A protester uses a scope on top of a barricade to look for police approaching the Capitol Hill autonomous zone (CHAZ) in Seattle on June 11, 2020

Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

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What Nellie Saw

Good progressives are tossing the heady days of wine and wokeness down the memory hole. Lucky for us, there was a witness.

David Mikics
May 23, 2024
A protester uses a scope on top of a barricade to look for police approaching the Capitol Hill autonomous zone (CHAZ) in Seattle on June 11, 2020

Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Remember the heady days of 2020? Progressives trained by the richest universities in the land suddenly had the chance to remake America in their image, the way they had always dreamed of doing. The result was so obvious and crushing a failure that one is no longer supposed to talk about it.

Four years later, the power elite have discovered that their cosplay revolution is seen as merely ridiculous. Minority groups don’t want the new names that have been issued to them. Straight people prefer not to be called cisgender, and gay people don’t like being submerged in a tide of heterosexuals who style themselves queer. Even The New York Times, that high conclave of official euphemisms, has begun to soft-pedal chilling locutions like “gender-affirming care for minors,” instead referring honestly to puberty blockers and body-altering surgery.

Nellie Bowles’ Morning After the Revolution is a grand tour through the craziness that followed the killing of George Floyd and continues to this day, despite the majority of Americans shaking their heads in bewilderment. Bowles, a former Times reporter, started out as a progressive seeker, curious and hopeful about the new thinking, and she is still seeking solutions to racism, income inequality, and attacks on women’s rights. But she also sees the absurdity of much of what passed for progressivism, yet was actually narcissistic, neo-racialist, and aggressively inhumane.

At the Times, Bowles was hounded by an anti-disinformation editor, who was there to remind writers that the lab leak hypothesis was a conspiracy theory and also that conservatives were very bad people. The real danger was Trump, she was told, and anything questionable that the left did had to be passed over in silence, lest the enemy gain succor. When she said she wanted to go to Seattle to check out the new anarchist collective that had abolished the police, she was asked, she says, “Why do you care? No, but seriously why do you care?”

Bowles wrote several significant stories for the Times, including one on antifa in 2020, before leaving the paper along with her wife, Bari Weiss, who founded the now-indispensable Free Press. (Bowles was told by a Times editor that her new romantic partner, Weiss, was “a Nazi,” as their colleagues nodded in agreement.) Bowles wrote a mordantly funny weekly column, TGIF, for the Free Press, where she has covered many stories not fit to print in the Times and The Washington Post.

Early-2020s wokeism exerts a dismal fascination in part because it was (is?) more a patchwork than a consistent ideology. In this way it resembles liberalism, conservatism, and a few other -isms, only more so. Wokeism began in the wake of the Floyd murder with a neo-Puritan practice of self-examination geared toward the spiritual regeneration of enlightened “white people.” This project merged with a patrolling of speech engineered by academic elites who were carting around a barrelful of new phraseology. When the pandemic hit, the protesters cast their lot with the surveillance state and the powers that be, since social change could only be dictated from above.

Wokeism immediately added a contrary aspect, though—heavily-armed liberated zones in West Coast cities run by violent male youths who, instead of being agonized by their skin color (mostly super-pale, this being the Pacific Northwest), ran rampant like bite-sized made men hoisting their AKs. Those anarchist spaces were short-lived—people got killed. So, wokeism pivoted to milder forms of self-expression, like queering yourself in inventive ways, even if you were purely vanilla. (Bowles describes the speech given by Michaela Kennedy-Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo’s daughter, when she came out as “demisexual,” meaning she only wants to have sex with people she’s emotionally attached to.) Somewhere in there came the genius inspiration of Tema Okun, a middle-aged white woman, who said that Black kids, and maybe white kids too, shouldn’t try to get the right answers in school, since objectivity was toxic whiteness. Oh, and there was also that business of ending prison sentences for theft, pulling down public monuments and paintings of “white men,” helping drug addicts get high, and other interesting stuff.

