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Podcast #237: The (Culture) War Diaries of Nellie Bowles

Jonathan Kay speaks with ‘Morning After the Revolution’ author Nellie Bowles about her journalistic adventures amid progressive true believers and ideological enforcers.

· 30 min read
The Quillette podcast logo and an image of Nellie Bowles.

This week, you’re in for a treat because my guest isn’t just a razor-sharp observer of the American culture wars, she’s also wickedly funny, in person as well as in print. Her name is Nellie Bowles, whom you might know from her work covering Silicon Valley at The New York Times until she quit in 2021 after observing—or perhaps enduring is the better word—her newspaper’s slide into vicious social-justice bullying among young members of the editorial staff. Since then, she’s helped start up the popular LA-based journalism outlet, The Free Press, with her wife Bari Weiss. And she’s also found time to write a great new book called Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History, which chronicles progressive America’s descent into extremism and social panic during her tenure as a journalist, especially following the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Bowles is an unrepentant liberal who still rhapsodises at great length about the bohemian wonders of her native San Francisco. (But don’t worry—I edited most of that stuff out.) The point is that her book isn’t one of those one-sided culture-war manifestos from a left-wing blowhard who suddenly becomes a right-wing blowhard. Her analysis of how BLM, gender activism, harm reduction, and police reform all slid into crankish extremism is informed by empathy, nuance, and, most importantly for me, good humour.

Along the way, we talk about other liberals who got mugged by reality, such as fellow American culture-war chronicler, Jesse Singal, whom the extreme left has been trying to pillory since his groundbreaking 2018 Atlantic cover story about the concerns surrounding paediatric genderbending; and Faizel Khan, whose name you might not know. He’s a humble retailer who got targeted by Antifa thugs in Seattle, after he pointed out that, hey, maybe running a lawless gang-led urban enclave wasn’t, you know, the best thing for middle-class business owners trying to make a living in Seattle’s gay village.

Please enjoy my interview with Morning After the Revolution author Nellie Bowles.

Jonathan Kay: So the subtitle here is Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History. And after reading the book, which I like very much, I was trying to describe it to my colleagues, and I said, well, it’s kind of a memoir, but it’s almost like a memoir written in modular form. You’re charting your own kind of ideological evolution, but you’re doing it by way of these episodic chapter-by-chapter descriptions of stuff you’re seeing as a journalist.

In fact, I think a few chapters are actually adapted from published long-form journalistic accounts in Atlantic magazine, for instance. Is this book what you thought it was going to be?

Nellie Bowles: It started out as me being really frustrated as a New York Times reporter and feeling like there were all these stories I wanted to go and report on. And I thought of it as I was writing it as like a collection of essays. But it’s not a book that has one distinct argument, although my editor probably would have wanted me to have that.

J.K.: There is a coherent narrative that comes out of this, which is that you’re someone, maybe, I don’t know, these terms are loaded, but like, classical liberal or leftist or progressive, as that term was understood, you know, last Thursday, before progressives wanted to abolish prisons and whatnot.

N.B.: Oh, yeah, yeah, I came of age, I grew up as a good progressive, good lefty, whatever you want to call it. I would still consider myself a liberal, like a moderate or a centrist liberal, whatever. In the book I say that my politics now are more exhaustion than doctrine.

So I grew up in San Francisco and fit in really well in elite prestige [milieus], got all the right credentials, did a Fulbright Scholarship, got my literal dream job working as a features reporter at the Times. There’s no other dream I had. And the book may be a kind of coming-of-age tale—me getting over a naive worldview, which was that this prestige world was exactly what it was saying it was.

When legacy media says, “We want you to nurture your curiosity and go explore the big stories and have an open mind and report on things that you see and that are interesting and that are important. And don’t bring your politics into it as much as humanly possible” (which of course is impossible to, but you try your best)… I really believed that. And then, obviously, in 2020, we all saw the complete erasure of that old-world mindset, the complete abandonment of it. And I was stuck feeling a little bit unmoored from the world and the community that I always considered myself very much part of.

To me, it was just impossible to not be curious about what was happening in Seattle when Antifa took over whole neighbourhoods. It was impossible for me not to be curious about the corruption of BLM. Where were they spending the money? Why was no one looking into it? It was impossible for me not to want to report on that stuff, to be curious about that, to be curious about Antifa, to be open-minded about the idea that abolishing the police, or even defunding the police, maybe wasn’t a perfect ideology. To be wary of those things was to put yourself very much outside of mainstream journalism and outside of the acceptable norms of liberalism.


