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The Power of Chicken Soup for the Anti-Woke Soul: Nellie Bowles’s “Morning After the Revolution”

While it might be intellectually fascinating to dig into the Marxist or postmodern roots of wokeness, Bowles’s book is a welcome reminder that sometimes things are simply crazy on their face. And maybe all that is required to defeat the crazy is to point it out.”

Nellie Bowles recently appeared at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to promote her new book Morning After the Revolution. I was in the audience that night, sitting near the front of the relatively small room. It felt like a mildly rebellious act to be there, knowing that Bowles was just about to unleash a tidal wave of criticisms against the progressive politics of San Francisco. The Commonwealth Club is a rather serious, buttoned-down institution. But surely, I thought, there would be some measure of shenanigans from the audience tonight. I glanced around to see if anyone looked primed to raise a bullhorn or rush the stage. The audience seemed tame enough.

Bowles did, indeed, chastise San Francisco for its over-the-top progressivism. In conversation with Griffin Gaffney, she mentioned all the highlights from the past four years: the homelessness crisis, the lack of enforcement of drug laws, the chaos with the local school board, the fact that the city does not need more money to fix its problems. Instead, it needs a fundamentally different approach.

To my relief, the audience lapped it up. The entire room nodded along, laughed along, and shook their heads in mutual dismay at just the right moments. Bowles scarcely had to argue her case. The fact that the progressive left had taken things too far was patently obvious, requiring no deep analysis. As a reporter covering the excesses of the left, Bowles saw her job primarily as reminding everyone that these things—unbelievably—actually happened.

“We’re at the stage where people are pretending like they never said ‘abolish the police,’” Bowles observed. But yes, they did say this, and Bowles came with the receipts in the form of her book. The simple fact that people are now pretending like they never said this is evidence that the idea of abolishing the police is obviously crazy.

If Bowles’s appearance in San Francisco was relatively light on analysis, her book—which I consumed eagerly over the next few days—was as well. This sets her book apart from the sea of other popular anti-woke books that have come out in recent years. The typical book in this genre leans heavily into analyzing the academic origins and the philosophical flaws of progressivism. For example, Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose presents a detailed accounting of how postmodernism, queer theory, postcolonial theory, etc. led to the modern progressive movement. A similar approach is taken in America’s Cultural Revolution by Christopher Rufo, The Origins of Woke by Richard Hanania, Against the New Politics of Identity by Ron Lindsay, The Identity Trap by Yascha Mounk, and so many others. 

While it might be intellectually fascinating to dig into the Marxist or postmodern roots of wokeness, Bowles’s book is a welcome reminder that sometimes things are simply crazy on their face. And maybe all that is required to defeat the crazy is to point it out. Notably, the overly-academic anti-woke books disagree on whether Marxism or postmodernism is to blame for the rise of wokeness, or some mix of both, or some mix of both plus other cultural factors. For example, Christopher Rufo and Yascha Mounk got into a heated debate on the Honestly podcast over the origins of Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and it is not entirely clear who wins the debate. But they—like everyone involved in such discussions—generally agree on the exact instances when the Left has gone too far.

At some point, arguing about the intellectual origins of a misguided political movement becomes counterproductive—perhaps even self-defeating. Consider: The Guardian recently reported that North Korea executed a man for distributing K-Pop. To show why this is reprehensible, one could—James Lindsay-style—explain how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a communist state, which is rooted in the philosophy of Karl Marx, who fundamentally misunderstood human nature; and, furthermore, to understand truly the wrongheadedness of 18th century German philosophy, it is also necessary to understand this little thing called “dialectical materialism,” which—

But is all that really necessary? Or can it simply be taken for granted that executing someone for distributing pop music is prima facie reprehensible? Surely even Kim Jong Un himself knows that this action does not represent the ideal way to run a state. 

