Nuclear Daze

Waking up to the War on Nukes and the War on Woke

J. Andrés Gannon has formulated a nuanced geopolitical model of the war in Ukraine regarding the spectre of nuclear conflagration. Within the tempestuous realm of Russo-Ukrainian relations, Gannon warns that the lurching discourse surrounding the potential deployment of nuclear armaments by Russia has unveiled a variegated display of strategic posturing and rhetorical ambivalence. From the halls of the Kremlin to the echelons of military command, divergent voices echo, oscillating between contemplation of tactical nuclear deployment and fervent repudiation of nuclear warfare as a viable instrument of statecraft.

In the wake of the Cold War’s denouement, a lesser-known nuclear juggernaut emerged not among the traditional power triumvirate of Britain, France and China but in the form of Ukraine. As the Soviet Union dissolved in a protracted unravelling culminating in December 1991, the newly sovereign Ukraine found itself bequeathed a formidable arsenal comprising approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads erstwhile stationed by Moscow on its territory. Concealed within subterranean silos on military installations lay long-range missiles bearing payloads of up to 10 thermonuclear warheads, each dwarfing the destructive force unleashed upon Hiroshima. Only Russia and the United States boasted larger stockpiles. Clearly, many Ukrainians believe it would have been a wiser move had Ukraine not given up its nuclear arsenal.

William J. Broad writes that the disarmament of this arsenal often garners acclaim as a pinnacle achievement in arms control. Diplomats and advocates for peace extol Ukraine as a paragon of responsible nuclear stewardship in a world brimming with aspirant atomic powers. Yet, closer scrutiny of history unveils the disarming process as a tumultuous saga rife with internal strife, policy reversals and discord within Ukraine’s governmental and military echelons. At the time, notes Broad, voices from both Ukrainian and American circles raised doubts about the prudence of atomic disarmament. Some contended that these lethal armaments constituted the sole reliable deterrent against Russian encroachments. Today, according to Broad, Ukraine confronts a vexing conundrum with no easy solutions for either producing or acquiring the requisite materials to construct nuclear weaponry. Nevertheless, the spectre of nuclear ambitions resurfaces as Russian forces encircle the nation and wage a clandestine campaign in its easternmost precincts.

Instead of pursuing a path of nuclear proliferation, Ukraine opted for a strategic manoeuvre. Broad reports on Ukraine’s strident stipulation that, in exchange for nuclear disarmament, it required robust security assurances. This cornerstone of the agreement, inked in Moscow in early 1994 by Russia, Ukraine and the United States, was later elaborated upon in late 1994 through the Budapest Memorandum. Signed by Russia, Ukraine, Britain and the United States, this accord pledged mutual commitment to refrain from the use of force or coercion against Ukraine, respecting its sovereignty and existing borders. Furthermore, it pledged prompt action through the United Nations Security Council in the event of aggression against Ukraine. Broad reveals that although Kyiv fell short of obtaining the legally binding guarantees akin to those enshrined in a formal treaty ratified by the US Senate, it received assurances from Washington that its political commitments would be upheld with the same gravity as legal obligations.

In May 1996, the final remnants of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal were repatriated to Russia, concluding a five-year process of disarmament. However, Broad discloses that the diplomatic achievement unravelled due to what Steven Pifer, a key negotiator of the Budapest Memorandum and former US ambassador to Ukraine, identifies as a ‘collective failure’ to anticipate figures like Vladimir V. Putin. The subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and escalation of the proxy conflict in eastern Ukraine led Putin to dismiss the Budapest accord as defunct. The aftermath of these events witnessed calls within Ukraine for nuclear rearmament spurred by the perceived inadequacy of security guarantees. Public sentiment, as evidenced by polling, indicated significant support for nuclear rearmament. The potential transformation of Ukraine from a symbol of arms control to a nexus of nuclear proliferation risks is a concern shared among experts. This shift could incentivise other nations to acquire their own nuclear arsenal, according to Broad.

Amidst the rhetorical flux surrounding the current conflict in Ukraine, a discernible pattern emerges – a pattern emblematic of the delicate dance between sabre-rattling and strategic restraint. Indeed, while the spectre of nuclear escalation looms ominously on the horizon, the discourse surrounding rearmament traverses a labyrinthine terrain of diplomatic brinkmanship. Yet, amidst this cacophony of conflicting narratives, a sobering realisation crystallises: the immutable gravity of nuclear brinkmanship necessitates a careful delineation of potential scenarios and their attendant ramifications. Parsing the nuances of potential nuclear utilisation assumes paramount significance.

Indeed, writes Gannon, beneath the veneer of rhetorical bluster lies a trove of strategic calculus, wherein the contours of nuclear strategy intersect with the exigencies of harsh geopolitical reality. Through a nuanced appraisal of the myriad pathways to nuclear escalation, scholars and policymakers alike endeavour to decipher the enigmatic calculus underpinning Russia’s posture in the Ukraine conflict. And against the backdrop of escalating tensions and rhetorical volleys, the imperative of scholarly inquiry assumes renewed urgency. Through a judicious synthesis of historical precedent, strategic analysis and diplomatic acumen, scholars such as Gannon strive to illuminate the outcome of various nuclear scenarios Putin may enact should he face defeat by Ukraine. The pressing question remains: What will Putin do should Ukraine begin to win the war and start pushing his forces out of Ukraine?