J.K.: It’s not Catcher in the Rye, but there’s a certain coming-of-age quality to what you’ve written. And the Nellie who existed when she walks in to The New York Times is not the Nellie who wrote this book, and the book provides a coherent account of why. But maybe the book is so good because you didn’t set out to do that explicitly. There’s lots of books that like, you know… like, “Why I left the left” or “Why the right is right,” or whatever. They’re often written in a self-conscious style to demonstrate why, you know, everything I thought before was garbage and everything I think now is the god-given truth.

At many key points in the book, you do not strike a heroic posture. It’s kind of the opposite. So there’s one scene, I think you were at this bizarre street protest, I think it was in Los Angeles, where these trans/Antifa protesters, they were outside some kind of gym where middle-aged women had run this dude out of the sauna because he was lounging around fully naked, and there was this whole subplot about whether he had an erection, which we don’t have to get into.

And there was this big protest; and as often happens at these protests, the dynamic was completely unstable, so, you know, it’s sort of like the mob from The Simpsons. They were attacking some guy, you described him as this curiously nonchalant “tall” guy. And you, even though you were completely horrified by the protest, were like, “Oh, yeah, no, I’m not with this guy, I don’t know who he is.” You kind of distance yourself from him.

N.B.: The tall guy, and then there was a conservative video journalist who was there. And as I’m covering this in the scrum, watching this, trying to document it, the group turns on this guy. And at first I thought they were looking at me, and I was like, oh my god, I don’t want a bunch of Antifa looking at me. This is stressful. But then I realised they’re talking to the guy who I’d just been standing next to, who was really sweet. And my response was to say, “I’m not part of this! I don’t know this guy.” And I had to put my hands up and walk away. I mean, no, I’m not the hero of these stories by any means.

It’s a tale of me wrestling with these situations and trying to do my best and trying to figure them out. And often, at least at the start, choosing careerism, choosing my own vanity, choosing whatever will be helpful to get me further or to keep me in the good eyes of the American prestige world.

And I think that over the course of the book, I become a little less obsessed with that, but yeah, part of it is the kind of self reflection on being part of a movement that did things that were cruel or believing in things that were crazy. I mean, I don’t think a tonne of my actual political beliefs changed. Like I didn’t go from pro-choice to pro-life or something like that. The only one I do think I did a real flip flop on is that I used to be really pro-drug legalisation, like total legalisation. I didn’t want police resources used for like a random guy who’s using heroin and he should just be helped and why do we need him in jail?

That’s an issue where I have fully flipped, because anyone who has seen the streets of west-coast cities would be a fool to stand by [full legalisation policies]. And I think Oregon just had a full re-criminalisation after a decriminalisation.

J.K.: Now you’re in LA. In your book, I learned that you and your neighbours, it’s like, I don’t know, living in Central African Republic or something, where you’re literally paying a bunch of retired cops to show up if thieves break into your house because the regular cops aren’t going to come. That’s weird.

N.B.: It is super weird. I think California has enormous problems. But I think I’m still hopeful because over the last few years, let’s take San Francisco, you have seen a reformation of sorts. You’ve seen [the emergence of] a moderate faction, who, of course, are called fascist monsters and Nazis. But they’re just these nice Democrats. Their movement started with a group of Asian parents who wanted to bring back eighth-grade algebra…

J.K.: That’s literally how Nazism started.

N.B.: That’s literally Nazism. I am experiencing violence, even just recalling it!

Anyway, so I saw this reformation that was happening over the course of the years of reporting this. And so it did give me hope that we shouldn’t just say, “Screw these places. Screw it. Like, screw California. Screw Seattle. We don’t need any of these states anymore. Let’s all just like move to Austin and make a new life.” And there’s a lot of people who do that and that’s great. I’m still hopeful of a reformation within liberalism and within these cities, these beautiful, beautiful cities, this beautiful land. Like, why should they be given up to the craziest faction [of the left]?

J.K.: You had a story in your book about some real estate development that would have supplied dozens, if not hundreds, of homes to people, but it was held up, at least temporarily, by well-heeled incumbent landowners who didn’t want this development going through because, I don’t know, it would destroy their view of the harbour or something like that.

