I recently read “Meet the Anti-Woke Left”, an article published in Spiked online. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to its provocative subtitle: “‘Dirtbag’ leftists Amber A’Lee Frost and Anna Khachiyan on populism, feminism and cancel culture.” As such, I didn’t ask if the piece actually addressed these topics in accurate and thoughtful ways. I was too angry about Khachiyan’s jabs at Lena Dunham, whose “fake illness” allegedly caused the writer, director, actor, and producer to miss a speaking engagement. I was too galled by Frost’s unsupported claim that many American women “are voluntarily removing their reproductive organs” to avoid “menstrual problems.” Later, after reading Dunham’s own article about her illness (to which the Spiked piece did not link), I learned that Dunham had a hysterectomy at age 31 as a last resort for her debilitating endometriosis.
Overall, I was too perplexed by the half-baked snippets of analysis that both young women offered on a menagerie of topics to notice the obvious – that the article’s author and master assembler is a British journalist named Fraser Myers. While Frost and Khachiyan became the primary targets of backlash provoked by this article, Myers’s under-explored role in facilitating its unsettling viewpoints merits closer attention.
Soon after “Meet the Anti-Woke Left” appeared online, leftists of all stripes responded (largely unhappily) to things that Frost and Khachiyan reportedly said during their conversation with Myers. “Art and Labor,” a podcast focused on social justice organizing in the arts, filed several statements from the article under “NO THANKS. BAD TAKES.” The podcasters sarcastically quoted Khachiyan’s views on hate speech: “You should be able to hate and hatred should be protected, as long as it doesn’t spill over into physical violence.” Sadly, they failed to mention that it was Myers who characterized Khachiyan’s unorthodox position on hate as a “refreshingly liberal line.”
On his blog, “The Unrepentant Marxist,” Louis Proyect posted a detailed entry titled Amber A’Lee Frost and Anna Khachiyan: The two Dingbats who bonded with Spiked Online. Yes, the pair do come across as ridiculous at times, especially in their callous remarks about Dunham and the “middle-class, very elite phenomenon” of womb removal. Yet there is a third, unacknowledged player in the room: Myers himself. Rather than publish “Meet the Anti-Woke Left” as a straightforward transcript of a conversation, where it is clear what questions were asked and how the interlocutors responded in full, Myers selectively narrates, edits, and thus controls what we know of this encounter. He mostly recounts what Frost and Khachiyan said. However, the few remarks of his own that Myers does include are oddly revealing of his underlying assumptions about the topics being discussed.
For example, Myers’s opening paragraph provides the crucial ideological framework through which the rest of the exchange must be read:
The left is in crisis across the West. It is out of power in most countries and out of touch with its historical working-class base. Class politics has given way to identity politics. And noble causes like anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-discrimination have congealed into a stifling morass of political correctness and competitive victimhood.
This account of the left’s demise is perhaps the most troubling section in the article. By claiming that identity politics has usurped traditional class politics, Myers sets up a false yet enduring dichotomy between “ordinary people” and the specialized “elites” who prioritize their own agendas and ostensibly disregard populist concerns. Myers introduces this antagonistic framing, and then invites Frost and Khachiyan to discuss examples of it in American culture. Needless to say, “woke” leftists are quickly jettisoned to the out-of-touch side of the divide. “The majority of people are not woke,” Frost explains, “Why would we dismiss the majority of people as hopelessly reactionary?”
It’s worth repeating that Myers depicts identity-based movements (and their attending commitments to anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-discrimination) as a “stifling morass of political correctness and competitive victimhood.” (Trump’s 2016 campaign motto, “Drain the Swamp,” oddly comes to mind). Without actually providing examples of the victim contests he describes, Myers quotes Frost, who shares his attraction to traditional working-class politics: “[F]or Frost, identitarian divisions based on gender, race and sexuality are ‘a distraction at best, an active detriment at worst.'” He underscores Frost’s devotion to Bernie Sanders: “I’m a Bernie bro,” she says, “I was a Bernie bro in 2016 and I am now.” Yet despite Myers’s opening gambit about the crisis resulting from identity politics, he still has the nerve to ask Frost: “But would the first woman president not be a breakthrough for women?” Not surprisingly, Frost views certain voters’ desires to elect a female president as yet another straw man (or straw woman) obstructing the issue of class that supposedly supersedes everything else: “They’re always talking about ‘the little girls’ – how would little girls know that they can be president? It’s just so stupid. I was a little girl once. I’ve never felt limited by this stuff.”