Puritanism and libertarianism, of the somewhat unhinged Murray Rothbard sort, were the strange bedfellows of the wokeist movement. In the 1960s Rothbard had urged getting rid of the police, since vigilantes would do a much better job in a free market. But the new woke libertarianism was clothed in utopian social welfare garb, which made it all the more confusing. Cops would be replaced not by armed gangs but by social service professionals who would eliminate all crime, since people are inherently good and do bad things only because of social oppression. Yet there was still room for healthy mayhem, as long as it was left-wing violence directed at the police and others deemed to be “fascists.”

Over time, the Puritan side of wokeism faded, and the urge to mortify white flesh gave way to a vogue for trans-humanist gender expression, coupled with an admiration of the noble “bodies of culture” that remained nonwhite. (Bowles quotes a professor on the radio claiming that “rape did not exist among Native nations” before contact with white people.) It has ended, at least for now, with the adulation of the decidedly nonwhite Hamas with the noble hang gliders, bravely resisting the white Jews whom they burn and rape.

And it all started with the tears of self-excoriation shed by white people. Bowles quotes a Pastor Marcia of the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina:

“What is it that makes whiteness so seductive?” Pastor Marcia says. “It internalizes itself in white bodies but also black, indigenous, and brown bodies. It gets into our cells. It changes the way our bodies work. What is it about this that is so seductive that we literally eat it and drink it and let it seep into our bones?”

Like an environmental poison, whiteness pollutes everything, and there is no way to wash yourself clean, no matter your skin color.

You can substitute “sin” for “whiteness” in Pastor Marcia’s sermon. Sin is the primal toxic substance, and only by unrelenting practices of self-abasement can you begin to see its lethal effects inscribed within your own body. In the summer of 2020, Bowles notes, white police and community activists in Cary, North Carolina, washed the feet of Black people and pleaded for forgiveness.

Second-guessing everything one says or does is a crucial part of Puritan practice, in the 2020s Ivy League America just as in 1640s New England. Bowles, who attended a Robin DiAngelo consciousness-raising session, quotes a participant who wonders how “perfectionism” and “linear thinking” are really white traits, since her husband and son, who are white, aren’t perfectionists. “Then she wonders why she is wondering this, whether the question itself is white supremacy.”

Thought itself can be sinful, a key point in Puritanism. Meanwhile, Patrisse Cullors’ Black Lives Matter Global Network raked in $100 million in donations that year, large chunks of which have never been accounted for. People started saying that BLM stood for “Build Lovely Mansions,” like Cullors’ $1.4 million house in Topanga Canyon. Asking to see her charity’s finances was racist, Cullors complained: “It is such a trip now to hear the term 990s. It’s like ugh, it’s like triggering.” After some rough spots, BLM Global Network is now back in business, and ready to accept your cash.

Bowles traveled to Seattle in summer 2020, where she visited the Capital Hill autonomous zone (CHAZ). A local café owner, Faizel Khan, described CHAZ as a “white occupation”: “They barricaded us all in here ... and they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.” The occupiers, dressed in black, shattered windows and looted and castigated any “cop caller” who dared to complain. A teenager bled to death, since no ambulances were allowed to enter CHAZ. Then two more kids died, and Mayor Jenny Durkan, who had earlier called CHAZ a “peaceful expression,” ordered it shut down. CHAZ lasted less than a month. So much for armed utopia.

Later, Bowles also went to Portland, where antifa gave handy tips on “how to burn a cop car” and acolytes were reminded that “the children of Police Officers must be killed.” Police, it was noted, “include[s] doctors, midwives and psychologists who violently police gender and sexuality at the point of birth.”

Bowles continues to like some aspects of the new progressive thinking. She is open to actual attempts to tackle social ills, as well as new freedoms and styles and modes of self-definition. Drag queen story hour at the daughter’s Tot Shabbat is a big hit, relished by both Mom and child. She likes the police reform advocates, who complain that “’abolish the police’ ruined us,” diverting attention from their real, needful strategies. She is impressed by unarmed violence intervention groups, who patrol neighborhoods and try to break up confrontations between gangs, reducing the need for police. Yet violence intervention, she adds, is risky for the brave men and women who engage in it—there is a not-insubstantial death toll.

