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The Strange Liberal Backlash to Woke Culture

Why Meghan Daum, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wesley Yang reject social justice movements on the left

There is a certain kind of liberally inclined writer who sees Donald Trump’s America as a nation in crisis. At every turn, in every tweet, she is confronted by the signs of an ongoing catastrophe, from which it may be too late to escape. An ugly, vicious intolerance spread on social media; the collapse of norms once considered sacred; a crass narrow-mindedness surreally celebrated by some of this country’s most powerful institutions—these are all elements in the gathering storm of a new, distinctly American fascism. The twist is that this crisis has its source, she contends, not in the person of Trump, but in his frothing-mouthed opposition: the left.

That, roughly speaking, is the thesis of a group of writers who, since Trump’s election in 2016, have chastised the left for its supposedly histrionic excesses. Their enemies extend well beyond the hashtag resistance, and their fire is aimed, like a Catherine wheel, in all directions, hitting social justice warriors, elite universities, millennials, #MeToo, pussy hat–wearing women, and columnists at Teen Vogue. Everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates down to random Facebook commenters is taken to task, which makes for a sprawling, hard-to-define target. These writers might call their bugbear “woke culture”: a kind of vigilance against misogyny, racism, and other forms of inequality expressed in art, entertainment, and everyday life.

The title of Meghan Daum’s new book—The Problem With Everything—conveys just how far she believes the woke left has overstepped. Its publication follows similar works of polemic recently by the novelist Bret Easton Ellis (White) and the journalist and essayist Wesley Yang (The Souls of Yellow Folk). Together they constitute a school of thought of sorts, distinct from the usual howling condemnations of wokeness from the right. These three writers, after all, don’t fit the profile (straight, white, male, conservative) of the average anti-P.C. crusader. Daum insists that she is a feminist; Ellis for a long time struggled with his public identity as a gay man; and Yang made his name as an astute chronicler of Asian American life. Yet, in styles ranging from anxious foreboding to visceral contempt, they each oppose what is at its heart a movement for equality.

At their worst, these writers’ critiques of contemporary culture suffer from the flaw Lionel Trilling once found in conservatism: that it does not express itself in ideas, but in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” At their best, they offer a rousing defense of individuality and the right to express oneself, no matter what society might demand. It is a liberal vision, but a cramped one, emphasizing one sort of freedom over all others: the freedom to be wrong, to be offensive, to be exempt from any obligation to anyone else.

I should note at the outset that I am not unsympathetic to the concerns of these liberal (or liberal-ish) writers, although none of them shows a particularly firm grasp of the thing they are rejecting or its history. The writer Kashana Cauley has traced the use of the term “woke” to unionized black workers in the midcentury and to the civil rights movement. In her childhood in the 1990s, wokeness was “a command to keep ourselves informed about anti-blackness, and to fight it.” The last five years have seen more and more people take up this mantle, as Black Lives Matter called for sustained protest against systemic racism, and the election of Trump laid bare the depth of the white patriarchy’s enduring power. To be woke in 2019 is, in part, to be a critic; whether recognizing the subtle sexism in a TV show or celebrating the political messaging in a music video, it is a form of close reading that has always been aligned with activism.

Gallery Books, 256 pp., $26.00

Young people tend to be more attuned to this discourse than their parents. For those who aren’t squarely of the millennial generation, it can be difficult to adjust to the postures and reflexes of woke culture, particularly as it is voiced on social media. As in so many debates over identity, the stakes are high, and a lot is seen to rest on each judgment. There are good opinions (as evidenced by thousands of retweets) and bad ones (the dreaded ratio). An ill-advised op-ed by a famous New York Times columnist can be the subject of swarming condemnation, which very often will include suggestions that the columnist be fired or otherwise “canceled.” Even a poorly worded tweet by a random person with a dozen followers can invite a furious response, since it could exemplify a widespread prejudice.

WHITE by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 272 pp., $25.95

The inspiration for Bret Easton Ellis’s White was his gut response to the Trump resistance specifically and woke culture more broadly. “Somewhere in the last few years—and I can’t pinpoint exactly when,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “a vague yet almost overwhelming and irrational annoyance started tearing through me.” Ellis objects not only to the discourse, however, but also to the whole notion that young people have any grounds to complain. He cannot fathom why so many people, including his millennial boyfriend, are so worked up over Trump’s election. After all, he notes, Trump described Mexican immigrants as rapists “only once.” Why can’t the kids stop whining? “The legions of the disappointed had failed to get over the outcome of the election, failed to move on,” he writes, “and at times it became appalling, almost unbearable, that there were no signs of accepting one of life’s simple if brutal truths: you win some, you lose some.”

