Top Stories of the Year: #3
In my review of the Great Purge being attempted by the left under the excuse of "anti-racism," I noted a mob's attempt to tear down the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC, because somehow it is now considered offensive. As I concluded:
This is a master class on how to destroy any vestige of credibility for your cause. Our Great Purge has become so blatantly irrational, so cowardly and vicious, so totally unrelated to any remotely legitimate cause, that it is summoning a growing resistance.
The left's attempt to impose its arbitrary authority did not begin this year, of course, nor did the resistance to it. As part of my review of the top stories of 2019, I mentioned how the Democratic Party has become an "upstairs/downstairs coalition" consisting of an educated upper middle class that is "woke," i.e, vocally committed to the latest fashions of the culture war, and a blue-collar "silent majority" who are comparatively moderate and even conservative.
But even among the "upstairs" portion of the coalition, there were signs of "a growing undercurrent of resistance to the woke left." This is the year that the undercurrent sprung out into the open.
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At the beginning of the year, I directed my readers' attention to a speech by George Packer, an old-fashioned 20th Century "liberal," who described how the increasingly collectivist mindset on the left is the enemy of thought.
I know it sounds perverse to count belonging as an enemy of writing. After all, it's a famously lonely life—the work only gets done in comfortless isolation, face-to-face with yourself—and the life is made tolerable and meaningful by a sense of connection with other people. And it can be immensely helpful to have models and mentors, especially for a young person who sets out from a place where being a writer might be unthinkable. But this solidarity isn't what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people....
Politicians and activists are representatives. Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another. They don't write as anyone beyond themselves. But today, writers have every incentive to do their work as easily identifiable, fully paid-up members of a community. Belonging is numerically codified by social media, with its likes, retweets, friends, and followers. Writers learn to avoid expressing thoughts or associating with undesirables that might be controversial with the group and hurt their numbers. In the most successful cases, the cultivation of followers becomes an end in itself and takes the place of actual writing.
As for the notion of standing on your own, it's no longer considered honorable or desirable. It makes you suspect, if not ridiculous. If you haven't got a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them, then who are you? A mere detached sliver of a writing self, always vulnerable to being punished for your independence by one group or another, or, even worse, ignored.
A lot more people began to notice this, and it all came to a head in July with an open letter signed by a wide range of "liberals" who are still clinging to some memory of what that term is supposed to mean. Here is how it unfolded:
Over the weekend, a gang of academics posted an open letter to the Linguistic Society of America demanded that it eject Steven Pinker because, as John McWhorter sums it up, "his politics aren't sufficiently leftist."
Within a few days, what I've been calling the Resistance—the budding revolt of the old-fashioned liberals against the new totalitarians—took shape in the form of "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate," signed by a group of luminaries from the center-left and the center-right—and a few not so close to the center, like Noam Chomsky. There is Pinker himself, of course, along with some other well-known dissidents against Political Correctness like John McWhorter, George Packer, and Jonathan Haidt. There are some literary heroes of the left who turn out to be a good deal more free-thinking than many of their fans, like Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling. And finally, there is a smattering of token conservatives like David Frum, Bari Weiss, and Cathy Young.
If you don't remember it, follow the link to read the whole open letter, which is relatively short. As I noted, "This would all have been unexceptional boilerplate 'liberalism' three or four decades ago, so naturally it is enormously controversial today."
I poured a little skepticism on this effort, noting that "A lot of these people decided that Political Correctness and 'cancel culture' was a really bad thing when it started to come for them" and that "There is a tendency for people to see the world going off the rails and to want to return to the moment just five minutes before they noticed that everything was going to smash. Just as writers like Jonah Goldberg want to put back together the puzzle pieces of 1980s conservatism, [Yascha] Mounk seems to want to put back together the puzzle pieces of 1990s, Clinton-era 'liberalism.'"
Later on, I found the evidence for this in a survey that quantified what has been happening to the attitudes of the center-left. "In 2017 most centrist liberals felt confident (54%) they could express their views. However today, slightly less than half (48%) feel the same. The share who feel they cannot be open increased 7 points from 45% in 2017 to 52% today." That's from the study. This is from me: "So for the first time, the majority of the comfortable, mainstream center-left intellectuals feel that they are under attack for their political views.... Yet this has been a normal condition for those of us who lean to the 'right'—to use that somewhat vague terminology—for our entire lives."
