The following story is co-published with Freddie deBoer’s Substack.

Last year I published my second book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. The book functions as a set of criticisms from the left towards the “reckoning” of 2020, the sudden spasm of righteously-motivated but deeply misguided social unrest that sprang from George Floyd’s murder, in particular, as well as from MeToo, the Donald Trump presidency, and the stresses of COVID-19. Ultimately that moment functioned as the inevitable climax of the elite world’s 2010s social justice craze, a strange decade-plus where a lot of people who had previously been milquetoast center-left Democrats suddenly adopted radical identity-politics personal branding. (And pretended that that’s what they had been all along, natch.) It was a period in which a lot of upwardly-mobile liberal professionals went from Barack Obama to bell hooks, from Pod Save America to the 1619 Project. This evolution was very welcome in spirit, but in practice tied contemporary liberalism to a type of identity politics that was long on rhetoric and short on potential. The 2020 moment was the fullest expression of that change, the beginning of an end that at the time looked like just a beginning.

While the media was falling into a deranged reverie of emotionally-charged hype regarding what was happening IN THE STREETS, screaming about the Tom Cotton op-ed, busily trying to ruin the lives of people who pushed back – while that was all happening, the institutions that make up American life were saying a lot and doing nothing. All the media attention and the genuflecting corporations and the billions of dollars in donations couldn’t distract from the glaring reality that none of it was going anywhere. The highly sympathetic but strategically directionless protest movement rallied around no coherent ideology, held immediate goals that were too extravagant and long-term goals that were too vague, and relied on the amplification of an elite liberal class whose support was about as deep as the grooves in a record. The inadequacy and incoherence of what was happening was plain as day, to me, but in online life and in our elite institutions any critiques of the movement were rejected violently, preventing the essential work of critical solidarity. I wrote the book to make those and many more criticisms of contemporary progressive politics, drawing on my decades of work in anti-Iraq war organizing, grad student labor leadership, and New York City housing activism as well as in media.

All the media attention and the genuflecting corporations and the billions of dollars in donations couldn’t distract from the glaring reality that none of it was going anywhere.

There were two assumptions that I had about the book that proved to be incorrect. The first was that it would join a crowded field; I thought that, since the hype around the 2020 moment had grown so incredibly loud and the returns were so obviously disappointing, other people would be writing left critiques of the politics of that moment. But very few have been published; perhaps there’s no audience for such things. The second wrong assumption was, if anything, more depressing, but I probably should have predicted it. I had expected a lot of impassioned defenses of the “reckoning,” people who felt strongly that my criticisms were unfair. I did get some of that, which is how this all is supposed to work – I defend my point of view, you defend yours. But to my surprise, the communal response I got from liberals went much more like this: “Are we still talking about that? Can’t we move on? It’s all a little embarrassing. Why do you even have to bring it up?” Rather than heartful championing of everything that had happened, or qualified defenses of choices made in a time of crisis, the most common left-of-center response was a kind of annoyed impatience that I was bringing it up. A few years earlier, these liberals were rabid defenders of what was happening. Now, they suggested that everyone already felt quietly sheepish about it all, thanks, and also they were never personally that into the whole thing. This was all a self-defensive rejection of what they thought and said just a few short years earlier, one that allowed for no introspection and thus no progress.

Hard to do a better job encapsulating what I’m talking about than this review of Nellie Bowles’s new book by Molly Fischer, for The New Yorker, the flagship publication of Boerum Hill liberals who can’t decide if it’s time to take the BLM sign down from the window of their tasteful brownstones.

Fischer’s critique of Morning After the Revolution (which I have not read and so will not comment on) is well-worn. It rests on the assumption that there is an anti-woke media, that Bowles is a part of it, that her wife Bari Weiss is a key cog in it, and that every argument that emerges from that space arrives in the world pre-rebutted. Well, it happens that there is an anti-woke media, and Bowles is surely part of it, and most of what that industry puts out into the world is indeed exhausted and pointless. The anti-woke are finding it difficult (as everyone does) to realize that they aren’t truth-telling outsiders but rather represent a point of view that’s very useful to the powerful; so many of them have postured as rebels for so long that they can’t look around and see that, indeed, the vibe has shifted, and in their direction. I keep wondering how many pieces lambasting the college students protesting against the war in Gaza have to be published in mainstream papers and magazines for people to grasp that you can’t be an outsider by engaging in such rhetoric. And the anti-woke are annoying.

