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One hundred and three pages into Bethany Mandel and Karol Markowicz’s book, Stolen Youth: How Radicals are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation, the authors note that a 2021 poll found 31 percent of voters say they do not know what the term “woke” means.
After slogging through all 269 pages of their anti-woke manifesto, I’d surmise that the authors are among them.
“Woke” has long been a hobgoblin of the MAGA set, but in recent weeks its definition has taken the spotlight in more mainstream spaces. This was due, in part, to an unfortunate interview Mandel did to promote the book, in which she could not define “woke.” Days later, Mandel wrote an article headlined “I was asked to define ‘woke.’ My humiliation went viral,” wherein she accused one of the hosts of the fateful show of calling her a “breeder” off air, thus triggering her so intensely that she couldn’t define a key term about which she had written a whole book.
Stolen Youth’s definition of woke, like its relationship to facts and critical analysis, is slippery.
The closest we get to a real definition is when Mandel writes: “The Hill defined ‘woke’ as someone who is ‘aware of social issues such as racial prejudice and discrimination.’ The reality, we know, is much more complex—and much more ominous. The reality is that conformist, woke ideology is taking over our institutions, and this takeover of every aspect of our lives, from medical and mental healthcare to our media and entertainment, touches every single American—those who buy into the ideology and many who don’t.”
But that’s not a definition, either. That’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know what I mean when actually, no, I do not know. Mandel gives us a clear definition of the term but then rejects it, telling us the real definition is much worse and we all know what it is—except this is a book and it’s the author’s job to define key terms.
In nonfiction, concealing the face of the monster from the audience isn’t compelling; it makes your argument ineffective.
I now realize that my desire for things like “clarity” and “specificity” was quixotic when it comes to the published work of ideological gadflies. By the rules of Stolen Youth, “woke” is whatever you need it to be, like duct tape or a Swiss Army knife for the intellectually lazy. It is everything, it is nothing. It is everywhere all at once, it is impossible to pin down. It is ubiquitous, it is mercurial. It is the silence during which a middle-aged white woman throwing a public temper tantrum must pause to decide whether she’s going to summon a word for “black people” that is not a racial slur or just let it rip. It is the sneer on William F. Buckley’s face when he called Gore Vidal a “queer.”
“Stolen Youth’s definition of woke, like its relationship to facts and critical analysis, is slippery.”
Here are some claims Mandel and Markowicz make about the undefinable “woke” without backing them up with supporting facts or statistics:
Woke people are “anti natalists,” and thus progressives do not have children.
The more a school adheres to “woke” ideology, the worse a school does on tests.
There are no complicated Black characters in books or media right now, because “woke censors” have made it so that “black characters can only be portrayed in one way, victims, and their race must be the focus of the story.”
They claim that wokeness is leading to gay men being told they’re actually women, and that “woke ideology adamantly claims that the only humane way to deal with gender dysphoria is to encourage children to alter their physical bodies to match their internal sense of identity.” Really? The only humane way?
The authors claim that America’s children are being indoctrinated by a cult into believing that they are trans, and that the only reason that progressives go into fields like teaching and library sciences is so they can trick the children of conservatives into being “child soldiers” for anti-American ideologies and eventually turn this country into Mao’s China.
Mandel claims in one concerning paragraph that “wokeness” is to blame for black and indigenous children remaining in abusive homes, and implies that it would be better if the state took more kids away from their parents and placed them with adoptive or foster families with no regard for the child’s cultural or ethnic background. They suggest that pediatricians who are following American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines by asking about whether there is a gun in the home are victims of “wokeness.”
The end game of all this wokeness, according to the authors, is an America where Mickey Mouse is nonbinary and RuPaul is the president and all the little church kids are marched off to Dildo School, where they are taught about sex work by certified pedophiles.
That last sentence is barely hyperbolic.
To be sure, Stolen Youth isn’t all bad faith histrionics blaming all of the nation’s ills on culture war cannon fodder, while ignoring the weaknesses in our system that got us here.
Markowicz’s writing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways that parents were jerked around by public health policies that put their needs at the bottom of the list had moments where it rang true. She is absolutely right that the early pandemic daddy-fication of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was gross. She’s absolutely correct that virtual schooling was a mental health disaster for many American kids and for their parents (usually their moms).
