“People told me not to write this book,” Meghan Daum said recently in a dark hotel bar in downtown Manhattan. The author and cultural critic was referring to her sixth book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, which was published earlier this week. Friends told her not to touch the “woke wars”—that it wasn’t worth it, that she’d be “annihilated.”
Nevertheless, she has. Daum takes on many of the most familiar battle tactics of contemporary feminism, from cancel culture’s mission to permanently mute all manner of alleged offenders to the pink pussy hats first worn at the 2017 Women’s March. (She admits they made her “cringe a little.” Maybe “smart-looking blazers” would be better?)
She doesn’t stop there. Though Daum told me she considers the #MeToo movement “hugely important,” she airs a number of criticisms in her book, despite the hazards faced by other writers who have raised similar doubts.
“I feel like part of the problem is that the smart, thoughtful people are smart and thoughtful enough to know that they should probably stay out of the conversation if they want to save their hides. But as a result, the stupid, thoughtless people are doing all the talking. So I just feel like we have a responsibility,” Daum says. “If you’re going to be reasonable, and open-minded and generous in your opinion, and not dogmatic, then toughen up and step in.”
Daum, whose books include the painfully candid essay collection The Unspeakable, was always a “check all the boxes” kind of liberal. Abortion rights: check. Gun control: check. From an early age, as a teenager in the New Jersey suburbs, she craved what she saw as the life of a New York City intellectual, the apartment on the Upper West Side with wood floors and Oriental rugs.
But now she lives her life with a searing case of “cognitive dissonance,” alienated from much of the online conversation she might be expected to participate in. “I walk down the street thinking, Why do I have this feeling?” she says.
“The smart, thoughtful people are smart and thoughtful enough to stay out of the conversation,” Daum says. “But as a result, the stupid, thoughtless people are doing all the talking.”
Maybe it started with the Aziz Ansari affair—what Daum calls a “record-scratch” moment in the steady progression of scandals collectively known as #MeToo. (In an article posted on the website Babe.net, the actor and comedian was accused of assault by an unnamed woman, who said he had pressured her into an unwanted sexual encounter. Ansari himself said in a statement that he had believed the encounter to be “completely consensual.”)
Or maybe it was earlier, in the very last years of the Obama administration, when Daum began to notice a shift of tone online. “Women you would just assume were perfectly empowered and had their shit together” were increasingly casting themselves as victims of institutional sexism—“the patriarchy,” to use their phrase. “It was almost like a story that young women had been telling themselves,” she says.
Daum remembers puzzling at the disconnect: in so many ways, by so many metrics, women were in fact doing better than men: more often college educated, more likely to own their own homes. “So that’s when I start to wonder: what is so appealing about framing yourself as being tamped down by this ‘oppressive’ group?”
Wherever it began, here’s where it wound up: “If you called for nuance, you were part of the problem,” Daum writes, a point she expanded on in our conversation. There is a widespread sense among many that we’re in such a “federal emergency” that there’s no room to question the fine print, to probe the gray, to inquire about such details as due process and what makes for justice—or even to admit that women are complicated and human, just like men.
After years in L.A., Daum is back in New York, newly divorced, nearing 50, and leading a life she says looks awfully like the one she led in this city as a twentysomething, which she documented so vividly in her early essays, collected in My Misspent Youth. Indeed, one of the central themes running through Daum’s new book is aging, “about what it’s like to grow older in a moment where the culture is moving so quickly and the generational divide is so profound that essentially we’re the first generation that’s going to be old before we’re 50. Like, we’re actually obsolete.”
And this, Daum says, is largely a consequence of the Internet. Because she and her fellow Gen Xers are old enough to remember what it’s like to have to call someone and ask them on a date—not simply swipe right—and get to know them in real life.
But it’s also, she believes, partially why women her own age frame their sexual histories in such different terms from younger women. She finds herself wondering about encounters that are entered into consensually, even if against our better judgment, even if later we wish we could take them back. “Why do so many young women seem so willing to recast unpleasant or regrettable sex into violative sex?,” Daum writes.
I imagine that this single question, more than any other question Daum raises in her book, will be the one that infuriates a portion of her readership. It suggests that there is another way for women to look at certain situations, another kind of story to tell themselves: not a black-and-white tale of victims and perpetrators but a messier one about two complicated (and, very often, drunk) human beings in a bedroom, negotiating what happens there together.
Two Angry Mobs
I’ve been paying extra attention to writers like Daum because of a situation I was thrust into in December 2017. My father, Jonathan Schwartz, a presence on New York radio for decades, playing the American Songbook on WNYC, was swept up in the #MeToo reckoning at the age of 79, fired for “inappropriate conduct.” There were complaints against him, we learned, but we were not told exactly what they were. Had he touched a co-worker’s hair while saying he liked her haircut? Had he made an off-color comment about his boss? Had he spoken too personally of his own past with a colleague? These were the rumors that got back to us, but I never received a clear explanation of why my father’s career ended in ignominy. And though I was profoundly disturbed by the opaque process of that termination, though I wanted to publish my account of what I had observed, I refrained, feeling there was no room for a story like mine, a story of ambivalence.
I needed only to witness what happened when the writer Katie Roiphe stepped forward with her infamous “Whisper Network” piece for Harper’s in March 2018 to know I wasn’t tough enough to enter the fray. In the article, Roiphe argued that the public conversation around #MeToo was very different from the private one, in which people were increasingly expressing hesitations at some of the movement’s tactics and unexamined assumptions. Such people, Roiphe wrote, felt unable to express those hesitations freely and frankly, for fear of seeming politically insensitive or right wing—fears that Roiphe’s subsequent experience on Twitter, where she was called “pro-rape,” among other things, seemed to justify.
