Skip to content

The Roots of Progressive Radicalism: Nellie Bowles vs. Musa al-Gharbi

In two new books, a journalist and an academic offer competing explanations for the extremist ideological tendencies within left-wing cultural, academic, activist, and political institutions.

· 16 min read
People on a trans-rights protest march, with flags, megaphone, banners.
A 25 August 2023 trans-rights protest march in Ottawa.

On 2 June, Philadelphia’s annual Pride parade came to a sudden stop at the intersection of 11th and Locust Streets, when participants found their route blocked by a group of anti-Pride activists. A generation ago, one might have supposed these agitators were social conservatives railing against the “homosexual lifestyle.” But this being 2024, the aggrieved mob turned out to consist of fellow progressives organised under the auspices of an anti-Israel group called “Queers4Palestine.” In the viral footage that emerged from the confrontation, the group’s members can be seen shouting slogans such as “No pride in genocide” and (the decidedly less catchy) “Pride as we know it cannot be separated from our current political and economic climate.” In other words, no one is allowed to have fun—because Gaza.

Two days later, The New York Times Magazine published a lengthy investigative profile of Ibram X. Kendi, America’s most prominent anti-racist activist and academic. As Rachel Poser writes in her Times feature, Kendi’s star has dimmed considerably over the last year, following news that he laid off over half the employees at his recently inaugurated Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

In addition to chronicling disgruntled ex-staffers’ allegations that Kendi is a controlling boss with poor managerial skills, Poser points to a fundamental contradiction embedded in the Center’s mission: On the one hand, it’s supposed to take inspiration from Kendi’s revolutionary rhetoric about abolishing police and prisons, America’s status as a bastion of “white supremacist terror,” and the supposedly intertwined nature of capitalism and racism. On the other hand, Kendi has turned himself into a hyper-profitable capitalist brand—charging $20,000 for a one-hour Zoom call, and churning out best-selling books with titles such as Antiracist Baby (the “fresh new board book that empowers parents and children to uproot racism in our society and in ourselves”). Worst of all (from his in-house critics’ perspective), he partnered his research centre with the diversity-and-equity functionaries at Deloitte, a multinational professional services network with annual revenues of $65 billion.

A montage of covers from translated editions of Ibram X. Kendi’s 2020 book, Antiracist Baby.

I’ve opened with these two news items because they share a common element: Both expose the growing factionalism tearing apart progressive institutions from within. Scan the throngs featured in those Philadelphia Pride videos and I’m guessing you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Republican voter. The same goes for the staff of Kendi’s anti-racism institute. While stories such as these might get lumped in to the “culture war” media bucket curated by the AI algorithms that control our Google News feeds, they’re really just internecine squabbles playing out on one side of the battle lines. The same goes for the wave of anti-Israel encampments that have targeted university administrators, and the recent meltdown at the Brooklyn Museum, whose director has been targeted (at home, no less) on accusations of being insufficiently vitriolic in her denunciations of Israel. All of these institutions are completely dominated by progressive actors. To such extent as conservatives have any role to play in their civil wars, it’s strictly in the capacity of spectators.

The question of why so many left-wing cultural, academic, activist, and political institutions are now being upended in this way is addressed in two widely discussed new books. Taken together, they offer a fuller explanation than either writer—one a journalist, the other an academic—is professionally equipped to provide.

The first, Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History, is by Nellie Bowles, a former New York Times reporter who quit the Grey Lady in 2021 to join her wife Bari Weiss (also formerly of the Times) in creating The Free Press.

By her own account, Bowles grew up with opportunity and privilege in California, before quickly rising up through the cursus honorum of American intellectual life—earning a Columbia University diploma (Magna Cum Laude), a Fulbright Fellowship, and a journalistic “dream job” (as she described it in our Quillette podcast interview) covering Silicon Valley.

Until 2020, Bowles imagined that she’d continue to glide through life enjoying the full esteem of her fellow coastal bien pensants. But that balloon popped following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, when her penchant for scrutinising progressive shibboleths attracted attention, and then abusive scorn, from her newsroom’s ideological enforcers.