She is predictably gentle on the Trump administration, which was caught flat-footed and underprepared for the pandemic when it did hit, or Trump himself, whose stubborn resistance to recognizing the reality of the pandemic politicized the public health response in an irreversible way. But Markowicz’s main points about how absurd things were for parents of school-aged kids from 2020-2022 sound like things that I’ve seen echoed in the text chain between my group of friends from college who, despite being politically liberal, somehow managed to overcome their inborn anti-natalism in order to have children.
But that’s where the good stuff ends.
My main issue with Stolen Youth, in addition to its shape-shifting antagonist, was its casual relationship with facts and overreliance on omission and obfuscation. I don’t believe that the authors are stupid, I do believe they are dishonest and cynical.
“Through much of Gonzo’s fifty-year existence as a member of the Muppet gang, the through-joke has been that he is trying to fuck his pet chicken, Camilla. But the dress and they/them pronouns! That’s a bridge too far.”
The footnotes in Stolen Youth include dozens of citations for articles that appeared in The Epoch Times, a far-right publication closely associated with China’s Falun Gong religious cult. The media group behind The Epoch Times was the second-largest purchaser of pro-Donald Trump Facebook ads and has in the past promoted QAnon content, climate change denial, stolen election gobbledygook, and vaccine misinformation. Stolen Youth also frequently cites The Daily Mail, which is, at best, an aggregator so aggressive that it has been accused of stealing content from more legitimate publications and, at worst, a lowbrow tabloid that frequently violates standards of decency. Another commonly cited outlet is The Daily Wire, noted for its habitual fabulism. (Stolen Youth is published by Daily Wire Books.)
Dominating the introduction is the story of a California elementary school’s overnight trip where “biological male” nonbinary camp counselors were sleeping in cabins with little girls. According to the book, one of the “biological males” had a green mohawk and facial hair. Scary, right? Except the authors neglected to tell the whole story, which despite getting outrage-hyped on Fox & Friends, included a declarative statement by the school’s superintendent that “the District has confirmed with certainty that these allegations are false.”
The right-wing media ignored this clarification. So did Markowicz and Mandel.
Some of the endnotes refer to articles that prove the opposite of what the text itself asserts. For example, early in the book, the authors claim that “Instead of teaching actual science, science classes focused on learning biographical information about climate-activist Greta Thunberg.”
Wow if true, I thought, and referred to the endnote the text helpfully provided. But the citation led me to a website that sells teacher resources, not a news report of any school replacing science class with Greta Thunberg trivia. And the teacher resource website which the endnote refers to doesn’t sell classroom materials related to Greta Thunberg. There were no cached pages available that showed that at one time the site sold Thunberg-related curriculum that was meant to replace “actual science.”
Other endnotes link to articles that say the opposite of what the text claims it says, like when Markowicz references a study conducted by psychologist Soloman Asch that she misrepresents as being an example of how willingly people conform; the researcher himself has stated that the study found that people are durably individualistic, not conforming.
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Stolen Youth’s chapter on “the transgender crusade” leans heavily on the work of the controversial author Abigail Shrier, a non-doctor who wrote a book about something called ROGD (rapid-onset gender dysmorphia), a condition that no medical organization recognizes and is not backed by any scientific evidence. It repeatedly refers to the widely and repeatedly debunked notion that children and preteens are having their genitals cut off in the pursuit of gender-affirming care. If that were happening in large numbers, it might be a cause for public health concern. Stolen Youth does not provide evidence that it is.
Sometimes the authors distort the meaning of things they’d written themselves, mere paragraphs or pages prior.
Toward the end of the “woke Disney” chapter, Mandel writes: “For those of you keeping score at home: Peter Pan, Dumbo, and Lady and the Tramp are out. Gender bending Muppets are in.”
In the previous paragraph, the writer admits those animated films are not actually “out” or even that difficult to access, they can still be streamed through the Disney Plus app after watching a disclaimer that’s displayed on screen for a few seconds.