According to Gannon, the delineation of three distinct scenarios for Russia’s potential employment of nuclear armaments emerges as a salient framework for analysis. Each scenario, notes Gannon, characterised by its unique rationale and anticipated consequences, serves as a prism through which to elucidate the multifaceted dynamics of nuclear brinkmanship. At the nexus of this analysis lies the notion that Vladimir Putin, ensconced in a climate of escalating desperation, may envisage nuclear strikes as a panacea to recalibrate the fortunes of the Ukraine war. Amidst the vacillating proclamations emanating from the Kremlin, the feasibility and ramifications of such a drastic measure warrant serious examination.

Gannon offers a structured framework through which to evaluate the potential trajectories of nuclear involvement. Option one is the prospect of nuclear testing. Testing his nuclear arsenal would provide a chilling warning to Ukraine. Such a manoeuvre, while evocative of Cold War posturing, could serve as a potent indication of Russia’s unwavering resolve, underpinning Putin’s contention of an existential threat to the Russian state. However, the efficacy of such a demonstration in shifting the geopolitical calculus remains dubious, with the likely outcome, according to Gannon, entailing exacerbated Western antipathy and heightened Ukrainian fortitude.

Proceeding to a more palpable realm is option two, envisaged by Putin, as the utilisation of tactical nuclear weapons (as opposed to strategic nuclear weapons) on the battlefield assumes prominence. This scenario, which Gannon characterises as targeted strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure, embodies a calculated escalation aimed at debilitating Ukrainian morale and coercing a strategic realignment. Yet, the feasibility of this stratagem to decisively alter the conflict dynamics on the battlefield is tempered by logistical constraints and the concomitant risk of international backlash. But it is not in any way to be ruled out.

The apogee of nuclear escalation, or option three, materialises in the hypothetical deployment of strategic nuclear weapons (these are the big ones) against civilian or non-Ukrainian targets – a scenario tantamount to an act of terror writ large. Such a cataclysmic gambit, reflective of Putin’s existential anxieties and predicated on the premise of self-preservation at any cost, portends dire consequences for global stability. Anticipated reactions from Western powers, ranging from condemnatory rhetoric to calibrated military responses, underscore the precarious tightrope walked in navigating the perilous contours of nuclear brinkmanship. But Gannon remains convinced that, under such circumstances, do not expect the US to retaliate in kind.

Considering these conjectures, the imperatives of strategic deterrence and calibrated response assume paramount significance. The solemn pronouncements emanating from Western capitals, epitomised by President Joe Biden’s unequivocal repudiation of nuclear adventurism, serve to delineate the boundaries of permissible conduct amidst the tempest of conflict. Implicit in this discourse is the recognition that any foray into nuclear warfare would precipitate a cascade of repercussions, transcending the immediate theatre of conflict to engulf the global community in a maelstrom of uncertainty and possible nuclear annihilation. But what would these repercussions entail?

Ultimately, the spectre of nuclear escalation and potential global annihilation triggered by the war in the Ukraine war serves as a sobering reminder of the imperatives of collective vigilance and steadfast commitment to the preservation of international peace and security. As scholars and policymakers alike grapple with the spectre of nuclear catastrophe, the imperative of dialogue and diplomacy assumes renewed urgency in charting a course away from the precipice of annihilation.

Amidst the geopolitical quagmire enveloping the Ukraine conflict, the enigmatic calculus of Vladimir Putin’s motivations emerges as a focal point. While the conflict per se may not pose an existential threat to Russia at this moment in the conflict, Putin’s apprehension lies in the potential erosion of his own power and security. The spectre of defeat, construed as a harbinger of personal peril, impels Putin to contemplate the unthinkable: the resort to nuclear weaponry as a desperate bid for self-preservation, regardless of the attendant externalities.

Recent developments, contends Gannon, marked by Russia’s alarmist assertions regarding purported Ukrainian designs for a so-called ‘dirty bomb,’ underscore the inconstancy of the situation. Notably, experts rebuff such claims as specious propaganda aimed at furnishing Russia with a pretext for nuclear escalation. This conjures a harrowing vista wherein the invocation of nuclear armament against civilian or non-Ukrainian targets precipitates a retaliatory maelstrom from Western powers. The resolute posture articulated by President Joe Biden epitomises this stance, unequivocally condemning any nuclear adventurism and heralding dire consequences for transgressors.

Gannon writes:

President Joe Biden has staked out the US position on the issue, noting, ‘Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.’ This vagueness is intentional and consistent with a long-standing US policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ aimed at giving US policymakers flexibility in deciding how to respond to nuclear events.

More direct Western involvement would dramatically change the intensity of the conflict. Absent US casualties from a Russian nuclear attack outside of Russia or Ukraine, US involvement will likely remain indirect through increased arms sales and nonmilitary support. The United States could be more likely to use conventional weapons directly against Russia, although it would take care to signal that it aims to defend Ukraine and the West rather than conquer Moscow. Any Western troop deployment would not cross the border into Russia, and even the use of advanced cruise missiles, drones and ground operations would be limited to Russian targets in Ukraine. Non-kinetic operations such as cyberattacks would likely continue, although little would be known about those until well after the war is over.

