What Nellie Bowles saw at the revolution

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News / Source: nelliebowles.com
Zoë Petersen, Deseret News / Source: nelliebowles.com
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In college, Nellie Bowles looked up writers she saw on the front page of The New York Times to deconstruct their career paths to success; she repeated in front of the mirror: “Hi, it’s Nellie Bowles, with The New York Times.” She got the coveted job in 2017, writing stories about business and tech, and threw herself into the Times culture, going to happy hours with colleagues and working weekends. But around 2020, in the height of the pandemic, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, something started to shift.

In her new book “Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History,” Bowles documents that shift in her observations of the progressive left and its policies, which she believes went radically astray.

It’s the “New Progressive” at the center of the movement she writes about. (The term “woke” is too laden with baggage now, she told me, and feels “dated, stale, clumsy, and also too politicized.”)

“It was a new era,” she writes. “Liberals — those weak, wishy-washy compromisers, the hemmers and hawers — were out. Washing them away was the New Progressive.”

In the book, Bowles tells the stories she wasn’t allowed to tell at the Times: She writes, for example, about Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which transformed into a police-free “autonomous zone,” or CHAZ, Antifa protests, and the experience of attending an anti-racism training called “The Toxic Trends of Whiteness.”

Bowles, 36, is a sarcastic and humorous observer, whose tone nods to the excesses and absurdity of these progressive efforts. “The ideology that came shrieking in would go on to reshape America in some ways that are interesting and even good, and in other ways that are appalling, but mostly in ways that are — I hate to say it — funny,” she writes in the book.

The New York Times reviewed the book, calling it sneering, and saying “the journalist Nellie Bowles relies more on sarcasm than argument or ideas.”

After leaving the Times in 2021, Bowles joined The Free Press, a new media company founded by Bari Weiss, who resigned from The New York Times in 2020 with a public letter, citing that she was “the subject of constant bullying” and “was openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels.” At The Free Press, Bowles is the head of strategy and writes a weekly humor column called “TGIF.”

Bowles, who is expecting her second child, spoke to Deseret from her home in Los Angeles. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: When did you first start questioning your own views about the response to the events of 2020 and their aftermath?

Nellie Bowles: I never much questioned my place in the mainstream media. I was a successful young reporter at the Times. I was doing stories I really cared about and loved writing. I was having fun. I was doing send-ups of silly Silicon Valley trends, or cool Silicon Valley trends or political figures. It was all pretty natural how life was unfolding.

For me, as 2019 came, and then 2020, the areas of acceptable curiosity started to narrow. And suddenly a movement that had been kind of a fringe movement that you could ignore, or be part of without it taking over your life, announced itself all of a sudden very loudly. For instance, NPR put out a statement in 2020, saying that they were not covering the Hunter Biden laptop story, because it’s a non-story. Adolescent gender dysphoria or COVID origins — some of the most interesting topics in America — were other stories you were not supposed to report on or (you had to) align your reporting with the dominant narratives of the day.

The personality traits of a good journalist, like being suspicious, objective or the belief in the idea that “the truth is hard” — they were off the table. Within the mainstream, many, many very interesting topics became out of bounds. That’s just really hard for any curious person. That was the shift that I managed to get in a lot of trouble with.

DN: How did the “revolution” and its ideas spread at The New York Times?

NB: I think the revolution that’s happened in the mainstream American press has been bottom up, not top down. It’s not that the bosses of the newspapers and the magazines sat down and said, “We’re going to clamp down on the curious reporters.” It tended to be newer and younger staff who didn’t come into journalism to do the traditional news stuff. They came to be a tool of the revolution and of social change; they were on a mission. We had situations at the Times where in all-company, 3000-person Slack rooms, a Wirecutter editor would go after a top political reporter. That’s how it entered the bloodstream.

This was happening with a lot of different publications, and this is what’s happening now with American universities. I don’t think the presidents of these universities are ideologues in general — it’s a bottom-up revolution.