W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pp., $24.95

Is it even worth pointing out that this is something only a wealthy white person would say? That there are children in cages or that newly emboldened white supremacists have taken to the streets of American cities does not seem to have left much of an impression on Bret Easton Ellis. Indeed, in his telling, the most pernicious consequence of Trump’s otherwise inconsequential election is that it gave woke culture the license to run riot. “Everyone has to be the same” now, Ellis grumbles; everyone is forced to applaud the same politically correct television shows and cheer for the same politically correct heroes. “And if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist.” A pampered generation raised on victimhood—“Generation Wuss,” Ellis calls it, in contrast to his own hard-bitten Generation X—has exploited Trump’s rise to impose its sniveling paradigm on everyone else. “When did people start identifying so relentlessly with victims,” he asks, “and when did the victim’s worldview become the lens through which we began to look at everything?”

The irony of White is that it is a book-length exercise in playing the victim. It is Ellis who, in his skirmishes with the social media thought police, claims to have been condemned by “a new fascism” that “willingly censored people and punished voices, obstructed opinions and blocked viewpoints.” It is Ellis who says he has been “subjected to an ever-widening social and professional fatwa” because he refuses to recognize “how hateful and dangerous Donald Trump is.” (He doesn’t, however, give many examples of actually losing out on opportunities because of his opinions, and he continues to write screenplays and books, including this one, published by the venerable Alfred A. Knopf.) It is Ellis who believes he has been left behind by liberalism, once it “hardened into a warped authoritarian moral superiority movement.”

It is difficult to engage these broadsides in any serious way, because Ellis does so little work to back them up. Everything that he throws at his opponents can easily be flung back at him. Do social justice warriors act as if they are morally superior? Maybe, but Ellis himself claims to be taking a brave stand against “stamping out passion and silencing the individual,” in what reads very much like a morally superior position. Is woke culture rigidly incapable of brooking dissenting opinion? Perhaps, but Ellis spends an entire book refusing to consider any opinion that might make him question his own. Are millennials thin-skinned? Ellis is so upset about being called a sexist and a ninny online that he has written tens of thousands of aggrieved words about it. And has the resistance to Trump really descended into a “childlike fascism”? Ellis defends the supporters of Trump’s hateful and, yes, fascistic presidency, by citing the First Amendment: “As a writer I have to believe in free speech no matter what,” he declares, retreating from the muddy waters of the world into the safety of principle.

Toward the end of White, Ellis wonders what Patrick Bateman—the sociopathic financier in American Psycho, who represents the morally decrepit core of capitalism in the Reagan years—would be doing today. He has trouble envisioning Bateman’s life beyond his ’80s heyday, a failure that suggests some overlap between the author and his most famous character: They share a coldness that once read as cool. But White shows that coldness can be as banal as it is outrageous. One can imagine an elderly Bateman in the austere luxury of his Manhattan apartment, his impassive face bathed in the greenish glow of a smartphone, sending his empty thoughts about pop music and Hollywood and politics into the ether.

Meghan Daum has a lot in common with Ellis. Both are proud members of Gen X, a cohort they revere for its purported toughness and love of irony. Both are inordinately pleased with the names they have bestowed on their weak-kneed, irony-hating millennial counterparts: The “wokescenti” is Daum’s portmanteau version of “Generation Wuss.” Both are driven to distraction by the Trump resistance, suffocating under its heavy atmosphere of urgency. And both like to shore up their positions by trotting out arguments from Joan Didion, who, they seem to hope, will lend their screeds a patina of legitimacy.

Before Daum came out as a loud opponent of woke culture, she was best known for sprightly personal essays that spoke to the concerns of modern feminists—about her struggles with debt as a young woman, for example, or her decision not to have children. She now cuts a rather different figure, positioning herself as a critic of feminism from within, tracking all the ways it has gone off the rails since Trump’s election, with its “silly memes and shallow expressions of badassedness.” Unlike Ellis, she at least pays lip service to the notion that Trump poses a threat both to women and to others. “I get that these are bad times,” she writes in The Problem With Everything. “Very, very, very bad times.” But her heart just isn’t in it. Her real beef is not with oppression or inequality, but with millennials who have framed “Trumpism as a moral emergency that required an all-hands-on-deck, no-deviation-from-the-narrative approach to cultural and political thought.”

Indeed, this could be fodder for an excellent, Salvador-esque examination of political culture in a time of crisis. But no matter how many times Daum invokes the spirit of Didion (Daum and Ellis are both specifically enamored with Didion’s 1972 takedown of feminism, “The Women’s Movement”), she has nothing of Didion’s dispassionate precision. What we get instead are hopped-up rants against pussy hats cut with rueful digressions about menopause and marriage, like a dismal cross between a Bari Weiss op-ed and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck.

