Douthat On The Pink Police State
In his new column, Ross Douthat talks about why conservatives fear soft totalitarianism from the Left. Excerpts:
“This is what totalitarianism looks like in our century,” the Post’s Op-Ed editor, Sohrab Ahmari, wrote in response: “Not men in darkened cells driving screws under the fingernails of dissidents, but Silicon Valley dweebs removing from vast swaths of the internet a damaging exposé on their preferred presidential candidate.”
Ahmari’s diagnosis is common among my friends on the right. In his new book “Live Not By Lies,” for instance, Rod Dreher warns against the rise of a “soft totalitarianism,” distinguished not by formal police-state tactics but by pressure from the heights of big media, big tech and the education system, which are forging “powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse.”
Dreher is a religious conservative, but many right-of-center writers who are more culturally liberal (at least under pre-2016 definitions of the term) share a version of his fears. Indeed, what we call the American “right” increasingly just consists of anyone, whether traditionalist or secularist or somewhere in between, who feels alarmed by growing ideological conformity within the media and educational and corporate establishments.
Let me try to elaborate on what this right is seeing.
Ross has to function as a conservative whisperer to the liberals who read the Times. You should read his whole column to get his explanation, but in brief: he says that the consolidation of cultural power in the hands of fewer elite institutions, and the radicalization of the people who run those institutions, combined with the mendaciousness of the Trump presidency, has turned those institutions and the power-holding class into would-be totalitarians.
Ross goes on to offer several reasons why he thinks people like me tend to overestimate the power of the soft totalitarians:
The second is a somewhat exaggerated sense of the possibilities for permanent cultural control available to a tech-enabled progressivism. The Californian writer James Poulos, who coined the term “the pink police state” to describe the phenomenon that Dreher and others call soft totalitarianism, also emphasized the way that dissent and transgression under this system still “recedes from the reach of officialdom,” often outstripping and eluding the would-be censors. The new progressivism is a powerful orthodoxy in certain ways, but brittle and beset by internal contradictions in others, and the full expanse of American discourse is unlikely to ever fall permanently under its control.
I think this is true, but insufficient. The immediate danger is not that no one will ever be able to speak or write a dissenting word (though that would certainly be a danger if the US were to institute its own version of China’s social credit system). The more imminent danger is that the gatekeepers of middle-class professions refuse to allow dissenters from their ideology into the professions, and into the social circles of the “successful.” In a bourgeois conformist nation like ours, that may be enough to crush a lot of discourse.
Along those lines, here’s a must-read Quillette piece about wokeness within corporate America. Notice this part:
The crux of the social-justice belief system is the claim that society’s elite structures are shot through with powerful forces that invisibly prop up privileged cliques. This is why managers at every large organization now spend much of their time on programs aimed at detecting, analyzing, and suppressing increasingly esoteric forms of implicit bias—often with the active encouragement of the youngest and lowest paid workers and their union representatives (if any). Yet the result of this process has been to simply shift the locus of privilege from professional rank and socioeconomic status to markers of doctrinal purity developed in a small cluster of high-status schools and companies—schools and companies that (surprise, surprise) are stuffed with the sons and daughters of privileged cliques.
After all, who else but society’s most pampered specimens can seriously entertain the delusion that the biggest threat to a worker’s psychological health is a book by JK Rowling or a podcast host who expresses belief in the idea of biological sex? The problem we face isn’t that young workers don’t respect the values of their older bosses. It’s that the most culturally influential and prominent sectors of the economy now operate in an ideological universe that their own customers increasingly find unrecognizable.
The woke truly despise the Deplorables — and more and more of us are “deplorable.” I’m not going to quote here again the passages from Live Not By Liesin which I point out that a highly motivated activist elite can ram a revolution down the throats of the passive, disengaged masses, but it really is true, and we shouldn’t forget that.
I wonder to what extent that passivity is entwined with fragility. I’m always talking to academics because, as that Quillette piece says, the online magazine “often focuses on disputes within rarified professional subcultures because these milieus serve as canaries in our cultural coal mines.” I hear more and more that the psychological and emotional fragility of students today can’t be overestimated. I assumed that it was just something at elite colleges, but I’m hearing no, that it’s more general. This week I had a conversation with a friend who teaches at a state school, and who told me that it really is something to see how coddled this entire generation has been by their parents, and by the authority figures in our culture. We have left them unable to handle adversity. I brought up to my state university professor friend this story from Live Not By Lies:
I am riding on a Budapest tram with a Hungarian friend in her early thirties. We are on our way to interview an older woman who endured real persecution in the communist era. As we bump along the city’s streets, my friend talks about how hard it is to be honest with friends her age about the struggles she faces as a wife and mother of young children.
