say Gay” bill and banning even math textbooks that he said contained “woke” ideology. But he is  not alone. Across the country, parents have sued school boards for allegedly teaching “wokeness”.

For many political opportunists,“owning the libs” for the purposes of maintaining political control means imposing unfettered, unquestioned control over our national narrative.

Something I haven’t been able to un-see or un-hear in my seventh decade on this Earth: The insistence that you are a “real American” only if you accept without question that the U.S. is exceptional among nations. And accepting this apparently involves accepting that we and our institutions are no longer racist.

A conversation last year – which I’ve had for the umpteenth time in my life – went something like this:

Him: “You can’t deny that we are the greatest nation on earth.” 

Me: “What metrics are you using?” 

Incredulity ensued. How can anyone question the veracity of the greatest-nation-on-earth claim? 

Conservatives say “woke” ideology is  indoctrinating young people to become liberals.

What they object to mostly involves making young people  aware of the pressing issues in society, and teaching them to be  respectful, caring, mindful and accepting of our racial, ethnic, gender and sexual-orientation differences and intentional about helping those in need.

Yes, it’s fair to criticize my-way-or-the-highway cancel culture. As in, you don’t count and I won’t consider or hear anything you have to say.

But these cancellations are happening on both the left and right and when unfolding as pure censorship should be equally disavowed. It’s the right these days that is hyper-concerned about purity in its ranks as the 2024 election looms. 

Don’t get me wrong about America. Our ideals of justice and equality are quite real and play a big role in how we define ourselves. But ignored or given short shrift is how much and how often we have consistently ignored the values we say we hold dear. So, what really defines us – what we say or what we do?

I am not suggesting that our governance is illegitimate, as in not legal. I am more than suggesting, however, that, as with a whole lot of countries, abundant moral and ethical lapses were involved from founding to present.

To borrow from the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” yes, we can handle the truth – about our history and its lingering impacts.

Making voters believe that the alien others among us are coming for our national story is just a way of igniting culture wars.

The culture warriors accuse those who acknowledge the flaws in our history and their legacies of “hating America.”

No. It’s just that for us, it’s not the “love it or leave it” kind of love for country. It’s more “know it and still love it.” But improve it.

Throughout our history we’ve endured great upheavals trying to become truer to our nation’s ideals. Among these: the Civil War, Reconstruction, the women’s and civil rights movements and the present-day Black Lives Matter movement.

Each of these steps forward was too long coming and unleashed serious backlash from those heavily invested in the status quo. Let’s be honest about this reaction. They were attempts to hold on to power, privilege and wealth.

Those attempts persist today.

People  still resist our national ideals if it profits them to do so or if they  perceive that helping someone else will cost them.

It’s perfectly OK to be proud to be an American, but it’s a false pride if it’s based on a  selective reading of our history. Honesty about our history can help us achieve our ideals. This will make us exceptional. And prouder.

If that’s being “woke,” I wish more eyes were wide open.


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O. Ricardo Pimentel
O. Ricardo Pimentel

O. Ricardo Pimentel has been a journalist for about 40 years. He was most recently the managing editor at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, was editorial page editor for the San Antonio Express-News in Texas and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before that. He has also worked in various editing and reporting positions in newspapers in California, Arizona, Texas and Washington D.C., where he covered Congress, federal agencies and the Supreme Court for McClatchy Newspapers. He is the author of two novels and lives in Wisconsin.