N.B.: Community garden. It was a beautiful community garden.

J.K.: …Community garden. Right. Because that’s what the world needs, right? Four more eggplants.

We’ve had other guests on the podcast who have used different terms to describe this, the idea of progressivism being a creed that was originally about helping truly marginalised people in society, but has kind of been co opted by—or maybe weaponised in some cases—in favour of wealthy people who have pet environmental causes. Or in some cases, they’re just dilettantes, like they don’t know much about issues, whether it’s Gaza or whether it’s fentanyl or whatnot, so they just latch on to whatever they read in their Facebook group.

I’m going to focus on your telling comment about Asian parents. Because that’s what happened in Vancouver. In the last mayoral election, we had this guy who was whiter than me, who was the mayor, and he was like super woke, a former musician, you know, just like everything that’s terrible.

And, and what happened is that he would go to Chinatown. And he was booed by local entrepreneurs—first and second generation immigrants. They didn’t care what his pronouns were. They didn’t want to hear his land acknowledgement. What they wanted was safer communities. They wanted more opportunities for their kids.

And they weren’t cowed in the same way as maybe even someone like me, who doesn’t want to say anything that might be soundbitten on Twitter in a way that makes me sound like a literal Nazi, because they’re not on Twitter. I don’t want to simplify things. There’s lots of constituencies here, but they ended up being a voice for reform. They helped swing the municipal election in favour of a more common-sense candidate.

These aren’t constituencies that are super online or super left or super right. They just kind of want the same common-sense things that I think a lot of families want. And it sounds like you’re saying there are families in California like that, too.

N.B.: You’re seeing that dynamics playing out across America, where you have the wealthy elite with a set of political beliefs that don’t really actually match or help the middle class or lower middle class or poor. And that’s been beautifully described by Rob Henderson in Troubled. He has a term called “luxury beliefs.” And you’ve got Batya Ungar-Sargon, who’s doing great work on that.

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The culture war and the fight over liberal media bias.

How I found it in my life, and through this book a little bit, was I grew up as a privileged American, went to private schools, and [was exposed to] a lot of the popular leftist ideas that are the dominant ideas and sort of taken as complete fact in mainstream media today, such as that elite public schools are racist; that supply and demand is fake and building market-rate housing will not help lower rent prices; that police are inherently racist. And, you know, all of these ideas made a lot of sense to me from a privileged white kid perspective. Because it was never relevant…

J.K.: When I was a kid, the only time I met a police officer was when he came to school to show us his shiny car and stuff like that. It wasn’t part of neighbourhood life. I’m Jewish. So I don’t really have police officers who are relatives. So, I mean, I can see why [privileged] people become vulnerable to [these ideas].

N.B.: And because they’re beautiful philosophies. They, they rely on a sense of human goodness.

J.K.: This is what gives your book, I think, such a tragicomic aspect : it isn’t an Ann Coulter book where it’s like, these people, they’re all liars, they’re all treacherous, they’re all this, they’re all that. The word you use is utopian, that they have a utopian vision. Imagine a world out of a John Lennon song. Imagine, you know, there’s no police. Imagine there’s no landlord. Imagine we got all our food from the community garden. And that is a nice vision, right?

N.B.: It’s a beautiful vision. It relies on believing in such profound goodness. If, if you really believe that we can abolish the police, you really believe that humans naturally want to be good. Humans naturally want to be good. But the only reason they’re bad is because of some outside force such as poverty, or they’re oppressed in some way. By their nature, humans will steal, they won’t hurt each other if they’re just given the resources.

Or let’s say trans stuff. Women [aren’t supposed to feel] anxious about, let’s say, biological males in a female prison or biological males in a women’s changing room. You have to believe that people are so profoundly good, to think that a man with ill intent would never take advantage of that, especially with things like self-ID.

Well, you just say, “I’m a woman,” and you walk in. There’s no registration system. There’s no doctor’s note necessary. The idea that no man will ever take advantage of that. There’s a reason why a lot of the old-school feminists bristle at that notion, because it requires belief in people behaving so purely, and we just know that’s not how people behave.

J.K.: When I went to university, I had friends who were in a fraternity, who literally spent like 30 or 40 percent of their waking lives [thinking about] how to trick women into having sex with them. Using every trick in the book to try and maximise [their] chances of finding women in a place where they might be persuaded to have sex.

