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Is progressivism’s moral makeup finally peeling?

Hope against woke: an anecdote.

We’d served on boards together. We’d been execs and investors together, sacrificing fortunes and sanity in a doomed (read: romantic) attempt to save a beleaguered, beloved startup. In hope we’d shared blow, booze, and jambalaya. In despair, the heavy, hanging heads and funerial hugs of aching souls. My last memory of him was leaning against the cold kitchen granite, fumbling dangerously close to calamitous disagreement. I don’t remember the exact year, but all that matters is that it was before 2016. Before the fracture: the complete disintegration of American discourse, when damage from decades of necrotic ideology could no longer be evaded, when the patient finally began to accept as fantasy her own immortality.

I’d been railing against “social justice” and its self-described warriors; trying to explain the misanthropic, nihilistic substrate forged from the crude, puerile philosophies underpinning this neo-fashionable rhetoric. I tried appealing to his liberalism—his reverence for musicians and artists and their quirky, uncensored flirtations (or sometimes outright copulations) with the taboo, the unhinged, the dangerous, the debauched. I tried to defrock the authoritarianism of the Left, to strip away its clever sloganeering and vague, floating abstractions; to lay bare its barren, irrational, malevolent skeleton: a wall of skulls in Phnom Penh; the bodies of millions of Stalin’s children, wasted and decayed in Ukraine’s fertile fields; China’s relentless “Great Leaps” into Hell. I tried dissecting shibboleths: “justice” as an ethical concept, ethics as requiring choice, choice as inherently individual, ergo “social” added to undermine, rather than clarify or expand; subversion of morality by appealing to one’s morals. I failed.

He thumbed his phone and politely dismissed my hysteria. He was running an organization whose board had gleefully embraced this trendy recipe for sumptuous morsels of social adulation. It was a philanthropic endeavor, which meant catering to the appetites of a newly woke donor class. Besides, he cared. That there had been injustices was not in question, and even if not directly to blame he had the spare capacity to bear a bit of the allegorical burden for his ancestors. He was a good guy. Introspection made him want to be even better, and the brilliance of his benevolence obscured from view the tenebrous, malevolent hearts of modern evangelists. What’s the harm in smearing a little bit of responsibility across the boundaries of men and time? Our conversation knew the hour of optimal retreat, and we said our goodbyes shortly thereafter. I hadn’t seen him since.

Until last weekend. The week before, my phone mumbled its usual irritating interruption from an isle of routine banishment on a nearby table, where it remains out of view while I work. I learned later the cause: he was visiting town with his new fiancé. COVID tyranny was (mostly) over and the music scene was reacting by gingerly reigniting old flames in those cities with the most ravenous tinder. He was managing a band, and San Francisco had a star by its name in the band’s little black book. We met in balmy Union Square before the show, late October sunglasses and all. His spritely blue-eyed lady danced about, collecting footage for Instagram. At first the conversation went the way I’d expected: European dalliances, career compendiums, headline coverage of mutual acquaintances, wild reminisces now skewered with the mellowing distance of age. But in the weak shadow of a city canyon flanked by the Marion building on one side and a Neiman Marcus on the other—while in search of a beer, an old-fashioned, and a xanthic cocktail of some sort—the unvarnished syllables of an unanticipated development unceremoniously spilled out of his mouth and into my unprepared ears.

It seems his organization (the very same willing participant previously so keen to pledge fealty to contempo progressive doctrine), had recently been the victim of a cancel mob. For reasons altogether unscrupulous, contradictory, and nonsensical—which are the best reasons a band of dysfunctional zealots can muster—an ambitious activist had compiled a list of disgruntled complaints, sinister innuendo, and oblique insults, and then proceeded to wrap them in a soggy burrito of kangaroo court logic and pitch the whole sloppy shebang to a major publication. This major publication, like its peers, has been cashing checks against the credibility of its once inestimable brand for years now, behind which it secretly nurtures a bankrupt addiction to clickbait and propaganda. So, when offered a steaming—albeit artfully assembled—concoction of scandal, it bit. With gusto, sans napkins. After the author’s last-minute demand for response to an assortment of barbarous accusations was answered, and then promptly ignored, the story was featured in glorious resplendence. Queue the rabid hordes.

Wisely, his organization did not apologize, and supporters valiantly rushed to its defense. It survived the pitchforks and denunciations for heresy, and although his words scraped me raw, they also carried a healing hope: where my emphatic remonstrations had failed, the cancel mob had succeeded. Before we’d even lifted our three glasses in tribute, my friend had openly and unabashedly flogged the “authoritarians” of the woke Left and shook his head in disbelief, “they’re like a religion,” he resolved. Or a cult. He’d arrived at a monstrous ideology and taken it at face value; he departed after facing the reality of an ideological monster. I know this is just one story; one guy; one changed mind. It’s one tiny victory in a vast, generational war for the battered soul of America. But for today, that will have to be enough.

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