On the changing winds of contemporary (counter)culture wars
On a cool evening in September, a long line of geriatric literary types, tattooed skaters smoking cigarettes, middle-aged moms, preppy college students, and Gen-Z girlies in prairie dresses snaked outside the trendy Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. This somewhat incoherent cross-generational milieu eagerly waited for a live debate on the hot question of the night: “Has The Sexual Revolution Failed?”
The debate was pitched to the public as a hardcore intellectual throwdown between four female titans; its marketing materials were designed like a boxing match flier and painted in red, white, and blue. There are few blood sports more beloved in America than a fetishized cat fight—a form of media spectacle that cultural critic Susan J. Douglas once described as a larger metaphor for the “struggle between feminism and antifeminism.” In this toss-up, techno-futurist pop star Grimes was on the pro-sexual revolution side of the ring, Red Scare podcast co-host/professional edgelord Anna Khachiyan was on the other, with journalist Bari Weiss in the middle. (Writers Sarah Haider and Louise Perry had also been recruited for the fight to play more conventional pundits.)
An evening spent questioning the wins of feminism might not be the entertainment you’d expect in the heart of progressive Los Angeles, especially with tickets extortionately priced between $65 and $165. Yet the “controversial” debate topic, coupled with the celebrity headliners’ popular pull, nearly filled the 1200-capacity Ace Hotel theater. As fight time drew near, high-pitched screams and camera flashes erupted from the theater lobby, signaling the arrival of someone buzzworthy.
“The state of politics right now is all spectacle anyway—it’s already performative,” said Margo Vancrose, a college student hanging out by the entrance. “I just think this is all ridiculous and funny,” her pal Maxwell Reid chimed in. Another man by the bar shrugged and said he was here for the “violent dialectics.” Many agreed they had been enticed by the premise of an open dialogue between opposing sides—something they felt was lacking in today’s polarized discursive field. Even Grimes offered a version of this line when I approached the stage after the event: “I think we can fix the culture once we get into public debates, even with people who you disagree with.”
Walking into the theater lobby, my friend and I gazed at the Spanish Gothic murals depicting angels and demons, gargoyles carved into towering columns, and thousands of crystals dripping from the ceiling. “It feels like we’re at the end of Weimar Germany, right before the Nazis,” my friend joked, picking up some sinister undertones.
The debate was the brainchild of The Free Press, a new media platform launched in January 2021 by Weiss after her melodramatic departure from the New York Times. Few people have capitalized on being canceled more savvily than the 39-year-old journalist, whose Times op-eds like “We’re All Fascists Now” and “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation” earned so much online ridicule from the left that a writer once memorably described Weiss as a “Twitter piñata.”
But since launching her own multi-million dollar media empire, Weiss has established herself as a Main Character of the neoreactionary zeitgeist by portraying herself as an anti-woke heretic, while courting disaffected lefties sick of smug neoliberal virtue-signaling. Weiss’ podcast and Substack are staples of the New Right—a circle that, as Lux’s Emily Janakiram and Megan Lessard put it in the latest issue,“fashion[s] themselves as iconoclasts, bold truth-tellers in a world paralyzed by ‘cancel culture’ and ‘woke’ pieties, and peddle a brand of right-wing populism just a touch sharper and more urbane than the frothing jingoism of MAGA Trumpism.”
While Weiss likes to portray herself as an outsider, much of her power and influence comes from her cozy relationship with Silicon Valley’s technocracy—for example, she has enjoyed the backing of Peter Thiel’s Palantir cofounder Joe Lonsdale—and the so-called “intellectual dark web”—a scene of libertarian billionaires and reactionary ideologues that she profiled back in 2018.
