“Woke” is a four-letter word thanks to corporate marketing departments.

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Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash.

COVID-19 has upended a lot more than our lives and economy.

The pandemic- and more specifically, some of the mitigation methods we used to combat it- turned blue staters into red staters. It turned passionate public school advocates into equally fervent supporters of school choice. It turned working parents into home-schoolers, public school students into private school pupils.

It hastened some trends, reversed others. It started entirely new trends.

It also turned many starry-eyed progressives into disheartened doomsayers who have only just come to understand a terrible truth about humanity that social workers, police officers and ER nurses have long known: The world is full of people who care more about how their hair looks than if you live or die.

Wear a mask? Stay home? Covid passports? Please.

People still drive drunk, beat their kids, rob the elderly of life savings. People lie, cheat, steal, and kill- all the time. Plus, you know, war. Human beings split the atom, mapped the human genome and all we got was nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and this lousy tee shirt.

Into this fresh miasma of covid-induced hyper-partisanship, during an era already marked by unusually high levels of hyper-partisanship, we have plunged The Culture War. Or rather, it could be that The Culture War has plunged us further into the madness in which we currently find ourselves.

Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it hardly matters. Both are certainly here now, and propagating. Arguing which is leading to which gets us no further than stating the obvious connection between the two.

What isn’t as obvious, at least not yet, is that conservatives, improbable as it may seem, have started clawing back some of the gains progressives have made in the culture war over the past 20 years, and its only partially due to covid. “Woke” is now considered an insult.

The problem progressives have unexpectedly run into, is that the counter culture is always cooler than the mainstream.


As hard as it may be for many far-left progressives to accept this, and that indeed it is a great victory for progressivism; far-left liberal progressives are now the mainstream.

No one is more surprised by this than the fuchsia-haired, nonbinary, anti-capitalist Wiccans sporting “Coexist” bumper stickers and decrying the patriarchy- and they were the vanguard in the last successful battles. But it’s true, nevertheless.

Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, all the mainstream media outlets, universities, public schools, the U.S. Government; if you don’t think far-left progressivism is mainstream now, try voicing anything considered a non-progressive sentiment on Twitter or on Slack and see where it gets you.

Whatever their Democratic Party bona fides, whatever their hard-line progressive voting habits; whatever way they look or believe, liberals and former-liberals have noticed- to their horror- that questioning the sacred new dogmas of liberalism in the age of Covid gets you immediately labeled as a MAGA-hat wearing Trumpist hayseed who wants to destroy democracy and the human race.

Now that progressive causes have been taken up wholesale by the very institutions progressivism has historically stood stalwart against, as a bulwark against totalitarianism and regressive policies, progressivism has been turned upside down.

To toe the progressive line these days, “is to become less adversarial to government and corporations and more hostile to ordinary people with ideas that Twitter doesn’t like,” wrote 20-year veteran journalist Tara Henley in an open letter resigning from Canada’s broadcast equivalent of the BBC and NPR.

Henley went on to eloquently lament the new liberal tendency to, “spotlight a company’s political platitudes but have little interest in wages or working conditions.”

Henley is right: Conservatives didn’t turn “woke” into a four letter word; corporations did.

Conservatives couldn’t have done so. They wanted to, they tried. But conservatives didn’t have enough social capital, enough control over mainstream culture to turn woke into a punchline. Corporations did.

The moment car commercials and credit card companies started cashing in wholesale on woke politics, was the beginning of the end. Corporations aren’t suddenly cool because Apple is considered cool; corporations didn’t become cool when SXSW became a thing.

Any variation of “corporations are cool” or “corporations care about us” used to be enough to get any card-carrying liberal tossed out of their local, organic, sustainable, womxn-owned artisan coffee house forever. No more $11 oat milk lattes for you.

Co-opting progressivism for commercial resale purposes has eroded the progressive brand badly. Every woke commercial, every empty virtue signaling platitude has chipped away at progressivism’s stranglehold on popular culture.

Commercials aren’t cool. Not even commercials with Samuel L. Jackson are cool. The star of Shaft and Pulp Fiction doesn’t do commercials because they are just so cool; he does them because he is so cool corporations pay him a great deal to convey a tiny bit of that cool into a commercial, hopefully to make the audience forget things like predatory lending practices and punishingly-high credit card interest rates.

Corporate shills aren’t considered cool either, which is why celebrities endorse sparingly.

By coming out in full-throated favor of Democratic politicians and policies, turning their marketing departments to the task of “making the world a better place (by progressive standards),” corporate advertising departments have turned every progressive politician and political analyst into a celebrity spokesperson.

As a result of this inadvertent sell-out to corporations, liberal progressives have unexpectedly found themselves on the side of the establishment, saying things Principal Ed Rooney might have said to a chronically slacking Ferris Bueller. Or worse: Appearing cheesy.

Cheesy is universally acknowledged as the equal and opposite of cool. Commercials and cheesiness are practically synonymous for a reason.

Witness Jimmy Kimmel’s recent cringe-worthy attempt to shame anti-vaxxers with an anti-vax Barbie shtick that managed instead to plug corporations that five years ago were considered by the left to be nothing but squares in a game of evil bingo.

Credit card company, check; big bank, check; petroleum company; check. User of sweatshop or forced labor, check. Addictive junk food company, check. Commercials for alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs, double check.

Not long ago, most major corporations were regarded on the left as examples of the worst excesses of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street accused corporate executives, not without reason, of selling the U.S. working class out to globalism as an excuse to exploit low labor and environmental standards in emerging nations and widen the wealth gap.

Corporations tried to cover all this up by jumping on, and cashing in on, the woke bandwagon. They perhaps couldn’t have gotten away with it in any other age but that of COVID-19, where partisan loyalty has been elevated to a matter of life and death and democracy itself seems under some new threat every other week.

Progressives must wrest themselves back from the establishment, or demand that their new corporate partners do more- much, much more- than talk the talk in an attempt to seize market share.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)