Books About Elites That Elites Will Probably Enjoy


THE IDENTITY TRAP: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, by Yascha Mounk

The prophet of our moment, it becomes clearer by the day, was the great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who in his classic dissent in Abrams v. United States, written in 1919 during the peak of the first Red Scare, argued that free speech protections should be extended even to anarchists and agitators since the “competition of the market” would sift through the “fighting faiths” and eventually sort out winners from losers.

He was right. Today’s ideological warriors seem united in their embrace of market discipline. Substack, in particular, appeals to writers on the left who exult in the revived promise of becoming home-based craft workers, members of the “urban artisanate,” in Karl Marx’s original term.

“I care very deeply about making your $5 a month or $50 a year the best value I can,” the prolific, born-to-the-medium blogger and self-described Marxist Fredrik deBoer recently assured his “47K+ SUBSCRIBERS,” admirers and hate readers communally pulled in by his belligerent candor, scathing wit and self-exposure.

Or is it exhibitionism? More than a few scribbling bros have been prospering on Substack, but leave it to deBoer, in the “spirit” of “achieving the transparency necessary for gender equity,” to post images of the invoice records for the $135,000 he would be paid up front for “my deal with Substack.”

DeBoer’s previous book, “The Cult of Smart,” was a well-argued critique of America’s “broken education system” and the damage it has done via the SAT and other monstrosities of sorting and tracking. His new book, “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” feels flung off, closer to his Substack newsletter offerings, with their caffeinated prose and free-association logic (“Speaking of that N.H.S. pamphlet,” one subsection begins.)

His subject is the hopes dashed in the summer of 2020 and the brief period of protest following years of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black men and women. It seemed to deBoer’s crowd of Occupy Wall Street veterans that at long last “the institutions were listening,” he recalls, “the media, the charitable foundations and nonprofits, our political parties, our courts, our legislature.”

But what came of it all? deBoer asks from the distant mirror of three whole years. An ill-conceived campaign to “defund the police” that enabled Republicans to quash actual reforms, “remarkably peaceful” protests that turned into rampages and rioting with insurance costs across 20 states totaling between $1 billion and $2 billion by one estimate.

The villain wasn’t Donald Trump or Fox News. DeBoer refreshingly pays them scant attention. His main targets are knaves and opportunists on his own side, “elites” who hijacked the movement. Some pamphleteered “in defense of looting.” Others prioritized a politics of race and gender equality over deBoer’s “class-first” economic populism.

Fair enough. But deBoer does not merely disagree or dispute, he heckles. Everywhere he looks he finds hustlers and dupes — donors who poured tens of millions into Black Lives Matter and “secretly purchased a $6 million home for its founders,” white women who “paid upward of $5,000 to sit through a dinner party during which they were ritualistically flogged for failing to interrogate their white privilege.”

This is strong stuff, but deBoer has combed through the reporting faithfully. He’s less convincing when he reaches for broader arguments. He shrewdly draws on the political philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s important book on “elite capture,” but Táíwò has pointed out elsewhere that class-first ideology is as prone to “reductionism” as the race-based kind; it may not be the best way to address the persistence of the “carceral state,” which goes back to the 13th Amendment and the racially biased “get tough” drug sentencing of the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton years.

Then again, deBoer is not a theorist. He is a romantic. “To be an American radical,” he writes, “is to grow used to failure.” And apparently to keep score on everyone else’s failures too. In an extended diatribe on the “nonprofit industrial complex,” the statistics he cites — 1.5 million new American NGOs started up in 2019, spent “more than $1 trillion” and accounted for 5.5 percent of G.D.P. — sound damning. Yet for once he names few specific culprits and instead laments the “withering of the social welfare state” and the offloading of “functions that government should provide” — an end run around “democratic control.”

But which instruments of “democratic control” can he mean? Congress, which stripped the minimum wage provision out of President Biden’s stimulus plan? Statehouses busily re-criminalizing abortion and sweeping books off library shelves? Are these legislators aching to provide “shelter, health care and education” if only “elites” in the administrative offices of Teach for America or Planned Parenthood would go away?

DeBoer knows better, of course, which is why, having thrown roundhouses in all directions, he concludes with homely pick-me-ups. “We really are in this together,” he allows, and the left needs “people power,” but “if you want change, you have to enlist the help of the powerful. That’s life.”

Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, needs no encouragement to mingle with the powerful. A more disciplined self-advertiser than deBoer, he tells us that his new book, “The Identity Trap,” is an attack on “woke” ideologues — a narrative that runs parallel to deBoer’s but with many more endnotes.

By the time we have soldiered through all four “reasons” behind the “urgency” of publishing this new book, the awed realization grows that we have ascended far above the artisanal screen-shotting of invoices and stand in the presence of a genuine master of ideological niche marketing.

Who, exactly, is being targeted? My guess is the long-suffering lonely hearts Mounk writes about, “extremely powerful people — including C.E.O.s of big companies, presidents of leading universities and directors of major nonprofits,” who have “privately complained” to Mounk of their frustrations with “a few junior staff members” so in thrall to “identity orthodoxy” that they brazenly make it “harder for their organization to serve its mission.”

What these thwarted missionaries “need,” Mounk instructs, is a “plan.” What they need is his book, which presents a 101 course on selected radical thinkers, the true authors of every modern ailment — from the recurrent use of the term “structural racism” in publications (such as The New York Times) to “woke” challenges to what he seems to think is a long, hallowed tradition of free-speech absolutism in America.

Either way, a dozen or more pages, however sleekly delivered, on the critical race theorists Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, not to mention Michel Foucault and Edward Said, seem like a lot to pile on busy “institutional leaders” even during down hours on the corporate jet.

Not to worry. Each chapter has its own bulleted list of “takeaways,” connect-the-dot haikus such as this one: “Key ‘postmodern’ theorists like Michel Foucault were steeped in communist ideas. But the core of their philosophy consisted of a rejection of all ‘grand narratives,’ including Marxism.”

Handier still are the “six pieces of advice” for the harried C.E.O., who is counseled, “Don’t Vilify Those Who Disagree” and “Remember That Today’s Adversaries Can Become Tomorrow’s Allies.”

Allies in what? In Mounk’s own philosophy of “universalism,” a warmed-over version of the consensus politics of the 1950s and 1960s, even more insipid than the original, which helped make the hyper-polarized, illiberal, violent, ideology-poisoned country we inhabit today.

HOW ELITES ATE THE SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT | By Fredrik deBoer | 244 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $29.99

THE IDENTITY TRAP: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time | By Yascha Mounk | 401 pp. | Penguin Press | $32

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