“Woke” CIA Ad Is No Reason to Throw Out the Language of Liberation

Opponents of "wokeness" want to declare anti-racist struggle dead, but co-optation doesn't determine the radical usefulness of a concept.

An unnamed CIA officer walks across the CIA headquarters’ lobby in the “Humans of CIA” recruitment video posted to YouTube on March 21, 2021.

Still: “Humans of CIA” via CIA

Last week, the Central Intelligence Agency released a recruitment ad on social media, in an effort to appeal to a millennial audience seemingly invested in notions of racial justice and feminism. The video’s content could have been parody worthy of The Onion. An agency of torture, brutal coups, and global death-dealing introduces us to one of its officers walking in purposeful slow motion through Langley. This is not the old CIA of suited grey men — it’s a diverse and feminist agency of neo-imperial violence!

In a voice-over, the agent tells us, “I am a woman of color. I am a mom. I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.” She is, we learn, a “Latina” and “daughter of immigrants” who will not accept “misguided patriarchal ideas.” We glimpse a framed photo of her with former CIA head John Brennan — a war criminal. She is “intersectional,” she says.

That last term — intersectional — was intended to apply to frameworks, not people, yet it is somehow apt here. The character is, after all, a framework in action: co-optation embodied. Even her T-shirt bears a raised fist feminist symbol.

The CIA ad kicked off a furor: The corners of Twitter obsessed with “wokeness” — both its good-faith and bad-faith critics — had a field day.

For the anti-“woke” warriors, the ad was a decisive victory. Like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in kente cloth or Amazon posting Black Lives Matter slogans, the buzzword-addled video is surely proof that to invoke race and gender is to play into the hands of neoliberal power.

“If your ideas are easily co-opted by powerful people and institutions, there is a fundamental hollowness to your ideas,” said Ross Barkan, a left-wing writer, on Twitter. He was hardly alone in expressing something like this sentiment.

The anti-“woke” takes were the manifestation of the somewhat popular idea that because a concept has been co-opted by corporate or state power, the concept was somehow inherently a tool of that power. The concept was somehow designed to be co-opted.

Neither co-optation by powerful interests, though, nor the backlash to it are new. Where many of the critics are wrong is that co-optation doesn’t really tell us anything about the inherent usefulness of an idea. Rather than jumping to conclusions — usually with a push from ideological priors — we must collectively engage in an activity ill-suited to social media: considering co-opted concepts on their own merits, rather than treating co-optation per se as a referendum on an idea’s utility.

Corporations and state actors can and will co-opt the language of liberation struggles. Sometimes it will be so successful that a term might truly no longer be useful to a social movement. So long as those engaged in struggle are able to collectively communicate and work against racist, gender-based, capitalist oppression using a given framework, then there is no reason to jettison it. In other words, if it is a useful idea, the CIA’s cynical exploitation of it shouldn’t matter to us.

Where many of the critics are wrong is that co-optation doesn’t really tell us anything about the inherent usefulness of an idea.

Those who would discard all co-opted language are employing a logic that both contradicts historical evidence and entails a misunderstanding of how language works. It is common, and correct, to point out that “identity politics” has been used as an alibi by the extractive and deadly forces of neoliberal capitalism and its state enforcers — no news there. It has also been well noted that the fascist right, both now and throughout history, has used the language of working-class solidarity to shore up racist, nationalist regimes and anti-immigrant policies to the benefit of monied interests.

Despite their claims, those who condemn any discourse of race or gender identity as a neoliberal ploy fail to understand how capitalism works through a bordered, racial regime of labor segmentation.

An unnamed CIA officer is seen posing with a framed photograph of herself and former CIA Director John Brennan in a “Humans of CIA” recruitment video posted to YouTube on March 21, 2021.

Still: “Humans of CIA” via CIA

It serves powerful institutions to defang potentially radical frameworks, ideas, and figures. When this happens, the left is faced with a challenge of whether to attempt to recuperate certain co-opted frameworks for their purposes or to abandon certain ideas to the forces of reaction. This, too, is collective work and cannot be decided in advance, with sweeping declarations.

Language and meaning are by nature mutable through collective use. So we have to be willing to deal with concepts falling into the wrong hands, as it were. It’s an issue of the way language can change and be changed — especially by the powerful. We should not be surprised that corporations and the government have the might to reshape meanings, erase revolutionary histories, and assert control over socio-political discourses.

Language and meaning are by nature mutable through collective use. So we have to be willing to deal with concepts falling into the wrong hands.

Examples of co-optation abound. The whitewashing and post hoc veneration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is an ur-example. The CIA’s history of operationalizing counterculture for the purposes of soft power is the stuff of Cold War legend. The U.S. military names its helicopters after Indigenous tribes it has decimated.

It is no accident that last year’s uprisings, led — lest it be forgotten — by young Black proletarians, were followed by vigorous efforts from state and corporate institutions to transmogrify the revolutionary upsurge into a de-escalatory discussion about representation and diversity. Not every insurrectionary moment, though, was subject to ideological capture; it’s hard to co-opt the vision of people dancing in front of a burning police precinct.

The CIA recruitment ad exemplifies the co-optation of a language of anti-racism; the CIA is not thus enacting anti-racism, which, if truly achieved, would entail the destruction of any such murderous agency.

“That the CIA can feign ‘woke-ism’ is not an invitation for one to be anti-anti-racist, it’s an invitation to critically separate the substantive from the superficial,” Adam Johnson, host of the podcast “Citations Needed,” noted on Twitter. “Forfeiting ideological currents because some greasy Langley PR guy borrows terms from them is itself cop shit.”

Of course, racists do not tend to need an “invitation” to be anti-anti-racist. That some of them see hope in an anti-capitalism that overlooks capital as historically and materially situated in racialized and gendered relations simply displays an ignorance of how capitalism functions.

An unnamed officer stars in the “Humans of CIA” recruitment video posted to YouTube on March 21, 2021.

Still: “Humans of CIA” via CIA

This is a risk for a commentariat allegedly committed to class struggle but focused only on Twitter discourse, for whom “whiteness” is a buzzword, not a propertied and necropolitical organizing force with a long history.

No terms or concepts are inherently useful at all — all linguistic posits are contingently useful to different ends. That’s just how meaning works: in use. Anti-racist, anti-capitalist struggle requires expansive collective work, collaboration, and togetherness, in which new ideas, terms, slogans, frameworks, and modes of relating and identifying can emerge; what is not required, however, is a mythical dictionary of terms set in stone, resilient to all possible co-optation.

Those more interested in ceding the work of determining which concepts are useful or not to the CIA’s PR team are welcome to do so — “cop shit” indeed. I’d rather look to the meaning-making that continues to emanate from the truly resilient front lines of the collective fights against oppression.

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