Fischer’s criticism of Bowles’s book relies on the exact kind of attitude I’m talking about, the attitude that acts as if the 2020 postmortems have all been written and the questions it inspired are settled.

But it does not follow that anti-woke arguments can therefore merely be named and then discarded. I’m sure that as a former editor at The Cut (the Pravda of white women who force their Black colleagues into their Instagram photos) Fischer would prefer to simply force me into the same anti-woke box and seek credit for it on the company Slack. But I’m afraid I actually am a Marxist, and I actually do have more left-wing organizing experience than the combined staff of most publications that specialize in social justice yelling, and my criticisms of the social justice turn are actually not easily dismissed, though they are easily ignored. And I find that Fischer’s criticism of Bowles’s book relies on the exact kind of attitude I’m talking about, the attitude that acts as if the 2020 postmortems have all been written and the questions it inspired are settled. But no one can credibly argue that “the reckoning” accomplished anything like as much as it demanded, and it was immensely influential in our politics, and so criticism is necessary. And I have no particular attitude towards Bowles or The Free Press, I guess; I’ve done their podcast and published an excerpt of my book with them, but I’m quite disgusted with their coverage of Gaza and the protesters, who for the record I support in almost every particular. (“Free” press is relative I guess.) Either way, at some point if you dismiss everyone who criticizes a particular political tendency, there’s no conversation to be had at all.

And you can certainly turn this dismissal of anything anti-woke on its head; in fact conservatives do, all the time. But both woke and anti-woke arguments have direct political salience in our system and so all of this ignoring isn’t helpful. Still, there’s an obvious reason that Fisher would be so eager to insist that Bowles’s perspective betrays an ideological bias that’s not worth engaging – it serves the interest of her own ideological bias. Peep this bio.

Molly Fischer is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her work has appeared in Bookforumn+1, the New York Times Book Review, and New York, where she was also an editor at The Cut and host of the podcast “The Cut on Tuesdays.”

Truly, a testament to ideological diversity and relentless self-critique.

Here’s my thing: why on earth would you have this person review a book by Nellie Bowles? Fischer complains that Bowles’s critiques are too predictable and thus of little use, but is this review not itself so predictable as to be useless? Is there anyone in the world who could read that bio and say “Ah, yes, that’s a person who’ll give a book by Nellie Bowles a fair shake”? Her resume reads like a parody of an ambitious radlib woman’s sweaty climb up the ladder of fancy pants New York media. It’s an artifact of a very particular time in media’s history, a deeply unhealthy one, and an unembarrassed statement of the exact kind of politics you have to embrace if you’d like a job at whatever’s left of Conde Nast. On actual political substance, I’m aligned more closely with almost anyone who works at the places on Fischer’s CV than I am with the average employee of the Free Press. (I suspect it would be quite difficult to name an actual political issue on which I disagree with Fischer.) But political failure always demonstrates that process matters, and avoiding difficult conversations helps no one.

Woke and anti-woke arguments have direct political salience in our system and so all of this ignoring isn’t helpful.

Take, for example, DEI excesses. There’s this weird liberal two-step that happens with this issue. On one foot, DEI is just opposition to racism, and look at the horrible things Republicans are doing that prove that we need DEI! And on the other foot, there’s often a hand-waving dismissal of the relevance of corporate DEI policies, the same “oh everyone already knows that stuff is a joke” attitude that Fischer evinces. The trouble is twofold: Republicans freaking out about DEI can’t amount to a defense of DEI as actually practice, and more to the point, everyone does not in fact know that corporate DEI practices are a joke. Some very powerful people still treat them as the central front in the war against racism. Bowles published an excerpt from her book in The Atlantic, detailing a truly absurd anti-racism training for women that she attended. It was full of the mawkish and pointless white liberal self-flagellation that was in fashion for much of the past decade and a half, as well as the same zero-sum racial politics that seem designed to make progress harder. When the excerpt was published, some people dinged Bowles and The Atlantic because the described event took part in 2021 – again, this insistence that all of that stuff is now safely in the past. But even after a considerable drawdown, corporations are still making great efforts and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on DEI practices. Workers are still forced to go through with them. And it’s still entirely unclear if they help anyone but the highly paid consultants who run those workshops and trainings.