In today’s giddy tilt-a-whirl geopolitics, the prospect of avoiding a cataclysmic thermonuclear conflict between the United States and Russia hinges upon strategic restraint and nuanced diplomatic manoeuvring. Were Russia to resort to the use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces, it is unequivocally clear that the United States would refrain from reciprocating with nuclear armament. However, this stance does not signify a cessation of American support for Ukraine; rather, it underscores a strategic shift towards US logistical aid and the provision and possible direct use of conventional weaponry. The present tactical landscape witnesses a calibrated deployment of conventional arms against Russian targets, emblematic of a defensive posture aimed at thwarting aggression without inciting a broader conflagration. Such nuanced approaches reflect the complex interplay of international relations and the imperative of averting global devastation through judicious policy choices. This does not rule out, however, a direct attack on Russia by the US or its NATO allies using conventional weapons, should Russia deploy its nuclear arsenal against Ukraine. In any case, it is almost certain that the US has sent messages to Moscow indicating how it would respond should Russia deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine (likely by initially destroying Russia’s Black Sea Fleet).

It is imperative that Ukraine wins its war with Russia. As Timothy Snyder writes, Ukraine must win in order ‘[t]o prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons. Russia, a nuclear power, then invaded. If Ukraine loses, countries that can build nuclear weapons will feel that they need to do so to protect themselves … and … [t]o reduce the risk of nuclear war. A Ukrainian victory makes two major war scenarios involving nuclear powers less likely and works against nuclear proliferation generally. Nothing would reduce the risk of nuclear war more than Ukrainian victory.’ It is through such prudence and sagacity that the spectre of nuclear annihilation may be assuaged, paving the path toward a durable resolution of the conflict. The worst-case scenario is that a cornered Putin will unleash strategic nuclear weapons against Ukraine. The best that can be hoped for is that Ukraine will drive Russians out of its territory, which will lead to Putin being replaced by a more moderate leader eager to avoid mutually assured destruction.

As it stands, the prevailing prognosis appears disheartening: both belligerents have incurred grievous casualties, millions of Ukrainian citizens endure displacement or enforced exile, and prospects for the cessation of hostilities remain elusive. Western capitals find themselves grappling with the formidable challenge of furnishing financial resources and armaments to bolster Kyiv’s defensive capabilities, juxtaposed against the Kremlin’s seemingly boundless reservoir of military materiel and diplomatic backing from sympathetic authoritarian regimes. Against this backdrop, the relentless bombardment of Ukrainian urban centres persists, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and inflicting substantial infrastructural devastation.

In the realm of future geopolitical discourse surrounding the war in Ukraine, the pronouncements of key political actors assume paramount significance. Notably, the presumptive Republican nominee for the United States presidency, Donald Trump, adopts an unblinking stance characterised by permissiveness towards Russian actions, articulating a willingness to accord Moscow unrestricted latitude in its dealings and confirming his own comprehension deficit when it comes to international policy.

David French borrowed the term ‘bespoke realities’ from his friend, Renée DiResta, the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who coined the term to delineate how distinct social bubbles construct their own versions of truth, replete with unique norms, information sources and authorities. French views the MAGA (Make America Great Again) ecosystem as a bespoke reality in which Ukrainian affairs undergo a dramatic distortion, with Ukraine demonised, Putin mythologised, and Russia exalted as a rightful superpower. The genesis of Ukraine’s vilification can be traced to a conspiracy theory that gained traction during Donald Trump’s initial impeachment proceedings. Trump’s mention of a ‘CrowdStrike’ server purportedly located in Ukraine served as a linchpin for this theory, alleging Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election – an assertion contradicted by Trump’s own advisors and bereft of factual substantiation. Concurrently, revelations of Hunter Biden’s ties to the Ukrainian company Burisma furnished MAGA with ammunition to undermine the Trump-Russia narrative.

However, MAGA’s fascination with Putin transcends mere denigration of Ukraine, imbuing him with a quasi-heroic stature as a bulwark against Western liberalism. Christopher Caldwell’s portrayal of Putin as a defender of traditional values and Jordan Peterson’s framing of Russian aggression as a counter to Western decadence epitomise this ideological alignment. Figures like Steve Bannon and Rod Dreher further bolster Putin’s image as an ‘anti-woke’ crusader, amplifying MAGA’s affinity for Putinism. Yet, this narrative of Russian superiority collided with reality during the conflict, as Ukraine and its allies demonstrated unexpected resilience against Russian incursion, shattering the illusion of Russian invincibility. Nonetheless, within the GOP, scepticism towards aiding Ukraine reflects the sway of MAGA’s narrative, portending dire consequences for international security.

French emphasises the urgency of discerning between informed analysis and the propagation of shallow ideologies. Escaping the grip of bespoke realities is imperative for shaping rational foreign policy discourse and safeguarding American interests in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape. But, as I have written elsewhere, such an escape is becoming increasingly difficult given that such bespoke realities are inextricably tied to social media algorithms, which are now part of what I have termed the ‘structural unconscious.’ The structural unconscious is composed of deeply ingrained, often invisible social configurations and power dynamics that shape individuals’ perceptions, beliefs and actions within society. These structures, often in the shape of contradictions, function to reconcile reality and ideology at the level of both the everyday and the nation-state, and this requires algorithms to help citizens adjust to its everyday manifestations. Such structured hierarchies are deeply embedded in the fabric of society, influencing everything from educational systems to cultural norms and political institutions. The structural unconscious operates at both the individual and collective levels, exerting its influence through ideology, cultural hegemony and socialisation processes. Individuals are often unaware of the ways in which these structures shape their thoughts and behaviours through the rules that generate data processing, leading to a sense of false consciousness or ideological mystification. They remain invisible to us so long as we take them for granted or are unable to decode the limits of the platforms that create our everyday reality and the ways in which they store data and sort and process information. While we teach algorithms, they also simultaneously teach us because they incessantly circle around and unknowingly influence their makers in a myriad of ways, whether the algorithms are biomechanically inspired, kinematic-based, example-driven, ethnomethodological or impacted by quantum circuit designs. All algorithms homogenise our reality over time. Their built-in ideological obsolescence is caused by the limit horizon of what we know at any time about our algorithmic universe.