Is America really a white supremacist dystopia? Can men become women by changing their LinkedIn pronouns? Should we really be legalising hard drugs in the midst of a deadly overdose epidemic? Is abolishing the police really a good idea? And, if it is, why do so many black Americans reject it? Bowles believed the best way to answer such questions was the way Times reporters were supposed to answer every other question—through fact-based reporting. But as America reeled from COVID, the 6 January Capitol attack, and the continuing fallout from Floyd’s death, many of her colleagues had begun self-identifying more as social-justice priests dispensing unfalsifiable truths (and suppressing dangerous heresies, which they branded as “disinformation”) than neutral fact-finders.

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.

In Morning After the Revolution, Bowles is careful to note that she felt supported by her direct Times supervisors, whom she describes as generally fair-minded and professional. But as she told me in our interview, the same wasn’t true of the rank-and-file reporters who’d begun making her life miserable:

The pushback [I received] came mostly from… 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. They would basically spend their days in our free-form Slack channels, just chastising people… like middle-school bullying. And that was hard because I joke that I’d never not been cool. I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I had tons of friends in high school. Things were great. And all of a sudden, I’m living on the outs. I’m kicked out of Slack rooms. People I [once] had dinner with are calling me a fascist.

Bowles’ book went to print before she had a chance to document the vicious intra-left battle over how to respond to Hamas’s 7 October terrorist attacks and the Israeli invasion of Gaza that followed—which is a shame because melodramas such as the above-referenced Pride showdown in Philadelphia are exactly the sort of street-level scene that Bowles excels at describing. Morning After the Revolution is full of such vignettes, with a bemused (and sometimes anxious, or even fearful) Bowles taking notes and conducting interviews while sandwiched between everyday progressive normies and the extremists screaming at them about their ideological deviations.

In one memorable chapter set in 2021, Bowles reports from Seattle’s (murderously) chaotic “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (variously referenced as “CHAZ” or “CHOP” in news dispatches), where she meets a humble café owner named Faizel Khan who’d been targeted by mobs for his fascistic wrongthink. Which is to say that he’d dared state publicly that creating a lawless enclave roamed by masked thugs demanding protection money from business owners might not suit the interests of local residents and entrepreneurs.

In another chapter, Bowles observes furious Antifa members protesting a Los Angeles spa after a trans-identified biological man (later identified as a registered sex offender named Darren Merager) was chased out of a woman’s sauna after he’d exposed himself (allegedly in an aroused state) to a female group that included a 14-year-old girl. As in other protest scenes recounted by Bowles, Merager’s Antifa supporters whipped themselves into a febrile state that would seem, to any ordinary observer, utterly psychotic. One protestor, for instance, screamed at a police officer (presumably named Brad), “You don’t have the balls to kill yourself. Kill yourself, Brad… Do it! You’re a piece of shit. I’m gonna start following you around till you kill yourself.” In addressing another officer, this one female, a fellow protester yelled, “Fuck all of you, especially this white bitch right here… Eat a dick. Sit on a cactus, bitch.”

Signs placed outside a Los Angeles spa in support of a trans-identified biological man—later identified as Darren Merager, a registered sex offender—who’d exposed himself to four women and a teenage girl on 24 June 2021.

Several progressive writers who’ve reviewed Bowles’ book have chastised her for airing the left’s dirty laundry in a way that, they claim, makes too much of fringe actors and minor controversies; suggesting that she’s (at best) a sensationalist, or (much worse) a faux-progressive literary quisling working at the behest of nefarious conservatives. But these accusations ring hollow. The violent disruptions that have unfolded since 2020 in Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and other urban areas left deep civic scars that are still being healed. The retreat from street policing that took place following the BLM protests has been linked to a surge in homicides. The campaign to decriminalise hard drugs has caused many downtown areas to become open drug markets strewn with human misery and waste. Demands to include trans-identified men in women’s sports have made a complete mockery of many female competitions. Bowles didn’t pluck any of this from her imagination.

