The writer Meghan Daum has told her life story in her books. She documented her salad days of debt and dating in New York in “My Misspent Youth.” She novelized the story of an idealistic move to Nebraska in “The Quality of Life Report.” In “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House,” she described moving to Los Angeles and buying her first home. In “The Unspeakable,” she wrote about the death of her mother, an illness that almost killed her, and her decision not to have children.
In 2015, Daum separated from her husband and moved from Los Angeles to New York, a city she had left some fifteen years before. Confronting divorce and passing into her late forties, she began a descent along “a downward slope of my youth that was far steeper than I had any grasp of at the time.” She was spending a lot of time on the Internet—by her own reckoning, “three-quarters of my waking hours”—when Donald Trump took office. “By the time #MeToo reached full force,” she continues, “my brain no longer felt connected to my body.”
It was in this state that she started feeling annoyed. It began with the tone of feminists online. The women’s movement, she thought, had lost the capacity to process nuance; it was instead becoming a “noisepool” of complaints. “I was tired of the one-note outrage, the snarky memes, the exhibitionism, the ironic misandry in the vein of #KillAllMen, the commodification of the concept of ‘giving zero fucks,’ ” she writes. Daum wondered when women became so pleased about thinking of themselves as victims. Were they, in fact, so oppressed? She decided to write “a book about feminism and only feminism.” The book was going to be called “You Are Not a Badass.”
Then Trump got elected. The scope of her irritation expanded beyond feminism to “everything.” Now it was not only the rah-rah feminists who bothered her but also the “smug vibe of many young activists within the new left,” especially the ones who considered themselves “woke.” The Internet she explored every day was filled with “hollow indignation and performed outrage.” When, in the fall of 2017, the accusations against Harvey Weinstein prompted an outpouring of stories about sexual harassment and rape, Daum’s annoyance turned to concern. Men were being punished for sexual assault without what she thought to be due process. The definition of sexual assault, in her opinion, had become too broad—unwanted kissing, groping, or ejaculating inside someone without her permission weren’t really acts of violence. Her book changed from an argument about feminism to “The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars,” about feeling old, spending too much time scrolling through social media, and getting ornery about the politics of young people. “I’ve never been more afraid of writing a book,” she writes. “I’ve never been more certain I had to.”
In the midst of Daum’s ennui, in 2015, she discovered a number of online cultural pundits who quickened her pulse and made her feel alive: they included the economist Glenn Loury and the linguist John McWhorter, who discussed American race relations on BloggingHeads.tv; the YouTube talk-show host Dave Rubin; the neuroscientist and podcaster Sam Harris; the “factual feminist” philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; and the notorious Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Members of this group made self-recorded videos on what Daum calls “Free Speech YouTube” or appeared as guests on “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Some of them were tenured professors or essayists who wrote for magazines such as The Atlantic and Reason. In their essays, panels, and podcasts, they rejected the idea that sexist, racist, and homophobic microaggressions are as traumatic as college-educated liberals in the United States tend to believe, or that the “privilege” bestowed by being white, heterosexual, or cisgender is rooted in empirical fact. Some have disputed the data that indicate systemic inequality exists. Others have argued that structural inequalities reflect innate biological or genetic propensities across groups, or insist on seeing gender as an immutable biological difference. What they have in common is a belief that attempts to correct the wrongs of history and remedy inequality have resulted in authoritarian overreach and a culture of censorship.
In the past couple of years, what was at first a loose collection of individuals has evolved into a retweeting cohort. In 2018, the Times columnist Bari Weiss characterized them as a movement, in an opinion piece that popularized their self-christening as the “Intellectual Dark Web.” The “Dark Web” part is a misnomer—you can’t buy LSD on YouTube, as far as I know, and you can watch a Bloggingheads video without knowing how to use Tor. But evoking illicitness is important to their identity—it gives them the frisson of speaking the forbidden, a rhetorical strategy that Daum also deploys. She writes of being thrilled at Loury’s and McWhorter’s criticism of white fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom she describes as “the unofficial paterfamilias of the wokescenti.” She quotes McWhorter saying that “the elevation of that kind of dorm-lounge performance art as serious thought is a kind of soft bigotry.” I thought of George W. Bush, who first described “another kind of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations,” in a speech about No Child Left Behind. It’s one thing to critique Coates’s writing or ideas and another to hint that the millions of readers who found meaning in his work were grading him on a curve.
