Thursday, May 30, 2024

Nellie Bowles’s Failed Provocations | The New Yorker

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The journalist Nellie Bowles writes a column called “TGIF” for the Free Press, a new media company she started with her wife, Bari Weiss. Both women previously worked at the New York Times: Bowles was a tech reporter, and Weiss was a right-leaning opinion writer and editor before resigning with an open letter lamenting that the paper was now ruled by a “mob” enforcing a “new orthodoxy.” The Free Press styles itself as an antidote to the woke excesses of mainstream institutions, and “TGIF” provides a weekly roundup of headlines on its pet concerns, garnished with Bowles’s jesting commentary. “I’m wearing my old Columbia sweatshirt and a Hamas headband—the look of the season,” one recent installment, covering the protests at her alma mater, begins.

When Joan Didion died, in December, 2021, “TGIF” included a tribute to her influence. Didion had “inspired a generation of young writers including this one” with work that “skewered the trendy movements around her,” Bowles wrote. “The Didion I read would quietly find the flabbiest bits of American culture. She was ruthless and funny. She was not on your side. She wasn’t on anyone’s side. If Didion had been working these past few years, I have no doubt who she’d be writing about.”

With a new book called “Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History,” Bowles seems to be making a bid for Didion territory. Her title evokes “On the Morning After the Sixties,” Didion’s 1970 meditation on her fundamental alienation from the previous decade’s idealism. Weiss declared her wife “the lovechild of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion.”

Bowles’s subject in “Morning After the Revolution” is what she variously refers to as “the revolution,” “the movement,” and “the New Progressive”—more or less what Elon Musk would call “the woke-mind virus”—and she presents herself as an apostate of left-wing orthodoxy. “I owe a lot of my life to political progressivism,” she writes, of her evolution. “I bristled at the alternative, which certainly wouldn’t want me.” She volunteers bona fides:

I ran the Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school, and I was the only
out gay kid for a while, sticking rainbows all around campus. After
college, I fit in well with the Brooklyn Left. I’ve been to a reading
of The Nation writers at the Verso Books office, and, my God, I bought
a tote. When Hillary Clinton was about to win, I was drinking I’m With
Her-icanes at a drag bar.

No inveterate outsider à la Didion, she was, if not a fellow-traveller of the revolution, at least a fellow-commuter, generally on board for her cohort’s quotidian habits and conventional wisdom. But she began to harbor doubts about its growing fervor, and the social opprobrium she experienced after meeting Weiss, “a known liberal dissident,” in 2018, exacerbated those doubts. She saw her peers in the media business adopting new jargon and publishing stories that identified potential racism in everything from Alzheimer’s drugs to organic food; she felt that questioning these developments was impermissible. Around 2020—amid the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and the responses, both cultural and political, that each provoked, including Weiss’s resignation—things, in Bowles’s estimation, “went berserk.” When protesters established a police-free “autonomous zone” in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that summer, she wanted to check it out, but colleagues discouraged her. Her reportorial instincts were being squelched, she felt. (She eventually made it to CHAZ, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, where she wrote a story on unhappy business owners.) In 2021, she left the Times, and set out to report a forbidden truth—that the left can be somewhat goofy. She writes, in the introduction to “Morning After the Revolution,” “The ideology that came shrieking in would go on to reshape America in some ways that are interesting and even good, and in other ways that are appalling, but mostly in ways that are—I hate to say it—funny.”

No one who remembers the day that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer wore kente-cloth stoles could argue that the past four years have lacked episodes of dazzling absurdity. Periods of social change come with shifting codes of behavior, exposing individual foibles and institutional ineptitude; people caught in the undertow of history flail revealingly. All this has made rich fodder for nonfiction prose since the days when the New Journalism took shape in the sixties and seventies, wielding novelistic detail and authorial subjectivity to capture that era’s tumult. Wolfe, the form’s self-appointed promoter, framed the New Journalism as a project of depicting status—minute gradations of subcultural hierarchy—long before anyone talked about “virtue signalling.” In “Radical Chic,” Wolfe crashes a party at Leonard Bernstein’s Park Avenue penthouse thrown to benefit the Black Panthers; he describes the nut-covered Roquefort morsels circulated on trays, and also the special frisson of supporting a cause that, guests were warned, might not be tax deductible. His anthropological scrutiny of manners and ritual make the scene indelible.

Didion’s writing on the counterculture circled an apocalyptic dread that lay beyond Wolfe’s status jockeying—but her own unsparing discernment sliced through cliché and attuned her to nuances of style and character. In a withering report on Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, she portrays its founder not as a vacuous-hippie stereotype but as “an interesting girl, who might have interested Henry James,” clad in Irish lace and serenely confident at a county-board meeting as she faces down her irritated neighbors. Didion and Wolfe brought skepticism to writing about their era’s would-be revolutionaries, but they also brought a novelist’s eye for character—a basic interest in understanding why human beings behave the way they do. Their critique rested on an acute perception of their subjects’ particular vanities.