And the idea that this group of people, if they magically said, “Hey, you know what, I think I think I have a female gender identity,” that they would magically lose all of that boorishness. All of that quasi-predatory instinct, which, by the way, has an evolutionary basis. It doesn’t mean every man’s a rapist, but there’s a reason most sex crimes are committed by men.

“Utopian” is a nice word for it. There are other words for it. It kind of shows the capacity of the human brain to ignore common sense at the behest of ideology. But what I like about your book is that you admit that the ideology itself isn’t evil, even if it ends up in a place of hysteria and social panic.

N.B.: You’ve got empathy given very strongly only to one group.

J.K.: But the groups change. During #MeToo, every man was rightly seen as a potential threat. It went from #BelieveWomen to #ShutUpKaren when it came to threats in locker rooms, in spas, in sports, in prisons.

N.B.: Yeah, exactly.

J.K.: One thing that’s a theme in your book, and I’ve noticed this when it comes to progressive social panic, is, in many of these controversies, the great Darth Vader, the great villain of the story, isn’t a Republican politician.

It’s not a conservative. They are much more furious at people who they see as apostate liberals. In their universe, J.K. Rowling is worse than Senator [Mitch] McConnell. I know people who aren’t online and then they just take a gander at Twitter, they come to me and say “Jon, who is Jesse Singal? Why do these crazy people hate him so much?”

These [targets] are people like Bari Weiss, who I think you’ve heard of. There are people like Rowling, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, people who are essentially on the left, but have committed a heresy on one issue.

Often [that issue] is gender, but it’s not always gender. Sometimes it’s Israel or something like that.

Tell us about how Faizel Khan came to be the villain of the moment.

N.B.: Basically, when Antifa took over [the CHAZ/CHOP] neighbourhood in Seattle, they put up their own borders. They said that police and ambulances wouldn’t be allowed in. But a group of business owners, as it wore on, banded together and said: this is actually not okay.

They said, “Our shops are going out of business. We need people to be able to come in.” UberEats wouldn’t come in. And Antifa members were just sort of becoming a local mafia. Like guys would show up and say, “Hey, you’ve got to pay me. I’m your new security team.” Khan is a man who is running a lovely coffee shop, a sandwich place in the area. And he and a few other business owners eventually joined together to sue the city and say, you guys can’t let this happen. The city was sort of winking and nodding and helping out [Antifa]. They were providing portable toilets; they were making it easier for this zone to be maintained. And I think basically the taxpayer-funded city of Seattle liked this project, and liked this Antifa zone, and thought it was pretty cool and wanted to support it. They wanted to be on the side of “revolution.”

So anyways, Khan and other people in this neighbourhood, other business owners in this neighbourhood—the neighbourhood, by the way, being Seattle’s gay neighbourhood—they all became targets of rioters or whatever you want [to call them], Antifa, the new “government.”

There is an obsession with dissident liberals, or liberals who aren’t on the side of whatever the most extreme version of the talking point is that day. And it’s a political move. It’s a move to try to get the whole party or the whole of America to move leftward. And what’s the biggest threat to the leftward move? It’s the moderate. It’s the boring business owner who’s like, gay, selling coffee, but not on board with full Antifa, and that makes him the biggest risk to the movement.

J.K.: He’s the Menshevik, basically.

N.B.: Yeah. It’s not [a conflict] between [political] parties. It’s a battle within liberalism. And I mean, liberalism, quite broadly. I mean the blue states, obviously. But also the blue cities in red states. And it also means our university system and a lot of our cultural institutions are part of this. [The phenomenon] largely ignores the right, and it largely ignores Trumpers. The whole project is based around, say, moving your museum from being a normal, liberal museum to an anti-racist museum. Or moving a university from being a normal university that wants to teach the best physics class they can teach, to being a school that thinks that physics itself is problematic.

J.K.: Let’s talk about Andy Ngo. You’ve probably met him. He’s like, you know, maybe 5’3”, 150 pounds, soaking wet. He’s descended from Asian immigrants. And when he was attacked by street thugs, by Antifa street thugs, five years ago, you had people here in Toronto, people at the Toronto Star, our left-wing newspaper here, they were cheering. I mean, they, they, they thought it was great.

