Emerging Cracks In The Woke Elite

Some small signs of hope for liberal society


An unlikely thing happened to me on my two weeks’ off. I watched an HBO Max miniseries that mocked some aspects of wokeness.

Mike White’s “The White Lotus” is a tragicomic exposé of our current moneyed elites and the psychological dysfunction they labor so mightily under. There’s a blithe, unthinking finance jock, with a worked-out bod, an uneasy new wife, and a shitload of money, who can muster misery at the slightest ruffle in perfection. There’s the beta male, married to the mega-rich corporate CEO wife, worried about the condition his balls. There’s the super-uptight gay manager, hanging on to sobriety, as he performs for his clients; the mega-wealthy, overweight lost soul, played by Jennifer Coolidge, whose life is a pampered abyss of emotional desolation; and an aspiring young journalist who reconciles herself to money and indolence over a mindless career of clickbait snark.

The white privilege here is real — and it’s often miserable. And that’s the first clue we’ve moved past 2020. What Mike White is careful to see and understand is the humanness of every individual. They all have a story. They cannot be reduced to a single class, or an ethnic group. Wealth is unjust but it can also be immiserating. Some of the most attractive and sane characters are among the least privileged — such as Belinda, a beleaguered, overworked black woman who runs the spa, or the native Hawaiian men who perform dances for money and go on canoe races across the sea.

And the most repellent characters are two elite-college sophomores, Olivia and Paula, packed to the gills with the fathomlessly entitled smugness that is beginning to typify the first generation re-programmed by critical theory fanatics. You watch as they casually abuse and denigrate their brother — a young man consumed by living online; you see how they mock anyone who doesn’t meet their exacting standards of youth or beauty; you watch them betray and lie to each other; you see them condescend to someone still struggling to pay back student loans (see the clip above); and you witness the co-ed of color, Paula, act out her antiracist principles, with disastrous real world results for a Hawaiian she thinks she is saving from oppression. She leaves her wreckage behind, gliding away, with impunity, to another semester of battling racism.

At one point, in a memorable scene, as the white daughter expounds about the evil of white straight men, her mother points out that she is actually talking about her brother, sitting at the same table. An individual person. Right next to her. Someone she might even love, if such a thing were within her capacity. Someone who cannot be reduced to a demonized version of his unchosen race and heterosexuality. And the only character one can bond with, and root for, is indeed this young white American male, awkward but genuine, whose story ends with a new bond with his dad, an escape from online addiction, and a newly revitalized human life.

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“The White Lotus” is not an anti-woke jeremiad. It’s much subtler than that. Even the sophomores seem more naïve and callow than actively sexist and racist. The miniseries doesn’t look away from the staggering social inequality we now live in; and gives us a classic white, straight, male, rich narcissist in the finance jock. But it’s humane. It sees the unique drama of the individual and how that can never be reduced to categories or classes or identities.

And this step toward humaneness is what interests me. Because if we can’t intellectually engage people on how critical theory is palpably wrong in its view of the world, we can sure show how brutal and callous it is — and must definitionally be — toward individual human beings in the pursuit of utopia. “The White Lotus” is thereby a liberal work of complexity and art.

Another sign of elite adjustment: both The Atlantic and The New Yorker have just published long essays that push back against woke authoritarianism and cruelty. Since both magazines have long capitulated to rank illiberalism, this is encouraging. And since critical theory is an entirely elite-imposed orthodoxy, it matters when the ranks of the elite crack a little.

Anne Applebaum links the woke phenomenon to previous moral panics and mob persecutions, which is where it belongs. She too begins to notice the obliteration of due process, individual rights, and mercy among her crusader peers:

Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all.

Applebaum’s Atlantic piece is a good sign from a magazine that hired and quickly purged a writer for wrong think, and once held a town meeting auto-da-fé to decide which writers they would permanently anathematize as moral lepers.