Daum insists that she was not red-pilled, making few ideological commitments in the book beyond valuing disagreement. Her own “nuance” seems to preclude commitment to any particular position. She can’t quite bring herself to defend Peterson—who has framed his transphobia as a free-speech issue (he refuses to use gender-neutral pronouns) and his sexism as science (he believes that sex and class hierarchies are determined by biology)—but she can at least defend “his right to exist.” Daum hems and haws about his popularity with young fascists. Many of Peterson’s ideas “seem perfectly reasonable once you get past his bluster,” she writes.
Daum presents herself as a bit of a lurker, haunting the fringes of this world without becoming one of its pundits. She portrays herself instead as a liberal inspecting her own house for evidence of hypocrisy. “I felt an obligation to hold the left to account because, for all my frustrations with it, I was still of it,” she writes. As long as she doesn’t commit to some of the views of Free Speech YouTube, especially those that emphasize the rightness of hierarchy, I suppose she can still say she is “of the left,” which she also fails to define. But being “of the left” is not a purely materialist position. Right now, it also indicates a set of values, most obviously fairness, in which political correctness is a form of good etiquette practiced by well-intentioned people.
Daum argues that her annoyance with the demographic she calls the “sensitivity readers” is a generational one. She was born in 1970, a proud member of Generation X. She recalls a childhood when children’s clothing was unisex and young people were less coddled. To Daum, someone only ten years younger than her “might as well belong to a different geological epoch.” “In this epoch,” she continues, “there are no pay phones for calling friends at the spur of the moment. The contact highs from walking down the street have been replaced by dopamine hits from Instagram likes. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction.”
I am eleven years younger than Daum, so nearing forty. If I’m a millennial, I am barely one. I walk down the street every day. I never joined Instagram. I was thirty when I got my first iPhone, and the culture I consumed as a teen-ager was made by the members of Generation X. Where, exactly, was the “toughness” that Daum fondly recalls? I remember the nineties as a time of earnest political expression, of Cross Colours T-shirts (“clothing without prejudice”) and Colors magazine (“a magazine about the rest of the world”). Gen X gave us grunge and emo rock, the earthy feminism of the Lilith Fair, the social-justice-minded underground-rap scene, straight-edge punks, and the rave meme of Peace Love Unity Respect. I remember Dead Prez rapping about eating vegan, Black Star’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli referencing Toni Morrison, Fiona Apple reckoning with sexual assault, Soul Asylum singing about missing children, and R.E.M. reassuring us that “everybody hurts.” When Daum writes that “there must be something about being born in the late sixties through seventies that triggered an allergy to earnestness,” I think there is ample evidence—Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers, John Singleton—that she’s wrong.
At the end of the nineties, at least in my cultural world, the mood changed. A new brashness arose that seemed irreverent and funny: in the early two-thousands, I read Gavin McInnes’s Vice magazine and Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi’s Moscow-based The eXile and watched the cast of Jackass snort wasabi. Many of the Vice jokes were about applying the basest, most derogatory stereotypes, complete with the appropriate epithets. This periscope of disdain was equal opportunity, taking in women, Jews, black people, gays, Italians, rednecks, Christians, Puerto Ricans. On “Chappelle’s Show,” skits like “Mad Real World,” “Reparations,” and “Racial Draft,” meant to be ironic lampoons of American race politics, made white audiences laugh a little too hard. It was the time of the lad mag and the height of gonzo porn and amputation-centric horror franchises. Feminism, as Ariel Levy put it in “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” got “raunchy.” Nihilism was the mood, or at least my mood. I went to Washington to protest George W. Bush’s inauguration, in 2001. It was a small and insignificant show of dissent. After the immediate outcry about the invasion of Iraq, there were few organized movements, and protests were rare.
Daum is nostalgic for the nihilistic humor of the two-thousands. She shows her students at the University of Iowa “Everyone has AIDS,” the parody of “Rent” from the 2004 movie “Team America: World Police,” and makes them read “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” a Christopher Hitchens article published in Vanity Fair, in 2007. Daum contorts herself in defense of Hitchens, saying that “he was really making a feminist point (or at least what I considered to sort of be one) because he was essentially saying that comedy was a low art and women were above it.” Glib contrarianism was a mood at the time. History has judged it poorly. But Daum is a holdout. She feels betrayed when she clicks on a Guardian article and finds Sarah Silverman characterizing her own humor from fifteen years ago as “ignorant.”
