March 15, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Bethany Mandel and the makebelievers

We can say that Mandel wrote a book about a concept she can’t define. We can also say she wrote a book about makebelieve. 

Briahna Joy Gray, left, and Bethany Mandel.
Briahna Joy Gray, left, and Bethany Mandel.

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Straight away “woke” means antiracist – or, more broadly speaking, anti-bigotry of whatever degree and kind. That’s the Ur-meaning of it. Anyone saying they’re antiwoke is saying they’re anti-antiracist. 

The word is getting a lot of attention today on account of an author who wrote a whole new book criticizing the waves of wokeness crashing across the land but could not define the word when asked. 

Georgetown political scientist Don Moynihan, on quote-tweeting a clip of the interview with illiberal author Bethany Mandel, summed up the barrenness of it all. “This seems like a solid basis for a massive political backlash that uses state power to silence dissenting voices.”

While “woke” used to mean something, before it was hijacked by the illiberals, quibbling over it seems like a trap. We can argue about the meaning of the word all day, but most of that energy is likely to fall along partisan lines. That there’s no there there is beside the point. 

We should see “woke,” not as signifying a concrete meaning, but as a mirror. It reflects back at the illiberals their imagining of the world. It reflects how they imagine themselves and their enemies. 

We should see “woke,” not as signifying a concrete meaning, but as a mirror. It reflects back at the illiberals their imagining of the world. It reflects how they imagine themselves and their enemies. We can say, as many have said, that Mandel wrote a book about a concept she can’t define. We can also say she wrote a book about makebelieve. 

Makebelieve is key to illiberal projects around the globe. 

Makebelievers pretend, as children do, that the world is something that it isn’t. They makebelieve that they are the victims of some kind of conspiracy of dark, secret, malevolent forces against which they must pass laws to protect themselves and “their way of life.” If you ask what these dark, secret, malevolent forces are, the reply is going to be like Bethany Mandel’s. And anyway, you’re spoiling all the fun! Nothing ruins the makebelieve like a spoiler insisting on reality. 

They make stuff up and they make stuff up – until something comes along that sounds just plausible enough that the madeupstuff does not sound so madeupstuffable. It sounds so real, almost dangerous. Yeah, that’s it! It’s exactly what people who makeupstuff want!

Yes, like children. The difference is that make-believers can pass laws enforcing gender, pass laws radically expanding access to firearms and pass laws that silence antiracists who, they say, are part of the anti-makebelievers conspiracy, which the makebelievers made up. These makebelievers also have friends who like to makebelieve that they are police officers upholding law and order. They makebelieve that the world is out to get them, but not if they get the world first.


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Let me give you a concrete example. 

Matt Walsh is an illiberal podcaster. He’s also a man-child. He said the following recently: “This is … about pointing out a real and extremely successful effort to demonize a certain group of people and to erase their achievements. We hear so much about groups being erased for their achievements. That’s only happening to one group, that is, white men. The only group of people that are being erased in any kind of meaningful way, historically, are white people.” Such an imagination!

So much fun! 

Anyone who knows anything about American history knows this claim – that “the only group of people that are being erased in any kind of meaningful way, historically, are white people” – has nothing to do with anything about American history. It’s all madeupstuff!

As I said, makebelieve is essential to illiberal projects around the globe. China does it. Russia does it. So do Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Making up stuff, matter of fact, is so important that whole bureaucracies are established to guarantee a reliable supply of it. In China, it’s called the “Central Propaganda Department.” In Soviet Russia, it was called “the Politburo.” In America, it’s called “Fox News.”

Even better, here in these United States, a competitive news business gives reporters incentive to pretend to believe the makebelievers’ makebelieve, which brings more attention to the madeupstuff for the purpose of turning a profit. Makebelieve isn’t just fun! It’s lucrative!

Because it is so essential, it’s not surprising that a lot of the makebelieve produced by bureaucracies has a familiar ring to it.

Edward Luce, of the Financial Times, said Vladimir Putin’s best hope of winning the Ukraine war is “for Nato’s resolve to collapse and America’s supply of money and weapons to dry up. A Trump or DeSantis presidency would be Russia’s likeliest chance of disuniting the west.” 


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He doesn’t use “makebelieve” but it’s what he means. 

Putin’s “training as a KGB agent who can manipulate perceptions is relevant. The danger is not that he will cause America’s electorate to change its vote. … The risk is that the Kremlin leader will further cement the view on the Maga right that Russia is the global champion of their anti-woke cause. Russian flags and T-shirts proclaiming ‘I would rather be a Russian than a Democrat’ are a regular sight.”

So we could say that Bethany Mandel and the other makebelievers don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about “woke.” Or we could say they have quite a lot in common, indeed, share the same goals, as illiberal projects around the globe, including Russia’s.

Makebelievers must stick together.

Because reality’s no fun.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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