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Mania Is Fiction That Feels Like Reality

May 20, 2024

Lionel Shriver has been described as a “woke-baiting provocateur,” but her penchant for truth has broad appeal. A novelist and columnist for The Spectator, Shriver speaks directly through her protagonist in Mania, her latest book, when she writes, “Every now and then, I throw up a flare: We’re not all taken with this poppycock.”

Shriver’s main character, Pearson Converse, is trapped in a world smitten with “mental parity” (MP), where speech is monitored for terms like “stupid,” “ignorant,” or even “bright,” and people accept a myth that everyone has the same intelligence. Pearson is a sharp-tongued professor and mother of three, including two geniuses, who thinks this is ludicrous.

In an act of rebellion, Pearson assigns her students to read a book that contains a cancel-culture-worthy term in its very title: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Shriver uses the episode to meld with her character, as Pearson tells Wade, her partner, “A teasingly insurrectionary assignment was a signal”—a signal that bright students should not give up hope. “Someday…there may be life after Mental Parity,” Pearson says.

Meanwhile, “MP” police roam college campuses, social media, and seemingly everywhere else, ready to trap those who even suggest that brains and effort matter.

Shriver’s story is a parable that points directly at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), our sensitive cancel culture, along with the attacks on merit and hard work happening in education. For example, some schools lowered standards significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and once students returned, educators adopted “equity grading,” which gives students credit even if they refuse to turn in assignments.

The Fairfax County, Virginia, school board even lowered the entrance standards for a rigorous public magnet school—a school designed to educate the highest-performing students—because the board did not like the school’s racial composition. Clearly readers do not have to suspend belief to follow Shriver’s narrative.

After Pearson’s class assignment, she receives a dressing-down from her college’s dean, who offers a warning.

“Is it in the interest of the Mental Parity movement to rewrite the past?” Pearson asks the dean, imploring her to see the damage from MP. “We need to retain reminders of past wrongs to give ourselves credit for redressing them,” Pearson says.

These entreaties and others are ignored, and Pearson’s life spirals out of control as she stands athwart culture yelling “stop.” Pearson’s America spirals, too, as the quality of cars, appliances, and medicine declines as workers cannot be fired for imprecision. Her friend, Emory, offers a foil, ultimately landing a featured spot on CNN for her defense of MP.

After conversations inside her own house about the evidence showing MP to be a hoax, Pearson’s youngest daughter, not one of the two geniuses, snitches to child protective services. Pearson receives a visit from the authorities who threaten to put her children in foster care.

Shriver has a reputation for taking on difficult topics: She first received critical acclaim for We Need to Talk About Kevin(2003), about a fictional school shooting, and grappled with immigration and national debt in The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (2016). The New York Times’s review of Mania applauds the ambition in Shriver’s earlier work, but says her latest release is “ham-fisted” and “the balance is off.”

Mania’s conclusion may not shine quite as much as Mandibles, for example, but the Times seems to miss Shriver’s point—her characters have messages for the purveyors and sustainers of woke ideology, such as those in the mainstream media. Shriver concludes Mania with a larger point about swings in social obsessions, but failing to speak truth about DEI and the Orwellian redefinition of words in modern parlance is absurd. We are only fooling ourselves when we say DEI’s racism is actually “inclusion” or when officials dumb-down a selective school’s admission standards for “equity.”

“The point is reality,” Pearson tells Emory. “And out here in reality, everyone is not as smart as everyone else,” to which Emory responds, “But why is that idea so important to you?”

“Because it’s not an idea. It’s a fact,” Pearson says, a message for the real woke education complex. Shriver’s fiction reminds us that it is not crazy to adhere to actuality, a comforting thought amid our own mental parity movement and other bogus cultural fads.

Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.



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