These suggestions that various progressive practices are already old news, when they remain very much live issues, is a broad problem. Fischer:

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.

This, frankly, is just wrong, and it’s a good example of a liberal feeling like a social justice practice is hard to defend and then opportunistically dismissing it as a myth. But it’s not a myth. Progressive stack is a formal rule in many, many left organizations. When I was coming up in the antiwar days from 2002 to 2005, progressive stack was still rather rare but far from unheard of; I waited my turn in that system plenty of times back then. From 2016 to 2022 I attended dozens and dozens of organizing meetings in the NYC housing movement, primarily with Met Council on Housing and the big statewide umbrella group, Housing Justice for All. More of those meetings were run under progressive stack than not. I don’t know how anyone can assess contemporary organizing and its weird internal politics without understanding that progressive stack is a thing. And (for the record!) in my book, I explicitly say that progressive stack isn’t that big of a deal and I don’t mind it. The practice can be bad optics and is often not worth fighting for, but it’s mostly harmless and rarely leads to any kind of internecine conflict. But is progressive stack a fair target of criticism from someone who rejects its assumptions? Sure. More importantly, it’s a very common practice and thus inherently relevant.

Here’s a key passage.

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.

This, I would argue, is exactly where Fischer would do well to actually open her mind to the critiques and consider: why did so many of the most powerful people in the world suddenly decide that the thing to do was to drape themselves in kente cloth and take a knee? Is that really so uninteresting to you, the fact that these immensely influential people got sufficiently caught up in the moment that they felt they had to engage in such theatrics? It’s quite a strange example for Fischer to pick; in the process of denying that Bowles’s criticisms of the social justice movement have any real-world salience, she offhandedly mentions the time Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer humiliated themselves in their effort to show deference to a street protest movement. That seems like a big deal! Almost all of America’s elite institutions went out of their way to demonstrate at least symbolic support for BlackLivesMatter, from academia and media and nonprofit land but also the corporate world and government, to an unprecedented degree. If your stance is that this was all good, that’s a stance you can make and defend. But defend it! Don’t hide behind “oh hey, whatever, that wasn’t a big deal.”

Why did so many of the most powerful people in the world suddenly decide that the thing to do was to drape themselves in kente cloth and take a knee?

Ultimately, the root of the problems with the 2020 moment is the same as the root of so many other problems within the broad left-of-center: a failure to understand that the left and liberals are two distinct groups, that identity politics are an ultimately conservative alternative to the collectivism that has always defined the left, and that being emotionally radical about what are ultimately toothless liberal politics can’t result in actual radical ends. A typical claim you hear is that the 2020 moment went “too far left.” But as I said, again at the time and in my book, the version of that political moment that filtered out from elite media was in fact archetypally liberal, not leftist – it was the fullest flower of identity liberalism and all of its many limitations. The vision of politics it represented was inherently geared towards dividing the potential left coalition up into smaller and smaller slices, directly cutting against the central task of politics, which is bringing people together based on mutual self-interest. The cross-racial, cross-gender, cross-religion potential of the labor movement was ignored or actively rejected, as the dictates of the movement insisted that statements like “we’re all in this together” were somehow disrespectful to the pain felt by “Black bodies.” The social justice movement of the 2010s took as given that a basic task of organizing is to divide and conquer within your own coalition. And so of course it failed.

You will, as you like, object to some or all of my perspective on this. But I must insist on this: something happened between the start of the second Obama term and 2022 or so. Something changed. There was some sort of evolution in American political norms, specifically involving what we crudely refer to as “identity,” particularly among the country’s educated elite. And it all came to a head in the summer of 2020; that was the boiling over. Go back and look at all the goddamn magazine covers. $244 million dollars was donated to related charities and groups just by MicrosoftVast majorities of Americans evinced support for the protests in polls, briefly including a majority of polled Republicans, a truly remarkable outcome in a country that’s typically deeply hostile to street protest movements. The United Nations issued a resolution in protest against George Floyd’s murder! This was all a big deal. The trouble with acknowledging these things is that it forces you to acknowledge the way the other shoe dropped – polling support slipped gradually then quickly, the money dried up as accusations of financial mismanagement became harder and harder to ignore, our institutions largely went back to being nakedly self-interested, the moment passed.