By the twenty-tens, a consensus started to emerge that some of these jokes had not only been irreverent but also harmful. At least where I was, a new kind of feminism did seem to emerge. Women younger than me were memorializing Shulamith Firestone and fawning over Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick.” The New Inquiry, an online journal, was selling its misandry tote bag, featuring an illustration of a woman with a knife-eyed gaze on which a man was impaled. I couldn’t muster the anger, or the sense of gender identity. I was put off by Kraus’s novel, about an artist who harasses a man and claims the harassment is a feminist art project. Like Daum, I did not want to #KillAllMen, and resented literature that emphasized gender as a primary ordering principle. There was a parallel trend at the time, the years when The Atlantic kept publishing articles by white women about the dangers of “hookup culture” and warning that women can’t have it all. They hinted that the apex of female fulfillment was still to be a wife and a mother and that sexual freedom had given men all the agency. If you were a single woman at the time—and I was—these articles were unhelpful. They seemed to insist on the emotional squalor of single women—and appeared determined to remind us of our reproductive timelines.
The books that made sense to me at the time were those that questioned the primacy of the heteronormative family. Lauren Berlant’s thesis in her book “Cruel Optimism,” from 2011, that “the heterofamilial, upwardly mobile good-life fantasy” is no longer tenable has become the underpinning assumption of the millennial progressive left and millennial sexuality. I saw hope in the alternative optimisms in Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts” and Tim Dean’s “Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking”—queer theory, at least, was more skeptical that there was only one way to be in the world.
Daum quotes Joan Didion’s essay “The Women’s Movement,” from 1972, which was anthologized in “The White Album.” In that essay, Didion critiques both the idea of women as an oppressed Marxist class and the resulting imposition of feminist ideology onto literature and domestic life. “To believe in ‘the greater good’ is to operate, necessarily, in a certain ethical suspension,” Didion wrote. “To those of us who remained committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism.” For Daum, the “cancellation” of movies, music, books, and people; the lessons in political correctness delivered with clap emojis; the presentation of one’s identity first and ideas second; the constant reiteration of all the ways that a person can screw up, from touching someone’s hair to misgendering to wearing a sombrero to failing to cultivate the right demographic on a discussion panel—are similarly authoritarian.
Daum thinks we should be more understanding of the blind spots of others and less punitive in our policing of cultural appropriation, stereotypes, and microaggressions. She questions the degree to which small, demeaning gestures are really impediments to any one person’s flourishing. She takes pride in claiming responsibility for her own misfortunes and can’t think of any instances where male privilege has blocked her way. She stops short of an accusation of false consciousness, but hints at it enough.
Like Daum, I think posting “Fuck Trump” on Facebook is less helpful than encouraging nonviolence in word and deed. But, to rephrase Didion: to make an omelette, you need not only those broken eggs but someone with the certainty to break them. It was people unburdened by Daum’s ideas about “nuance” who took to the streets after police shootings, and named the men responsible for serial sexual assault and harassment, and insisted on a widespread revision of language to acknowledge our gender identities. It is telling that Daum ignores the positive benefits of these movements, or the real risks to safety and reputation taken by the people who initiated them. Didion and Daum may have preferred the status quo of their respective eras, but those who were inclined toward change were always going to be accused of overreach, of making a big deal out of nothing, of refusing to take responsibility for their own problems.
In the end, Daum’s quibbles with feminism and political correctness are not so different from the articles and books that have been engaging with the subject for the past thirty years. Her arguments that women have become too quick to cry rape differ little in substance from Laura Kipnis’s “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” which came out in 2017, or Katie Roiphe’s “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism,” from 1993. In one chapter, Daum offers only one side of a sexual-assault allegation, interviewing the accused, a young person named Joseph, but failing to talk to the accuser, whose anonymity Joseph was obligated to protect. Daum expresses reservations about only telling one side of the story, but does so anyway. “As it is, even though I’ve only met one of them, I essentially believe both of them,” she says, even though she uses Joseph’s account to imply that the woman may have exaggerated the claim of assault.
Daum mostly avoids the subject of race, which is probably for the best. As for her understanding of sexuality, she treats it as a series of trends. “Now gay was passé,” she writes. “Transgender activism had students turning in their professors over improper use of pronouns.” As a reviewer, I start to wonder if I should take the bait. Does light disparagement without reference to fact deserve to be countered? Do I mention again the difference between mistaking someone’s correct pronouns and flat-out refusing to use them? Or between sexuality and gender? What were the circumstances of this “turning in,” and did it actually happen?
Daum complains about the overuse of “gaslighting” but fails to recognize her own carelessness with language, including her reliance on Internet shorthand. Her book is littered with found phrases, from “purity policing” to “virtue signalling” to “cancel culture.” She has fallen into the right-wing trap of thinking of intersectional theory as a “doctrine” rather than a frame of reference. She has proclaimed independence by joining another herd.