Veronika Melkozerova, in a compelling article featured in Politico, presents a formidable argument elucidating Donald Trump’s antipathy towards Ukraine. Drawing upon insights from Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman with intimate ties to Trump’s inner circle, Melkozerova reveals a deep-seated animosity harboured by the former president and his associates towards Ukraine. Parnas, who once operated as a liaison for Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, asserts unequivocally: ‘Trump hates Ukraine…. He and people around him believe that Ukraine was the cause of all Trump’s problems.’ Central to Trump’s disdain for Ukraine is the shadow cast by Paul Manafort, his erstwhile campaign manager during the 2016 presidential race. Manafort’s extensive involvement in Ukrainian politics, particularly his association with the pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych, looms large in the narrative. Yanukovych’s abrupt departure from power in 2014, amidst widespread protests against his pivot towards Moscow, marked an existential moment in Ukrainian history. Notably, the discovery of the infamous Black Ledger, containing incriminating evidence of illicit payments made by Yanukovych’s regime, implicating Manafort himself, further fuels Trump’s antipathy towards Ukraine.

The spectre of Russian election interference adds another layer to Trump’s animosity towards Ukraine. In an ongoing saga of political intrigue, Donald Trump has persistently peddled a conspiracy theory implicating Ukraine in election hacking, diverting blame from Russia onto the Eastern European nation. Trump’s narrative suggests that Ukraine orchestrated the hacking to incriminate Russia, further alleging that Ukraine harboured a server containing crucial data pertinent to the investigation. In a perplexing turn of events, Trump justified his controversial decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine in 2019, citing suspicions surrounding a ‘Ukrainian company’ allegedly in possession of the elusive server purported to contain incriminating data. This revelation adds a new layer of complexity to the already murky waters of US-Ukraine relations, raising questions about Trump’s motivations and the veracity of his claims.

Trump’s fixation on Ukraine extends beyond geopolitical manoeuvring to encompass personal vendettas, notably evident in his efforts to coerce Ukrainian officials into investigating his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. Despite facing impeachment for his actions, Trump remains steadfast in his aversion towards Ukraine, perpetuating a narrative of corruption and malfeasance. Melkozerova’s meticulous analysis underscores the complex interplay of geopolitical tensions, personal vendettas, and conspiracy theories shaping Trump’s hostile stance towards Ukraine. In unpacking the layers of animosity, she offers invaluable insight into the intricacies of contemporary US-Ukraine relations.

Some extended comments by Timothy Snyder are worth repeating at length:

The systems that we’ve been giving Ukrainians are stuff which was obsolescent and which American taxpayer dollars were going to spend to take apart and throw away. And what we’re doing right now by not doing anything is we are basically throwing away systems, which, from our point of view, are too old, instead of giving them to the Ukrainians. The HIMARs that the Ukrainians have been using to great effect are things that we would never use because we were going to throw them away. And so it goes to this point that we have such…. We have, in principle, all this military power and we make ourselves laughable when our actual capabilities are so ludicrously off our theoretical capabilities.

I mean, that’s why the Russian propagandists have trouble containing themselves, is that the stuff that we’re going to… It’s this. The stuff that we’re going to throw away would be enough to help the Ukrainian army defeat the Russian army. But we can’t get ourselves together politically enough to give the Ukrainians the stuff we were going to throw away. And that’s why they laugh at us. And I mean, that may be unpleasant, but we have to break out of it. Sometimes you have to.… Other people can help you to see ourselves. And so yeah, the US should be able to help Ukraine win this war.

I mean, now switching from the Russian point of view to ours, I guess the main thing that… The main switch I wish we could make is I wish we could say, ‘Wow. In the last two years, the Ukrainians have done a lot for us.’ They’ve defended the international order. The basic principle of international order is that countries shouldn’t be invading other countries and changing territory. They have held off, in large measure, a genocide. Wherever the Russians occupy, they have been killing people, kidnapping people, raping people.

Holding off a genocide is not something just that Ukrainians are doing for Ukrainians. It’s also a contribution to a better world. The Ukrainians are fulfilling the entire NATO mission basically on their own. There won’t be a war in Europe so long as the Ukrainians are fighting the Russian army because there’s no way the Russian army can fight another war. If Russia defeats Ukraine, of course, it can. And, in my view, anyway, they’ve made a war with China much less likely because they’re showing how offensive operations are complicated and unpredictable, and a Chinese Communist Party that doesn’t want to be embarrassed is going to pay attention to that. And the Ukrainians are showing that there are people out there in the world who are willing to take risks for democracy, which is a pretty important example, I think, for us and for everybody. They’re doing all those things for us. I think that’s where the conversation should start. And then it’s like, ‘Okay, well then, what are we doing for them? For this strategic bonanza and this moral example, what are we doing in return?’ I think that’s where the conversation should be starting. Because as I see it, I mean, there are a lot of reasons to care about Ukraine, and I care about Ukraine as such. But even if you didn’t, if you’re just an American concerned about American interest, there’s a kind of unusual strategic opportunity here where so many things are possible for so few resources. And even if you’re just a hard-headed American realist, this is a historical opportunity which you’re never going to see again, and I wish people would care about the moral issues. But even if they don’t, I wish people would care about our own interests because our own interests point in exactly the same direction here.

In sum, the Ukraine conflict serves as a crucible wherein the imperatives of geopolitical brinkmanship intersect with the sobering realities of nuclear deterrence. Concurrently, Russian President Vladimir Putin adopts a bellicose, irredentist posture, issuing veiled threats directed towards Poland and the Baltic states. Such rhetoric underscores the precariousness of the geopolitical equilibrium in Eastern Europe and augurs further destabilisation if left unchecked. This is why the United States and European allies must render their unwavering support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, a pernicious and disingenuous culture war debates designed to attack ‘woke’ culture proceeds apace in the US, most often directed at interculturality, multiculturalism, immigration, Black Lives Matter and gender identity, which are blamed by an enraged far-right on ‘liberal elites.’ According to Kiara Alfonseca, the term ‘woke’ emerges from the lexicon of progressive Black Americans, its genesis rooted in the crucible of racial justice movements during the early to mid-20th century. Within the context of the Black community, to be deemed ‘woke’ carries profound significance, according to Alfonseca, connoting a state of heightened awareness, enlightenment and social consciousness vis-à-vis prevailing inequities and systemic injustices. She points out that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary elucidates this conception, delineating it as an amalgam of being informed, educated and cognisant of the pervasive spectre of social injustice and racial inequality.

Further, notes Alfonseca, the origins of the term ‘woke’ find historical resonance in the crucible of struggle and resistance against racial oppression. A seminal artifact of this epoch resides in the historical recording of the protest anthem ‘Scottsboro Boys’ by the venerable Lead Belly during the 1930s – a veritable testament to the enduring struggle for racial justice. The eponymous ‘Scottsboro Boys’ denote a group of nine Black teenagers who were unjustly accused of raping two white women aboard a Southern Railroad freight train in northern Alabama in 1931, an emblematic case that reverberated throughout subsequent decades, as chronicled by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Alfonseca attests that the archival rendition of Lead Belly’s composition, rendered years after the harrowing incident, assumes significance as a poignant invocation for vigilance and awareness within the Black community. The refrain ‘stay woke’ resonates as a clarion call, exhorting Black Americans to maintain a steadfast awareness in the face of the ever-present threat of racial violence endemic to the socio-political landscape of the American South. Implicit within this exhortation, notes Afonseca, is the imperative for perpetual vigilance – a collective resolve to remain cognisant of the insidious manifestations of racial oppression and to resist its encroachments through informed action and solidarity.

In one of its contemporary semantic nuances reported by Alfonseca, the term ‘woke’ commenced a trajectory of increased prominence coincident with the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, as delineated by Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The catalyst for this resurgence lay in the seismic socio-political reverberations emanating from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri – a watershed moment that laid bare the entrenched inequities and systemic violence endured by the Black community in the United States. Alfonseca reports that it was the demonstrations in Ferguson (a series of protests and riots that began in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 10, 2014, the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by FPD officer Darren Wilson), precipitated by the tragic demise of Michael Brown at the hands of law enforcement, that served as a crucible wherein the simmering grievances of racial injustice and police brutality were thrust into the national consciousness. Amidst the fervour of protest and calls for systemic reform, the ethos of being ‘woke’ assumed renewed significance, encapsulating a collective awakening to the stark realities of racial oppression and the imperative for conscientious engagement with issues of social justice. By virtue of its resonance within the lexicon of contemporary activism, the term ‘woke’ became emblematic of a burgeoning movement seeking to galvanise public awareness and mobilise advocacy efforts aimed at dismantling structures of systemic racism, white supremacy and inequality. Thus, writes Alfonseca, the events in Ferguson marked a pivotal juncture wherein the term ‘woke’ transcended mere linguistic currency, assuming a mantle of symbolic potency emblematic of the zeitgeist of resistance and resilience within the Black community and beyond.

As reported by Alfonseca, on the eve of the 2022 election, Governor DeSantis adamantly repudiated what he termed ‘woke ideology,’ asserting an unwavering commitment to resist its encroachments. Emphatically rejecting any surrender to what he perceives as the imperatives of a ‘woke agenda,’ DeSantis positioned his administration as steadfast guardians of policies deemed antithetical to such ideological currents, intimating that individuals have been drawn to Florida by virtue of its adherence to these principles. The climate of opposition to ‘woke’-ness in Florida has precipitated discernible actions, notably manifesting in measures curbing the inclusion of race-related content within educational curricula. Instances include the disapproval of an Advanced Placement course in African American history for state high schools and pledges from college administrators to eschew certain facets of race-related discourse, particularly those elucidating ‘intersectionality’ – the conceptual framework positing that systems of oppression intersect and compound one another – as a central analytical lens for pedagogical inquiry and reform.

