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Shhh…Nobody Talk About Soft Totalitarianism

Prof. Bright Sheng, victim of the Cultural Revolutions in both China and the United States

Given the topic of my book Live Not By Lies, and its popularity, I hear stories from victims of totalitarian wokeness all the time. Most of them I never write about, simply because there isn’t time; I reserve this space to talk about those that seem most significant to me, for whatever reason. It is easy, though, to become so numb to the insanity that one forgets just how malicious and extreme these nutters are. What always seems to bring me back to just how inhuman the woke are is the memory of a dear friend of 40 years — four decades! — who cut me off instantly when she read a letter to the editor in which I supported US Sen. Bill Cassidy’s vote to impeach Donald Trump after 1/6. What enraged her was that in the letter backing Trump’s impeachment, I said that Trump had done some good things in his tenure, but still deserved impeachment. The fact that I said Trump, whose impeachment I favored, had done some good was enough to make me despicable in her eyes — and justified ending the friendship. A friendship that had endured for four decades.

I do not understand people like this. And guess what: they are driving this society now. Don’t take it from me — take it from Freddie de Boer, a trenchant leftist (not liberal!) critic of social justice culture. 

In his latest Substack newsletter, Freddie (I don’t know him, but “de Boer” doesn’t seem right) talks about the interview the NYT’s Ezra Klein did with David Shor, the young socialist data guru who worked for Barack Obama, but who was cancelled in 2020 after he tweeted a link to a study showing that rioting usually hurts Democrats at the polls. You weren’t supposed to say that in 2020, and Shor was driven out of a professional association for presenting facts that contradicted the preferred leftist narrative. Shor rebounded professionally, and talks with Klein about the Democrats’ future.

Klein barely talks about the savage spectacle of a young data analyst’s career nearly being destroyed because he reported a truth that the mob didn’t want to hear. Freddie finds that meaningful:

But I find Klein’s disposing of that story so quickly to be quite odd, as it seems totally germane to the topic of who will determine the future of the Democratic party. What could be more relevant to the conversation than pointing out that one slice of that conversation feels perfectly comfortable attempting to utterly destroy their opponents, and everyone else is too scared to condemn them for it? … I ask: how can you have a discussion about discourse and messaging, Ezra, while studiously ignoring the powerful fear of imminent social and professional destruction that you and most others in your profession live under?

Freddie is a brave and interesting figure. He is a committed socialist, and quite left on all the social issues. But he stands out because he is a realist about what is needed for political success, and he doesn’t measure virtue by the strength of one’s capacity to hate. That alone sets him apart from the left crowd. And he is anti-woke. He writes here a paragraph that I could have done in talking about the reality of soft totalitarianism in our country:

The left-of-center is in a profoundly strange and deeply unhealthy place. In the span of a decade or less a bizarre form of linguistically-radical but substantively-conservative identity neoliberalism descended from decaying humanities departments in elite universities and infected social media like Tumblr and Twitter, through which it conquered the media and entertainment industries, the nonprofit industrial complex, and government entities as wide-ranging as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the brass of the Pentagon. That movement now effectively controls the idea-and-story generating power of our society, outside of explicitly conservative media which exists in a large silo but a silo all the same. On any given day the most powerful institutions in the world go to great lengths to mollify the social justice movement, to demonstrate fealty, to avoid its wrath. It’s common now for liberals to deny the influence and power of social justice politics, for inscrutable reasons, but if the current level of control over how people talk publicly is insufficient, I can’t imagine what would placate them. Are most of these institutions false friends? Of course. But that, too, is not much of a defense.

Freddie explores the real cost of a political movement in which nobody feels at liberty to criticize what the extremists demand because everybody on the Left is afraid of them. He brings up the disastrous Rolling Stone story about the gang rape at University of Virginia — a phony piece that was totally invented, and was suspicious from the word go. But nobody on the Left questioned it. Why? Says Freddie:

But because they were operating in an environment of omnipresent, existential personal threat, because they knew people might attempt to destroy them if they said the wrong thing, they said this privately. Publicly, they dutifully golf clapped and retweeted the story on Twitter and were good soldiers. And then of course it turned out to be a fraud, its narrative so strange and unrepresentative because it had been entirely invented by a young woman who appeared to have been suffering serious instability. Which meant that it all blew up spectacularly, handing the anti-feminist brigades a talking point they still won’t shut up about. Perhaps if the people at Rolling Stone hadn’t lived under the shadow of professional destruction for violating progressive mores, some of them would have spoken up. Perhaps if prominent online feminists had taken immediate questions about the story’s veracity seriously, they could have engaged in damage control. But no. I remember when that story came out; the sense of danger was palpable. Those are the wages of living under the constant fear of people who want to divest you of your job, your friends, your reputation, and your future: no one feels empowered to speak truth to bullshit.

