This is the story of the past three years of my life. It’s romance in a way, but it’s also a breakup story. It begins sometime in 2015, a year during which my life was coming apart in various ways…
Maybe it was the impending loss of Obama that caused us to begin this unconscious process of detachment — from one another as well as from him. Maybe we knew we’d never be in love like this again, so we started looking for problems, picking fights, finding the dissatisfaction that had apparently been hiding deep inside our contentment. It wasn’t hard, since injustices large and small were in the foreground of our daily lives like never before. Cellphone cameras, now ubiquitous, left no public altercation undocumented. Screenshots left no ill-advised text or tweet permanently forgotten. The social justice warrior, a moniker used mainly by detractors and often reduced to “SJW,” emerged on the scene with a self-proclaimed utopian vision that sometimes sounded a lot like authoritarianism. Social media, the narcotic we were already all addicted to, now did double duty as an outrage amplifier and disseminator of half-truths spoken by well-meaning but unreliable narrators.
Words like “mansplaining” and “gaslighting” were suddenly in heavy rotation, often invoked with such elasticity as to render them nearly meaningless. Similarly, the term “woke,” which originated in black activism, was being now used to draw a bright line between those on the right side of things and those on the wrong side of things. The parlance of wokeness was being used online so frequently that it began to strike me as disingenuous, even a little desperate. After all, these weren’t just meme-crazed youngsters flouting their newly minted critical studies degrees. Many were in their forties and fifties, posting photos from their kids’ middle school graduations along with rage-filled jeremiads about toxic masculinity. One minute they were asking for recommendations for gastroenterologists in their area. The next, they were adopting the vocabulary of Tumblr, typing things like I.Just.Cant.With.This., and This is some fucked, patriarchal bullshit, amiright?
Three years later, a handful of this cadre would be introduced to the greater public under the dubious banner of “the intellectual dark web.” “An alliance of heretics is making an end run around the mainstream conversation,” went a New York Times article in the spring of 2018, “Should we be listening?” (An accompanying photo spread showed the subjects posing defiantly in rainstorms and shadowy forests.) Within days, countless news outlets had picked up the story, and it seemed everyone had something to say about whether the members of this alliance had any credibility as either heretics or intellectuals. There was little if any consensus on this; descriptors ranged from renegades to grifters to white nationalist trolls — but the fervor around the whole subject suggested that a nerve had been touched, possibly even a major artery tapped.
Amid this crisis, virtue signaling went from a kind of youthful fashion statement to the default mode of public and private expression. Twitter headlines wrapped themselves in the banner of social justice even ifthere was hardly a social justice angle at all.
A simplistic reading of this story might suggest that I had been red-pilled. That term, which came from the movie The Matrix, originally referred to being awakened into some vaguely defined realm of politically incorrect “truth,” though it’s now associated with indoctrination into the alt-right and any number of related and troubling subgroups. But I found the red pill concept facile at best, and not just because the conspiratorial overtones weren’t my style. It wasn’t just “truth” I was after. It was that pesky nuance thing. I would have taken equal if not more delight in criticizing the political right if there was anything remotely interesting or surprising about doing so. But bashing the right, especially in the age of Trumpism, was easy and boring, the conversational equivalent of playing “Chopsticks” on the piano. Inspecting your own house for hypocrisy was a far meatier assignment. As with James Baldwin’s line, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” I felt an obligation to hold the left to account because, for all my frustrations with it, I was still of it.