Governor DeSantis has orchestrated policy directives within educational institutions designed to circumscribe discussions pertaining to race, oppression, gender and sexual orientation. Notably, initiatives such as the Parental Rights in Education Law and the ‘Stop WOKE’ Act have been promulgated to delimit the purview of classroom discourse on these topics, ostensibly in deference to parental prerogatives and convictions (see McLaren). Furthermore, his administration has enacted prohibitions on expenditures directed towards diversity, equity and inclusion programs (DEI) within the precincts of public higher education. Beyond the confines of Florida, warns Alfonseca, a broader trend of conservative-led legislative endeavours has emerged, characterised by concerted efforts to constrain programs, classes and training initiatives addressing issues of race, diversity and equity. The multifarious campaign against ‘wokeness’ epitomises a profound ideological struggle concerning the delineation of public discourse and educational frameworks. This endeavour underscores the fraught landscape upon which discussions pertaining to societal mores and the politics of identity transpire. Indeed, it has devolved into a virulent conflict marked by its unsightliness and acrimony.

The term ‘woke’ has been co-opted, its semantic essence distorted to encapsulate a sweeping array of concepts antithetical to the conservative right. Analogous to the promiscuous use of ‘communist’ by conservatives to vilify any political figure harbouring viewpoints deemed excessively liberal across domains such as race, whiteness, identity, immigration, jurisprudence, abortion and beyond, ‘woke’ now serves as a catch-all pejorative. Ishena Robinson draws clear attention to the black lineage of the term ‘woke’:

‘To be woke is to be Black’ is how Okayplayer Senior News and Culture Reporter Elijah Watson defined the Black American colloquialism, now broadly used derisively, when he embarked on a journey in 2017 to plot its origins. Ironically, his research first turned up a 1962 New York Times essay, ‘If You’re Woke You Dig It, ‘by the then Harlem-based writer William Melvin Kelley, who was highlighting the phenomenon of Black American slang being appropriated by white people who often missed or altogether distorted the words’ original meanings, until the idioms were taken over, inevitably transformed and ultimately abandoned by their original Black creators.

Robinson reveals that the term ‘woke’ permeated various facets of African American existence, gaining traction and significance over time. She notes that its emergence in the lexicon of Black Americans dates to 1940, when a leader of a Black mine workers union in West Virginia, upon discovering the stark wage disparities between Black and white labourers, defiantly proclaimed, ‘We were asleep. But we will stay woke from now on.’ This historical anecdote, as documented by Michael Harriot, elucidates the genesis of ‘woke’ within a Black-specific context, highlighting a collective awakening to systemic injustice. Subsequently, writes Robinson, manifestations of ‘woke’ discourse continued to manifest across decades, as evidenced by Barry Beckham’s 1972 play ‘Garvey Lives!,’ in which a character articulates a newfound awareness catalysed by the teachings of Mr Garvey, signalling a commitment to vigilance and activism within the Black community. Moreover, the term found resonance in the vernacular exchanges of Black individuals across geographical regions, including the South, Midwest and the East Coast, notably flourishing within the vibrant milieu of Harlem.

Robinson points to Harlem as a city bathed in wokeness. Indeed, Harlem stands as a historic locus of Black cultural and intellectual vitality, where the ethos of the Black Power movement found fertile ground. It was within this dynamic milieu that Robin D.G. Kelley reportedly first encountered the term ‘woke,’ underscoring its association with the ethos of Black empowerment and resistance against systemic oppression. According to Robinson, the very milieu of Black consciousness, rooted in a profound understanding of history and an assertion of agency against injustice, renders the term ‘woke’ particularly susceptible to its current deleterious appropriation. Indeed, the lamentable distortion of this colloquialism mirrors a broader pattern wherein numerous Black concepts and intellectual contributions have been unjustly vilified.

Robinson affirms that the evolution of ‘woke’ parallels the fate of many other pivotal ideas within Black discourse. During the civil rights movement, the rallying cry of ‘Black power’ was swiftly stigmatised, misconstrued as synonymous with communism and anti-white sentiment. This misappropriation eventually birthed the polarising concept of ‘white power.’ Similarly, contemporary initiatives such as the ‘1619 Project,’ which seeks to foreground the enduring impact of slavery and the invaluable contributions of Black individuals to American history, have faced disparagement, with detractors weaponising the project as an insult. Likewise, reports Robinson, the affirmation ‘Black Lives Matter,’ aimed at spotlighting systemic and institutionalised racism and police brutality, has been unjustly vilified as an expression of ‘anti-white sentiment,’ resulting in its prohibition in certain educational settings and the emergence of counter-narratives like ‘all lives matter’ and ‘blue lives matter.’

According to Robinson, the burgeoning intensity surrounding the term ‘woke,’ notably accentuated in the wake of the 2020 racial justice reckoning (when the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery became a rallying cry in cities and towns across the country, forcing the United States to confront the racism of its past and present), prompts a critical inquiry into its primary instigators. This surge in discourse coincided with a widespread awakening among Americans to the imperative of addressing systemic racism and the enduring legacy of anti-Blackness within the nation. So, it is time for the left to reclaim the term ‘woke,’ and Mary Frances Winters gives us some ideas on how to take it away from the far-right and to repristinate the term for all to use. If you haven’t woken up, it’s time to do so.