DN: In one of the chapters that stood out the most to me, you recount what happened in an anti-racism training course. What did you expect going into it and what surprised you?

NB: Going into it, I knew some of the rhetoric I was going to see, but I was surprised by what I saw and how much it impacted me. In the book, I try to trace how anti-racist work went from being something that happens externally — something that happens by doing activism to change laws — to something that happens internally. It becomes more of a therapeutic anti-racism, where it’s all about dismantling whiteness inside yourself, dismantling your white traits, and those are defined as things such as “perfectionism” and “urgency.” To some extent, it’s anti-action. It says, “don’t try to improve tangible things like laws and impose your white values on society.”

When I dove into this therapeutic work, I was surprised how deeply I felt it all as an outsider, who went in skeptical. I don’t know if the result is good or bad or if it improves the lives for people of color in America, but it was powerful — there is a reason why Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” was so popular. The therapeutic model of anti-racism tells you that the most important thing that you can do to fight racism in America is to fight your own perfectionism and to stop trying so hard.

That’s a really different way of thinking about improving the world. And I don’t totally believe that. I think we can actually make quite a lot of change through the old-world style of activism and the old liberal values-type activism.

DN: You write about the failure of San Francisco, where you grew up. How did San Francisco contribute to your disillusionment with progressive policies?

NB: Being at The New York Times definitely opened my eyes to this movement, but it was really seeing San Francisco and being a local there that made me see that sometimes beautiful ideas can have results that are the opposite of what you intended. Being a San Franciscan over the last decade has been a humbling experience. It made me less sure of my politics and my belief system.

You see the city and you realize, maybe harm-reduction approaches don’t work, because you’re walking past someone who’s dying on the sidewalk. How is it that this beautiful philosophy is not connected to a beautiful end result? Don’t get me wrong — the city itself is gorgeous, but the soaring fentanyl deaths make you have to wrestle with reality if you’re living in San Francisco. And there is no one to blame but your own ideas. Everyone in San Francisco is a progressive, so there is no outsider you can point to and say, “They did this.”

I find that the best way to start a conversation with people who disagree with you politically; there is debate on how to achieve the outcome, how to achieve less racist policing and fewer people dying on the streets of fentanyl. There is debate on how to get there, but we all want the same thing. But in the last couple of years, there is much more of a consensus actually in San Francisco. I would say the moderates have won.

DN: Some would say the progressive movement has peaked. What do you think this movement might look like in the future?

NB: The book is called “The Morning After the Revolution” because I think the heat of the moment, the heat of the revolution has passed. Even though there is unrest on college campuses, it’s not the tens of thousands of people you saw marching before. I think (the progressive ideology) basically became institutionalized, the values of the moment are now woven into corporate America, they’re woven into academic America, they’re woven into our institutions. So it doesn’t need to be as loud, it doesn’t need to announce itself with screams and fire. It’s just taken for granted now.

That’s the shift — the movement won. The book grapples with what it is that won exactly, and also why? I hope and try in the book to show the appeal of a lot of these moments, the appeal of the anti-racism training, the appeal of even a group like Antifa, the group that introduces elements of violence into protests. I don’t think you can understand our current moment without acknowledging that these things were appealing for a reason.

DN: Is there a future for free-thinking journalists in the mainstream media?

NB: I’m optimistic. There are various new media companies that are cropping up now, like The Free Press, that are trying to fill this new void. I also think through the creation of new institutions and their success the old institutions will start to course-correct. There is an appetite and hunger. Most Americans don’t have really perfectly aligned politics with one party or another. Most Americans are kind of messy and believe a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Most people don’t want to be shoved in a little partisan box, and that’s really a good thing about Americans. And it says a lot about our miserable partisan boxes and how constrained they are.

I mean, people also like red meat and their op-eds about how Donald Trump is the end of the world for the thousandth time. But there is interest in complexity. It turns out that there are a lot of people who want something that’s between the NPR and the Daily Wire, and that offers a little more surprise and that offers a little more complexity to the world than those two places. That’s been heartening and exciting.