Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reacts after publicly signing HB7, "individual freedom," also dubbed the "stop woke" bill during a news conference at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla.,on April 22, 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via AP, File)

When the history of “woke” attitudes, sentiments, and policies is written, two events of different kinds and magnitude will be remembered. Both took place in the San Francisco Bay Area in the past week.

The first and by far the most important is the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, which did not collapse from wokeness no matter what Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, and The Wall Street Journal said. 

We don’t know precisely what caused this financial institution to go from being the hot bank for the tech set to a puddle of assets that, at the time of this writing, no one wants to buy. Was the deregulation SVB and other medium-sized banks sought and received during the Trump presidency the reason for its collapse? Senator Elizabeth Warren makes a rather convincing case that that was part of it, but we don’t know and won’t for a while. That the bank engaged in sloppy risk management is indisputable. Otherwise, it would remain open for business instead of being under federal control. We should be grateful that Dodd-Frank gave regulators the capacity to not only seize the bank but, stomach-churning though it is, make whole those depositors who are over the $250,000 per customer limit for deposit insurance. The bold step was probably needed to slow the contagion.

SVB seems to have been caught in a squeeze where too much of its portfolio was  in long-term, lower-interest bonds, leaving it unable to cope with the combination of rising interest rates and nervous depositors pulling their money because of the tech slowdown. (This week, Meta announced another 10,000 layoffs.) When rumors of insolvency flew, the worrisome withdrawals became an old-fashioned panic, and SVB was forced to close its doors by the feds.

To digress, has there been anything more loathsome or predictable than the tech bros, the self-styled libertarians of Silicon Valley, demanding a handout when they’re in trouble? I’ve always loved the maxim, “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged,” and the riposte, “A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.” We should add, “A socialist is a libertarian whose investments went south.”

One thing we do know about SVB is that it did not go broke because of what’s been lampooned as woke policies. The Wall Street Journal opinion pages, which so often read like self-parody, ran a much-excoriated piece suggesting that SVB’s DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—practices somehow distracted it from being, well, a bank. Over at the broadcast wing of Murdoch, Inc., Fox News hosts, including Tucker Carlson, are laying the demise of SVB at the feet of quota-mongering technocrats. He is spreading the lie that there were no risk officers at the bank. 

DEI, for better or worse, is becoming part of corporate life, just as affirmative action has been for decades. (See News Corporation’s boasts about its diversity.) There is no way DEI led the FDIC to shut down the place any more than DEI is keeping Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase atop the banking world. But this is how the MAGA right wants to use the term “woke”—as a sledgehammer to bash enemies, not as a laser pointer to identify intolerance on the left.

DeSantis’s blather about “Florida is where woke goes to die” is part of this fear mongering. As Aalia Thomas pointed out in these pages, New College, a state public school with a progressive bent, is ground zero for DeSantis’s nuclear rhetoric. It is an excellent school whose students graduate in large numbers and go into civic-minded fields of endeavor, and that’s something we know from the Washington Monthly’s rigorous college guide. DeSantis and many on the right may talk about strengthening civic education; in that respect, they ought to be applauded. We need more of it, but they should recognize it when they see it at a place like New College.

Stanford Law School in Palo Alto is about 15 miles from Santa Clara, where SVB was based and where depositors have been left milling about in front of the bank’s headquarters, filling out forms to get their money back.

Last week, the school was the site of another one of those now-familiar showdowns. The Stanford Law School chapter of the conservative Federalist Society invited Kyle Duncan, a Trump-appointed judge on the conservative Fifth Circuit, to campus. As a litigant, Duncan had been a strong opponent of same-sex marriage and adoption. (He was a top counsel in the Hobby Lobby case.) When the court declared a constitutional right for same-sex marriage, Duncan described the decision as an “abject failure” that “imperils civic peace.” He argued it “raises a question about the legitimacy of the court.” As a jurist, Duncan declined to refer to a party by the gender with which they identify. And Duncan’s been the counsel in multiple gender-based bathroom cases. (Feels like ages ago when candidate Trump said Caitlyn Jenner could feel free to use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower.)

Duncan was not greeted warmly at Stanford. As with SVB, what precisely happened is not entirely clear. Students protested Duncan’s presence, but whether they prevented him from speaking or were disruptive is being debated even with videos of the event. Duncan, who came loaded for bear, filmed his presentation and dropped his planned lecture going directly into Q&A with Stanford students, which added to the tumult. (Duncan called one of them an “appalling idiot.”) At one point, the dean in charge of diversity, equity, and inclusion stepped in to say that Duncan’s views were repellent and seemed to encourage him to take a hike. She also told the assemblage that he should be able to speak. When it was all over, the law school dean, Jenny Martinez, did a wise thing and sent a letter to Duncan (also signed by the university president) promising an investigation, reiterating that Stanford believes in free speech, and apologizing. She seemed to chastise the DEI dean.

I wasn’t there and can’t begin to sort out the Duncan dunking if the school’s dean can’t. We do know that campuses are supposed to be the most tolerant places in our society, the most open to free inquiry and that they often are not. The Stanford melee, such as it was, shows that it’s not always easy to sort out the difference between censorship and rudeness but that both are bad. (One of the signs held by a protester said, “Duncan can’t find the clit,” which, for all we know, may be true of Earl Warren.) The footage below looks censorious, but the videos aren’t definitive. This one, distributed by a conservative think tank and filmed by a conservative activist, is one angle.

Over at Slate, Mark Joseph Stern has what feels like far too benign an interpretation of the Stanford-Duncan events. But my point is less about this event and more that events like this keep happening. The joy the right gets from watching left liberals take the bait tells us something about this SVB-Stanford era. We’re now far removed from debating issues—how should health policymakers deal with children who identify as trans, how we promote civic education, and what is the best way to regulate banks more than a decade after the Financial Crisis. Instead, we’ve entered a period of theatricality where the debates are over postures and placards, not the issues themselves. 

Those of us who have been concerned about what we saw as woke intolerance, who thought the Harper’s letter was a good thing and not a micro (or macro) aggression, are now in a position not unlike liberal anticommunists during the McCarthy era (Joe, not Kevin). Anticommunism was a noble and liberal aim in the post-war period pursued by Democrats like Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson against the Stalinist expansionism of the Soviet Union that had crushed Eastern Europe and finds present-day echoes in Ukraine. McCarthy was a malevolent buffoon, a demagogue’s demagogue whose red-baiting ruined lives (my late uncle was blacklisted) and discredited anticommunism for years after he died in 1957 at 48 at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, censured and disgraced, his booze-soaked liver finally giving out. It took a long time for other politicians to screw up the courage to denounce McCarthy. (Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower could have done much more.) 

It’s time for people concerned with what they see as woke excess to do two things: Denounce grandstanders like DeSantis, and second, retire the word woke, which has been so recklessly misused that it’s lost its utility as an agreed-upon word. (“Hipster” and “neoliberal,” for very different reasons, might go in this category, as might “problematic.”) If we’ve reached the point where a major party makes the risible charge that a bank failure was caused by wokeness, it might be time to get a new word or simply applaud or denounce events in all their complexity without applying a label. Getting rid of “woke” might disarm, at least a bit, the modern McCarthys who brandish it. Likewise, when a Trumpy judge comes to campus to provoke, and lefty students react with predictable dyspepsia, that’s neither wokeness nor scholarship nor activism nor progressivism. It’s just farce.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.