Winters writes that to be ‘woke’ encapsulates a multifaceted ethos rooted in compassion, egalitarianism and conscientious action. It signifies a profound recognition of the intrinsic worth and dignity of every individual, irrespective of their demographic characteristics such as race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. At its essence, being ‘woke’ entails fostering an empathetic connection with others, premised upon a fundamental acknowledgment of shared humanity. Central to the ethos of being ‘woke,’ notes Winters, is the rejection of notions of superiority or entitlement, embracing instead a belief in the equitable distribution of rights, opportunities and dignity for all. This ethos extends beyond mere sentiment, manifesting in tangible acts of kindness, generosity and solidarity towards those in need. Moreover, Winters affirms that being ‘woke’ engenders a perspective characterised by abundance rather than scarcity – a worldview that celebrates diversity and recognises the inherent value of different lived experiences. It entails a commitment to learning from and honouring the richness of cultural, social and individual differences, fostering a spirit of inclusivity and mutual respect. Winters maintains that being ‘woke’ transcends passive empathy, demanding proactive engagement in addressing systemic injustices and inequities. It impels individuals to speak out against discrimination, oppression and inhumane treatment wherever it may be encountered, catalysing collective efforts towards fostering a more just and compassionate society.

Furthermore, the ethos of being ‘woke’ extends beyond human-centric concerns, encompassing a deep-seated reverence for the interconnectedness of all living beings and the natural world. This entails, according to Winters, a conscientious stewardship of the environment and a recognition of the profound implications of climate change on both present and future generations. Echoing the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Winters finds the essence of being woke in embodying a love that transcends self-interest – a love characterised by its unconditional nature and unwavering commitment to the well-being of others. Winters uses the concept of love, epitomised by the Greek term’ agape,’ as the guiding principle for enlightened action, permeating both individual lives and the fabric of society. Winters cites Mahatma Gandhi, who eloquently expressed that, where there is love, there is not only life but also illumination – a guiding light that illuminates the path towards a more compassionate, equitable and harmonious world. Thus, being ‘woke’ beckons us to embrace this ethos of love as the cornerstone of our individual and collective endeavours, inspiring transformative change grounded in empathy, understanding and solidarity. If you are not already ‘woke,’ it’s time to get ‘woke’ and stay ‘woke.’

Remember that, when white folks denigrate a perspective, an action, or an ideological sentiment as ‘woke,’ they are participating in the ‘flipping of Black vernacular to anti-Black pejorative.’ Robinson quotes from an interview with Michael Harriot in Legal Defence Fund: ‘When you look at the long arc of history and America’s reaction to the request for Black liberation – every time Black people try to use a phrase or coin a phrase that symbolises our desire for liberation, it will eventually become a cuss word to white people.’ This ‘cuss word’ unites white folks in their ‘crusade against consciousness,’ according to Harriot: ‘They say they are serving a patriotic ideology that will deliver America from the scourge of Black history, diversity, equity, inclusion, trans rights, homosexuality and women choosing what to do with their own bodies. Just as conservatives managed to turn terms like ‘political correctness,’ ‘family values’ and ‘religious liberty’ into bludgeons with which they can beat back the spectre of equality, they successfully redefined ‘wokeness’ by turning it into a pejorative that is synonymous with the demise of everything good and white about America.’

Keep in mind that when white people who viciously attack Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs as ‘woke,’ or attack programs described as anti-racist, anti-sexist or anti-homophobic (such as critical pedagogy or critical race theory) as ‘woke,’ they are effectively revealing what they fear the most – the liberation of people of colour. There is nothing inherently wrong in criticising aspects of diversity programs or government-mandated ideological prescriptions around race and gender, and there will always be disagreements about how definitions are arrived at, or how ideologies become entrenched, and policies are formulated and carried out. But in using the word ‘woke’ to mean everything that you happen to vehemently disagree with, you are donning a coxcomb hat and brandishing your ideological compass that points to the hate-filled horizon of white supremacy. When you fear that the struggle for the liberation of people of colour, of the oppressed, of the immiserated, has gone too far, you are accepting, in the words of Michael Harriot, ‘the whitewashed history that the anti-woke warriors seek to preserve’ and engaging in ‘an attempt by the right to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement.’

Harriot writes:

Contrary to the claims of those who profess to know ‘what MLK would have wanted,’ King spoke more about being woke than he did about dreams or mountaintops. His Remaining Awake speech contradicted the conservative assertion that institutional racism is a myth and dispelled any notion that the US is not a racist country. In his 1964 address to Oberlin College, King called racism a ‘national problem,’ explaining that ‘everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions.’ Anti-woke activists would have hated his 1966 lecture at Southern Methodist University, when the speech included a version of history that began in 1619 as the ‘first Negro slaves landed on the shores of this nation … against their will.’ That sounds a lot like critical race theory. Maybe he was trying to teach people how to be an anti-racist.

Four days after he assured the nation on 31 March 1968, during a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, that ‘we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’, an anti-woke warrior fired a bullet into Martin Luther King’s face.’ Harriot writes:

So, was King wrong?

Maybe the moral arc of the universe is just part of a circle that bends towards whiteness. Perhaps the lesson of 2022 is those who refuse to teach America’s true history have doomed us to repeat it. Or maybe it is a lesson in physics – for every positive action, there is an equal and opposite backlash. Emancipation, then mass incarceration. Reconstruction, then segregation. The civil rights movement begat the states’ rights movement. The 1619 Project spawned the 1776 Project. LGBTQ+ pride produced ‘don’t say gay.’ The response to critical race theory was the ‘great replacement theory.’ Black Lives Matter spawned White Lives Matter. And when the murder of George Floyd opened the eyes of people who say they ‘don’t see colour,’ the racial reckoning resulted in an equal and opposite white backlash that morphed into the anti-woke movement.

