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How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement Freddie deBoer

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Celebrities, including Natalie Merchant, Cher, and Mark Ruffalo, rally in opposition to Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As well as being a brilliant essayist, Freddie deBoer is a Marxist and a left-wing organizer. He is, in other words, a proper lefty—someone who understands progressivism from the inside. 

That familiarity is exactly what makes Freddie—whose name perhaps you’ll remember from his appearance on Honestly—one of the most incisive critics of the contemporary left in America today. He thinks the movement has drifted too far from its core values, focusing on elite preoccupations like identity politics rather than the well-being of working-class Americans. 

In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, Freddie tackles a riddle: why, given the seeming popularity of left-wing causes like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, has the American left achieved so little? How have the goals and ideals that made Freddie a progressive become so far removed from today’s mainstream left? 

As well as diagnosing the problem, Freddie also offers some solutions. In this essay, adapted from his book, he offers his fellow progressives some advice. —BW

I’m a Marxist. Though I’m a fairly unorthodox one at this point, I would still love to see a Marxist revolution. You know, an international movement of workers rising up and taking control of political and economic systems, and distributing resources and labor based on need, while organized under the principle of shared ownership of the productive apparatus of society. 

But with American progressivism focused on identity politics, not class interests, forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous, this appears to be an unrealistic dream. So I’m left to settle for a set of lefty policy preferences that I can live with—a child tax credit, far more muscular laws protecting labor organizing, single-payer health insurance, reparations for slavery, and so on.

Anyone can put together their list of preferred policies. But there is little point in doing so given the ways in which the left has lost its way. Before we can debate the merits of specific proposals, progressives must break some of the bad habits that have got us into this mess. Here’s where to start. 

Take Opportunities for Solidarity Where You Find Them

Lately, it’s become the fashion to declare that cisgender white gay men are not part of the LGBTQ+ community. They are, apparently, too laden with privilege to be considered part of the coalition of the noble suffering. 

That sort of thinking is permanently alien to me, so I can’t comment on the moral logic at play. But politically it’s suicidal; there are millions of cisgender white gay men, they’re disproportionately well-connected in politics (yes, thanks to racism and sexism), and they played an outsize role in the fight for gay marriage, one of the most stunningly successful progressive movements in our country’s history. 

And yet, take this 2017 piece titled “White Gay Men Are Hindering Our Progress as a Queer Community” by Gabriel Arana, with its subhead “You had your time—now, we have other things to fight for.” To which I ask, if that’s true, and the LGBTQ+ movement should no longer fight for white gay men, why would white gay men fight for the LGBTQ+ movement?

If your interest lies in sniping at people on Twitter, then sure, go ahead and chop up the pool of potential supporters for progressive change into smaller and smaller pieces, and tell most people within it that their problems aren’t problems. If you want to actually change things, then you need to make sure everyone within your movement is taken seriously and treated well. 

The problem with identity politics is that any given identity is always going to be smaller than the broader possible coalition you could assemble, and almost always smaller than you need to create change. 

Consider police violence. Annually, a majority of people killed by the police are white. During the days of greatest public anger about George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, pointing out this fact came to be seen as wicked and racist; we weren’t worrying about white people in that moment, the story went. But white people have a large numerical majority in the United States, an even larger numerical majority among voters, and (as the anti-racist set will tell you) enjoy disproportionate power in our political system. 

So, what’s the more effective message?

Police violence is a black people problem that only black people suffer from, a message that will convince a lot of white people that it’s not their problem? 

Or: 

Police violence falls especially hard on the black community, but it hurts all of us, and, in fact, a majority of the victims are white? 

We need a national reckoning with this problem to stop the violence and save innocent people of all races. It’s in the best interest of all of us. 

The second message avoids defining the problem as a “black problem.” We can still recognize, as a community of the like-minded, that police violence against black Americans is vastly disproportionate and an expression of racism. But when we engage in politics, in the work of trying to build the biggest coalition possible for making change, we should not pretend that police violence is only a black problem. We also shouldn’t compromise on the actual policies that we demand. But we must work to build the biggest possible coalition, which always entails appealing to people’s sense of self-interest, not to their abstract sense of justice for others. 

I say that as a big fan of caring about the justice of others. 

Is that “fair”? Who cares? If you want change, you have to enlist the help of the powerful. That’s life. Do you want to lose pure, or win by compromising? Not even compromising on goals, just on messaging! The question answers itself. 