Bowles has been slammed for her inconvenient desire to bear witness to a moment of acute upheaval in American manners and social practice by the usual boundary-policing progressive outlets like The New Yorker and The Washington Post. No one has hit her harder than Laura Kipnis in The New York Times Book Review. Kipnis accuses Bowles, a mild, even affectionate satirist, of “mocking” and “sneering,” all the while smearing Bowles viciously. Kipnis aggressively misrepresents Bowles’ reporting, charging her with being a bougie NIMBYist who didn’t want a homeless encampment next to her nice LA house. Bowles, Kipnis snipes, “wishes the unhoused could just have better manners—be less rowdy, perhaps more constipated. More like middle-class homeowners.” Bowles in fact describes poor people of color who could no longer take their children to the only neighborhood park because homeless addicts were exposing their genitals, doing drugs, and beating each other up. For all I know, Kipnis lives next to an anarchic homeless camp and is having a fine time. Maybe she should write about it.

The movement has never been about actual results, only the public display of righteous intentions.

I suspect that Kipnis’ real objection to Morning After the Revolution is that Bowles opposes biological males infiltrating women’s sports and women’s prisons, as well as puberty blockers that cause sterility and the inability to achieve orgasm, marketed to gay kids who are supposed to be “really” the other gender. Bowles also criticizes the habit of relabeling women “non-men” (men are always “men,” she astutely notices, rather than “non-women”). She’s against saying that sex is “assigned at birth” as if it were the product of vague guesswork, and the misogynistic fetishizing of women as “female holes” by demented trans polemicists like Andrea Long Chu. Having herself come under fire for daring to question what she termed “sexual paranoia” on campus, Kipnis is apparently bent on shoring up her progressive bona fides by proving that she can be a useful boundary-policing instrument herself, to be employed against those who go ‘too far’ by pointing out the radical and even absurd ideas of some trans advocates (who do not necessarily speak for most transpeople).

Bowles’ most poignant chapter deals with the drug addicts that San Francisco helps to die by providing an open-air shooting gallery in the Tenderloin, which now appears to be off limits for reporters. The movement’s Dickensian libertarianism has conspired with old-fashioned social welfare policies, revamped so that they serve death rather than life. J.S. Mill upheld the right to do self-harm in a free society, and he wasn’t fazed by hard drugs—he approved of the opium trade that destroyed China. But Mill didn’t advocate refashioning social services so that addicts would have an easier time ending their lives.

In time progressives would move on from the right to kill yourself in public to the right to murder other people, as long as they were the right people, i.e., white oppressors, specifically Jews—the final station stop on the progressive crazy train being open and enthusiastic support for Hamas. Morning After the Revolution ends ominously with one of the fervent pro-Islamist rallies that now seem to be the entire focus of America’s so-called progressive movement.

The latest litmus test goal for progressives, erasing Israel from the map, will prove to be no more achievable than eradicating whiteness. But the movement has never been about actual results, only the public display of righteous intentions. Lately the righteousness has been serving evil ends, but few leftists are willing to admit this. Instead, they say that students demanding justice is a noble thing, whether or not what they are demanding is actually just; or that there really aren’t many extremists; or that they oppose genocide in Gaza, whether or not a genocide is actually happening, and while ignoring the actual genocidal rhetoric and actions of Hamas; or mostly, that you should be denouncing Trump instead.

Michelle Goldberg, in her Times op-ed about Bowles’ new book, wistfully yearned for the return of the “progressive urgency that marked the Trump presidency.” Except, the urgency is still there—not this time smashing the windows of minority business owners, saying that math is racist, or championing the right to shoot up in public, but applauding the murder of Jews, past and future. Putting progressive urgency in the past tense is a way of closing the book on that past while at the same time erasing what progressives are saying and doing in the present, in order to avoid any moral or practical responsibility for a political program that has clearly gone off the rails.

Progressivism’s moral bankruptcy is hard to overlook. Unless, of course, you write for The New York Times, in which case your strategy is to pretend that the left extremism of the past few years either didn’t happen or doesn’t matter. Luckily, we have Nellie Bowles to show us otherwise.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.