Similarly, it was quite a shock to read in The New Yorker a fair and empathetic profile of an academic geneticist, Kathryn Paige Harden, who acknowledges a role for genetics in social outcomes. It helps that Harden is, like Freddie DeBoer, on the left; and the piece is strewn with insinuations that other writers on genetics, like Charles Murray, deny that the environment plays a part in outcomes as well (when it is clear to anyone who can read that this is grotesquely untrue). But if the readers of The New Yorker need to be fed distortions about some on the right in order for them to consider the unavoidable emergence of “polygenic scores” for humans, with their vast political and ethical implications, then that’s a step forward.

The profile also puts the following woke heresy into the minds of the Upper West Side: “Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.” And this: “Genetic diversity is mankind’s most precious resource, not a regrettable deviation from an ideal state of monotonous sameness.” The New Yorker is also telling its readers that there are around “thirteen hundred sites on the genome that are correlated with success in school. Though each might have an infinitesimally small statistical relationship with the outcome, together they can be summed to produce a score that has predictive validity: those in the group with the highest scores were approximately five times more likely to graduate from college than those with the lowest scores.”

All of this is empirically true. But if this is empirically true, critical theory, which insists that absolutely nothing but white supremacist society leads to inequalities, is dead in the water. Refuted. Proven false by reality. Finished — even as it continues to be the premise of other countless pieces The New Yorker has run in the past few years. At some point, this will require a measure of rethinking, a moderation of the left’s absolutist blank-slatism just as the evidence is finally disproving it once and for all. The Successor Ideology, remember, holds that genetics play no role in human society, and that all inequalities are a function of the environment. Take that absolute claim away — which is to say to subject it to empirical testing — and it crumbles. And The New Yorker just took it away.

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And then, in the better-late-than-never category, The Economist, the bible for the corporate elite, has just come out unapologetically against the Successor Ideology, and in favor of liberalism. This matters, it seems to me, because among the most zealous of the new Puritans are the boards and HR departments of major corporations, which are dedicated right now to enforcing the largest intentional program of systemic race and sex discrimination in living memory. Money quote: “Progressives replace the liberal emphasis on tolerance and choice with a focus on compulsion and power. Classical liberals conceded that your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. Today’s progressives argue that your freedom to express your opinions stops where my feelings begin.”

The Economist also pinpoints the core tenets of CRT in language easy to understand: “a belief that any disparities between racial groups are evidence of structural racism; that the norms of free speech, individualism and universalism which pretend to be progressive are really camouflage for this discrimination; and that injustice will persist until systems of language and privilege are dismantled.” These “systems of language and privilege” are — surprise! — freedom of speech and economic liberty. If major corporations begin to understand that, they may reconsider their adoption of a half-baked racialized Marxism as good management. Maybe that might persuade Google not to mandate indoctrination in ideas such as the notion being silent on questions of race is “covert white supremacy,” a few notches below lynching.

Some other straws in the wind: the NYT Book Review actually published a nuanced review of a book about trans ideology, by Jesse Singal, a breakthrough in the attempt to air actual debate about some of the difficult questions raised by the total replacement of sex and biology with gender and social constructionism. Just today, the NYT published for the first time an op-ed by Kevin Williamson, the man canceled by The Atlantic, and an op-ed by Robby Soave, the brilliant young libertarian.

The NYT also just added John McWhorter as a newsletter writer, a man whose forthcoming book is about how liberals can push back against woke intolerance on race. The Wall Street Journal — which is becoming the newspaper of record — published a story on the collapse of college attendance among young men — chipping away so persuasively at the crude construct of the “patriarchy” in the West in 2021 that the NYT rushed to qualify it.

And then there’s a purely anecdotal reflection, to be taken for no more than that: all summer, I’ve been struck by how many people, mostly complete strangers, have come up to me and told me some horror story of an unjust firing, a workplace they’re afraid to speak in, a colleague who has used antiracism for purely vindictive or careerist purposes, or a hiring policy so crudely racist it beggars belief. The toll is mounting. And the anger is growing. The fury at CRT in high schools continues to roil school board meetings across the country. Some Americans are not taking this new illiberalism on the chin.

This isn’t much, I know. Read Peter Boghossian’s resignation letter from Portland State University to see how deep the rot has gotten. But it’s something. It’s a sign that there is now some distance from the moral panic of mid-2020 and the start of reflection upon the most zealous aspects of this new illiberalism.