There are so many potential angles of attack on this deeply silly book that it is hard to know which to choose. There is her attempt to both-sides the issue of toxic masculinity by invoking “toxic femininity,” citing the “remarkable number of men” who have reported to her of being approached “often wordlessly” by women for sexual encounters, including “unsolicited hand jobs.” (I find it odd, to say the least, that I have never heard similar reports.) Or there is Daum’s investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct at the University of Iowa (she is skeptical of claims of a campus rape culture), in which she interviews, and is highly sympathetic to, the accused, but fails even to make contact with the accuser. “I hate that I can’t get her side of the story,” she lamely concludes. Or there is her habit of brushing aside the major claims of the #MeToo movement—about the pernicious effects of the patriarchy, the systemic nature of sexism, etc.—with personal anecdotes. Her argument usually boils down to this: Meghan Daum herself was not directly disadvantaged by systems of oppression, and therefore she has trouble believing they exist.

Daum’s obsession with pussy hats nicely distills the utter confusion and point-missing that are hallmarks of this book. If you have forgotten them (and I nearly had), pussy hats were worn by women during the Women’s March protests that took place in cities across the country the day after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. They were meant to convey solidarity against a president who had bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” as were signs and T-shirts that read “Pussy Grabs Back.” The hats were not the most sophisticated political statement; they were, the younger generation might say, a little basic. But Daum loathes them with a passion that far exceeds their significance. She suggests that women should have worn a uniform of “smart-looking blazers” instead. She grinds her teeth over the “nasty woman” shirts and the march’s vibe of raucous defiance. She worries that the resistance has squandered an opportunity to appeal to a broader base, including people who may have gone over to the “dark side.”

In her characteristically sloppy fashion, she does not say who those people might be, but she does drop one telling detail: She did not attend any of the marches herself. Some on-the-ground reporting might have helped her analysis. I was at the main march in Washington, D.C., as it happens, and my recollection of the pussy hats is that they were worn by women of all ages, but were particularly favored by a certain kind of middle-aged woman: happy to be there, yet mad as hell at the political situation; defeated but proud to march with her daughters; and very definitely including Generation X, which would seem to contradict Daum’s entire premise that coddled millennials have undermined the feminist project with their crude hashtags and embarrassing outfits.

There is a broader lesson, too, in Daum’s myopic focus on these protesters and their ugly hats. While she wrings her hands over random Facebook comments and other ephemera, she refuses to engage seriously with the substantive arguments that have been made on behalf of #MeToo. She name-checks #MeToo skeptics such as Bari Weiss and Caitlin Flanagan, but makes no mention of the movement’s pioneers and stoutest defenders—no Rebecca Solnit or Rebecca Traister or Tarana Burke. Astonishingly for a book about feminism in 2019, she fails to discuss in any depth the examples of Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Les Moonves or even Donald Trump, all of whom have been accused of using their power to abuse women for decades without repercussions. To read her book, you would not think that the problem is the men who have long degraded women, but the women who have finally dared to speak up about it. There is one chapter about her friend’s account of showing up to work at an investment bank in the 1990s to find that some man had jerked off on her desk out of spite; the title of the chapter is “Just Switch Chairs and Move On.”

If Ellis and Daum constitute the crude id of the backlash to woke culture, then Wesley Yang could be considered its more sophisticated ego. One of the more eloquent writers on male Asian American identity, he is best known for two groundbreaking essays, both collected along with other essays and magazine profiles in The Souls of Yellow Folk. These pieces—“The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” in 2008 and “Paper Tigers” in 2011—fulfilled a central promise of the left’s new identity politics: making visible those who had been rendered invisible by the predominant culture.

In both, Yang speaks from the tormented perspective of one of the overlooked. Despite outward signs of assimilation and success, Asian Americans, he writes in “Paper Tigers,” are considered “a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.” The men, in particular, are sexually undesirable, powerless, and emotionally crippled by a servile subculture that is obsessed with academic success, with math and violin lessons—with a soulless, by-the-numbers kind of American dream. The proof lies in both anecdote and data: the painfully maladroit men who confide in Yang that they cannot live comfortably in their own skin, the way whites do; the ranks of exquisitely credentialed Asian Americans who fill the middle tiers of this country’s most profitable companies, but rarely make it to the top.

There is something extreme in Yang’s characterization of the Asian American’s plight, a bottomless self-loathing that is as repellent as it is fascinating. But for the most part it rings true, showing the ways in which a racially divided culture’s values—about beauty, success, merit—are internalized by the minority and become the warped reflection by which he deems himself hideous, unlovable, alien.