Her difficulties are completely ordinary for a young woman learning how to be a mom and a wife—yet the prevailing attitude among her generation is that life’s difficulties are a threat to one’s well-being, and should be refused. Do she and her husband argue at times? Then she should leave him. Are her children annoying her? Then she should send them to daycare. She worries that her friends don’t grasp that suffering is a normal part of life— even of part of a good life, in that suffering teaches us how to be patient, kind, and loving. She doesn’t want them to give her advice about how to escape her problems; she just wants them to help her live through them.
I tell my friend that this is the argument that John the Savage has with the World Controller near the end of Huxley’s Brave New World. The Savage, I explain to my friend, is an outcast in a world that sees suffering, even mere unhappiness, as intolerable oppression. He is fighting for his right to be unhappy—“and so,” I tell my friend, “are you.”
As we step off the tram and walk to our meeting, we talk about the irony of the social about-face that has overtaken postcommunist Hungary. The woman I am about to meet, like all the Christians I had been interviewing, allowed the suffering inflicted by the communist regime to deepen her love for God and for her fellow persecuted believers. Now, in liberty and relative prosperity, the children of the last communist generation have fallen to a more subtle, sophisticated tyranny: one that tells them that anything they find difficult is a form of oppression. For these millennials, unhappiness is slavery and freedom is liberation from the burden of unchosen obligations.
Though these decadent sentiments may be shocking because they have emerged in a postcommunist country, they are by no means limited to young Hungarians. A 2019 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found a distinct minority of young American adults believed that religion, patriotism, and having children are an important part of life, while nearly four out of five said “self-fulfillment” is key to the good life.1 Similarly, the sociologist of religion Christian Smith found in his study of that generation that most of them believe society is nothing more than “a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
These are the people who would welcome the Pink Police State. This is the generation that would embrace soft totalitarianism. These are the young churchgoers who have little capacity to resist, because they have been taught that the good life is a life free from suffering. If they have been taught the faith at all, it has been a Christianity without tears.
How confident should we be that as the Boomers pass into history, and the Millennials, Generation Z, and the one that comes after them become politically dominant, that they will still respect the right to dissent without being driven to the margins of economic and social life? I am not confident at all.
Let’s go back for a second to the Douthat column. It is impossible, I find, to get liberals and progressives to understand why so many of us on the Right fear the Left more than we loathe Donald Trump. Just today I was talking to a friend of mine, a successful lawyer and mother who is a Republican. She cannot stand Trump, but expects to vote for him because in her professional milieu, the viciousness and intolerance she sees from the Left — discussing their reactions to her support for Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination is what brought this conversation up — frightens her for herself and her children. Douthat writes:
But having offered these doubts about the diagnosis, let me stress that the mix of elite consolidation and radicalization that conservatives fear is entirely real — and its reality is one reason among many to recognize that no, even in a second term a hapless bully like Trump will not become a dictator and the Republican Party will not establish permanent one-party rule.
Power lies in many places in America, but it lies deeply, maybe ineradicably for the time being, in culture-shaping and opinion-forming institutions that conservatives have little hope of bringing under their control.
I would trade the presidency in a heartbeat for the power that the Left has within culture-shaping and opinion-forming institutions. Ask conservative college professors and teachers, conservative physicians and nurses, conservative lawyers, conservative journalists, and conservative business executives if they believe that the Trump presidency is making it easier for them to be openly conservative in their environments.
Look at what just happened in Ithaca, NY: the Democratic Socialists of America held a violent counterprotest against a small group of Trump supporters in the liberal town. Excerpt:
Throughout Friday afternoon, protesters chanted “you’re not welcome here,” and “go inside” at the Trump supporters. Pushing and shoving among the crowd caused the ralliers to retreat inside the Republican storefront. Towards the end of the rally, several protesters tore down the “Vote Republican” banner in front of the storefront, leading to another tug-of-war over the property.
But after over two hours, the counterprotesters declared “victory” and marched to the Commons through the streets, blocking traffic and garnering cheers and waves.
There, they celebrated and discussed future plans, including the rally for Black lives on Sunday, the 21st one since this summer.
“Today was a tremendous victory for the forces of anti-racism,” Rickford said. “It was a spontaneous and almost joyful display of, not only disgust with racism and fascism, but also a positive affirmation of an alternative politics, celebrating human dignity.”
This is the kind of America the progressives are bringing into being. If this had been a MAGA mob going after a small group of socialists, you can bet it would have been national news. Yet we are supposed to believe that the real threat is from Trump and his supporters. Yeah, right.