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Nellie Bowles On Ditching Wokeness

Nellie Bowles On Ditching Wokeness

She details her travails at the New York Times with candor and good humor.

Nellie is a writer and reporter. She has worked for many mainstream publications, most notably the NYT covering Silicon Valley. Now she is teamed up with her wife, Bari Weiss, to run The Free Press — a media company they launched on Substack in 2021. Nellie’s weekly news roundup, TGIF, is smart and hilarious, and so is her new book, Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches From the Wrong Side of History.

You can listen right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on the scourge of Slack, and questioning whether trans is immutable — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Nellie growing up in SF with divorced parents; her mother the writer and stockbroker; her dad the entrepreneur; Nellie the tomboy who ran the gay-straight alliance to find a girlfriend; reading conservatives (Paglia, Rand, Coulter) as a liberal teen; working at the SF Chronicle; the NYT full of “intense, ambitious people on a political mission”; James Bennet; Dean Baquet and the “racial reckoning”; the 1619 Project; Donald McNeil; the MSM ignoring antifa; Joe Kahn taking a stand; NPR refusing to cover Hunter’s laptop; lab-leak theory; disinfo as a “useful cudgel”; CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle; Prager U; the Shitty Media Men list; Jordan Peterson and “enforced monogamy”; James Damore; a NYT editor calling Bari “a fucking Nazi”; Nellie falling in love with her; losing friends over their relationship; Nellie being very pregnant right now; male role models for the kids of lesbians; marriage equality; the queer left’s opposition to marriage; when the straights culturally appropriate “queer”; Ptown and Dina Martina; the importance of Pride for small towns; taking my mum to a parade; the US being way behind Europe on trans kids; the profound effects of hormones; the “the science is settled” campaign by GLAAD; detransitioners; Jan 6 and Stop the Steal; right-wing pressure on courts and Congress due to Trump; RFK Jr’s candidacy; the woke blackout on humor; Elon Musk; the mainstreaming of masks and violent rhetoric after Oct 7; Nellie converting to Judaism; and how her book is “not about heroism.”

Coming up: Lionel Shriver on her new novel, Tim Shipman on the UK elections, Elizabeth Corey on Oakeshott, Erick Erickson on the left’s spiritual crisis, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy on animal cruelty, Van Jones, and Stephen Fry! Send any guest recs, dissents, and other comments to

Last week’s episode with George Will was a big hit. A fan writes:

Having waited a few months for your George Will interview, I am pleased to report it was worth the wait. The man is brilliant. His command of the English language knows very few equals, and his understanding of the American experience is phenomenal, near boundless. I read his book, The Conservative Sensibility, when it was initially released, and I intend to do so again! Thank you for having this extraordinary man on your podcast.

Another writes, “I wanted to send a quick note to thank you for the fantastic pod with George Will! Enjoy your summer on the Cape.” Here’s a clip on the mission creep of the executive branch:

Another fan on the “fascinating conversation with Will”:

I especially enjoyed the exchange on industrial policy, but I wish you had challenged Will a bit more. Yes, people did say that Mussolini made the trains on time, but if you read any historical account of that period, it was a complete lie. The economy deteriorated under Il Duce and crony capitalism was rampant.

To be sure, that is the main risk associated with embracing industrial policy. But what would Will say about a country like South Korea, which experienced one of the fastest and most dramatic quantum leaps in living standards in human history after it implemented an industrial policy? Likewise with much of the rest of East Asia and, indeed, China as well? Many of our existing economic pathologies come precisely from the kind of market fundamentalism Will embraces. A debate along those lines would have been very worthwhile. 

I should have pushed back more aggressively. But I’m a bit conflicted on this. I share Will’s worry about industrial policy, but I think there’s a rationale for one with respect to materials and industry vital for national security, reliable domestic supply chains, and high-end chip factories. I think the government can play a small role here.

Here’s another listener who agrees I was too weak:

It was so refreshing to hear Will’s lucid defense of classically liberal Republicanism, and of the “churn” of energetic capitalist societies, and of Reaganism, and of bold leadership delivered with a smile.

Will’s comment that many European ethnicities were discriminated against by bourgeois Americans of the early 20th century doesn’t necessarily refute your point that a given society may have a limited capacity to serenely absorb immigrants who code in some sense as “other”, but it serves as a helpful reminder that there is nothing uniquely “foreign” about migrants from Central America or Africa or Asia. So long as American culture continues to broadly promote assimilation (no sure thing, as you point out), we can absorb many, many more migrants.