Perhaps we can reach a place where we do indeed better acknowledge and understand the profound resilience of racism and sexism in this country’s history, and teach it better, and yet do not ignore the immense progress we’ve made, the deep complexity of many of these questions, or throw out the core principles of liberal democracy: freedom of speech, due process, individual rights, equality (not equity), and open intellectual inquiry. It’s clear to me that the antibodies to this new McCarthyism are beginning to propagate, and a calmer, middle way will at some point emerge.

Which is another way of saying: as long as the First Amendment is intact, hang in, and know hope.

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a post about my profound worry over Biden’s new vaccine mandates; my conversation with Trump nemesis Michael Wolff about his ongoing derangement and its threat to the republic; a bunch of reader dissents over my view of the Afghanistan withdrawal; a trio of creepy quotes from the hardcore woke; a creepy ad campaign from woke Nike pushing a message of “with us or against us”; a Mental Health Break video of astonishing stop-motion on skis; our latest batch of recommended reading from other substackers, mainly on the Texas abortion law; and three window views from the states and district attacked on 9/11. Subscribe here for the full Dish experience.)

From a subscriber who has been “on the fence” about re-upping:

I just resubscribed, in part because you pasted in a reader’s comment about how you were doing a way deep, maybe excessive, dive on wokeness and CRT. He wanted to see more of your thoughts on the other pressing issues of the day. Boy, you delivered with your latest essay, Two Falling Men, which was an elegant framing of a very inelegant mess.


New On The Dishcast: Michael Wolff

Michael, a longtime media critic, and now the author of three Trump tell-alls, talks with me about the 45th president. How politically dangerous is he still? How delusional and mentally unbalanced? Will he run again? We get into it.

For two clips of the episode — on the questions of whether the media confronted Trump appropriately and whether the madman will return to electoral politics — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to some pro-Trump commentary from Dish readers.


Our No-Limits Presidency

When Covid hit, under President Trump, it was, in some ways, a test of his commitment to one-man rule. A pandemic is a classic rationale for seizing emergency powers that end up not being so temporary (see Viktor Orbàn). What happened instead was denial, chaos, panic, constant drama, and an accelerated vaccine project (for which Trump deserves some credit). It proved what Michael Wolff argues in this week’s Dishcast: that Trump has too short an attention span, is too bad at management, and far too delusional to construct a viable, competent, authoritarian agenda. He just wanted to be the center of attention and for the virus to go away.

President Biden — a man who distinguished himself in the primary debates as the sole believer in the limits of presidential power — has now filled that authoritarian void.

(Read the rest of the post here)


Dissents Of The Week: Is Biden FUBAR?

It’s been three weeks since my column on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a lot has changed since then, but many reader dissents still hold up. Here’s one:

I do not see any inconsistency in giving Biden credit for finally ending our occupation while criticizing him for the incompetent withdrawal. What was done and not done is shockingly stupid, and in any functioning organization would result in heads rolling. Don’t minimize it.

Read my response to that dissent and two others here. The debate and discussion continues on our podcast page, where we hear from many more readers, including a former British soldier with two tours in Afghanistan. It’s a must-read — a powerful testimony on the impact of the chaotic withdrawal. It definitely made me think more about the impact of this incompetent withdrawal on our alliances.

As always, please keep the dissents — and your relevant personal experiences — coming: dish@andrewsullivan.com.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today. A regular sleuth writes:

Yesterday I was thinking that The Weekly Dish reminds me of the thick weekend newspapers I used to read decades ago … I guess they still exist somewhere. Is the NYT Sunday edition still a monster? I never read that, but the Canadian ones had the colour comics, features, a puzzle page and, so long ago, a glossy magazine-like insert with longer human-interest stories. 

Sure, the Dish is different. It has opinion, a letters section, various small features, and a puzzle (View From Your Window) that can almost double as a Travel section. It is also informative and educational. It has links to podcasts, videos and other articles which have links to pods, videos and other articles which have … Ok, maybe it is a bit of a rabbit hole, but it gives me many hours of pleasure every week. Please keep it up. 

See you next Friday.