Fischer has spent her career writing for and alongside the kind of person who said all the right things when that was required of them in 2020, who retweeted the febrile tweets about The Reckoning™, who posted a black square on Instagram, who started saying BIPOC when everyone else started saying it, who pretended to have read James Baldwin…. It’s a living. She’s free to stand askance from her audience in much the same way I do. But if she wrote anything particularly critical of that whole world of protest, at the time it was happening, it has eluded my searching. She did write

Lockdown did not end in tentative steps outdoors; lockdown ended when the marching began. The protests that followed George Floyd’s death represented a sweeping embrace of the first-person plural in all that it might grow to hold. Collective purpose had kept the streets empty, and now it filled them. We were learning what we could do.

Oh, what a journey! Now it seems that we have all learned what we can’t do, a more valuable lesson. From Fischer’s review:

Bowles is not wrong—it’s funny that there was an interlude when the C.I.A. felt compelled to share a recruiting video touting intersectionality. Indeed, there is an abundance of material within easy reach: corporate lip service to racial justice, viral news stories, videos of lectures and street confrontations, provocations of all sorts on Twitter.

But, like… that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? The point some of us have made in critiquing the “reckoning” is that, once you set aside national security apparatus social justice and cringey woowoo diversity trainings and corporate PR masquerading as principle and embarrassingly overcooked rhetoric from the media and activists, there’s nothing left of the moment, of the movement. That’s the point – that outside of some small potatoes local and state policing reforms, many of which have been rolled back, there’s just not much remaining of that which once inspired endless breathless commentary about a new chapter of American politics. None of which means that Bowles has captured any of this effectively or in a way that meaningfully provokes; again, I’ve not read Bowles’s book. I do agree with Fischer that, for example, it’s very dumb to say that the trans rights politics that have followed since 2020 are in some simplistic way a continuation of BLM. But Fischer’s piece is a good example of a broad liberal tendency, here in the mid-2020s, to hold the rhetorical cape up and then pull it away when the bull of disappointment comes running towards them. What frustrates me no end is how many left-of-center people seem to want to avoid the hard work of figuring out why nothing really went to plan.

Pretending that nothing happened has no value, other than the only value our media class seems to pursue: the value of never, ever being owned.

“The 2020 reckoning was righteous and a victory” is a stance that has value even though I think it’s wrong. “I got carried away in 2020 and looking back I admit that we were all overheated and got carried away in our rhetoric, and I’m a little embarrassed about it now” has value. “The cause was righteous, the strategy was misguided” has value. “The movement was fine until corporations and the Democrats began to take it over” has value. Pretending that nothing happened has no value, other than the only value our media class seems to pursue: the value of never, ever being owned. That’s what I think this is all about, this reflexive insistence that 2020 is the distant past, that really it wasn’t that big of a deal – if you acknowledge that there was this big political moment, that you and all your friends believed in it, that you yelled and marched and beat a drum for it, and then that moment failed according to its own outsized demands, well, then maybe you’ve been owned. Maybe you’ve been made to look foolish. Maybe you don’t actually exist at a permanent remove from ordinary human frustration and disappointment. Maybe you can fail, can be hurt, can be gotten to. And we can’t have that. So you look at the excess and failure of a passionate moment, when you allowed yourself to get carried away, and you say oh, well, hey. That was so long ago, and it wasn’t a really big deal. I have never, ever been owned.

I was able to get the Washington Post review of my book corrected because the reviewer dismissed my claim that many in the media defended the riots of that summer, saying that I had cited only one source; the correction was issued because I had in fact cited nine such sources. Completely aside from the point about my book, though, I just had to shake my head at the pretense – could there really be anyone who lived through 2020 who was so shameless as to deny the fact that there many public defenses of the riots? I would say such defenses were, in fact, ubiquitous. Have we really reached that level of kayfabe about four short years ago, that we deny that reality? Defenses of the protests, of the protests that turned violent, of the looting, of all of it, were not just totally unremarkable in normie-ass liberal spaces but expressed with vicious fervor. Now people write in the Washington Post that none of that ever happened. And if you can’t talk about the past because people are busily erasing it, afraid to be embarrassed by how earnest they were about it all… how does anything ever get better?

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