Saint-Just famously declared that the republic “is constituted by the total destruction of what is opposed to it.” Shortly thereafter he became unwilling proof of precisely that. Now, total destruction of any opposition within the public market square is the goal of the sexual progressives. The Mount Holyoke incident hints that this will prove unsustainable in the long run because it points to serious fissures within the very revolution it aspires to carry forward. Perhaps Thermidor is closer than we think.
Hasten the day, O Lord. But there will be a lot of damage yet to be done in the Cultural Revolution’s attempt to destroy totally all that is opposed to it. In this must-read essay, Jonathan Chait, a liberal, details the increasingly Maoist conditions the radical Left is imposing on campuses and in society. He calls it “a system of left-wing ideological repression.” Excerpts:
After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned. Some of its expressions have a familiar tint, like the protesting of even mildly controversial speakers on college campuses. You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California–Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Also last year, Rutgers protesters scared away Condoleezza Rice; others at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam; and those at Haverford successfully protested former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.
At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.
But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.
But Chait also sees signs of a Thermidorian hope:
The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.”
I’m an established blogger with an independent site and have witnessed several such campaigns now – and they cannot but exact a toll. I’m fine with being called a self-hating gay or homophobe or misogynist or racist or anti-Semite, but what of those with much less independence? People with media jobs in which any deviation from the p.c. norm renders them anathema to their peers, those in the academy who are terrified of committing a “micro-aggression”, those in minorities who may actually have a different non-leftist view of reality: what pressure are they being put under right now?
I’m in a similar position, but with much less security than Andrew has. I would caution any non-p.c. person to be very careful about going into journalism today, because of this kind of thing in the media. More Andrew:
One tip of this spear is related to sexual orientation, of course, in which some parts of the gay left are back to what they love most of all: “eliminating freedom for their enemies”. And you can see why.
If reason has no chance against the homophobic patriarchy, and one side is always going to be far more powerful in numbers than the other, almost anything short of violence is justified in order to correct the imbalance. The “victim”, after all, is always right. Gay beats straight; but queer beats gay; and trans beats queer. No stone must be unturned in this constant struggle against unrelenting aggression and oppression. In the end, they may even run out of letters to add to LGBTQIA. And all of the “hate”, we are told, is just as brutal as it ever was. And so the struggle must not ease up with success after success, but must instead be ever-more vigiliant against hetero-hegemony. So small businesses who aren’t down with gay marriages have to be sued, rather than let be; religious liberty must be scoffed at or constrained, rather than embraced; individual homophobic sinners must be forced to resign or repent or both, and there is no mercy for those who once might have opposed, say, marriage equality but now don’t. The only “dialogue” much of the p.c. gay left wants with its sinners is a groveling apology for having a different point of view. There are few things in a free society more illiberal than that.
It’s a great response, and the phenomenon to which Sullivan and Chait point is why I think my friend Damon Linker is naive about the future of traditional, small-o orthodox Christians in the culture being born now. Damon writes to comment on the recent First Things essays by Michael Hanby, George Weigel, and Self, all of which take a pessimistic view of the situation. Linker:
Consider the passage in Rod Dreher’s essay where he laments that “given the dynamics of our rapidly changing culture…it will be increasingly difficult to be a good Christian and a good American.” To which the properly Christian response is: Why on Earth would a Christian at any moment of history expect anything other than difficulty at combining faith and citizenship?
It is a perennial Christian temptation — one growing out of that most distinctively Christian doctrine, the bodily incarnation of God — to sanctify (and to see God embodied in) the political order that prevails at any given moment of history. In the American version of this temptation, the Puritans undertook an “errand in the wilderness” to found a New Israel in the new world. The religious right — especially in the mode of High Theological Seriousness favored by First Things — descends directly from this incarnational American tradition, viewing the Declaration of Independence as an expression of medieval political theology and the Republican Party’s eagerness to wage righteous wars and willingness to defend the sanctity of unborn life as evidence of America’s quasi-divine mission.