The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters
One of the odd-seeming aspects of progressive cancel culture is that many of the figures targeted by mobs aren’t especially conservative in their views.

Moreover, the author doesn’t dispute her critics’ claim that the radicalised agitators she describes aren’t representative of mainstream progressive views. Indeed, that’s a point she emphasises in documenting how even tiny groups of left-wing fanatics have been permitted to bully, silence, or even commandeer progressive organisations and political movements. Over time, these fringe activists have learned to ignore conservative targets and instead focus their energies on taking down moderate progressives and classical liberals—such as J.K. Rowling, Jesse Singal, Katie Herzog, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, Coleman Hughes, Steven Pinker, Bari Weiss, and, yes, now Bowles herself—whom they (correctly) judge to be their main competition for the commanding heights of American cultural and intellectual life.

Bowles’ often-sardonic style may not bring smiles to the faces of progressive readers who’ve been taught to equate satire with social-justice blasphemy (I found her book hilarious, for what it’s worth). But it’s an exercise in denial to suggest that the ugly spasms of extremism she’s witnessed and chronicled aren’t newsworthy, or that this phenomenon isn’t contaminating the overall progressive brand.

Finally, I’ll add that Bowles hasn’t written one of those tiresome manifestos in which a lifelong leftist suddenly describes why she’s become a born-again conservative (or vice versa). She makes it clear that her views have remained broadly liberal, in the way that word would have been understood when she began work at the Times (ancient times, I realise, but still). And to such extent as she offers any overarching theory for young progressives’ enlistment in illiberal political cults, it comes in the form of (admittedly backhanded) praise: She likens their vanguard to utopians who truly do seek a better world, even if their convictions inevitably express themselves as intolerance and fanaticism:

They came with politics built on the idea that people are profoundly good, denatured only by capitalism, by colonialism and whiteness and heteronormativity… The police could be abolished because people are kind and—once rescued from poverty and racism—wouldn’t hurt each other. Homeless addicts can set up long-term communities in public parks because they absolutely will share space conscientiously with local families… Gender dysphoric children should be given the medical interventions they ask for, at any age they ask, because those children know themselves perfectly. [And] if a non-profit leader says they are spending money on black lives, then that’s what they’re doing, and to ask for [financial] records is part of the problem.

Bowles has no objection to this vision of a perfect society. Indeed, she calls it “beautiful.” She simply believes that its viability should be evaluated through rigorous investigation—a process that, not so long ago, would have been known to her critics in the Times newsroom simply as sound reporting.

Like Nellie Bowles, Musa al-Gharbi is a young American liberal dedicated to the task of understanding the illiberal tendencies that now dominate much of the progressive landscape. But he comes to the project from a very different background, which explains why he’s produced a very different book.

While Bowles was sending out her Ivy League applications in the mid-2000s, al-Gharbi was enrolled at Cochise Community College in Sierra Vista, Arizona (pop. 45,308), a short drive from the military base where his father worked. After excelling at Cochise, he won a chance to transfer to New York University, but then gave it up amidst the personal crisis he suffered when his twin brother died while serving with the US Army in Afghanistan.

Eventually, al-Gharbi did make it to the east coast and landed a full-time job as a professor, but not before enduring an extended period of soul-searching and professional frustrations. At one point, he found himself selling shoes at a local Dillard’s, where his bid to become a store manager was rejected on the (admittedly well-founded) basis that he seemed unlikely to remain in the footwear business.

All of which is to say, while Bowles came of age as a made member of America’s progressive Platinum Club, al-Gharbi (who also happens to be black and Muslim) stumbled into the club’s lobby through the back door.

Ironically, however, al-Gharbi’s outsider status in elite academic circles turned out to be a major intellectual asset, as it made him alive to the hypocrisies and false pieties of campus life that his more privileged colleagues took for granted. In time, the sociology of elites became one of his research specialties—as well as the subject of his new book, We Have Never Been Woke: The Cultural Contradictions of a New Elite.