On a recent afternoon, I met Roiphe at Rucola, a popular restaurant in brownstone Brooklyn, to talk about her experience of questioning aspects of the #MeToo movement as accusations against prominent men reached a fever pitch. Roiphe is no stranger to controversy. In her first book, The Morning After, published when she was 24, Roiphe suggested that the statistics on campus date rape were inflated. For this, she received death threats and required police presence while she promoted her book at Shakespeare & Co. But even that episode, she says, felt different than the uproar she faced over her Harper’s piece.
Roiphe knew other journalists who considered writing a similar article, but felt too vulnerable professionally. “If the tide turns against them, they don’t feel like they’re guaranteed their next paycheck,” she notes. Roiphe is a tenured professor at N.Y.U., where she directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program, and it was largely this security that emboldened her to accept the assignment.
The backlash began before the piece had even been published. “Before the piece was even finished,” she says. Left-wing Twitter was aflame over the rumor that she planned to name the anonymous author of the Shitty Media Men list. (Moira Donegan outed herself as its originator shortly thereafter.) Nicole Cliffe, the founder of the Web site the Toast, offered to reimburse writers who withdrew their articles from the issue, and at least one advertiser pulled its ads. (In a statement to The New York Times, the Harper’s spokeswoman said she had “no knowledge of writers pulling stories from the magazine.”) When the piece finally appeared, Roiphe said, the backlash continued, both on Twitter and in real life. “People were calling my dean and tweeting at N.Y.U. to fire Katie Roiphe.” One male Web editor tweeted a photograph of her with her eyes cut out, presumably in the name of feminism.
“At the time, it’s very overwhelming because it is kind of powerful, the way crowds are powerful. We have these two angry mobs, one of whom is sophisticated left-wing Twitter people who have Elena Ferrante novels on their bookshelves—that was my Twitter mob,” she says. “It was disturbing to me that they did not understand their resemblance to Trump’s angry crowds.”
Roiphe said that despite everything, she does not regret taking up the cudgel. “To be honest with you, I don’t think it was in my interest as a writer to write that Harper’s piece. But at certain points of cultural crisis, I think you have to put your self-interest aside,” she says. “Mob thinking is very dangerous to everything that is important to me.”
In the wake of the Harper’s piece, Roiphe went from literary bad girl to radioactive in certain circles, especially on Twitter, a signifier of all that contemporary feminism cannot abide. She’s not alone: for many, this is also the effect of invoking Bari Weiss, the pugnacious New York Times op-ed writer and editor, who has also occasionally used her platform to challenge aspects of the #MeToo movement.
“Mob thinking is very dangerous to everything that is important to me,” Katie Roiphe says.
Take, for instance, Weiss’s November 2017 New York Times column, “The Limits of Believe All Women,” in which she argued that the slogan’s homogenizing vision of “all women” as “truth personified” was ultimately destructive for women, flattening out their diversity, not to mention their humanity.
The controversy her writing sparks is not without an upside. At 35 years old, she has become a regular guest on Real Time with Bill Maher and commands automatic attention with her Times columns. Weiss is currently promoting her new book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism. We spoke by phone as she walked from one book interview to the next.
When I asked Weiss when was the first moment she felt discomfort over the tactics of the #MeToo movement, she pointed to Donegan’s Shitty Media Men list. She said she felt profoundly “out of step” with the people around her who had no hesitation about embracing an anonymously authored list that named names, in many cases, based on rumor.
“Is it really that hard to imagine that there could be someone who is innocent who is unfairly smeared?,” Weiss asked. “Is it really that hard to imagine that in one of these instances, one person experienced it as just a bad date, and the other person experienced it as something worse—and that there wasn’t nefarious intention?” She continued, “Men can be terrible. Women can also be terrible. And the spirit, too often, of a movement that clearly accomplished a lot of good was a spirit of certainty and orthodoxy. I found it strange that for people whose politics lead them to want to seek redemption and forgiveness for people who have committed murder—it was hard for me to square that with the mercilessness that seemed to be driving a lot of it.”
Weiss says she’s hopeful that the excesses of the movement, and of “woke culture in general,” are now becoming clear to those willing to see it. “I think anyone who has their eyes open sees that there are no limitations to this movement, to the moral purity of the far left, that insists that everyone needs to be on board for every single policy, every single judgment, or they are beyond the pale. That is a stifling, humorless world.”
With their Susan Sontag tote bags and Joan Didion T-shirts, “professional millennial feminists” (Daum’s phrase) style themselves as those writers’ descendants. Yet it hardly needs pointing out that neither writer attained “badass” status by conforming to the expectations of their day, by being on board for every new social dictum. Sontag, for instance, frequently declined to be anthologized in women-only anthologies. Joan Didion, in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement,” published in The New York Times Book Review and later collected in The White Album, went further, chafing against the “invention of women as a class,” and rejecting the theme of women as victims then running through much of the feminist conversation.
It’s a feeling Daum knows well: she, too, instinctively shakes off group labels. But she also wants to make clear that she doesn’t have the answers, that this book is not a polemic so much as it is a “self-interrogation.” “This is a book about feeling conflicted,” Daum said. “What I want is for people to take away permission to embrace their own conflictedness.”
Casey Schwartz is the author of the forthcoming book, Attention: A Love Story