Whether in the Middle Ages or the contemporary United States, it is a betrayal of Christian ideals to give in to the incarnational temptation. In mistaking one particular political community for the city of God that always lies beyond any earthly city, it makes eventual disappointment inevitable.
That disappointment can take two forms — one negative, one positive.
When Rod Dreher talks of civilizational ruins and living through a new Dark Ages, he flirts with an irresponsible rhetoric of political and cultural reaction. That’s one particularly pernicious way in which profound theological-political disappointment can manifest itself.
But when he takes up and develops the idea of the Benedict Option, that’s evidence of disappointment issuing in authentic Christian wisdom. A Christian’s natural condition, as it were, should be that of an itinerant pilgrim, never fully at home in the world or in any nation, no matter how decent. In this sense, it might be a good thing that the “civic project of American Christianity” has come to an end, since the idea of a “civic Christianity” may be best understood, everywhere and always, as an oxymoron.
I have a few thoughts about this. First, of course there must always be a tension between the Christian religion and the State. If the individual believer doesn’t feel and experience that tension within himself, something is wrong. My point here — and I think the point of my co-respondents — is that something new is upon us, in which orthodox Christianity (and orthodox Christians) are not simply in conflict with the values of the public square, but more seriously, are to be excluded from the public square. And worse, will come under increasing pressure through vilification and formal measures, within both the public and private spheres, to prevent us from full participation in the life of the nation.
This may be salutary for the Church, for precisely the reason Linker cites. It is simply not the case that the Kingdom of God is the same thing as the American Way of Life. It is important for Christians to learn that. But I am not the least bit comforted by the fact that nobody is knocking on the doors of First Things and hauling its editors away. This is the fallacy we always hear from those who don’t perceive, or who wish to dismiss, our concerns about the rising tide of illiberalism towards religious and cultural conservatism: Hey, they’re not lynching you, so your complaints must be groundless.
As Chait documents, there is an extremely illiberal, rage-filled Left in this country that is determined to exterminate any opposition to its Cultural Revolution. They hold positions of power in the academy and in media — and it is striking the extent to which corporations accept their principles (though chiefly, I would imagine, for the sake of avoiding “hostile workplace” lawsuits). If you have never had to deal with it personally, it can seem like some kind of right-wing dystopic fantasy. But it is very real.
How far will it be able to go? I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does. Even if
Justice Kennedy the Supreme Court carves out a significant zone of liberty for religious conservatives in its gay marriage decision later this year, that will do nothing to stop the steady campaign of fear and loathing against orthodox Christians and our beliefs. I don’t know where that will stop, and I don’t think anybody else does; this depends on liberals in the academy, in the media, and in cultural institutions finding their backbone and defending liberalism, instead of rolling over for these neo-Maoists.
I am not hopeful. I could be wrong. I think Carl Trueman, in another First Things post, speaks strongly to our concerns. Excerpt:
This expanding marketplace has not become a field of combat through government overreach so much as through the pervasive influence of the entertainment industry and social media. Twitter and sitcoms have the ability to construct the impression of overwhelming moral consensus on whatever is the issue of the day. This manufactured moral consensus then becomes a necessary precondition for participation in any aspect of the marketplace, from entertainment to education. That is why celebrity speakers feel the need to withdraw from speaking for Catholic organizations upon making the shocking discovery that they are (mirabile dictu) committed to Catholic moral teaching.
Horwitz also speaks of things being utterable and unutterable. Once an argument is unutterable it is, as he notes, indecent and consequently carries no real weight in legal discussions. Yet this indecency is not a matter of legal precedent or case law; it is one of contemporary social acceptability or plausibility. Now, those pushing for the transformation of the marketplace are proving adept at monopolizing the rhetoric of virtue. Thus, they deprive dissenters of a plausible language with which to express their disagreement with the new normal. Indeed, I suspect that the LGBTQ movement’s powerful commandeering the language of freedom, equality, human rights, happiness, and justice will soon mean that it has a practical monopoly on the capacity to express publicly acceptable piety. That means that the case against redefining the nature of human sexuality will sound utterly indecent in the public square. More worryingly, that will make it unutterable in a legal context.