So be careful. Be woke about what you are thinking, and extra-careful regarding the toxic ideological odours you might imbibe when you are in the ideological vicinity of a Ron DeSantis, a Christopher Rufo, a Steve Bannon or a Stephen Miller. They are merely leveraging white anxiety for their own political interests. And let’s not forget Tucker Carlson, whom, Harriot notes, ‘has informed his audience that everything from Black Lives Matter to brown M&Ms are purveyors of evil wokeism. He told his viewers that the threat from the woke was far greater than the threat from Russia, asking: ‘Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?’

According to David French, ‘MAGA Republicans’ hatred and contempt for Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian cause is shockingly vehement. Candace Owens says she wants to “punch” Zelensky. Donald Trump Jr calls him an “international welfare queen.” Carlson says he dresses “like the manager of a strip club.” It’s all bizarre and unreasonable. And it all fits the broader MAGA narrative.’ French explains that ‘[t]o MAGA, Putin isn’t just innocent; he’s admirable. Heroic, even, in some ways. He isn’t defined as an authoritarian dictator at the helm of one of America’s chief geopolitical rivals. No, he’s defined as an anti-woke leader who defends Christian civilisation by taking on the decadent West.’ Ellen Ioanes notes that ‘Putin has worked during his presidency, and over the last decade in particular, to create a narrative of “traditionalist” Russian history and culture that has led to the ongoing war in Ukraine and the exclusion of minorities like LGBTQ people, among other things.’ When the anti-woke troglodytes in America’s red states join hands with Putin, whose anti-wokeness extends to an ongoing attempt at exterminating an entire sovereign nation that he feels is tainted by the desire for freedom and democracy, then we can safely condemn anti-wokeness as a transnational disease.

In July of 1989, I was invited to give a talk at the Kellogg Centre for Adult Learning Research at the University of Montana, in Bozeman, where I was graced with the opportunity to meet the legendary Appalachian educator Myles Horton at a conference where we were both scheduled to speak. The following year, Myles published a dialogue book with my mentor, Paulo Freire, entitled We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Myles was famous for his work at the Highlander Folk School. Jerry Summers and Mickey Robbins report that Myles, a native of Tennessee, conceived the notion of establishing a folk school following a transformative journey to Denmark in 1931, where he witnessed the efficacy of such educational institutions firsthand. In collaboration with Don West of Georgia and Jim Dombrowski of Florida, Horton materialised his vision by founding the Highlander Folk School in 1932, situated on a sprawling 200-acre farm generously bequeathed by women’s suffragist Lillian Johnson. Nestled in the rural expanse outside Monteagle, Tennessee, this bastion of progressive education swiftly garnered notoriety as one of the most progressive – and contentious – educational enterprises of its era. Highlander swiftly evolved into a hub of intellectual exchange and grassroots activism, offering intensive courses ranging from two to eight weeks in duration. These sessions catered to a diverse array of constituencies, which, as Summers and Robbins report, included woodcutters, coal miners, government relief workers, textile labourers and farmers. Attending courses at Highlander provided them with the tools and solidarity necessary to challenge exploitative labour practices and hazardous working conditions. In effect, Highlander emerged as a pivotal outpost at the vanguard of the burgeoning Southern labour movement. But when Highlander extended its outreach to African American participants in 1934, it drew threats of reprisals from established labour unions. Robbins and Summers report that evangelist Billy Sunday exacerbated the controversy in 1935 with his incendiary rhetoric denouncing the school as a hotbed of communist subversion during a sermon in Chattanooga. Prominent newspapers pilloried Highlander for its perceived association with socialist and communist ideologies. Supporters of Highlander included Cordell Hull, Harold Ickes, Hugo Black and Eleanor Roosevelt. Robbins and Summers point to Highlander’s pivotal role in fostering interracial dialogue and activism, exemplified by the attendance of seminal figures such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. (whose association with the school was disparagingly characterised as ‘communist training’ in certain quarters), Andrew Young, John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael and Eleanor Roosevelt. Led by Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson, Highlander developed a citizenship program in the mid-1950s that taught African Americans citizenship rights and basic literacy skills. Huddie ‘Leadbelly’ Ledbetter (sometimes written as Lead Belly) starred at a major fundraiser in December 1940 in Washington, DC. I appreciated serving on a panel with Myles, where he defended my use of the term ‘praxis’ against some panel members who were openly averse to the term.

Clearly, Horton played an important role in fostering wokeness among black and white participants in his school, one of the few public spaces at the time where black and white folks could study and plan together. By the early 1950s, the centre’s focus shifted to promoting racial integration. Horton and the Highlander staff organised workshops on school desegregation in 1953, a year before the US Supreme Court overturned the ‘separate but equal’ principle. Black and white attendees sat side by side in violation of state law, according to Matt Lakin. Lakin writes that ‘Blount County deputies raided an integrated summer youth camp in Townsend organised by Highlander staff in 1963. When Horton went to a Maryville cafe to meet with an attorney about the raid, a stranger clubbed him into unconsciousness.’ The school was protested by the Ku Klux Klan, shut down by Tennessee authorities on several occasions and firebombed. The work of Highlander continues, including tackling issues from the environmental consequences of strip mining to the rights of immigrants and refugees. If this is the history of a school designed for wokeness, sign me up. But as history has taught us, there are consequences for becoming woke, especially for people of colour. So, exercise extreme caution. And stay woke.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2024). Nuclear Daze: Waking up to the War on Nukes and the War on Woke. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.