We do this all the time. We do it in cases of murder, incest, rape, home invasions, suicide, drug overdoses, child mortality rates, etc. We know when something is truly bad, no analysis required. The important thing is to point out when something is bad, and then remind people that the bad thing exists even when it may be politically inconvenient (and perhaps also that it needn’t necessarily exist).

Similarly, we know when something is crazy or silly. Consider the Buzzfeed list of weird old American laws: In Northfield, Connecticut, it is illegal to walk down the street eating raw onions. In Florida, it is illegal to sing while wearing a swimsuit. In Kansas, it is illegal to serve ice cream on cherry pie. In California, one cannot eat an orange while taking a bath. 

It is, obviously, easy to say that it is laughable to make a law about eating oranges in the bath. But are the extremes of progressivism really as dumb as all this? Well, consider: 

To solve police misconduct—leftists have told us—we need to abolish the police. And being obese is a perfectly healthy lifestyle choice. And women are just as strong as men. And being punctual is a sign of whiteness. And hormone blockers are entirely reversible with no negative effects. And oppression against minorities in America has never been as bad as it is today.

Notice how merely presenting these claims comes off as if the claims are being mocked. That is how outlandish they are. They are self-mocking. They are blatantly silly. This is not to say that every progressive idea is laughable. For what it is worth, I (like Nellie Bowles) was a Bernie Sanders supporter and still stand by much of his original platform. But an unfortunate number of the claims made by far-left progressives have, in recent years, become truly ridiculous.

While the bulk of Bowles’s book focuses on documenting the craziness of progressivism, she does step outside the reporter role in order to provide some explanation for what the movement is about. But in place of extensive lessons in history and philosophy, she offers a kind of human explanation, centering around the way most progressives very likely see themselves.

New progressives, she writes, “came with politics built on the idea that people are profoundly good, denatured only by capitalism, by colonialism, and whiteness and heteronormativity. It was a heady, beautiful philosophy.” Explaining how this perspective applies to specific scenarios, she continues: “The police could be abolished because people are kind and—once rescued from poverty and racism—wouldn’t hurt each other. Homeless addicts can set up long-term communities in public parks because they absolutely will share space conscientiously with local families…Gender dysphoric children should be given the medical interventions they ask for, at any age they ask, because those children know themselves perfectly.” 

Naïve, much? Yes. But it is easy to see how this perspective could sway well-meaning, liberal-minded people. To reveal the naivety of their views, one could hammer on about Marxism and postmodernism. Or one could—Nellie Bowles-style—gently observe that sometimes kind-sounding policies just do not work in the real world.

This approach, I believe, is what makes Bowles’s appeal so welcome to a room full of liberal San Franciscans. Of course, this is not to say that Bowles does not have her detractors. Kate Knibbs, writing for Wired, derided Morning After the Revolution as “Chicken Soup for the Anti-Woke Soul.” Kibbs criticizes Bowles for conforming to the “dogmas” of her own “heterodox” community and for overstating the craziness of progressivism in comparison to the craziness of the Right. But even Knibbs admits, “Her basic thesis is correct: Progressives can be corny, sanctimonious, flat-out wrong, or all three at once.”

Despite the occasional negative book review, Bowles has been shocked by the number of people who have come out in agreement with her—even among those in liberal circles. For example, when she was interviewed on MSNBC, Al Sharpton seemed very much in agreement with the thrust of her work. 

Summarizing the undeniable simplicity of her perspective, Bowles tells the audience in San Francisco, “Once people become aware of this sort of fringe funniness, they don’t want that, they don’t like that. And once they stop being scared of being bullied about it, they say, ‘Enough!’ And if even San Francisco can do it, then liberalism can make a comeback against whatever you want to call the movement to the left of it.”

What more needs to be said? People do not like outrageous ideas that clearly do not conform to reality. Give the people what they want, even if it is as basic as chicken soup.

Peter Clarke, a Merion West contributor, is a writer in San Francisco and the host of the podcast Team Futurism. He can be found on X @HeyPeterClarke

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