Myers frequently undercuts and then reluctantly (wink, wink) validates his interlocutors’ controversial statements on feminism. He plays bad cop/good cop. In the exchange below, Myers patronizes the pair about working-class women, but voices approval when they return to the rhetoric of “ordinary people” versus special interest “elites”:
Frost describes herself as a socialist. She says she came to socialism through feminist organizing. But the current wave of media feminism turns her off. It is about ‘middle-class women trying to get spots in the boardroom.’ ‘A lot of this stuff is “fight the power. Put me on the throne.”‘ Or it’s ‘Men are rude to me and they explain things to me,’ she jokes.
At first, a seemingly pro-women Myers challenges Frost’s joke: “Of course, I suggest, there are many real struggles that women face, particularly working-class women – from low pay to childcare – so why do these issues barely get a look in”? Yet what he effectively does is foster another opportunity to bash liberals: “They don’t care about working-class women,” Frost asserts. “Half the time, they’re smearing them as reactionaries because they voted from Trump.” Khachiyan chimes in: “I fundamentally think they’re disgusted and horrified by working-class people.” Neither Myers nor his interlocutors ever explain who “they” are. Nor do these conversationalists offer any proof that liberals are disgusted by the working classes. Nevertheless, they drop enough hints to suggest that several current and former presidential candidates might fall into this group – women like Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, even Elizabeth Warren. “Real women don’t live up to liberal feminist pieties,” says Frost. “And I think that’s very frightening for the uptight, white, overeducated, liberal women to be confronted with,” Khachyian replies.
Indeed, as an uptight, white, overeducated, liberal woman, I am frightened by where this discussion seems headed. What kinds of “liberal feminist pieties” do they mean? Name one, please. Here, as in other sections of the article, the problems with liberal feminists are left inchoate, unspeakable.
Next, Myers chronicles what might best be described as a scattershot of “hot takes” about why Americans voted for Trump, why Clinton lost, how thin people never drink Diet Coke, and how Democrats still deny their 2016 defeat by blaming what he calls the “now-discredited Russia-collusion narrative.” (Has it really been discredited if Robert Mueller’s July 2019 testimony is the latest suspense thriller and code-cracking exercise in this endless saga)? The trio pivots from politics to art, debating Bret Easton Ellis’s remark that “there could never be the great Millennial novel.” After skimming the depths of Easton Ellis (a critic of “snowflake culture”), Kristen Roupenian (“another recent favourite author among Guardian feminists”), and the aforementioned Lena Dunham, Myers abruptly turns to a new topic:
I asked how the seeming frigidity of the MeToo movement, let alone the alleged epidemic of uterus removals, sits alongside modern feminism’s ‘sex positive’ celebration of polyamory, pansexuality and sex workers.
Again, this is one of few times in the article where Myers reveals a specific question he asked. And what a curious question it is. First, I haven’t heard anyone use the term “frigid” since junior high. Second, what leads Myers to link MeToo and its focus on ending sexual assault and sexual harassment to “frigidity” (commonly associated with women who are unable or unwilling to be sexually aroused or responsive)? Perhaps he reads frigidity into the fictional 20-year-old character in Roupenian’s short story, “Cat Person,” who abruptly gets cold feet about the sex she has initiated after watching her older, paunchy and hairy partner undress? A less generous interpretation of Myers’s phrasing could yield more troubling inferences.
In any case, Myers’s question about how MeToo sits alongside modern feminism’s “sex positive” celebrations of polyamory, pansexuality, and sex workers is just plain weird. It serves to portray modern feminism as a bit of a titillating sideshow. Perhaps I am too old, or don’t get out enough (both options are likely), but polyamory, pansexuality, and sex work seem fairly low on the list of modern feminism’s concerns. Myers’s question even appears to catch Frost and Khachiyan off-guard: “These people would rather negotiate sex than actually have it … They don’t want to take responsibility.” Myers does not clarify which people the pair means. Polyamorists? Pansexuals? Sex workers? Liberal feminists yet again? It doesn’t really matter: chatting with attractive young women about sex (even when they describe it as “narcissistic,” “jealous” or “bad” sex) will always get clicks.
