There’s Nothing Revolutionary About ‘Morning After the Revolution’

There’s Nothing Revolutionary About ‘Morning After the Revolution’ 1

In Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches From the Wrong Side of History, media entrepreneur and journalist Nellie Bowles fashions herself as a dissident chafing against orthodoxies in pursuit of truth. Despite her efforts, this posturing achieves a different effect: Bowles has produced a book hewing so wholly to her own movement’s shibboleths, it functions as a primer on “heterodox” groupthink, conforming to dogma rather than puncturing it. Readers who finish Morning After will, if nothing else, walk away knowing precisely what to say if they find themselves at a dinner party with Bill Maher.

Bowles argues that American politics “went berserk” in 2020 (a bold claim about a country that went through an actual Civil War, several presidential assassinations, and the year 1968), and her book is a compendium of reporting on moments she finds particularly indicative of this contemporary crack-up.

Morning After the Revolution focuses on a specific ideological slice of American berserk, so there’s no worry over issues like the rollback of abortion rights or book bans. Instead, it revisits the same subject matter frequently examined by The Free Press, the media outlet she founded with her wife, Bari Weiss, a few years ago after they left The New York Times: the excesses and inanities of what she calls the New Progressive moment.

This is not an inherently bad or unworthy topic for Bowles or any other journalist to tackle. Her basic thesis is correct: Progressives can be corny, sanctimonious, flat-out wrong, or all three at once. Sometimes, these blunders are funny. In fact, clowning on naive or hypocritical youth and protest movements is a time-honored and much-lauded writerly tradition. (One of the odder themes of this book is how insistent Bowles is that it’s difficult or unpopular to make fun of goofy leftists.)

Iconic touchstones of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, fall into this category. (Indeed, Weiss has described Bowles as the “love child” of Didion and Wolfe.)

Reading talented journalists interrogate and mock nascent cultural movements, even if one agrees with the principles espoused by those movements, can be great fun. Radical Chic, for example, is an acidic, vituperative takedown of well-intentioned limousine liberalism that details absurd exchanges at a fundraiser held by upper-crust Manhattanites Leonard and Felicia Bernstein on behalf of the Black Panther party. It is a classic for a reason, swaggering and hilarious. (A standout moment: when a young Barbara Walters asks if the Panthers really mean they want to get rid of rich people like her.) The Bernsteins—whose commitment to civil liberties was sincere—were devastated by Wolfe’s portrayal. That doesn’t make reading Radical Chic any less thrilling. One doesn’t need to find a writer morally correct to enjoy or appreciate their work, or to agree with a piece of nonfiction thesis whole cloth to find it valuable as literature, if the writing is good enough and the thinking is sharp.

Bowles has a talent for identifying forthrightly goofy Woke Mind Virus momentS, like when an organic cleaning product company announced that it supported defunding the police or when the multinational bank HSBC pitched itself to the queer community in an ad about how gender is “too fluid for borders.” They exemplify how an atmosphere in which people and organizations feel social pressure to endorse progressive values can result in hollow gestures from institutions and individuals alike.

At its most entertaining, Morning After the Revolution hoMes in on this hollowness. In a chapter where Bowles attends a multiday course called The Toxic Trends of Whiteness, where participants are encouraged to pillory each other for making inadvertently racist remarks, Bowles captures farcical details like being asked to massage her feet until she can physically feel the whiteness infecting each toe. (Afterward, the instructor tries to sell participants on an additional two-day workshop.)

However, the writing in Morning After is, too often, simply not good enough. Bowles strives for a wry affect, but the result is often flat or irritatingly blogger-voiced. She describes a police officer killing George Floyd as a person “doing what sure looks like a murder.”

Perhaps she could get away with it were the prose more entertaining—but as it stands, Bowles’ arguments often do not stand up to scrutiny, and there are no stylistic victories to distract from how muddled her theses are. “It sounded wild. It sounded pie in the sky. But cities actually passed resolutions to defund or, in some cases, abolish their police departments. It was all really happening,” she writes in a chapter on how absurd and damaging she finds the Defund the Police movement. It’s the opening of a section that suggests that American cities are increasingly crime-addled because the Defund movement led to drastic reductions in police presence. In it, Bowles describes how she became so terrified of crime while pregnant that she went to the store to buy a gun, implying that the progressive movement against police brutality has left her in a position where she has no choice but vigilantism. (She summarizes her view of the progressive argument as such: “The real white supremacy is not buying a gun.”)

The chapter is one of the book’s most revealing, because it elides facts in favor of a tidy narrative. Crime is a valid concern for Los Angelenos, now as it has been for the city’s entire history, but the premise that the protests in 2020 led to rapid reductions in law enforcement that then led to rapid spikes in violence and mayhem is fathoms too pat.

While some major cities in the US did reduce police spending, many others actually increased spending. No city abolished its police force in the wake of the 2020 protest movement. In Los Angeles, where Bowles describes herself as fretting about rapists jumping through the windows of her Echo Park home, the police budget increased more than 9 percent between 2019 and 2022. While the LAPD did shrink in size, it didn’t evaporate. Statewide, the drop in law enforcement staffing in 2021 was 2 percent, for example, which is noteworthy. (There have been concentrated recruitment efforts to bolster those numbers.) But it also makes Bowles describing how she pays for private security guards so she can “live as though there are police” come off as remarkably hyperbolic. Also: remarkably rude to the police!

Misleading anecdotes are threaded throughout the book. In its introduction, Bowles rattles off a list of silly repercussions of the New Progressivism. “Pepe le Pew was cut from the Space Jam movie for normalizing rape culture” she writes. This would, of course, be absurd—if it were true. The rumor that the horny cartoon skunk Pepe le Pew was deemed too problematic for the Space Jam sequel took off on social media in 2021, after New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote about how the Looney Tunes character, along with several other popular childhood cartoons of yore, was problematic. But as a Deadline report noted, Pepe le Pew’s scenes had actually been cut when the film changed directors, way before Blow’s column went viral. It’s easy to fact-check this kind of tidbit, and Bowles’ opening her book with a fudged example like this speaks to Morning After’s larger failing. It’s not the work of a skeptic slashing against convention. It’s a book meant to confirm biases rather than complicate them.

Morning After the Revolution hopscotches across familiar intellectual dark web talking points in this way, mashing flatly written first-person reporting with sloppily gathered factoids and blending until the narrative sounds plausible enough if you don’t stop to consult Google: DEI is stupid, “gender ideology” is a dangerous fad, calls to defund the police are naive, kids these days are too damn sensitive, asexuals are fake and just want attention. Any reader with even a glancing familiarity with these talking points need not read this book for new information. But this book is not meant, I suspect, to persuade the uncommitted. An enchiridion for an in-group, Morning After the Revolution is sure to comfort the already comfortable. It’s Chicken Soup for the Anti-Woke Soul.