Read it all — and subscribe.

Freddie de Boer

Yes, we have a similar dynamic on the Right, with few elected Republicans feeling at liberty to speak truth to Trumpist bullshit, when it occurs. I wouldn’t cross the street to vote for Liz Cheney, but I admire her — as I admire Sen. Cassidy — for having the courage to stand up to Trumpist bullshit. Even when I disagree with their stance, I admire most people who are willing to stand up to a mob, especially a mob that’s trying to force people to shut up. I do not deny that we have a similar internal cancel culture problem on the Right, and it doesn’t only have to do with Trump.

The difference is that left-wing cancel culture and its priorities is driving the acts of all the major institutions in American society. Freddie de Boer sees this clearly (“That movement now effectively controls the idea-and-story generating power of our society, outside of explicitly conservative media which exists in a large silo but a silo all the same.)

Did you not watch the great HBO miniseries Chernobyl? The Chernobyl meltdown is what can happen when you live in an information system governed by fear and therefore living by lies, such that vital information about conditions in the real world cannot get through to decision-makers. You might recall the story I picked up in Moscow from a man at whose table I dined. He told me that he knew back in 1980 that the Soviet Union was doomed when, as a recent graduate of film school, he was on the crew setting up lights for the Moscow Olympics opening ceremony broadcast. He and his team were getting the VIP box ready, when Leonid Brezhnev’s advance KGB security team burst in and ordered them to take down certain lights, because they had not been given permission to put them there. The team tried to explain that without those lights, the General Secretary and Politburo members would be in the dark on the broadcast. The KGB told them to shut their mouths and do as they were told. So they did. Here’s the result:

My Moscow host told me that observing this up close and personal, he knew that a system that permitted an international humiliation like this because it had systematically suppressed information that did not support the ruling narrative was doomed.

We’re going to be doomed too, you know. You can’t run a school system, a corporation, a military, or any of it on woke principles. It’s one thing if it’s confined to college campuses. It’s quite another when it is the Pentagon and major corporations.

But let’s recall that it began on college campuses, and what happens there eventually makes its way into broader society. That being the case, in the past few days two stories arrived in my in-box that show how truly advanced this totalitarian madness is.

The first one: the Art Institute of Chicago fired all its volunteer docents for being too white. I am not making this up. Jerry Coyne explains what’s happening:

This is a story that, for obvious reasons, has gotten almost no airplay in Chicago, and none nationally, with no reporting in the major media. So let me tell you about it.

The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s finest art museums, harbors (or rather, harbored) 122 highly skilled docents, 82 active ones and 40 “school group greeters.” All are volunteers and are all unpaid. Their job is to act as guides to the Museum’s collection of 300,000 works, which they explain to both adults and schoolchildren. I’ve seen them in action at the Museum, and they’re terrific.

Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families.  Their average length of service: 15 years. There are other requirements listed by the Docents Council in the ChicagoNow column below (first screenshot).

Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them, saying they’d be replaced by smaller number of hired volunteers who will be paid $25 an hour. That group will surely meet the envisioned diversity goals.

Read it all. The Art Institute of Chicago had highly trained docents who work for free, simply because they love the art. But they were disproportionately white elderly women, so they had to go. Here is a portion of the Chicago Tribune‘s (paywalled) editorial slamming the Art Institute:

Volunteers are out of fashion in progressive circles, where they tend to be dismissed as rich white people with time on their hands, outmoded ways of thinking and walking impediments to equity and inclusion. Meaningful change, it is often said, now demands they be replaced with paid employees. In this case, the clear implication is that such employees will be more amenable to how some of the lefty cultural apparatchiks at this great museum now insist their works be described.

This is an absurdly reductive view of volunteering. The museum docents came from all walks of life and by no means were all of them either white or wealthy. Most of them long have seen themselves as liberals and progressive thinkers, arts lovers who have found their calling later in life and are fully aware of some of the things that have to change in museums. They just thought it would not have to be them.

Many of them likely have stayed up late at night getting themselves up to speed on what the museum expects from them now with its Art and Activism tours. They couldn’t change what they looked like, of course, nor could they knock years off their lives, nor could they reduce the size of their bank accounts, typically the result of careful saving to allow for a fulfilling retirement. Plenty of them took the CTA to the museum.

We think this was a callous move in a cruel time in America. We get the appeal of ripping off the Band-Aid, but the resultant optics, not to mention the human cost of supporters feeling devalued, clearly was not fully considered.