The Gap offers ambiguous social justice messaging in a display window in 2020. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Class Matters

Labor unions have long been one of the best counterweights to corporate influence in politics. They are also traditionally a means of organizing that cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Obviously, shared participation in a union does not eradicate bigotry, and there is an ignominious history of unions perpetuating racial inequality. But it’s also true that, at their best, labor unions have helped workers (mostly men) of different racial backgrounds see their shared interest as workers. This solidarity could never fully erase racial division, but it could convince people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose. 

Too often, the left today seems determined to take the opposite approach. Many people on the left seem so dedicated to dividing up the world into smaller and smaller constituencies. You might consider the narrowing of “people of color” to “BIPOC,” black and indigenous people of color. The purpose of that distinction is to underline the greater oppression that black and indigenous Americans have endured than other people of color. And they probably have. The operative question, though, is: What is the political value of dividing up progressive constituencies into smaller and smaller groups? How does that help anyone achieve any of their specific aims, including BIPOC people? 

Organizing along class lines does not mean we should stop messaging about race, gender, or sexual identity. When the problem is racism, call it racism. Never shy away from confronting racial or gender inequality in explicit and frank terms. But orienting around class lines means we create the majorities necessary to actually do something about racism, about sexism, et cetera. 

Younger generations of Democratic activists and staffers tend to insist that we ostentatiously put identity issues first. That, after all, was the story of the 2016 Democratic primary, where the old-school class politics of Bernie Sanders were pitted against the purposefully complex intersectionality of Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden’s messaging around economic issues suggests the muscle memory for addressing pocketbook issues exists within the Democratic Party. What approach wins the day will help determine the future success of the left.

Talk Like Human Beings Again

I’m not a professor, but I’ll always be an academic. I grew up in an academic household, I have a PhD, and I read academic publications regularly. I’ll always be an academic at heart. 

But it’s not anti-intellectual to say that the left desperately needs to lose its academic vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly influenced by trends in humanities departments at elite universities. 

That’s because it is incomprehensible to ordinary Americans. 

Students go through those programs and absorb a certain vocabulary, they graduate and go to work at nonprofits and in media and in Hollywood, and from there they spread the terminology. Social media, especially Tumblr and Twitter, helps ensure that this fancy vocabulary colonizes left-leaning spaces. Nobody wants to sound unsophisticated, so everyone adopts these terms even if they’re not particularly comfortable with them. Like seemingly everything in the internet age, it’s mimetic. And that’s how you get people talking about the role of Latinx intersectionality in queering BIPOC spaces in the Global South. 

This isn’t merely a matter of using esoteric terms either, but of using ordinary language in ways many people find bizarre. Look at the use of the word bodies, most often heard in relation to black bodies. At some point in the past half decade or so, it became the fashion in left discursive spaces to speak about black bodies instead of black people—“this protest was marked by the presence of black bodies, the white gaze fetishizes black bodies, academia is inhospitable to black bodies.”

If I squint hard enough, I can sort of understand the rationale here; emphasizing bodies emphasizes corporeality, the physical reality of having a body, and in doing so underlines the threat black people are often under. I could, I suppose, see the utility of saying, “The police’s actions put black bodies in danger.” But too often, black bodies is just an awkward and exclusionary euphemism for people, and a term used to show that someone is a savvy, progressive person with the correct attitudes toward race. 

We should always keep an eye toward explaining our values and our policies in simple terms about who they help and how. This doesn’t have to be complicated. In 1948, the British government distributed a pamphlet about its recently implemented national healthcare system. It began: 

YOUR NEW NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE BEGINS ON 5TH JULY. WHAT IS IT? HOW DO YOU GET IT? 

It will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone—rich or poor, man, woman or child—can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a “charity.” You are all paying for it, mainly as tax payers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness. 

This is a model of clear language that explains the value of an essential public service, and a demonstration of how the left should talk about its policies. 

All conversations should be as complicated as necessary; as simple as possible.

Protesters take a knee in the summer of 2020. (MI News & Sport /Alamy Live News)

I Promise It’s Okay to Call Nonsense Nonsense

We live in culture war hell. The internet ensures that many of us spend all day, every day surrounded by the opinions of people we can’t stand. In the scrum of the day-to-day turf war for the American soul, even minor skirmishes can seem to take on world-historical purpose. And in a relentlessly binary political culture, people frequently feel that to give any ground to “the other side” at all is to admit defeat. Which means that progressive culture warriors will often go to the wall for positions they see as broadly on their side, even if they’re so extreme as to be ridiculous. They’ll throw their full weight behind ideas and statements and arguments that they secretly feel to be stupid, so as not to tacitly lend support to the right. 