As for the “gender-bending Muppets”? She’s referring to Gonzo from Muppet Babies wearing a dress in one scene—one Muppet, in one scene. Through much of Gonzo’s fifty-year existence as a member of the Muppet gang, the through-joke has been that he is trying to fuck his pet chicken, Camilla. But the dress and they/them pronouns! That’s a bridge too far.
Mandel claims that children are being sterilized and mutilated by gender-affirming care. To support this, she refers to the Planned Parenthood Mar Monte website, which advertises gender-affirming care to patients in California and Nevada. “Not content with their core mission of providing sexual health counseling, family planning, and abortion, Planned Parenthood is expanding its mission, offering highly potent hormones with little to no barriers to anyone who walks in claiming to suffer from dysphoria.”
Actually, the website the endnotes refer to specifies that people 16 and under are not eligible for gender-affirming hormone treatment through Planned Parenthood.
In another chapter, the authors cite an article by conservative thinktanker Christopher Rufo (the culture warrior who made Critical Race Theory the original “woke” boogeyman) that claimed a group called Sexy Sex Ed had “organized a series of ‘sexy summer camp events” for children “as young as 13” in Kentucky that covered such racy topics as sex work, self-managed abortions, and BDSM.
Very little of that story is true. According to the organization itself, Sexy Sex Ed “has never held an in-person summer camp in Kentucky or anywhere else. The 2021 Sexy Sex Ed Summer Camp was a one-time virtual workshop series held on Zoom and the participants were ages 16 and up.” Oh, well. Nevertheless.
Markowicz writes that in 2022, a Denver elementary school announced plans for a “Black Lives Matter School Week of Action.” Markowicz claims that kindergarteners and first graders were taught BLM principles such as “disruption of Western nuclear family dynamics.” Except this, too, omits key facts.
First of all, the complete language that BLM had used on its website is “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” Secondly, that language was removed from BLM literature back in 2020, two years before Markowicz claims it was being taught to kindergarteners.
Mandel recounts a near-miss with a comic book her daughter checked out from the library that turned out to be a graphic novel that featured what Mandel describes as “a sexual encounter between two young girls at a sleepover.” The book, The Breakaways, does contain a romantic scene involving two girls—a kiss between two fully-clothed girls who are sharing a bed. Just a kiss. It’s less passionate and sexy than the kiss between Ariel and Eric at the end of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. “Was this a mistake?” Mandel writes. “Or is it part of something more widespread and sinister?”
No, Bethany. You’re just homophobic. (Mandel, by the way, has written a children’s book series aimed at “conservative” families, including one that calls Rush Limbaugh an American hero. Limbaugh’s radio show used to boast a feature he called “AIDS Update” where he played music and mocked gay men who had died of AIDS. I haven’t read Mandel’s children’s book series but I’m assuming she left that part out.)
Mandel seems especially offended that mass-marketed media for children now reflects lived experiences she doesn’t personally want for her own family, complaining that Disney has pledged to have half of the characters be LGBTQ or “racial minorities” by 2024. This move would put its cast of cartoons in line with the population of children in the U.S., where nearly half of babies born between 2018-2020 were nonwhite and some of those babies, presumably, will eventually grow up to be gay.
Mandel lamented that Disney “spends the majority of its time not on content, but on [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion].” Does she honestly believe that a multi-billion dollar company is spending “the majority of its time” on something that doesn’t directly make it money?
If this all reads as obsessively nitpicky, it is. But to read Stolen Youth is to experience death by 1,000 spatters of bullshit, every anecdote recounted with key facts removed, most conclusions an exercise of missing the point, much of the supporting documentation unreliable or hacky. It is a greatest hits of Fox News lower-third chyrons but lacking the punch, offering no particularly original insight. Instead, we get sloppy half-truths, reckless hyperbole, and an open contempt for educators, child care providers, librarians, pediatricians, and, at the end of the book, the ability of their own children to think for themselves upon encountering complicated moral ideas.
For the intended audience of Stolen Youth, “woke” is the perfect uber-villain for a confederacy of aggrieved would-be bullies. It is the Babadook beneath the stairs. It is the murderer who writes “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?” in blood on the wall of a pitch black dorm room. It is a campfire story for puritanical adult dweebs who are scared of everything and are willing to blame everything but themselves on their own growing irrelevance.
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