Is It Possible to Be Both Moderate and Anti-Woke? - 2023-06-05
In the fall of 2020, Bion Bartning started worrying that his kids were being indoctrinated. His daughter, Liv, and his son, Asher, were enrolled at Riverdale Country School, an élite prep school in New York City, and, in response to the protests that followed (George Floyd)(https://www.newyorker.com/tag/george-floyd)'s death, Riverdale had made a renewed commitment to allyship. In that year's curriculum, the school adopted exercises that asked students to think about their skin color as a way of understanding themselves and their racial identity—something that didn't seem so clear-cut to Bartning, who says he has Jewish, Mexican, and Indigenous Yaqui ancestry, and whose children are mixed-race. Bartning also felt that the curriculum downplayed the Holocaust and antisemitism as examples of racialized hatred, a choice that he found disturbing. He questioned Riverdale's administration about the new initiatives, but felt that the school dismissed his concerns.
Professionally, Bartning had never worked on issues related to race or civil rights; he was an entrepreneur and investor who had helped American Express launch its online travel business and later helped lead the personal-care company E.O.S. One of his most recent ventures was a failed startup that sought to connect local farms with chefs. But he resolved to do something about what he was seeing at Riverdale—maybe even start an organization to counter it. He read an article in the Jewish magazine *Tablet*, about the rise of a new ideology on the left—a "mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality"—and another parent offered to connect him with *Tablet's* editor and with the author of the article, Bari Weiss.
Weiss had already been talking with a few of her friends about creating a new anti-woke organization. One was Melissa Chen, a writer and the managing director at Ideas Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that takes books about concepts such as liberty and reason and translates them into Arabic, to make them more accessible; she later described herself as a conservative who was forming her trajectory in "the anti-woke space." Another was Peter Boghossian, a former professor best known for getting absurd papers about subjects such as dogs perpetuating rape culture at dog parks published in feminist and postmodern academic journals to expose what he saw as corruption in scholarship, and who has earned some prominence as a public intellectual defending free speech and opposing illiberalism. Chen and Boghossian had workshopped a pitch to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, for a project to create "a modern-day Death Star" to wage "ideological warfare" on the "enemies of modernity"; their plan involved writing coördinated op-eds and promoting anti-woke content, but it was rejected. Weiss and her friends also sought advice from Niall Ferguson, a historian at the Hoover Institution, about the best way forward.