N.B.: Of course they were. Because nothing matters more than the political goal. All of these things have been described a million times, right? This is human nature. We’re stuck with these patterns—the “near enemy.” Journalists at every publication, basically, if not celebrated that, treated it as, well, he kind of deserved it.

J.K.: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, I’m quoting here from your book, he wrote a meditation at the height of the protests, asking, “Who really is the agitator here?” He cites Martin Luther King Jr. Even looting, King insisted, is an act of catharsis, a form of shocking the white community by abusing property rights.

You go from there into NPR running a piece in defence of looting. You talked earlier about how you were chasing the vanities and baubles of professional success. Well, The New Yorker and NPR are the leading lights of American journalism, So, there must have been two Nellies. One who wanted to go, you know, write for The New Yorker, one of the few places more esteemed than The New York Times. And the other Nellie who’s like, “Oh my God, this is bullshit.” Was there a war between two Nellies?

N.B.: Yeah. Initially, it took a lot of suppressing of reasonable instinct. The trouble with me is the reason I got into journalism is that I have a kind of itchy, suspicious personality, and I just can’t “go along” with things very well. Like I was never good at group projects as a kid or, or anything like that. Anyone who’s been reading the news over the last four years has seen the complete collapse of NPR into the most eccentric left-wing political…

J.K.: … I used to be obsessed with NPR. I used to listen to NPR all the time because it was like, ah, the voice of sanity. And then in a space of—what, two years?—It went from “Whither Iraq?” to “Hey, Let’s Loot Macy’s!”

N.B.: They came out proudly saying, we will not cover the Hunter Biden laptop story.

J.K.: The very idea of publishing manifestos like that is itself weird. What you were saying about going your own way and pursuing your own truths: that’s kind of the stereotype of the lionised journalist in media. [On the other hand], the idea of journalism as being this consensus-based groupthink project, that was never what journalism was idealised as. That’s like a new thing that comes from the age of Twitter, I think.

N.B.: Now, generations. Who to blame?

J.K.: Young people! I blame young people.

N.B.: [Laughs]. It is to some extent my generation’s fault, but who were we raised by? I mean, the boomers have just as much at their feet for this as the millennials do. The idea that there is no truth, that there is no better or worse—a lot of stuff was very trendy in academia. A lot of the generation above me brought those ideas in as chic.

J.K.: Journalism used to be a trade. You’d walk into a newsroom, I guess in the 70s or 80s, I mean, it was before my time, but you’d find a lot of people without college educations. David Brooks has written about this. It got taken over by downwardly mobile rich kids who needed something to do before they went to law school. And those are the people who ruined it.

Thinking of journalism as a priesthood. That’s where the problem starts. If you acknowledge that you’re a hack, that you’re just a curious person… That’s my approach at Quillette. I’m a curious person who wants to write about things that interest me. You’ll never go wrong [with this] because you won’t think, you know, “Will I be disappointing my parishioners if I write this sentence?” As soon as you start thinking like that, you’re screwed.

Now, I want to ask you about The New York Times

N.B.: …God, at this point, I feel like it’s been written about so many times.

J.K.: But you write about [your tenure at] The Times with nuance. And I’m going to say I like the Times. I’ve been a seven-day-a-week print subscriber to the Times since I inherited my law-school girlfriend’s subscription. She stormed out of our apartment in 1996. I kept the subscription. I kept the apartment and I kept the subscription and I never let it lapse. That was 28 years ago.

Anyway, I found what you wrote [about the Times] interesting for two reasons. One, it sounds like your direct supervisor, you name check her in the acknowledgements, was really supportive of your work. It sounds like your bosses were actually pretty good to you. It was more like the lateral pressure from colleagues is what kind of got to you. Can you talk about that a little bit? And then tell us about “Todd.” It sounds like a made-up name.

N.B.: It’s made up. Yeah. I changed his name…

J.K.: I know it’s a made up name because that’s the name of the guy who slept on the couch in Bojack Horseman…

N.B.: [Laughs] I don’t watch that. When I was at the Times and I started reporting on some… or trying to report on some of the stuff that was going on in 2020, I started getting pushback. And I think one story got through and then the pushback came mostly from colleagues, mostly the sort of young union-active colleagues who were at the time making it almost their full-time job to help this ideological revolution at The New York Times.