Bowles is going for something similar. “I want you to see the New Progressive from their own perspective, not as a caricature,” she writes, near the beginning of her book. “Morning” starts with the protests in the summer of 2020 and follows a loosely chronological structure. She discusses privilege workshops and puberty blockers, the anti-racism guru Robin DiAngelo and the viral-recipe master Alison Roman, CHAZ in Seattle and the Echo Park homeless encampment in Los Angeles and the progressive former district attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.

It is difficult, though, to see Bowles’s subjects as more than caricatures when her descriptions of them are so generic. She writes that Seattle’s sixtysomething mayor has “hair perfectly blown out into the helmet that’s popular for successful women of that age.” Protesters in their teens and early twenties, meanwhile, possess “that coiled squirrely energy men have then.” At such moments, Bowles is not identifying and describing types; she is gesturing toward them, relying on readers to supply a portrait they already have in mind. Her characterization of emergent activist groups that collected donations and attention in 2020 and 2021 is similarly blank: they are “the flashiest new organizations with the best names and the sharpest websites,” or “cool, flashy nonprofits,” or “trendy groups”; in any case, they have “chic websites.” The incrementalist old-guard organizations have “basic websites.” What constitutes a flashy nonprofit, and, when you visit its Web site, what appears onscreen? Bowles doesn’t say. And “Morning After the Revolution” is a book that involves a good deal of staring at screens. Several set pieces—courses Bowles takes called “The Toxic Trends of Whiteness” and “Foundations of Somatic Abolitionism,” a panel for Times staffers on asexuality, a Columbia event on police abolition, all of which occurred online—amount to summaries of Webinars.

It’s not Bowles’s fault that events in 2020 and 2021 often happened via videoconference. But, for the reader, there is a dispiriting flatness to the results. Imagine “Radical Chic” with no penthouse, no eavesdropping, no combustible social chemistry, no outfits, no Roquefort morsels—just a transcript of unknown people, identified by a first name and maybe a hair style, addressing a group and saying cartoonish things. It’s a truism that humor dwells in specificity, and this principle works against Bowles’s efforts at bitingly observed social commentary. Instead, she resorts frequently to blunt-force sarcasm: according to the media, violent protesters are “good, very good”; according to clinicians, gender-dysphoric teens are “very wise.” She writes, “The movement makes new moral rules so fast that ‘brown-bag lunch’ and ‘trigger warning’ are actually bad now. You’re probably bad.”

You can picture a writer following up with her somatic-abolitionism classmates post-Zoom to discuss whether they have persisted in the practice (it involves humming and swaying), and fleshing out a sketch of who pays for such a class in the first place. But Bowles seems hesitant to engage personally or at length with the revolution’s foot soldiers. The people she speaks with instead tend to be the irritated neighbors, bewildered bystanders, disillusioned allies, proponents of moderate alternatives, and officials with talking points. The voice of the revolution comes from public statements, whether quoted in the media, posted on the Internet, or shouted at protests. The primary voices in a chapter on trans children (“Toddlers Know Who They Are”) are doctors and medical administrators whose quotes seem to come from lectures and videos available online.

Some figures whom Bowles considers (such as Tema Okun, the author of a widely circulated guide to “white supremacy culture”) decline to be interviewed. At demonstrations, protesters regard her warily and sometimes block her view of their activity with umbrellas. Bowles regards this as proving a point—that the revolutionaries are insular and refuse to talk to skeptics—and takes it as an excuse not to change their minds. Her account of a trans-rights protest leans on quoting things yelled by a person Bowles calls “Green Shorts,” who was wearing green shorts and yelling. Didion described herself as “bad at interviewing people”; still, she managed to sustain a level of intimacy with her subjects sufficient to get behind closed doors and see, say, a child on LSD (as in one famous scene in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). “Writers are always selling somebody out,” Didion warned, but Bowles never gets close enough to expose anything sensitive to public view. You can’t sell out a stranger on the street.

In the absence of such fine-grained scrutiny, Bowles is left rehearsing the conservative commentariat’s greatest hits of left-wing piety run amok—stuff like the “progressive stack,” a method of prioritizing speakers based on their degree of oppression, which has found greater purchase as an anti-woke punching bag than as an actual practice. “It gets messy,” Bowles writes. “Would a white gay guy go ahead of a straight Asian man? Is a trans teenager more oppressed than someone in a wheelchair?” (“Think of the sticky moral quandaries,” the Times columnist Pamela Paul mused last month on the same subject. “Who is more oppressed, an older disabled white veteran or a young gay Latino man? A transgender woman who lived for five decades as a man or a 16-year-old girl?”)

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