Al-Gharbi took inspiration from famed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), who grew up poor in a rural area of southwestern France before eventually becoming one of his country’s leading public intellectuals. Bourdieu was not dissuaded by the snobbery he endured at the École Normale Supérieure (much of it coming from Cold War leftists, who otherwise imagined themselves to be great champions of the world’s oppressed). Rather, it fuelled his scholarship, which, as al-Gharbi writes, illuminated “the ways that elites and elite aspirants jockeyed for status, influence, wealth, and power… often while claiming to be altruistic or pursuing the ‘greater good.’”

In We Have Never Been Woke, al-Gharbi focuses his Bourdieuvian lens on all manner of gilded progressive milieus—including his own roosts in New York:

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of the most striking scenes that continued to replay itself throughout the summer of 2020 was that, on many Friday afternoons, demonstrators would gather in the medians on Broadway Boulevard holding up signs declaring ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the like. Although there are plenty of Black people who live and work in the area, the people taking part in these demonstrations were overwhelmingly white—academics and professionals by the looks of them. They would shake their signs as cars drove by, and the cars would occasionally honk as if to signal agreement, and the demonstrators would cheer.
However, on several occasions I observed demonstrators engaging in this ritual literally right in front of—sharing the median with—homeless Black men who didn’t even have shoes. [The protesters] were crowding the benches that homeless people were using, standing amid the bags that contained their few worldly possessions, in order to cheer on BLM. Meanwhile, the Black guys right in front of them seemed to be invisible. They were a piece of scenery akin to a bench—an obstruction the demonstrators had to work around, lest they fall over while waving their BLM signs at passing cars. In order to remove these obstructions, many from the same demographic as the protesters, perhaps including many of the protesters themselves, would ultimately band together to purge most of these homeless people from the Upper West Side.

At the centre of al-Gharbi’s analysis is Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital, which the French scholar defined as the “various forms of distinction and prestige acquired through cultural recognition.” The accumulation of symbolic capital may not be important to working-class individuals who are primarily occupied with feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads. But it is often fiercely sought after by wealthy knowledge workers who, operating at a “distance from necessity,” seek to cultivate the “long-lasting dispositions of mind and body” associated with high status (“virtue signalling,” in the modern idiom). Hashtags comprise a form of social capital. As do exotic pronouns, ideologically correct corporate mission statements, and those oft-satirised 2021-era lawn signs whose lettering began with the words, In This House, We Believe.

If you can get through this entire book without periodically blushing and saying, ‘Yeah, that’s me,’ then I’d suggest you’re not being honest with yourself.

As al-Gharbi takes pains to emphasise, one does not need to be “woke” (a term of abuse that I generally try to avoid, but which as yet has no concise replacement) to hunger for symbolic capital. Al-Gharbi freely confesses that he himself is a symbolic capitalist, insofar as he seeks to gain influence and renown through the publication of his scholarship. So, too, are anti-woke culture critics—including me and many of my fellow Quillette contributors—who “attempt to show everyone how elite they are, how ‘above it all’ they are, by very aggressively and publicly defying the prevailing discursive and normative trends among their peers.” (If you can get through this entire book without periodically blushing and saying, “Yeah, that’s me,” then I’d suggest you’re not being honest with yourself.)

Far from offering a culture-war call to arms, Al-Gharbi strikes a moderate, almost weary tone. He argues that there’s nothing particularly special or alarming about this moment: Patterns of political radicalisation among elites are recurrent in the post-industrial history of the western world, and often track periods of elite overproduction (i.e., underemployment among the well-educated and -connected).

Referencing the prescient work of ecologist-turned-historian Peter Turchin, he argues that American society has been going through just such a phase: The United States simply has too many people “who feel entitled to high status and high incomes relative to the capacity of [their] society to actually absorb [such] elite aspirants into the power structure.” As a result, they find alternative means to advance their social standing, often by presenting themselves as vital (and even heroic) allies of marginalised populations, locked arm-in-arm as they march off to (metaphorically) confront (or even overthrow) society’s racist, colonial, transphobic etc. overlords.

Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade - Nature
Nature - Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade

As Turchin argued in his 2010 Nature article, these purported alliances never last long because, as al-Gharbi summarises it, “at the end of the day, elites mostly just want to be elites.” During their college days, aspiring symbolic capitalists may erect a teepee on campus to raise awareness about Indigenous rights, or fly a watermelon flag out their dorm window to demonstrate solidarity with Gaza. But eventually, they graduate into the same law firms, management consultancies, tech start-ups, and investment banks as their friends. And once that happens, the only way they can resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance is to embrace a quasi-Marxist vision of themselves as epistemic savants, whose advanced education and (ostensible) commitment to social justice entitle them to serve as (suitably revered—and, of course, remunerated) moral exemplars. This, in turn, helps explain why

the Americans most likely to profess beliefs associated with wokeness also tend to be the Americans most likely to become symbolic capitalists: highly educated, relatively affluent white liberals. Within the democratic coalition, for instance, studies have repeatedly found that those who strongly and consistently identify with far-left political positions are especially likely… to skew young, white, highly educated, and urban-dwelling, and to hail from relatively advantaged backgrounds. The same constituencies are also the most likely to self-identify as antiracists, feminists, or ‘allies’ to the LGBTQ community.

Which brings us back to Kendi. The lucrative partnership he forged with Deloitte may have repulsed his true-believing anti-racist subordinates at Boston University. But within the framework al-Gharbi describes, the deal made perfect sense: While there’s little evidence that DEI training provides any measurable benefits to workers, it strikes me as doubtful that Deloitte’s management team had any sincere interest in effective anti-racist pedagogy. The real prize was the boost in Deloitte’s symbolic capital that would result from linking its brand with that of a high-status anti-racist celebrity.

In at least one important way, Bowles and al-Gharbi emphasize opposite conclusions about the roots of progressive radicalism. Bowles, the journalist, sees her allies-turned-tormentors at the Times as failed idealists who, at least initially, came to their belief system with big hearts and benign intentions. Al-Gharbi, the academic, is less charitable, arguing that social-justice sloganeering can serve as a means for elites to hoard symbolic capital while deflecting unwelcome scrutiny of their wealth and privilege.

Yet I think it’s still possible to read the two books as complementary texts. Even if one ultimately accepts al-Gharbi’s view that wokeism has never amounted to any kind of real, coherent, or sustainable ideological belief system (thus the word “never” in his title), it clearly feels real to those who get caught up in the heady campus protests, street theatre, bitter doctrinal infighting, and cancel campaigns that the movement has inspired. And it is this inner life of militant progressives that Bowles illuminates. Unlike al-Gharbi, she focuses closely on the granular mechanics by which the creed is justified, promulgated, and enforced within professional, social, and even romantic silos—a subject that can only be effectively explored through the kind of immersive (and confessional) journalism contained in Morning After the Revolution.

Bowles’ personal experience within this world explains why she’s willing to extend a measure of sympathy and understanding to woke puritans—even the ones who tried to make her life miserable at The Times (and denounced her wife Bari, who is Jewish, as a “Nazi”). As Bowles notes in her book, many of these people are anxious, deeply insecure, status-obsessed souls who’ve truly convinced themselves that the social-justice movement is an urgent, even sacred, calling—one that supersedes not only their baseline liberal political and civic commitments, but also the ordinary forms of courtesy, affection, and loyalty that connect us all to friends and family, and which are necessary to maintain an atmosphere of trust and collegiality in our workplaces.

The self-deluded nature of these Slack-channel inquisitors doesn’t excuse their anti-social and often abusive treatment of non-believers, of course. But as Bowles would argue, it’s still worth making an effort to try to see the world through their eyes. If she’s willing to forgive them their cruelties, then maybe, in the fullness of time, the rest of us can, too.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette