Inverting, not dismantling, the hierarchies of power

Long but great article “On Political Correctness” in The American Scholar.

Let us eschew the familiar examples: the disinvited speakers, the Title IX tribunals, the safe zones stocked with Play-Doh, the crusades against banh mi. The flesh-eating bacterium of political correctness, which feeds preferentially on brain tissue, and which has become endemic on elite college campuses, reveals its true virulence not in the sorts of high-profile outbreaks that reach the national consciousness, but in the myriad of ordinary cases—the everyday business-as-usual at institutions around the country—that are rarely even talked about.

A clarification, before I continue (since deliberate misconstrual is itself a tactic of the phenomenon in question). By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.

When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”

So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.

I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.

What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.

That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger.

Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship. It makes a perfect, dreary sense that there are speech codes, or the desire for speech codes, at selective private colleges. The irony is that conservatives don’t actually care if progressives disapprove of them, with the result that political correctness generally amounts to internecine warfare on the left: radical feminists excoriating other radical feminists for saying “vagina” instead of “front hole,” students denouncing the director of Boys Don’t Cry as a transphobic “cis white bitch” (as recently happened at Reed College), and so forth.

But the most effective form of censorship, of course, is self-censorship—which, in the intimate environment of a residential college, young adults are very quick to learn. One of the students at Whitman mentioned that he’s careful, when questioning consensus beliefs, to phrase his opinion in terms of “Explain to me why I’m wrong.” Other students— at Bard College, at the Claremont Colleges—have explained that any challenge to the hegemony of identity politics will get you branded as a racist (as in, “Don’t talk to that guy, he’s a racist”). Campus protesters, their frequent rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are not the ones being silenced: they are, after all, not being silent. They are in the middle of the quad, speaking their minds. The ones being silenced are the ones like my students at Scripps, like the students at Whitman, like many students, no doubt, at many places, who are keeping their mouths shut. “The religion of humanity,” as David Bromwich recently wrote, “may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions.”

The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution.

Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them.

Political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideals. Forget “civility,” the quality that college deans and presidents inevitably put forth as that which needs to “balance” free expression. The call for civility is nothing more than a management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and puréeing them into a pablum of deanly mush. Free expression is an absolute; to balance it is to destroy it.

Fortunately, we already have a tried-and-tested rule for free expression, one specifically designed to foster rational discourse. It’s called the First Amendment, and First Amendment jurisprudence doesn’t recognize “offensive” speech or even hate speech as categories subject to legitimate restriction. For one thing, hate is not illegal, and neither is giving offense. For another, what’s hate to me may not be hate to you; what’s offensive to you may be my deeply held belief. The concepts are relative and subjective. When I gave a version of this essay as a talk at Bard, the first comment from the panel of student respondents came from a young Palestinian woman who argued that “conservative narratives” like Zionism should be censored, because “they require the otherization, if not the dehumanization, of another group of people.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that many Zionists would say the same about what they regard as the Palestinian position. Once you start to ban offensive speech, there is no logical place to stop—or rather, where you stop will be determined by the relative positions of competing groups within the community.

In other words, again, by power.

Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.

Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”

And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.

Selective private colleges need to decide what kind of places they want to be. Do they want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry? When we talk about political correctness and its many florid manifestations, so much in the news of late, we are talking not only about racial injustice and other forms of systemic oppression, or about the coddling of privileged youth, though both are certainly at play. We are also talking, or rather not talking, about the pathologies of the American class system. And those are also what we need to deal with.

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Proselytizing gets tiresome, no matter who is doing it

In Monastaries of the Mind, Victor Davis writes that “When everything is politicized, people retreat into mental mountaintops — dreams of the past and fantasies of the future.”

An increasing number of American don’t take all this [the perpetual proselytizing of the culture wars] seriously. And that’s not new.

In reaction to the growing globalization of the Roman Empire, elite corruption, the banality of bread-and-circuses, and the end of the agrarian Italian Republic, the Stoics opted out, choosing instead a reasoned detachment from contemporary life. Some, like the worldly court philosopher Seneca, seemed hypocritical; others, such as the later emperor Marcus Aurelius, lived a double life of imperial engagement and mental detachment.

Classical impassiveness established the foundations for the later monastic Christians, who in more dangerous times increasingly saw the world around them as incompatible with the world to come — and therefore they saw engagement as an impediment to their own Christian belief.

More and more Americans today are becoming Stoic dropouts. They are not illiberal, and certainly not reactionaries, racists, xenophobes, or homophobes. They’re simply exhausted by our frenzied culture.

They don’t like lectures from the privileged and the wealthy on the pitfalls of privilege and wealth. In response, they don’t hike out to monasteries, fall into fetal positions, or write Meditations. Instead, they have checked out mentally from American popular entertainment, sports, and the progressive cultural project in general

But aren’t sports at least still sacrosanct? Hardly.  In this age of pan-politicization, sports, like everything else, is not exempt from wealthy elites’ guilt-ridden obsessions with race, class, and gender agendas…

Earlier in the piece he had this to say about the reaction of some to their loss of power:

There is now something called the “Resistance,” which by its nomenclature poses that its opposition to Trump is reminiscent of European partisan resistance to Hitler: Affluent progressives are now on the barricades to stop another Holocaust? Cities now nullify federal law in the spirit of the Old Confederacy. A federal judge doesn’t enforce federal law because he says he does not like what the president and his associates said in the past, during the campaign. Op-ed writers overseas wait eagerly for the president’s assassination. At CNN, Fareed Zakaria, wrist-slapped for past plagiarism, melts down while screaming of Trump’s “bullsh**.” Madonna says she has “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”  …

Bad filibusters are now good ones. Vowing to kill, hurt, or remove the president and first family is hip, when it used to be felonious. States’ rights and nullification are now Confederate-cool. Free speech is hate speech. Censorship is a mere trigger warning. Assimilation is cultural appropriation. … When we all wish to be victims, there are too few oppressors to go around.

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U.S. Grant on safe spaces

Over at Ricochet, member “Gumby Mark” draws an interesting analogy:

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, written as he was dying, is one of the finest memoirs by a senior Civil War officer (the other is Fighting for the Confederacy by Edward Porter Alexander). In its conclusion, Grant gives his views on the underlying reasons for the war:

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed . . . Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution . . . They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the perogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law . . . Northern marshals became slave-catchers and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.

Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South . . .

Recently rereading this passage I was struck by the echoes of 21st century Progressive thought with its invocation of “safe spaces” that require ever wider scope to make those feeling threatened be secure (and what was the Dred Scott decision other than making the entire United States a safe space for slavery?). It emphasizes what has become ever clearer since 2008; because Progressivism is a philosophy in which everything in society is political and thus potentially subject to government control, progressives cannot feel safe until all of society is aligned properly with their values. For most of us non-progressives our “happy place” is internal to us, or a portion of our private lives; for progressives it encompasses all of society. That is why progressives so aggressively seek domination of all aspects of society.

The long-standing and flourishing civil society institutions of America can only be allowed to operate in conformance with progressive philosophy; if not, progressives feel threatened. No breathing space is allowable.

That’s why every baker and florist who objects to SSM must be crushed;

that’s why the Little Sisters of the Poor must be forced to pay for contraceptives;

that’s why those who donate to non-profits not aligned with progressive values must be publicly identified and intimidated from making further contributions;

that’s why those who express contrary opinions are fair game to be hounded from their jobs even if those opinions are not expressed at work;

that’s why the First Amendment must be changed so people can’t make movies critical of progressive political candidates;

that’s why the IRS needs to stifle opposition political groups;

that’s why, as Peggy Noonan noted last year, progressives are unappeasable – they simply will not feel safe until all opposition is eradicated, privately as well as publicly.

In the name of diversity and tolerance they seek to impose a stifling comformity of thought, a conformity unprecedented in American history…

It now seems evident to me that progressives felt the time had come to “run the table“, They held the Presidency, the permanent bureaucracy was staffed by their acolytes, they controlled most of the mass media, entertainment and sports worlds, the courts were increasingly in the grasp of living constitutionalists, academia and the major foundations were in their hands, the tech oligarchs and much of the financial services world on their side, and the rest of the business community mostly neutralized or even supporting parts of their agenda. To top it off, they believed demographics were inevitably playing out in their favor.

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The latest reincarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will?”

Kevin D. Williamson wonders if we’re getting a little Rousseau mixed into the current Trumpian version of populism, even though we on the Right tend to think poorly of the 18th century Genevan philosopher:

“Anglo-American” is a term with a long history. It used to mean “white people,” and before that it meant “white people who aren’t Jews, Italians, or Irish,” back before those groups were assimilated into American whiteness. We use it now mainly to mean something different, something related to Winston Churchill’s “English-speaking peoples.” It describes a way of political life that is rooted not in Anglo-Saxon ethnicity but in the thinking and habits that informed the English-speaking world from Magna Carta (which was sealed at Runnymede, in Daniel Hannan’s constituency) to the Bill of Rights, and which informs the best political traditions not only in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but also in places everywhere from India to Jamaica. It contains much: property rights, the rights to speak and publish and worship, the right to criticize the government and petition it for changes. It also contains the right to go one’s own way, because while Anglo-American liberalism is not a philosophy by or for an atomistic society populated exclusively by variation on homo economicus, it is a philosophy that puts at its center the smallest minority — the individual, and his rights, and his responsibilities.

Populism takes a different view: At the center of its concerns is the people — or, increasingly, the People. If populism meant only being good at the real-world application of democratic politics, that would be only an acknowledgment of the political reality that you have to win to govern. But it is not that. It is rather the latest reincarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will,” that nebulous motive that is the will of the People as interpreted by men with power, as opposed to the will of the People as revealed by what the People do when left to make their own choices and to bear the responsibility for those choices. We are always fighting the French Revolution, in one form or another.

The fundamentally irresponsible nature of the general will is one of the reasons we have a representative form of government rather than a strictly democratic one. But representation itself is held in some suspicion by the populists. If you ask someone, “What ought Representative Smith to do about this problem?” the answer you will usually get is: “He ought to do whatever his constituents want him to do, whatever the People want him to do.”

But that is exactly wrong: What he ought to do is not what the People want, but what is best for them: If there were no difference, then the representative would not be necessary — and neither would the Constitution. In reality, neither the emancipation of slaves in the 19th century nor freedom of speech in the 21st century would have survived a plebiscite.

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Sounds good, doesn’t work

Victor Davis Hanson writes that “The dream of a therapeutic utopia without punishment for wrongdoing fails in practice.”

Deterrence is the strategy of persuading someone in advance not to do something, often by raising the likelihood of punishment.

But in the 21st century, we apparently think deterrence is Neanderthal and appeals to the worst aspects of our natures. The alternative view insists that innately nice people respond better to discussion and outreach.

History is largely the story of the tensions between, and the combination of, these two very different views of human nature — one tragic and one therapeutic.

He cites a handful of examples to illustrate his point, and then closes with:

There is no clear-cut divide between deterrence and therapy. Each at times has its place in warning or wooing people and nations. But in general, anytime a government errs on the side of therapy and communicates to individuals and foreign powers that laws are flexible, that punishment is iffy, and that consequences are negotiable, it gets less of what it wants.

It is unfortunate but true that North Korea is deterred more by U.S. military strength than by United Nations resolutions.

In much the same way, radical campus lawbreakers probably respect (and fear) the local district attorney a lot more than the college president.

In other words, the more we feel we have entered a 21st-century therapeutic utopia, the more tragic that human nature seems not to have changed all that much from the Stone Age.

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A legacy that will prevail?

Assessing a presidency requires some cure time, some time for the rawness of recently-completed political battles to fade and for the historians (who may have been part of those battles) to establish sufficient viewing distance.

That doesn’t mean everyone does take the time, of course.  Here’s a book and a review, point and counterpoint.  Not bad first entries.

From Fred Siegel’s review, in City Journal, of Jonathan Chait’s new book, Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail.  Siegel writes that “book trumpeting the Obama “legacy” should have been reconsidered in light of November’s electoral repudiation.”

Chait attributes Obama’s failures to Republicans, who, he says, produced a paralyzing polarization. When he can’t lay blame on the GOP, he attributes Obama’s failures to structural trends beyond any president’s repair. The honorable path for Chait would have been to rethink his argument in light of Clinton’s defeat. After all, Donald Trump’s victory was a repudiation of the Obama legacy of slow economic growth, heightened racial tensions, and global instability. Had Chait taken the time to recast his thesis in light of Clinton’s electoral embarrassment, he might have noticed that Obama’s farewell address—the lengthiest in history—was short on deeds but long on references to himself. A fitting valedictory, the speech contained 79 references to “I” or to “me.”

Chait’s rush to publish has the virtue of demonstrating the journalistic “audacity” that allowed failure to be repackaged as success. Obama’s great achievement was that, like Cuomo, he was able to make hard-edged, partisan politics seem moderate. Few will bother to read Chait’s book. Those who do will get a good look at the collapse of American journalism and how it enabled the Obama presidency, even as it undermined the nation.

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Alinsky lost his mojo?

Those Alinskyite tactics to move the Overton Window to the left, effective for the past 30 or so years, may now be sufficiently understood and exposed that they no longer have soft environs in which to operate.  The Right now understands the game and resists, which causes the Left to double down, which results in more ugliness.  That Alinskyite stuff relies on the good will of its targets; once the targets realize the absence of good faith on the part of their accusers…

Related:  this great piece from Kevin D. Williamson.  “Phony hate crimes.  Phony hate.”

First he argues:

Fake hate crimes committed by progressives are by this point so familiar that they are practically a cliché. … A large Internet archive of such fake hate crimes, with links to local media reporting, is available here.

Next he objects to the smear tactics and straw man arguments used by people who haven’t done the homework on actual conservative positions.  “It is not only the hate crimes that are fake. For the most part, the hate they are intended to highlight is fake, too.

There are many strands of conservatism and many kinds of conservatives. There are those such as myself whose views are shaped by the epistemic critique of central planning associated with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who believe that all attempts to replace the spontaneous order of free exchange with purportedly rational central planning will fail for reasons having to do with the way knowledge is distributed and used in a complex society. There are moral traditionalists and Christian traditionalists and nationalists, and there are those whose main concern is that the wider world is a dangerous and unpredictable place that would be more dangerous and unpredictable without American diplomatic leadership and military power. There are green-eyeshades conservatives and anti-abortion conservatives. Most conservatives are a compound of two or more of those tendencies. It is significant that the broadly defined Right’s racists and Jew-haters — of course they exist — felt the need to identify themselves as a separate movement and a distinct political school.

The Republican party within living memory was led by a Jewish man. The Democratic party just came within a hair of elevating to its highest institutional position a man who has long associated with the worst kind of anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, racists, and lunatics, who has worked with them and apologized for them: As it turns out, Keith Ellison will only be elevated to the rank of No. 2 rather than given the top leadership position in the party. There have been pogroms in modern American history: A notable one happened after the Reverend Al Sharpton gave a number of speeches denouncing Jewish “bloodsuckers” and delivered a stirring denunciation of Jewish merchants in which he insisted “You got to pay!” at a venue in which was hanging a banner reading “Hitler Did Not Do the Job.”

Whatever happened to Al Sharpton?

Then he asks and answers a pointed question…

Do you know why there has not been a string of fake hate crimes and acts of violence conducted by right-wing hoaxers? Because the Right does not have to make this stuff up: Left-wing rioters really did set fire to Berkeley when an unpopular right-wing speaker was invited to campus. They really did burn Baltimore. Jeremiah Wright really is part of a loony race cult. Van Jones really is a 9/11 truther and an apologist for Mumia Abu-Jamal. No need for fiction.

… and laments the quality of thinking on the Left:

The Left, particularly in the English-speaking world, has been in intellectual crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Left’s last really big idea was Communism. (Bernie Sanders would say “socialism,” and the difference is not entirely trivial: Communism begins with a gun in your face, socialism ends with a gun in your face.) When Communism was discredited — not only by the failures of central planning alluded to earlier but also by its horrifying body count of some 100 million victims in the 20th century — the Left was left intellectually unmoored. It has come up with strategies — environmentalism, feminism, identity politics, “1 percent” resentment politics — but no big ideas. This is a problem, because conservatism’s big idea — the marriage of free enterprise to liberal political institutions — is doing pretty well almost everywhere it has been tried. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and countries around the world from Western Europe to Scandinavia to Singapore that have adopted, however partially and imperfectly, the universal truths embedded in Anglo-American liberalism are doing pretty well.

And closes with “the ad hominem fallacy elevated… to a general conception of politcs.”

The Left, for the moment, cannot seriously compete in the theater of ideas. So rather than play the ball, it’s play the man. Socialism failed, but there is some juice to be had from convincing people who are not especially intellectually engaged and who are led by their emotions more than by their intellect — which is to say, most people — that the people pushing ideas contrary to yours are racists and anti-Semites, that they hate women and homosexuals and Muslims and foreigners, that they could not possibly be correct on the policy questions, because they are moral monsters. This is the ad hominem fallacy elevated, if not quite to a creed, then to a general conception of politics. Hence the hoaxes and lies and nonsense.

I’ve tried to make a similar argument before.  American conservatives tend to define virtue personally – act, or pretend to act, according to traditional values;  American liberals tend to define virtue politically – you’re a good person if you support policies X, Y, Z.  The former will forgive you thinking whatever you want as long as your behavior is under control; the latter will forgive any behavior as long as your thinking is under control.

The problem:  if you derive your personal sense of virtue from the political views you hold, those who disagree with you must be, by definition, bad people.  Not just political opponents with whom to argue, but unworthies who ought to be stopped by just about any means necessary.

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