And they would basically spend their days in our, at the time, large free-form Slack channels, just chastising people. Trying to, you know, they would bring up Maggie Haberman and they would try to yell at her about something and they would obviously tweet about me and call me all sorts of names and things. And it was a very social sort of bullying, like middle-school bullying.

And that was hard because I mean, I joke that I’d never not been cool. I was like, “What the hell’s going on?” I had tons of friends in middle school, high school. Things were great. And all of a sudden I get to this place and I’m living on the outs.

I’m kicked out of Slack rooms. People I had dinner with are calling me a fascist. It was just very shocking on a personal emotional level. I mean they started leaking and circulating photos from my Facebook, which had been set to private mode.

J.K.: It really is middle-school stuff, eh? Like it’s incredible how quick this utopian social-justice stuff does a quantum leap to the darkest arts of middle-school assholery without stopping anywhere in the interregnum space at just normal decent person. It’s either social-justice priesthood…or the worst human being you’ve ever met from grade eight. There’s no in between.

N.B.: And once you become that [targeted] person, in one of these left-wing communities, like at The New York Times, you’re done. There’s no coming back. I will say, though, it’s not that editors weren’t involved in it. It’s that I mostly was surrounded by really great direct bosses.

J.K. So I’m going to butcher the pronunciation… Pui-Wing Tam

N.B.: She was my boss. She’s amazing. And she was always. But it’s really, really hard when the entire middle school decides that one kid in the class is a bad kid. Like, I describe an editor at one point saying in front of a group of colleagues that he heard that I had started dating Bari [Weiss], and he said, “She’s a Nazi. She’s a fucking Nazi.”

J.K.: Narrator’s voice: Bari Weiss is Jewish.

N.B.: It signalled to me, like, okay, if an editor is feeling comfortable saying this in front of a group of my colleagues, then we’re in a different place and basically this is done for me.

J.K.: I’m going to ask you a question I asked of Coleman Hughes when I had him on the podcast recently. As you know, Coleman has his own recently published book. He had a lot of stories in the book about the ideological excesses that were on display in 2020 and 2021 in the aftermath of the horrifying murder of George Floyd. And I said, “Coleman, a lot of these ideological excesses you’re describing, they’re terrible, but do you think that would happen in 2024? Have things moderated?” And I’m going to ask you the same question about the Times, because, to be fair to the Times, in the last year or two, I get the sense that some of the adults in the room have tried to take the reins back from, from the Todds.

Podcast #234: Coleman Hughes on Progressive ‘Neo-Racism’
Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay talks to writer Coleman Hughes about his acclaimed new book, ‘The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America.’

People like Pamela Paul coming on as a columnist. And even some of the big articles on trans kids who turn out to be not so trans after all. Might it have been the case that had you stuck it out, maybe the cool kids would have let you, like, sit at their table once a week?

N.B.: There’s reform happening and efforts to rein things back in. The Times is a big place with a lot of great reporters. Obviously the most destructive parts of this movement can be reversed and are being reversed in some ways. At the same time, I think it’s a little bit overly optimistic to say that just because of a few moments of more sane behaviour, that it’s done.

Like I was just listening to audio from UCLA of a required medical-school class in which everyone is told to get on their hands and knees, put their hands on the floor and pray about how America is a white capitalist system and medicine is white science. These things are still definitely happening and are just as mainstream as ever.

Seattle just got rid of tracked classes. You can’t test into advanced courses anymore. For sure, there are more people willing to say this is crazy, and it’s getting harder to smear them. It’s getting a lot harder to cast them as absolute monsters than it used to be. For example, the stuff with puberty blockers…

J.K.: As we’re having this conversation, there’s big story out of the Mayo Clinic about the carcinogenic effects of those drugs.

N.B.: The reality is that’s something we can talk about now. A few years ago, it was considered extraordinarily controversial to talk about any side effects of these drugs. With Jesse Singal, [one] reason he got controversial is because he wrote about detransitioners. I don’t think it would be controversial to write that. And so of course the movement of rational, moderate, centrist, whatever you want to call it, or just normies. The movement of normal people is definitely having an impact.

J.K.: Can we talk about your lesbianism a little bit? [Laughter] Because there was a secondary character in your book and you said, the woman in question happened to be a lesbian. You said, “I approached the woman and we gave each other a certain look, as lesbians do…

N.B.: I was at a gun shop!