Now, I don't just mention that to say "thou hypocrite." Better late than never when it comes to recognizing a threat to freedom. This year saw a sort of temporary alliance of convenience between what is usually thought of as the center-right and the center-left, but for which those terms are misleading and inadequate. Caught between the twin threat of left-wing totalitarian conformism of the type I described in the previous installment of this countdown and right-wing collectivist nationalism of the type I described in the first installment, we have just begun to make common cause with one another.
I saw the opportunity to "draw together the group often referred to contemptuously by the far left as 'neoliberals'—old-fashioned liberals who are willing to grasp that the free market has some significant value—and the 'classical liberals' currently despised on the right by the rising nationalist faction. Call it 'neo-classical liberalism.'"
It's the term "liberalism" that is the key, because with the right philosophical push, there is an opening for a profound ideological realignment in American politics. The terms of the realignment were best articulated by Ronald Reagan in his 1964 "Time for Choosing" speech: "There is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down—up to man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism."
What if so-called "center-left" figures like Steven Pinker stopped seeing themselves as a "moderate" version of a political persuasion that stretches out toward unrepentant communism? What if "center-right" figures like, say, Jonah Goldberg, stopped seeing themselves as a "moderate" version of a political persuasion that stretches out toward unrepentant fascism? What if they began to define advocacy of freedom as one end of the political spectrum—with the internal debate being about how to define and implement freedom—with "illiberalism," any kind of opposition to freedom, as the opposite pole?
At any rate, that's the sort of effort I would launch if I had some money and backing for it—and it's what I will still be working on even if I don't.
I meant that last part, by the way, and I'll have more to say about it in the new year.
But for now, I noted, this is mostly an internecine conflict on the left.
The thing I've really begun to notice about the current "cancel culture" debate in the media business is that it's not really about people like me. It's not about conservatives, and it sure as heck isn't about Objectivists. We've already been canceled, or would have been if anybody could manage to do it.
For the most part, because we're open and unabashed about our views, we never got into the jobs at the elite institutions in the media or academia, so we can't be fired from them. The work we do and the audience we reach has been selected, by necessity, to be resistant to the forces of cancel culture. If somebody were to organize a massive social media campaign from the left to vilify me and blacklist me, it would just be good publicity. They'd be doing me a favor.
No, this is mostly blue-on-blue. It's a civil war within the left, with the radical fringe making an attempt to bully the mainstream left into submission—and a few of the more secure intellectuals in the mainstream are trying to fight back.
Looking back, I realize I covered this most intensively in July, when the conflict came to a head and before the election began to fully dominate the news. But this is a process continuing up to the current moment. Just yesterday, I did a podcast with The Bulwark's Charlie Sykes discussing the corrupting influence of political coalitions. I also just got in my inbox a terrific article from one of this year's most prominent disgruntled liberals, Yascha Mounk, who offers a scathing overview of how racial politics has been threatening to derail the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as "woke" politics intrudes into the fields of medicine and public health.
If there is a Great De-Alignment happening on the right, this sort of thing is part of a corresponding Great De-Alignment on the left.
As I pointed out, it is not yet a "re-alignment" because the liberal faction on the left and the liberal faction on the right would have to start talking to one another in a serious way and figure out the terms on which we can work together. But first, we would have to begin thinking about ourselves that way: as two "liberal" factions joined together by some kind of common aspiration.
A lot of people need to make a "psychic break"—or recognize that one has already occurred. That's what Andrew Sullivan did in October as he left one of the PC-dominated media institutions to strike out on his own. As Sullivan put it: "This summer felt like a psychic break from old-school liberalism, a moment when a big part of the American elite just decided to junk the principles that have long defined American democratic life, and embrace what Bari Weiss calls 'a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality.'"
As I observed, none of this really happened this summer. It just became a lot more noticeable, especially if you are on the center-left and are not used to being as much of a target. But the first step, as they say, is recognizing that you have a problem.
This is an important skirmish in a larger contest: Do the American people want the woke left or do they want Trump-style authoritarian nationalism? Or do they want neither? We got a curious answer to that in this year's election. That's our next item in the countdown, which I will continue in a few days.
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Thanks, and Merry Christmas.—RWT