As something of an aside, I often wonder how much your British upbringing inflects your views on immigration. Whenever you quote Nigel Farage-style, white supremacist talking points — e.g. “I no longer recognize my country” or “I feel like an outsider in my country” — as broadly representative American opinions, I think about how much more diverse the US is than the UK, and how much demographic “churn” there is in so many neighborhoods across the country.

Alas, these growing, thriving urban and suburban precincts are very underrepresented in the Electoral College, which is why I continue to pay some attention to your argument here. Inaccurate as it is, given the demographics of the country, your point probably still matters, since our creaky political structure apportions so much power to a handful of aging Midwestern states. But it doesn’t necessarily reflect the lived experience of the average American.

My frustration with the Electoral College brings me back to Will. Listening to his defense of the American republic, I found myself reveling in nostalgia for the 1980s and wondering what he sees as the roots of our current mess. Does he have any regrets about the policies he advocated for? (He doesn’t seem to.) Does he see any linkages between our wholly unconstrained news environment and campaign laws (enabled by the libertarian legislation he prizes) and the average congressperson’s fear of doing their job? How does he feel about end of the Fairness Doctrine, which has empowered billionaire propagandists like Murdoch and Trump?

I wish you had pressed Will on the roots of the populism he despises. What does he think caused it? (What do you think?) How does he view the origins of the Bush presidency? Does he see any linkage between the hardball GOP politics that actually did steal an election (2000) and the even harder edges of the Trumpist right?

I suppose I should ask him, not you, and perhaps I will — but I’m also interested in your thoughts on the trajectory of American politics from 2000 (when I started college) to our alarming present. The left has overreached — as you remind us constantly — but what about all the ways that the orderly, small-government Republicanism that many pine for enabled the rise of the MAGA right?

Let me end with a note of appreciation. I suspect so many of your listeners cherish your work, as I do, because it is warm and brave and full of rigor. Keep fighting the good fight and thanks for engaging so transparently with your critics.

I explored the roots of the 21st century Republicanism in my 1998 essay “Going Down Screaming” (featured in my collection, Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989–2021). Money quote:

[I]t’s worth remembering that Reagan’s domestic moralism was also of a very different variety than that of today’s conservatives. Rather than sternly criticizing liberal mores, Reagan tended to ignore them, preferring to praise conservative ones, finding in small human examples object lessons of traditional virtue. It was occasionally a goofy moralism, but also a sunny one. Rather than pinpoint moral demons, Reagan would point out moral heroes in the gallery of the Congress during his State of the Union addresses. Whereas conservatives in the 1990s obsessed about Clinton’s draft-dodging, Reagan went to Normandy to eulogize a different kind of ethic. It is a telling contrast. Reagan’s view of America was never bleak, and he was careful to stay away from the front lines of the cultural wars.

A far cry from “American carnage.” Here’s another clip of the George pod, on Ukraine:

On another part of the ranging convo:

The wisdom of George Will’s advocacy for not voting can be evaluated by the results of the 2023 Chicago mayoral election. And the results do not support his assertion that not voting leads to positive results. Voter turnout was 36 percent in the February election, which narrowed the field to two finalists who battled for the 39 percent who turned out for April’s final vote. Brandon Johnson captured 52 percent of that 39 percent, and the Mayor of Twenty Percent was subsequently overwhelmed by the tasks of office, losing control of City Council meetings, placing migrants in unhealthy shelters, proposing to cede the lakefront to the local pro-football team, and spending $30,000 on haircuts.

No movement is rising up to generate much better candidates for what are purportedly our nonpartisan mayoral races. Irrespective of what Thomas Jefferson thinks, I blame Will’s non-voters for giving me less than what I deserve.

Another listener looks ahead:

I am so excited that you will be hosting Lionel Shriver. Her writing is marvelous and sometimes devastating. I have read all of her books, most of them repeatedly. Her prose is of different type, but I rank her with Ali Smith and others. (By the way, if you have not read Louise Welch’s books — particularly The Cutting Room — you are missing out.) I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Lionel Shriver at the Edinburgh Book Festival on several occasions. So thank you for inviting her on!

We just recorded a lovely conversation with Lionel this week and will air it soon.

Next up, a few readers dissent over my latest column, “How Elites Have Empowered the Far Right”:

You wrote: “if you care about the issue [illegal immigration] at all, as more and more Americans do, then Trump is the obvious choice this fall.”

Do you remember your naturalization ceremony? I remember mine. It was in 2018. I was so happy and proud to become an American. The judge who administered the oath spoke to us movingly of how in America no one is above the law, and how Benjamin Franklin had said we have a republic, if we can keep it. I said to myself, “Yes! I want to keep it!”

And now you tell us that Trump — the would-be arsonist of American democracy — is the “obvious choice” because of immigrants. Forgive the profanity, but what the actual flying fuck?

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