J.K.: Okay, so you went to a lesbian gun shop. But when I read that, I was like, wait a sec… Is it really true that you can walk into a gun shop and tell whether the gunsmith—and I assume she was an accredited gunsmith—was actually a lesbian? Can people do that? Like, did you validate that after?

N.B.: Haha, no I didn’t fact-check it. Sometimes you can just tell. As one moves through the world, you figure these things out. I think if you were a gay man, you’d certainly be attuned to who are other gay men.

J.K.: But the lesbianism comes into play in a more serious way aside from buying your guns from other lesbians. There are times in the book where you [suggest] that it seems to be held against you. You’re the first letter in “LGBT,” and yet you don’t stand up for Latinxs or you don’t stand up for BIPOC…

N.B.: [Laughing] No one wants to be called Latinx. It is literally an offensive-sounding term, unless someone actually wants to be called Latinx….

J.K.: I’m using it in the same [ironic] way I use the term “TERFy Smurf.” Anyway, this is serious. It feels to me, and not just lesbians, but also gay men, to a certain extent, Jews, Asians, maybe, where it’s the worst of both worlds because you’ve kind of been more or less kicked out of the oppression club, so you don’t get intersectionality [points]. If you’re a white lesbian in the United States, it strikes me that in ultra-progressive circles, you’re a very marginal member of the oppression community. At the same time, your lesbian status is weaponised against you if you have quote-unquote incorrect views. So it’s kind of like you’re not on the intersectional pyramid or rhombus or whatever the hell they’re using now, but they’re still using this passive aggressive Jewish-grandmother thing to say, “You of all people should know what it’s like to be oppressed.”

N.B.: I think, yes, there’s the public issue and there’s also the personal one, and I wrestle with this in the book. [Social] progress has brought me personally a lot.

First of all, I’m a woman who can vote. I’m a woman who can open my own bank account. I’m married to a woman. I bought sperm online. Yeah, these are shocking progressive wins. And so when you’re in the position of being the beneficiary of so much amazing activism, you’re a little bit more aware of the complexity of the activism. For a long time, as [the trans] movement was taking off, I thought, this is just the next step in the Grand March [of rights]. This is the next step. How can I just say that it ends here with me? And I think that that’s a fair critique, that comes from the left, of moderate liberals.

At the same time, I think that if you’re talking about women’s sports and the idea that anyone who self-IDs as a woman should be able to play women’s sports, that this is the next line in one long progressive march, well my own [understanding of the] progressive march still believes that women’s sports are good. And I want women’s sports [protected]. And if Venus and Serena Williams had to play against biological males, they wouldn’t…

J.K.: …get past the [tournament] qualifiers.

N.B.: So it’s kind of a realisation that, yes, there is a “march” going on, but it’s not necessarily a march in a direction of greater equal rights or of greater broad success for humans or broad freedoms.

And I also don’t think it’s “progressive” to say that gender nonconforming 14-year-olds should be medicated without any questions, without any therapy. I reject that. Because my progressivism says that gender nonconforming kids are just like I was—a butch kid who grew up to be very grateful to have a uterus and breasts to breastfeed and all these things. Not that I think that adults shouldn’t be able to make whatever choices they want, obviously. But I’m not going to buy that it’s progressive to tell a teen who’s dressing a little bit off for their sex that they have something fundamentally off about them that needs medical intervention.

J.K.: If you don’t subscribe to 1950s-style sexual stereotypes, you must be defective at being a woman.

N.B.: Exactly. I don’t buy it.

J.K.: The tone in your book kind of goes up and down like a sin wave from straightforward reporting to what I would call wry comic exasperation. You rarely go into flat out mockery.

However, when you get into the stuff about “demisexuality” and “fraysexuality,” you strain to contain yourself from just openly saying, “What the hell’s the problem with these people?” Well, that was just me having a little fun. For those who haven’t yet read your book, demisexuality is when you’re attracted to people you like, and fraysexuality, which seems kind of like sluttiness, is when you’re attracted to people you don’t know.

