Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Minding the Campus on December 9, 2019, and is republished with permission.
Meghan Daum is a liberal feminist who, in her forties, finds herself out-lefted by the new left. The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars recounts her inability to fathom Fourth Wave Feminists who declare themselves afraid to attend college or seek “lean-in” type jobs (oh the rape culture!) and her schism with Social Justice Warriors whose “self-proclaimed utopian vision” sometimes sounds to Daum “a lot like authoritarianism.”
Daum grew up picketing for the Equal Rights Amendment and chokes at the thought of “heartbeat bills” limiting abortion. But she cringed at the crude, profanity-laden Women’s March and thought some of the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, even if true (and she believed they were), didn’t amount to “a big deal.” She finds Betsy DeVos a “troubling, even repugnant, specimen” but cheered when DeVos rescinded the Obama Administration’s Title IX guidance that gutted due process. To her, the definition of a feminist means being tough. To today’s feminists, it means being “fair.” Worse still, Fourth Wave Feminism might just be “narcissism repackaged as revolution.”
A skilled, incisive writer (she spent eleven years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and now writes a biweekly column for Medium), Daum deftly unmasks the hypocrisies of the new left. Isn’t it sexist to decry toxic masculinity while denying toxic femininity? (Daum has a page-long list of examples.) If a woman can regret a sexual experience and retroactively categorize it as rape, shouldn’t a man be permitted to raise concerns about preying feminists who believe men should gratefully accept any sexual encounter a woman deigns to bestow? (Daum has stories of men not forced, but coaxed, into sex by their female dates, in a manner not altogether unlike some of the “rape” stories women tell.) Isn’t it only fair to acknowledge the many ways women wield incredible power over men—including by threatening to ruin them with #MeToo-type accusations?
In a chapter devoted to the college campus, Daum questions the vaunted statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college. She also wonders how much of the activism on campus is mere performance theater.
But here’s where her account begins to falter. Daum’s major critique of campus activists and the new leftists, in general, is their lack of nuance. They fit every incident into a prepared storyline of oppression. They see every event as a black-and-white matter of morality. They perceive nuance as “a dog whistle for centrist and right-leaning scolds whose privilege blinded them to the severity of the crisis before them.”
All true. But Daum treats the new left as simply too extreme in its zeal for good principles—she talks about the “excesses of feminism”—and never considers that it might actually be wrong about some premises. Partly this is because Daum herself is a leftist who shares some intellectual roots with today’s activists.
Mostly Daum professes to be simply uninterested in questions of existential truth or actual right and wrong. “It wasn’t just ‘truth’ I was after. It was that pesky nuance thing,” she explains. She wants greater personal freedom, including the freedom to hold complicated or contradictory opinions (she clings to “our basic human right to be conflicted”). She also wants the freedom to draw the lines where she thinks they should be drawn—namely, at “real” chauvinism—without bothering to explain why today’s leftists shouldn’t enjoy the same line-drawing privileges. She dislikes the new left’s purist approach not so much because she thinks it’s flat-out wrong, but because its lines are just a little too crisp. She wants murkiness. She declares that “in the end, to be human is to be confused.”
This “let life be messy” dogma buys Daum a lot of wiggle room. She can breathlessly praise the Intellectual Dark Web—Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein are particular favorites—for their willingness to “dispense” with the “anticipatory self-inoculations from criticism” (by prefacing a talk on sexual assault, for example, by endlessly repeating that that rape is real and terrible). But when George Will wrote a column characterizing victimhood as a “coveted status that confers privileges,” he was “essentially correct and yet incredibly stupid” for failing to offer those same obligatory concessions. (In The Problem with Everything, Daum herself burns many pages on the requisite liberal catechisms.)
She can concede that young feminists, leveraging their “thin skin as their most powerful weapon,” are performing a “brilliant move of jujitsu.” And yet sixty pages later, she declares these same fragile women “put those men on pedestals they might not have been on to begin with,” thereby “doing a jujitsu move against [themselves].” Daum’s love of contradiction and complication sits ill at ease with her complaint that the new left, too, can be self-contradictory.
If clarity versus murkiness is the main divide between Third and Fourth Wave Feminists (and along with them, leftists and new leftists), Daum attributes that divide almost entirely to technology and natural generational shifts: “The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch.” She allows she might be particularly sensitive because just as the new left gained ascendancy, her marriage fell apart. But for the most part, she blames “aging and feeling obsolete,” being an “oldster,” becoming an “official” member of “Team Older Feminist.” She attends her 25-year college reunion and comes away mourning, “Oh, the irrelevance! The obsolescence! The creak of aging out before you even get old.”
This is either a brilliant rhetorical move or a fatal flaw. Does Daum intentionally veil her criticisms in her own personal story, knowing that young leftists credit “lived experiences” with far more weight than they do outright arguments? Does she call for moral murkiness because she calculates that articulating a counter-position is too aggressive for activists who plug their ears at naysayers?
Or is she really admitting that her older leftism—superior though she believes it—lacks the moral standing to mount a serious offense to today’s left? That once her generation embraced moral relativism and discarded “truth” as meaningless, they practically invited the next to see themselves as the personal arbiters of right and wrong?
Or perhaps it’s both. Daum tells the story of interviewing potential apartment-mates while a graduate student in New York. One, a thirty-something man, suggested he buy the food if the female roommates do the cooking. Daum found it hilarious. Such a chauvinist did not merit outrage. He was outdated, “a human-shaped dust bunny being swept, before our very eyes, into the trash bin of history.”
The implication is that today’s fragile feminists have inadvertently rescued the chauvinist from those trash bins, rehabilitating him into an ever-present, even necessary, character to serve as the foil for their feminist narrative. Score one for older feminism. And yet, one can’t shake the sense that Daum fears she is now the one headed for the trash bins of history. She, along with the rest of her generation, leaned heavily on “outdated” and “old-fashioned” as synonyms for “bad.” Now she’s vulnerable to those same charges. That leaves her just one more problem in the vast web of the problem with everything.
Rachelle Peterson is Policy Director at the National Association of Scholars.