Meghan Daum Declares War on Political Correctness in Latest Book


Believe it or not: some academics and writers, who wouldn't be caught dead in Donald Trump's MAGA hats, have started complaining about language policing and other forms of intellectual bullying on the left. So says Meghan Daum in her new book, The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, which was published this month by Gallery Books.

Daum, 49, an author, journalist and sometimes teacher at Columbia University, has a deep distrust of dogma. Since 2016, she writes, she has distracted herself from her personal woes—divorce, the upheavals of middle age—by clicking onto social media. That's where she witnessed angry lefties swarm individuals who expressed opinions that deviated from a rigid set of rules related to how we talk about race and gender.

She watched with growing fascination as the Trump election, a profound challenge to progressive ideals, did not bring the opposition together, but splintered it, with the movement eating its own. "Almost immediately, the resistance became not just a front line against Trumpism but its own scorching battleground," she writes. "There was no amount of outrage that couldn't be outdone, no wokeness woke enough. Apparently any admission of complexity was a threat to the cause. Nuance was a luxury we could no longer afford."

What started out as a book about Hillary Clinton and feminism morphed into a meditation on the phenomenon. In a series of tart, funny chapters, she takes on pussy hats as needlessly offensive and alienating to potentially pro-female men and women, goes after the "weaponized victimhood" of the #MeToo movement, and suggests that the Trump administration's abuses at the Mexico border are horrible but not equivalent to the Holocaust.

Yes, she is controversial.

Daum devotes much of the book to critiquing the latest wave of feminism and her own relationship to the millennial and 20-somethings of the #MeToo movement. She regrets intersectional feminism, a mainstreamed, once academic theory that makes a kind of victimhood power hierarchy based on layers of marginalized status including being gay, female or a racial or ethnic minority. She rejects college rape statistics and suggests that manipulative and even lying young women do exist—and that some college men get a raw deal in campus "kangaroo courts." She recounts the ugly food fight between younger and older women over an anonymous sexual misconduct allegation against comedian Aziz Ansari that older women regarded as a mere bad date.

Throughout the book, her theme is: Buck up, kids.

"Perhaps the starkest difference between Generation X and the generations that are now or were recently in college lies in the soul of our self-definition," she writes. "We were obsessed with being tough. They are obsessed with being fair. Just as "life in the big city" loomed large in our imaginations, life in a better world looms in theirs."

Courtesy of Gallery Books

In one chapter, she describes how she showed a class of writing students in Iowa a clip of the late Christopher Hitchens, defending a notorious article he wrote about how women can't be funny, proclaiming that all female comedians are either Jewish or lesbians. As her students flinched and grimaced, Daum thought back to her own student days and a college film class in the 1980s that included an in-class screening of the Pier Paolo Pasolini film The 120 Days of Sodom. The film realistically depicts visceral and disgusting forms of torture. Daum and her Vassar classmates suffered through it, "gagging together even as we struggled to take notes in the dark. As I remember it, the collective gagging caused us to laugh, and from this combination arose a solidarity that rendered the whole experience too absurd to be traumatic, at least as far as I was concerned."

She concedes that "weaponized victimhood" offends her because she came of age at a time when young women equated feminism with being tough, and when they still routinely encountered—and laughed off—gross examples of male chauvinism. She suggests that the AIDS epidemic and accompanying panic gave her generation an existential grit that younger women lack.

"As we got older, the toughness instinct built up in us like muscle mass. When we got dumped by romantic partners, Job One was to keep it together and not cry until we were safely alone. When we got harassed at work, we would no sooner call human resources than call our parents. When we got mugged on the subway, we'd be terrified and shaken. But we'd also know that this was part of the cost of doing business."

Daum's writing is brave and engaging; she does some hard thinking about our times and demands that we do too. Crucially, her insistence on nuance distinguishes her from people on both sides of Trump-era America: She is entirely willing to admit that she doesn't know if she's right.