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Wokeness Is Dying. We Might Miss It.

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 re-election 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’s 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 click bait, these are misleading and reductive caricatures. It’s hardly revisionist history, for example, to point out that Interstates were tools of racial segregation.

Demonstrators in Los Angeles protested the killing of George Floyd in 2020.Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

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, the 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 George 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.

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