Just as it is foolish to condemn all intolerance, it is also misguided to make strict rules about permissible forms of intolerance. No shouting. No breaking the law. The correct form of intolerance always depends on its object and its context. If Charles Murray were to hand out copies of The Bell Curve in a supermarket, it would be entirely acceptable to shout at him. Sometimes laws need to be broken—sometimes you need to sit at the front of the bus. And for all but the staunchest pacifists, violence can be a perfectly justifiable way to express intolerance when someone attacks you.
Earlier I claimed that it’s no longer controversial to think that civil liberties don’t depend on race, gender, or religion. Unfortunately, a clear-eyed assessment of the evidence shows that many people would likely embrace a return to the (not so) good old days. In this country, a congressman can publically express ethno-nationalism—“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—and be praised by colleagues for it. The longtime best-selling book of Christian apologetics—C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity—calls for religious nationalism (“all economists and statesmen should be Christians”) and argues that God wants men to be the head of the household. These are popular ideals, but they are poisonous and deserve fierce resistance, not complacent tolerance.
Let the record show that a Stanford and University of Chicago-trained philosophy and religion professor (who holds an M.Div) believes that the proper way to address Charles Murray’s arguments is by shouting them down. Let the record show that a Stanford-and-Chicago-trained philosophy and religion professor believes that we should not allow the arguments of C.S. Lewis — C.S. Lewis! — to be heard, because people might come to believe them. And let the record show that this did not appear in a magazine of the radical left, but in a center-left publication owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
Prof. Levinovitz begins with reasonable points: No society can tolerate everything, and tolerance’s value is relative to the truth. But, as MacIntyre would say, which truth? Whose truth? Levinovitz is quite certain he knows the answers: his own truth, which he believes is the Truth. In this piece, he thinks that moral truth and political truth can be known with the same certainty as scientific truth — and that secular liberalism is in full possession of that truth. Therefore, when you shout down Charles Murray or a follower of C.S. Lewis, you are serving the truth.
In an open letter he wrote on Slate to Marco Rubio, addressing the then-presidential candidate’s claim that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers, Levinovitz wrote:
I won’t quit because my colleagues and I are part of a sacred order, bound to seek out and profess truth, no matter how complicated or unappealing that truth might be. The truth about evolution, for example—and why people like you, Sen. Rubio, seem incapable of believing in it.
I won’t quit because there’s no feeling like the one I get when a student says my class has changed his or her life. It’s as if I’ve performed alchemy or magic: With nothing more than a powerful set of symbols (and a PowerPoint), I can, on occasion, alter the very fabric of people’s reality. It’s like church, but for everyone.
So Levinovitz says academia is a universalist religion that instantiates a “sacred order.” More:
In fact, humanities professors like me work against many of your core values. Explaining the origin and persistence of creationist pseudoscience? Religion and philosophy. Shutting down racists and sexists who explain discrimination with “natural differences”? Anthropology and history. We can’t take all the credit, of course, but the fact that the arc of history seems to bend toward justice is due, at least in part, to the efforts of humanities scholars.
This man is not a disinterested scholar. He’s a zealot, and an extremely self-righteous one at that. Prof. Levinovitz is as ardent for his own god as any hidebound fundamentalist is for his. The thing is, Levinovitz is very high-church, in that he speaks for the elites in American society.
I’ll give Levinovitz this much: he understands the nature of the culture war better than many of us Christians do. As they consolidate their power, secular fundamentalists like Levinovitz will continue to try to shout down, forbid, condemn, and suppress orthodox Christians and any other religious believers who contest the established religion.
Know that this is coming. And prepare for it. What we conservatives must do is stop believing that it can’t happen here. The Law of Merited Impossibility — It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it — is vindicated every day. Think of it: this college professor, publishing in a mainstream center-left publication, calls for treating the work of C.S. Lewis as a threat to civilization.
What completely escapes Prof. Alan Levinovitz is that his bigotry and intolerance is an effective recruiting device for the far right. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As I keep saying, the Alan Levinovitzes of the world, and the Slate magazines, have no idea what demons they are summoning. They will.