The feminists I know are interested in sex, too. However, they worry about the recent spate of laws banning or limiting abortion in various states across the American south. The feminists I know want female athletes (and women in all jobs and professions) to earn equal pay for equal work. They want people held accountable for sexual misconduct (even if those people are the President). They want to help migrants who are detained, dehumanized, and separated from their families all across the United States. They want to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
Somehow, the key issues that unite today’s feminists (many of whom are also class-conscious leftists) never actually come up in this conversation. That is Myers’s weakness as a facilitator. The self-proclaimed “dirtbag left” may come across as dingbats, but they are young and understandably eager to please. They’re not the ones running this rodeo. I’d never heard of Khachiyan before reading Myers’s piece, but Frost is a routinely challenging thinker who I’ve come to admire after reading her work in The Baffler. (I’ve linked one of my favorite pieces). While “Meet the Anti-Woke Left” boosts their credibility as shock jocks, it should not diminish Frost’s reputation as a writer who often addresses the thorny intersections of class and gender.
I’ve only researched Fraser Myers on a superficial level: I watched one of his YouTube videos, read a few of his Spiked articles, and checked out his online profiles. He seems like a decent guy. I am a liberal, but I can see why some on the left might like him. For example, Myers thinks that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should be left alone to do his job without criticism from other public officials. In an article titled “The Civil Service is Undermining Democracy,” Myers condemns two senior civil servants who told a British newspaper that Corbyn was not “up to the job physically or mentally” and “not in charge of his own party.” In Myers’s populist vision of democracy, only voters should pass judgement on Corbyn’s fitness to govern. I get that ideal. Distressingly, though, this rhetoric about having a “mandate” from voters is often weaponized by leaders of all political persuasions who don’t want their self-serving policies challenged by veteran government employees (or even by voters who voted against them).
Moreover, in America – where voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money, and threats of foreign interference are the new normal – one has to wonder which voters’ judgments matter. Should we listen to those voters who judge Ilhan Omar, a recent target of Trump’s attacks: “Send her back! Send her back!” Or should we heed the warnings of seasoned public servants like Nancy Pelosi, who introduced the resolution to condemn Trump’s incendiary remarks: “These comments from the White House are disgraceful and disgusting, and the comments are racist.”
Like many male progressives, Myers seems to support women. Specifically, he praises “older and working-class” women in a YouTube video where he opines on a documentary called “Women: A Success Story.” Myers says such women are often ignored by mainstream media, or actively cast as villains for “having the wrong ideas about how men and women should behave.” Again, though, he provides no specifics on the nature of these verboten ideas. Meanwhile, Myers is “really worried” that a lot of young people, “especially young women, are actually quite scared of very normal things.” He mourns that some young women fear higher education: “People fought really hard, especially for young women to go to university, and now people find that a scary prospect rather than an exciting one.”
As a professor who has taught in the Bronx for a decade, I have yet to meet a young woman (or young man) who is senselessly scared of attending college. What my students fear about pursuing higher education are mainly the economic risks – having to quit or cut hours at their jobs in the hope of a more fulfilling career down the road; applying for grants or loans; the high cost of textbooks. My students worry about making ends meet for themselves and their families. They worry about disappointing those who look up to them. They sometimes dread hunger. By and large, though, they do not preemptively worry about experiencing “very normal things” at college.
In talking with a female friend about Frost and Khachiyan, whom we affectionately dubbed “the dirtbag girls,” I realized my deeply conflicted feelings about the pair. Yes, they claim to dismiss identity-based politics (specifically identities based on gender). Yes, Frost calls herself a Bernie Bro (a politician whose overt, finger-wagging misogyny still makes my skin crawl). Yet I like their unapologetic nerve, their jarring humor, and what I will call (for lack of better words) their “youthful enthusiasm.” Okay – I’ll just say it: Frost and Khachiyan come across as still a bit naive about how the world works. That’s okay, though. They will mature and learn.
“They’re always talking about the ‘little girls’ – how would little girls know that they can be president? It’s just so stupid. I was a little girl once, I’ve never felt limited by this stuff.” I suspect that one day in the future, Frost and Khachiyan may become mothers, aunts, teachers, and/or mentors to little girls. They may become professors or employers of young women. And they will realize, in looking back on their younger selves, that gender matters. Race matters. Age matters. Sexual identity also matters. Representations of leaders and leadership styles inform how little girls talk, assert themselves, and start to envision their roles and limitations in the world.
People are not just poor because they are working-class. They’re often poor and alienated from the products of their labor because they are women, black or Latino, undocumented, disabled, and/or gender non-conforming. Rather than pitting “traditional” class-based politics against the diverse, “elitist” branches of identity politics, attention to the intersections of class and identity may forge powerful alliances between multiple, historically disenfranchised groups. And when that happens, those who fight together for distinct yet related forms of social justice can tell the single-issue folks where to go with their divisive narratives of “competitive victimhood.”
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