What is somewhat toxic here is two things. First of all, every nuance of personality is now given its own alphabet code. Some of us are just introspective, or we’re extroverted, or we’re this or we’re that. It doesn’t mean we get our own letter. But the other thing is, and we see this in Canada, especially with like some of the two-spirit Indigenous stuff. You have a line here: “There is a sense that to be queer is mystical and maybe holy.” You talk about this event called “Queering the Future: How LGBTQ foresight can benefit all.” You don’t see this with gay stuff anymore in Canada. You see it with the two-spirit thing because it sort of channels this cosmic idea of the two-spirit person as being kind of like a shamanistic figure.

And you see it with trans people, as they’re wizards and we’re just muggles. This is very troubling to me because if you told me when I was Harry Potter’s age, at the beginning of the first novel, you can be a wizard or a muggle. I mean, that’s an easy choice, right?

N.B.: Yeah, I think what happened is that, and I try to capture this in the book, it became a kind of hierarchy of the progressive stack, the hierarchy of who’s at the top of progressivism became very identity-focused. Like, which label do you have?

If you have that label, then you can apply for this job. If you have that label, then you’ll be considered for this fellowship. I think a lot of people wanted to start picking up some labels.

The gay rights movement won so fully that now everyone wants to join us. They all kind of want to claim a little bit of gayness, which is great. I think it’s fabulous. But I think the whole label system and hierarchy is the problem, because people are incentivised to then pick up as many of these as they can and it makes them feel special.

J.K.: There was an article I read that basically said that among monogamous, heterosexual, married women in America, a not insignificant percentage of them describe themselves as “queer.”

N.B.: Some of that, I think, it’s like to show solidarity with gay people who couldn’t get married or whatever. None of these things on their own are somehow bad. I don’t think it’s wrong for a straight person to identify as queer. It’s only that it became so valuable: There are jobs for LGBTQ-plus people, and so you just want to throw yourself in with the “plus.”

J.K.: So I happen to be Jewish. So it’s like if a Christian person said to me, “Oh, I’m Jewish, too. I’m a Jew for Jesus!” I would regard it as good. Like it shows Jews have a high status in society—but it’s also creepy and don’t do it.

One more thing: Let’s say I just picked your book up in a bookstore, right? I wouldn’t know that you were married to Bari Weiss. And by the way, Bari’s been on this podcast before. I was in New York and I interviewed her. I think it was about her book on antisemitism.

Anyway, the way you met Bari is, I think you were dispatched to lecture her about how problematic she was. In the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan version of this, where you met cute, it’s like you were dispatched by HQ to correct her, but she was so charming that you ripped off your uniform, you know, you had to choose [between your duty versus your feelings]. There’s definitely a movie in this. But anyway, her name doesn’t appear in the whole book until the last paragraph, second-to-last sentence, and it’s very sweet. I thought it was an effective literary technique. I’m curious about that editorial choice.

N.B.: The book doesn’t really get into the last couple years of my life, which have been starting a new company with Bari. Maybe at some point I’ll write about marriage and motherhood…

J.K.: The problem is that success and happiness are boring.

N.B.: Yeah, like, our marriage is great and I love being a mom.

J.K.: Your daughter does come in for a cameo involving a drag performer at your synagogue who is curiously doctrinaire about Judaism.

N.B.: Yeah. Toward the end of writing this, I get an email and it says that our “Tot Shabbat” program [at the synagogue] is going to feature a drag queen this week. And I’m just sort of like, “Oh God, like everything is drag queen story hour. It’s this controversy that would just never end.” But then I ended up going, and it was beautiful.

J.K.: I love that you included it because in a way it was kind of off-message. [Right-wing] culture warriors reading your book would want the drag queen to be like, you know, bringing dildos. But it wasn’t like that at all.

N.B.: Normal Tot Shabbat had been actually kind of Not so Shabbaty. It had been a lot of wheels-on-the-bus—not enough Judaism for my liking, as I of course have the zeal of the convert. Then this drag queen came and she was fabulous and deeply knowledgeable and it was a deeply Jewish morning; and I was sort of like just touched by it; and it just reminded me of the complexity of all this and reminded me to not be hysterical. It also reminded me of being a teenager in San Francisco and going to drag bars. I realise that drag is a separate issue from trans. But it’s easy to forget the joy and playfulness of this when so much of the movement has been so obsessed with the medicalisation and the misery of trans people.

J.K.:  So I thought that was a beautiful touch you had there. Thank you so much. Nellie Bowles’ new book is called Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History. Nellie, thank you so much for being on the Quillette podcast.

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