Morning After the Revolution by Nellie Bowles review – the perils of failing to toe the party line

<span>‘A police-free utopia’: the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, Washington, June 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc/Alamy</span>
‘A police-free utopia’: the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, Washington, June 2020.Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc/Alamy

Morning After the Revolution by the American journalist Nellie Bowles is a wickedly enjoyable book about the madness that seemingly began to inflame the brains of a certain cohort of the liberal intelligentsia about four years ago (its author dates the fever to the pandemic, but I think – personal information! – it began some time before then). It was a delirium that took her, as it did many people, a little by surprise, not least because she in theory belonged to this subsection herself: at school, where she was for a while the only out gay person, she ran around sticking rainbows all over the place; after college she was known to go to readings at Verso Books (“my God, I bought a tote”); when her girl Hillary was “about to win” she was “drinking with I’m With Her-icanes at a drag bar”. But once she’d noticed it, she couldn’t ignore it. Her instinct was to whip out a thermometer and ask a few pertinent diagnostic questions.

Asking questions, though, is (or it certainly was… things may be shifting now) verboten in the time of madness. Either you’re for the ideological buffet – every single dish – or you’re against it, and must eat at the bad restaurant where all the mean people hang out, a place that is otherwise known as “the wrong side of history”. When the insanity started, Bowles was working in Los Angeles for the New York Times, a job she’d dreamed of since childhood, and there her curiosity soon began to piss off some of her colleagues. When she went on to fall in love with a full-blown dissenter, the columnist Bari Weiss, who’s now her wife, she found herself on the outside of something, looking in. Morning After the Revolution is an account of her adventures in this topsy-turvy realm, in both the period before and after she left the NYT in 2021 (she and Weiss now run the Free Press). It comprises a series of reported colour pieces in which she touches on such things as diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) programmes, the campaign to defund the police, trans rights and (briefly) the crystal display she noticed when Meghan and Harry did pandemic Zooms from their home in Montecito.

In the US, Bowles has already been accused of cherry picking by a furiously indignant critic in the Washington Post, which seems beside the point to me: if your subject is madness, you’re not going to go out of your way to interview the sane, are you? Her reporting doesn’t strike me as unfair; I think she sometimes errs on the side of generosity. Struck by how comical the hyper-‘woke’ sound when they’re in full flight, most of the time she doesn’t need to add anything herself; her mode, which is very effective, is death by quotation. By most people’s standards, moreover, she isn’t even particularly – or at all – rightwing (the Post’s critic, a bit desperately, likens her to Gore Vidal’s arch-enemy, the arch-Conservative, William F Buckley). Mostly, she’s just worried that the rights she takes for granted – she loves her “picket fence” life with her wife and child – are threatened by the extremities of the left, as well as of the right.

But of course Morning After the Revolution plays differently here than in the US, in part because we know less than American readers about the stories she relates. I had no idea of the controversy around the handling of funds donated to Black Lives Matter in the early 00s; and I was new to the grim detail of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, a police-free utopia featuring movie nights and Marxism read-alouds that sprang up in the city in 2020. In case you are new to it, too, city leaders including Seattle’s then mayor, Jenny Durkan, loudly embraced its anti-fascist, anti-capitalist spaghetti potlucks (others, though, noticed young men with guns patrolling its borders at night). It may well be the case that the four-day-long workshop Bowles attends in 2021 isn’t a wholly typical example of a DEI programme, but this doesn’t make its existence any the less absurd, its participants furiously competing to denounce their whiteness. Among the speakers is Resmaa Menakem, a “somatic abolitionist” who has appeared on Oprah, one of whose techniques involves getting racists (ie anyone who is white and new to the game) to slap the soles of their feet repeatedly as they confess to their privilege.

To poke fun at – to be alarmed by – this kind of stuff is hardly renegade, and voters in the liberal cities Bowles describes (San Francisco is another) have since made it plain they think it loopy and patronising, too. Freedom isn’t only to do with speech: a safe, well-managed city benefits those at the bottom far more than those at the top, who can pay for security and taxis and private schools. But this isn’t to say that free speech isn’t vitally important, and the groupthink that works to limit it is at the bottom of everything that happens in her book – up to and including the fact that one American university has now banned the expression “trigger warning” on the grounds it is violent language.

Bowles bookends her dispatches with two accounts of a cancellation – and here she knows whereof she speaks. In the first, she participated on behalf of a close friend, enjoying the mob feeling of righteous indignation. In the second, she refused to join in, an act of resistance that brought the very same friend to cast her out. As she observes, the revolution believed, in the beginning, in a profound empathy; its ideas, many of which she loved as much as the next person, revolved around equity and kindness. But that empathy has long since gone on the run. Bowles does not expect to hear from her old pal ever again.

Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History by Nellie Bowles is published by Swift Press (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply