Woke-Speak of Bosses at NPR and Academia Irks the Masses


By 2025, I assert, no one is going to talk the way NPR CEO Katherine Maher talks, ever again.

No doubt the word ‘woke’ has been overused and is very irritating in the hands of right-wing politicians and commentators, for whom “woke mind-virus” is a sort of chant or drumbeat. But it’s still a convenient label for a certain brand of leftism that emerged in the 2010s in academia. It started with a strong commitment to identity politics: the idea, roughly, that political opinions do and ought to originate in the common experiences of members of racial, ethnic, religious, sexuality, and gender groups.

Perhaps this sort of identity politics emerged earlier, in the late-’80s/early ’90s period of “political correctness.” But the woke period intensified it, and taught also the preternatural power of representation and that “words are powerful.” Wokesters regard it as self-evident that many of our social problems, as understood within the identity frame, emerge from bad language and pictures and could be usefully addressed by new euphemisms and improved movies and memes and restricting or banning the use of certain sorts of words and images.

I’m using the past tense, because I think woke is over now. It was never going to stay on campus, if for no other reason than because people graduate. As it emerged, people other than professors started to hear the formulations, which appear quite insane and obscure to the average American, say. The empirical data on the effectiveness of kinetic wokery in the form of  DEI initiatives and the like has been wretched. And the absurdity of the campus situation has been emphasized in the protests of the last couple of weeks; the question of whether Jewish people have white privilege, for example, might be paramount in deciding which side you’re on with regard to the Israel/Gaza conflict. As such claims continued to reach a wider public, people started ever-more pointedly saying ‘WTF?’

I think that in a year or two, no one will be talking the way wokesters still do, unless they want to alienate almost everyone and lose elections.

The kerfuffle at NPR is one symptom of this. No one ever spoke woke as fluently as current NPR CEO Katherine Maher, one of the factors, no doubt, that irritated NPR dissident Uri Berliner. She dishes it out effortlessly and constantly, quite like a number of academic administrators I’ve known over the last few years. I’m guessing that a lot of the NPR staff went to elite colleges just before or during the rise of woke. (NPR editorial staff, according to a survey, features 87 Democrats and 0 Republicans, quite like the social sciences faculty at almost any college, let’s say). And NPR is operating overall quite like a progressive-in-the-current-sense college campus. It addresses the educated, and seeks to educate them further along the same lines.

There are many good articles about Maher’s approach, so I will just hit some highlights. Here’s a thorough analysis by Andrew Sullivan, who points out that NPR has the following “affinity groups”: “MGIPOC (Marginalized Genders and Intersex People of Color mentorship program); Mi Gente (Latinx employees at NPR); NPR Noir (Black employees at NPR); Southwest Asians and North Africans at NPR; Ummah (for Muslim-identifying employees); Women, Gender-Expansive, and Transgender People in Technology Throughout Public Media; Khevre (Jewish heritage and culture at NPR); and NPR Pride (LGBTQIA employees at NPR).” I daresay Harvard has all the same groups, and is, roughly, the very same institutional mindset.

Maher is always on about her own “white cis mobility privilege,” even as she continues to exercise it all day, in what is now a traditional yet purposeless self-flagellating disclaimer. When your CEO is telling you how it’s going to be, and decrying her own privilege as she does so, she’s liable to leave you confused.

What I’m saying is, this way of talking is a style. It’s a style that has grown incredibly irritating. It’s a style that attributes to itself the supernatural ability to change reality by changing vocabulary. So, by its own standards it must be condemned as a miserable failure, insofar as it does not help people achieve justice, but primarily alienates and divides them. It functioned fairly effectively as long as it was restricted to the academic hothouse, but as it’s emerged, the futile absurdity of its layers of euphemisms has been exposed.

There will be vestiges for decades, and many young people, having been thoroughly trained in woke academic style, will be confused and disabled politically for a bit as the echoes fade. They’ll need to adjust and maybe find a new way to be progressives. But the people who are really going to struggle are the college professors and administrators who came of age during this period, the squads of DEI officers and humanities professors who have already written hundreds of memos, or whole tenure books, in the approved vocabulary.

By 2025, they will no longer know how to write or talk. I, personally, plan to enjoy the quiet.