Goldberg: Did ‘wokeism’ die of success or disinterest?

An author derides the ‘New Progressivism’ she says canceled Lincoln, then died of success. It’s not that simple.

By Michelle Goldberg / The New York Times

In her new book “Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches From the Wrong Side of History,” Nellie Bowles, a former New York Times journalist grown disillusioned with both the mainstream media and the left, writes about the year 2020, when the combustible confluence of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the prospect of Donald Trump’s reelection made politics and culture go “berserk.”

She describes a liberal intelligentsia “wild with rage and optimism,” brimming with “fresh ideas from academia that began to reshape every part of society.” Her name for this phenomenon, often derided as “wokeness,” is the “New Progressivism,” and her book attempts, with varying degrees of success, to skewer it.

There is much about that febrile moment worth satirizing, including the white-lady struggle sessions inspired by the risible Robin DiAngelo and the inevitable implosion of Seattle’s anarchist Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Bowles dissects both in the book’s best sections. She seems to be inspired by the great works of 1960s and 1970s New Journalism about the absurdities of the counterculture, most famously Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” and Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” But “Morning After the Revolution” is undermined by Bowles’ lazy mockery and insupportable generalizations.

“At various points, my fellow reporters at major news organizations told me roads and birds are racist,” she writes. “Voting is racist. Exercise is super racist.” Even allowing for 2020’s great flood of social justice clickbait, these are misleading and reductive caricatures. It’s hardly revisionist history, for example, to point out that interstates were tools of racial segregation.

But my biggest disagreement with Bowles lies in her insistence that the movement she’s critiquing has triumphed. She describes the New Progressivism as the “operating principle of big business,” as well as the tech sector and academia. This week, speaking on the podcast of her wife, Times Opinion writer turned heterodox media entrepreneur Bari Weiss, Bowles said, “The revolution didn’t end because it lost. It ended because it won.”

It didn’t, though. Even at the zenith of the Floyd demonstrations, the corporate social justice stuff was mostly window dressing; the operating principle of big business is and always was the pursuit of profit. And now, we’re in the middle of a furious reversal.

“Plenty of companies are reining in their rhetoric and in some cases action on issues such as sustainability and diversity,” said a recent Business Insider article titled “Woke No More.” Diversity, equity and inclusion departments, briefly prized, are being dismantled. “The backlash is real. And I mean, in ways that I’ve actually never seen it before,” the head of the Society for Human Resource Management told Axios. In the face of right-wing protests, Target, a company once known for its social justice trappings, has decided to stop selling Pride merchandise at some stores. And as the Times reported, Wall Street donors who were once hostile to Trump have made their peace with him.

On college campuses, both the Gaza Strip protests and the resulting crackdown have shattered the illusion that radical politics can be seamlessly integrated into elite academic institutions. Long-running arguments about speech and sensitivity have been turned on their heads as leftists demand the right to chant slogans that offend their classmates, while moderates and conservatives invoke the need to keep Jewish students safe from emotional as well as physical harm.

Amid this upheaval, the era of content warnings and policing of microaggressions may have come to an end. (Certain progressive shibboleths, like the idea that a speaker’s intent is irrelevant in deciding what speech is problematic, have been undercut by protesters insisting that calls for an intifada be interpreted in the most benign possible light.) Donors and administrators, meanwhile, have lost patience with DEI programs, which they accuse of ignoring the concerns of Jews. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology became the highest-profile school to jettison mandatory diversity statements in faculty hiring. I doubt it will be the last.

There are aspects of the New Progressivism — its clunky neologisms and disdain for free speech — that I’ll be glad to see go. But however overwrought the politics of 2020 were, they also represented a rare moment when there was suddenly enormous societal energy to tackle long-festering inequalities. That energy has largely dissipated, right when we need it most, heading into another election with Trump on the ballot.

Bowles writes that her book “is for people who want to understand why Abraham Lincoln is canceled,” referring, I think, to the San Francisco Board of Education’s 2021 decision, quickly reversed, to give new names to a bunch of city schools. But that period now feels terribly distant. Four years ago, in response to the Floyd protests, the Shenandoah County School Board in Virginia renamed schools that had honored Confederate generals. This month, the board changed the names back.

Even if it could be sanctimonious and grating, I fear we’ll come to miss the progressive urgency that marked the Trump presidency. Bowles writes as if the uprisings of 2020 were sparked by anomie rather than real crises. She describes them with an analogy to allergy science: “When the area around a child is very well disinfected, her immune system will keep searching for a fight.”

In thinking about that period, I also tend to reach for health metaphors, but different ones. America reacted to Trump as if he were a novel pathogen and became inflamed. Now our immune system is exhausted, and the virus is returning stronger than ever.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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