Which is all to say that Yang makes for a curious critic of woke culture. He has been knocked for focusing so intently on the Asian American man’s sexual woes, and there are parts of The Souls of Yellow Folk that treat women as ciphers, as merely the measure by which these sex-starved men—who perhaps would now be described as “incels”—hope to gain their redemption. (The essay “Game Theory,” first published in n+1 in 2008, is an empathetic treatment of the world of pickup artists and their bible, The Game.) Yang seems to see these criticisms as part of an overcorrection for the misogyny and sexism in American life that he explicitly recognizes—as a misguided attack on masculinity itself, just as campaigns against racism, he believes, have morphed into a zero-sum war on whiteness.

There is a point in The Souls of Yellow Folk where you can see Yang poised uneasily on the fence. In “We Out Here,” originally published by Harper’s in 2016, he marvels at the sea change that has occurred in minority politics: Campus activists, he writes, had given “voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish.” And yet he cannot quite get on board: The idea that we really can be equal “still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential.”

The book concludes with a couple of essays that explore this potential. Here we see all the anti-woke tropes prevalent in Daum and Ellis: that the left’s obsession with white male supremacy comes from a deranged campus politics and social media, not the election of Trump; that an illiberal liberalism is using its “administrative and disciplinary power to delegitimize, stigmatize, disqualify, surveil, forbid, shame, and punish holders of contrary views.” It is perhaps no coincidence, though it is a shame nevertheless, that Yang’s normally lucid prose gives way in these later essays to a hectoring tone, full of opaque jargon.

Yang is primarily concerned with the way woke culture clashes with a “liberal individualist emphasis on laws and rights.” The Souls of Yellow Folk shows that the brilliant, sometimes maddening individual has long been Yang’s cynosure, even in the magazine profiles that seemingly have little to do with yellow folk at all. The tragedy of the hacker-turned-martyr Aaron Swartz is that he dared to be iconoclastic in “a world whose irrational power must sometimes simply be endured”; the historian Tony Judt is approvingly quoted as saying the intellectual’s primary duty is to dissent, “above all, from the consensus of their own community.” The individual, in the form of Yang himself, is the hero of “Paper Tigers”—the person who becomes a writer so he can be “his own law”; who rejects both the fetters of a self-destructive Asian American culture and a hegemonic white culture that demands his fealty; who is determined to express his “obdurate singularity at any cost.”

I can recognize the appeal of this creed. Yet where does it leave everyone else? To repurpose a criticism of V.S. Naipaul, the implication of Wesley Yang’s work is that the only way to transcend America’s various racial traps is to become Wesley Yang.

Literature, whether in the essay or in fiction, has long been a battleground between the individual and the community. The truth is a constant negotiation between what the individual thinks and feels and what the rest of the world thinks and feels; this negotiation is particularly amenable to a form that both elucidates the individual’s viewpoint and seeks to make it universal. The individual and the world, the world and the individual—they feed off and inform each other. Think of the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet realizes she has been utterly wrong about Mr. Darcy all along. It is not just that she was wrong about the world beyond her narrow perception, but also about her own ability to discern the truth: “Till this moment, I never knew myself,” she says.

Some 200 years later, the narrator in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 offers an updated version of this negotiation, when he describes a receptionist he finds attractive: “She was not unusually beautiful, but her proportions, visible through her black pantsuit even while she sat, were consistent with normative male fantasy.” It is a funny line, the neurotic writing professor diagnosing his own horniness as if it were a malady, but also a tad disturbing. The critics of woke culture might say that this character is exhibiting a kind of internalized wokeness—adopting the politically correct lessons of gender relations so blindly that he can’t trust his own desires. Does he know himself? Or does he only know what academia and elite discourse and social media have taught him?

If there is a proper balance between individual truth and worldly truth, it would be hard to locate it with any precision. The claims that woke culture has gone “too far” at the expense of freedom of thought, however, strike me as overblown, not least because Ellis, Daum, and Yang possess powerful platforms to say whatever they want. While woke culture surely has its flaws, as any political movement does, it has not destroyed masculinity or irony as we know it—not if the involuntary flutters of Lerner’s hyper-aware narrator are to be believed.

The foot-stamping insistence on individual rights obliterates what should be a tension between those rights and the well-being of the community as a whole. This is all the more relevant at a time when the political implications of unbridled individualism, represented by capitalism’s self-made man, have never been clearer. There must be a way to express oneself while also ensuring that others aren’t silenced, oppressed, and forgotten. There must be a way to protect the individual while addressing dire problems that can only be fixed collectively, from environmental collapse to systemic racism and sexism. To err on the side of solidarity, even against one’s strongest emotions, is not to sacrifice our individual humanity. It is to accept what Elizabeth Bennet finally learned: that the truth will set you free.