I promise: you don’t have to do that.

For example, there are people who earnestly believe that the phrase I see what you mean is ableist—that is, disrespectful and oppressive toward people with disabilities—because some people can’t see. This is—and I choose the word carefully—nuts. 

It’s nuts in several different dimensions all at once. This prohibition insults blind people, pretends to misunderstand the way language works, and is fundamentally unserious. It insults blind people and those with reduced vision because it assumes that they are incredibly sensitive and fragile, that if they come into contact with a perfectly common turn of phrase they’ve encountered all of their lives, they will be broken by it. As is true of so many contemporary progressive norms, this prohibition belittles and condescends to the very people it ostensibly honors. I have a disability myself, a mental illness. I am not hurt or offended by people using the word crazy, because I’m not so fragile as that and because I know how language works. 

As I write this, a minor controversy has erupted of just the kind that I’m talking about here: the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work has recently banned the use of the word field to refer to an academic discipline, as in the field of history. This is ostensibly because the word field might make black students and staff think of slavery. What black person could ever avoid hearing talk about fields, real or metaphorical? 

When nonsense goes unchallenged because it’s perceived to be “on our side,” it metastasizes and spreads until suddenly, the majority of left-leaning people feel compelled to defend it. And ordinary people (that is, people not marinating in Twitter every day) will rightfully recognize the absurdity when they see it. 

I’m not interested in spending a lot of time chewing through social justice language or norms. But I do want to say this: It’s okay to call nonsense nonsense, even if you feel it’s on your side. I promise. You can defend your values, be a soldier for social justice, and be merciless toward conservatives while still admitting when feckless people take liberal ideology to bizarre ends. 

No One Is Coming to Save Us

The foment of 2020 was transformative to many people. There was the palpable feeling that this time is different. You’d go out to the BLM protests, feel the energy, hear the slogans, see the righteous rage, and feel like something had to give. For a brief moment, it felt like the glass was breaking. 

And then time went on, and nothing much changed, and it turned out that it’s hard to get out of the well-worn grooves of contemporary politics. 

This can seem dispiriting to young leftists. But to them, I say, you need to stop expecting politics to fundamentally and dramatically change. Stop waiting for the revolution. 

Things change, and sometimes they change quickly. Gay marriage is a fundamentally different issue than, say, single-payer healthcare—in particular, because gay marriage did not threaten an immense private industry the way single-payer does—but it’s still worth considering just what a remarkable transformation was seen in this country regarding that issue. 

In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove used gay marriage as a wedge issue, utilizing it to bludgeon John Kerry in his failed campaign to replace George W. Bush in the White House. Not twenty years later, even most Republicans don’t attempt to run against gay marriage in elections, because that right is now so deeply established. (And, as of 2022, it is enshrined in federal law, rather than merely required by Supreme Court precedent.) Something like that could happen with healthcare too. 

But if single-payer were passed tomorrow, we would have to start defending it tomorrow. We’d have to fight over how generous the benefits were. We would have to ensure that dental and vision benefits were covered. We would have to prevent the inevitable attempts by conservatives to tear down the system entirely or to make it considerably less generous, as they already do with Medicare and Social Security. There would be no rest. 

This is, I concede, a depressing condition, an exhausting one. But there’s no alternative. And perhaps there shouldn’t be. I still yearn for revolution, but I now recognize that any revolution must be a permanent one, in the sense meant by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—that a perpetual revolutionary class must exist, remaining independent from the political machinery of its day and constantly pressing for a more radical future, even after great victory. This is the only way to truly secure the best good for the most people. We must see political success as an ever-receding horizon. 

The steady and unromantic work of making the world a little better, one day at a time, has its own rewards. Wherever you are, there are likely organizations whose work is consonant with your values. Research them. Go to a meeting. See if they’re the kind of people you would be happy to work with. Then picket, or protest, or persuade, or stuff envelopes, or hand out leaflets, or bug your state legislator, or hold a sign by the side of the highway, or organize a tenants’ association, or raise money, or boycott, or what you will. You will not be able to see the change you make. But you will feel it anyway. 

Freddie deBoer writes a daily newsletter on Substack. This essay is an edited excerpt from his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement

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Copyright © 2023 by Fredrik deBoer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

 

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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Photo illustration by The Free Press

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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April 15, 2024 Garamond

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