An announcer’s voice came over the intercom, ushering us to our seats. Setting the tone for the rest of the evening, it declared in a sarcastic deadpan: You might be offended by something said tonight. If you are caught taking a recording, a second-wave feminist may ask you to leave. Weiss then took the stage in a blazer, and thanked the night’s sponsor: FIRE, a free speech advocacy group partially backed by right-wing donors and board members. She noted that FIRE has supported her since her earliest days, referencing her time as a student at Columbia University when she led a crusade against Muslim and Palestinian professors on grounds of anti-semitism. “Tonight, you care about free speech,” Weiss told the audience. “We believe that you can actually survive being a little bit offended, and that's actually a really good thing for all of us.”
As the debate proceeded, however, it became clear that none of the debaters would actually say anything very offensive. As the minutes ticked by, the question at hand slowly collapsed into itself as the women on stage eventually found themselves agreeing, for the most part, with each other.
Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Feminist Revolution, argued that the decline of traditional sexual norms has led to a society that is “very, very weird.” She continued, “We just need to be a bit more normal.” Grimes—stumbling over her words and apologizing for her learning disability, while Weiss barked at her to “just talk!” like an impatient teacher—agreed that the dismantling of sexual norms has left women worse off in many ways, but that this is the fault of rapid technological evolution without equivalent social infrastructure, not the sexual revolution. Sarah Haider backed her up by asking what kind of fantasy conservatives want to return to: “the storied past where our great grandmothers were having countless orgasms with no coercion whatsoever?” In between billowing hits of her nicotine vape, Anna Khachiyan drenched her arguments in ironic double-speak, arguing that “If the sexual revolution has failed, it failed because it won.”
Neither side would defend porn, which was dismissed as something that no woman really wants. (Only Grimes offered: “We could be making better porn. Like why are the scripts so bad, why is the music so bad?”) Neither would anyone argue in favor of banning abortion, with Perry saying that she merely wanted women to control their sexuality by acting “like the pill doesn’t exist,” and Khachiyan cooling adding that, “personally, I do think abortion is a sin and stain on your conscience, but I'll be upfront: I've had an abortion.” Eventually, all four women, who are mothers, landed on the need for better social support for motherhood—and that prioritizing a culture that is good for mothers, as Perry put it, would be a “true feminist project.”
Ultimately, this conclusion, which mainstream media critics have rightfully criticized as banal, barely mattered. Weiss and her team still got what they set out for: an almost sold-out event that presented establishment conservative ideas as a cooler alternative to mainstream political discourse. Cultural spectacles such as this are essential to the New Right, which Vanity Fair’s James Pogue described as “a strange political ferment burbling up mainly within America’s young and well-educated elite.” (Pogue, by the way, was also spotted at the debate hanging with Red Scare’s Dasha Nekrasova.)
Perhaps the debate felt so zeitgeisty because it embodied the changing winds of contemporary (counter)culture wars. In big swathes of the Substacked internet, getting canceled is now based while being woke is cringe, which is how a Boomer-oriented writer like Bari Weiss has suddenly become relevant to a younger generation. Which is also how we’ve gotten to a world where questioning the wins of the sexual revolution seems edgy.
Part of the problem is that the signifiers of left-wing counterculture have been co-opted and gentrified. Psychedelic drug culture, which I report on, was once seen as an alternative to default reality—but now we’ve got corporate ketamine clinics and government-sponsored MDMA clinical trials. Progressive values have been absorbed by the corporate hellscape; when you are getting diversity, equity, and inclusion lectures from the boss who can fire you, of course you start craving affirmation that this experience is bullshit. The New Right is seizing on these feelings with grifter tenacity and Silicon Valley cash.
At the end of the night, the audience was asked to vote for the side they agreed with—and according to the poll numbers, the pro-sexual revolution team of Grimes and Haider had won. Reviews of the debate were polarized, with the mainstream media coming down dismissively on an act that “fell flat,” while the alternative media Substack universe angrily defended Weiss against the establishment’s “visceral disdain.” But the reality is that the debate was less about content, and more about marketing, and when viewed as what it really was—a creepy right-wing bid for cool—it showed that with a provocative premise, a little trolling, and a sprinkle of celebrity, the New Right can at least hold people’s attention.
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