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In ‘Morning After The Revolution,’ Nellie Bowles Can’t Pick A Side

Cancel culture pack leader Nellie Bowles’ new persona is a ‘hemming-and-hawing moderate’ willing to poke fun at anyone.

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In 2018, Nellie Bowles wrote a scathing profile of Jordan Peterson for The New York Times, portraying him as a grifter and the patron saint of incels. In 2021, Bowles obliquely apologized. Not mentioning Peterson by name, she lamented all the past collateral damage from her addiction to going viral.

At the Times, she would write stories that she called “kills,” and her metric of success was how loud the Twitter mob roared in response. This approach made her famous. She also felt it was making her a sociopath. So she left the Times and resolved to be more careful with her words.

Her new essay collection, Morning After the Revolution, is certainly light on “kills,” but, unfortunately, it’s light on conviction as well. Reviewing some of the insanity of the past few years — BLM, CHAZ and abolish the police, trans activism — Bowles seldom offers insight, instead rehashing widely covered events with some wisecracks and colorful reporting thrown in. Whereas her takedown of Peterson was mean-spirited but unambiguous — she was a foot soldier of the progressive left — her new persona is a “hemming-and-hawing moderate” willing to poke fun at anyone.

In the format of her satirical weekly news roundups, this positioning works well. But that same tone doesn’t translate well to a book-length review of the hottest issues of the past five years. By eschewing principled stances in favor of sarcasm, Bowles adds little to the conversation besides entertainment.

When Johns Hopkins defines a lesbian as “a non-man attracted to non-men,” she can wisecrack, “Yep, that’s me,” but she does not follow that with a defense of her position on gender and sexuality. Her analysis falls prey to cynicism and the fallacy of moderation.

The Fallacy of Moderation

Aristotle posited in the Nicomachean Ethics that a virtue is the golden mean between two vices. Between cowardice and recklessness lies courage. Between shyness and shamelessness lies modesty. This is a compelling ethical theory, but applying this principle in all situations — believing that truth is always found at the midpoint — is fallacious.

For instance, if I say the sky is red and you say it’s yellow, that doesn’t mean it’s orange. By the same token, if one side is pro-LGBTQIA+ and the other side supports traditional marriage, that doesn’t make pro-LGB correct. On fundamental questions like, “Are all white people racist?” or “Are trans women and biological women the same?” humans need and deserve principled, thorough responses, not merely a splitting the difference between the rhetoric of the extreme left and right. Otherwise, your position depends on the whims of radicals.

Nevertheless, Bowles, a married lesbian, is mealymouthed when examining whether the trans movement is a logical extension of the gay rights movement or a hijacking of it. In a brief aside, she admits that she had a “tomboy” phase and may well have undergone hormone therapy were she a child today.

She worries that trans activists claiming that biological males would have no advantage in sports — an obvious falsehood — will undermine something that seemed already settled: that gay marriage should be legal. She joked: “I was feeling, honestly, a little crazed about it all — these doctors are neutering little gay kids was my tone at dinner parties. Everyone is erasing women was something I would try to bring up in really inappropriate settings.”

Then her Reform Jewish synagogue announced that the next “Tot Shabbat” — the children’s service — would be a drag queen story hour. Bowles initially panicked, but when the day came, the drag queen ended up giving a “very, very deeply Jewish Tot Shabbat.” Bowles concludes, “Our daughter loved it and so did I,” because after all, she remembers “being at drag bars as a teenager and how amazingly fun it was.” On the biggest lightning-rod issue of our day, Bowles’ conclusion is a shoulder shrug.

Flippant to a Fault

When Bowles’ book was first announced, the press release called it Struggle Sessions, evoking the repressive Soviet regime (and implying parallels with Bowles’ former employer, The New York Times). But Bowles turns out to be no bomb-thrower, so perhaps it makes sense that the title ended up being Morning After the Revolution, implying that the BLM riots, CHAZ, and TERF/trans showdowns have more in common with a one-night stand or binge drinking than a police state. The “morning after” can be a little embarrassing upon reflection, but it’s hardly cause for shock and alarm.

This same lax attitude holds for Bowles’ opinion of her own contributions to cancel culture. Here again, as an NYT darling-turned-outcast, one might expect some gory detail or hard-earned wisdom. Instead, the chapter “The Joy of Canceling” opens by describing the “pleasure” of canceling someone:

To do a cancellation is a very warm, social thing. It has the energy of a potluck. Everyone brings what they can, and everyone is impressed by the creativity of their friends.

Then, instead of meditating on the perverse incentives of cancel culture and what she learned, she merely says she lost her taste for blood once she fell in love. Bowles would end up marrying Bari Weiss, who was an editor for The New York Times until she wrote a viral resignation letter accusing the Times of illiberalism, antisemitism, and a culture that viciously punished Wrongthink. Bowles left quietly a few months later.

Bowles admits that she was never canceled the way Bari was. One wonders whether it’s because she was too canny to be canceled or merely too milquetoast to be problematic. As the saying goes, it’s good to have enemies: it means you’ve stood up for something, at some time in your life. Bowles seems to have few.

What Could Have Been

Morning After the Revolution is plagued by all the books it could have been.

There could have been Nellie Bowles, bona fide counter-elite: a product of San Francisco private schools, Columbia University, and The New York Times, now a columnist at The Free Press and critic of the culture she came from. Or Nellie Bowles, award-winning reporter, here to give the definitive retrospective on the insanity of 2020 bolstered with on-the-ground observations. Or Nellie Bowles, Hillary Clinton-supporting lesbian who finds herself now feted by the right-wingers in her comments section, trying to make sense of our new coalitions.

Bowles does none of this. Instead, we have a book of outdated reporting — we already know BLM was a front, DiAngelo is a race hustler, and San Francisco is a hellhole — with wishy-washy analysis, punctuated with some blessed respites of humor. Bowles’ refusal to make normative judgements makes her arguments tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying because she never stakes out a position, never steps into the arena.

Funnily enough, Jordan Peterson talks about just this challenge. In his view, maturity requires progressing from naivete to cynicism to courage. Cynicism is better than naivete — at least you’re not being fooled — but courage is better still: to stand for something, to aim higher rather than merely tear down.

Morning After the Revolution feels like a work in progress, a disillusioned progressive using irony as cover until she gets her bearings again. Bowles is smart, witty, and talented. A little more courage and conviction (dare I say, a little more Peterson?) would stand her in good stead.


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