Once again, we see the reality of Hannah Arendt’s observation, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, about the kind of people in Russia and Germany who opened the door for totalitarianism:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

If a major cultural institution like the Art Institute of Chicago will fire highly trained volunteers because they are white, imagine that same mentality applied to curating its exhibits, and the stories those exhibits tell about who we are as a culture. These progressive barbarians are destroying what they have been charged with stewarding. This is happening across our culture. Nobody has yet figured out how to stop it.

The second story is the berserk account of Prof. Bright Sheng at the University of Michigan. Robby Soave tells what happened:

Bright Sheng is a professor of composition at the University of Michigan. He was born in China in 1955; when he was a child, the Red Guards took away his family piano. Nevertheless, he grew up to become a widely celebrated musician: He received a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2001, and has twice been a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in music.

His undergraduate students should certainly count themselves lucky to be able to learn from him. Instead, they are demanding the university fire him for rendering the classroom an unsafe space. The administration is looking into the matter, and Sheng has stepped down from teaching the class for the time being. He has apologized profusely for making his students feel wronged, though many have loudly rejected his apology.

What horrible thing did Prof. Sheng do? He screened for a class the 1965 film version of Othello, featuring Laurence Olivier in blackface. From the Michigan Daily’s report:

On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.

“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

The 1965 version of the film has been a topic of controversy since its initial release when The New York Times wrote a 1966 article criticizing Olivier’s use of blackface as well as his stereotypical performance.

According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.

Got that? These titty-babies are outraged that a college professor showed them an old movie in which an actor appears in blackface, but did not warn them ahead of time. These are supposed to be adults. Get this — the department sided with the students:

In an email to The Daily, Evan Chambers, professor of composition, wrote about the importance of properly preparing students for possible instances of racism in film.

“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”

Five days after Sheng showed the video, on Sept. 15, Gier sent a department-wide email acknowledging the incident and apologizing for what students experienced.

“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier said.

Sheng apologized, but even his apology was deemed problematic by the student mob. More:

The blackface incident also elicited response from the graduate students in the program. According to a graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, many of the graduate students started reaching out to the undergraduate community after they heard about the incident.

“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the graduate student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.”

The graduate student was also a part of a team who wrote an open letter that was sent to Gier on Sept. 23  addressing Sheng’s actions. The letter — signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students and nine SMTD staff and faculty members — directly discusses Sheng’s formal apology letter.

“Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career,” the letter reads. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”

What kind of warped culture is it that prompts grad students to “reach out” to undergraduates to help them deal with their trauma?! None of these cretins belong in a university. They are collaborating to destroy the career of a great man, and to destroy a university. Poor Sheng continues to abase himself before his persecutors, when what he ought to do is lawyer up and sue them. Read the whole piece. 

My son is starting to look at graduate schools for work in the cultural field. I am encouraging him to look to Europe, and try to find one that can give him what he wants without sabotaging intellectual inquiry via wokeness. He is a registered Democrat, and a fan of Bernie Sanders, but not woke. I cannot stand the thought that he would be entering into a professional field where all his accomplishments and all his talent matter for nothing because he is a white male and unwoke, and therefore the Enemy of the ideologues who run these institutions.

Where is the Michigan state legislature on all this? Both chambers are controlled by the Republican Party. You legislators have a moral and political responsibility to the taxpayers who fund state universities to make sure this idiocy does not happen there. There must be consequences, or it will continue. The poisonous ideological extremism of American universities has spread like a virus, and has conquered the ruling class. We are going to have to fight these people sooner or later. Why not now? You’re not defending conservatism; you are defending basic liberal democratic norms and institutions. And you’re defending the capacity of a university to provide a place for a bona fide artistic genius like Bright Sheng to teach, and for Michigan students to learn from him.

The failure of Republican lawmakers to push back hard against this stuff, and to force these corrupt institutions to pay a real price for their bigotry, makes the further institutionalization of soft totalitarianism inevitable — and sadly, makes the advice in Live Not By Lies more necessary. This is not a game. This is not one of those can-you-believe-those-campus-crazies stories. As Freddie de Boer well understands better than many moderates, these lunatics are running the show now, and setting the standards for what can and cannot be said. Eventually it will all collapse, because reality will reassert itself. But think of the incredible damage to the lives, careers, and welfare of real people that will occur before we are done with this.

What is it going to take to turn the tide? For years, I’ve thought, “Well, the Left has done it now — things are about to change.” But it doesn’t change. They go from strength to strength. What happened to us as a people, that we tolerate this garbage? Do most people really not see how destructive this is, and how letting these monsters get their hands on power, especially in the emerging surveillance state, is going to mean the end of liberty? This is why people like me, who hate Trumpist bullshit, might end up voting for him if he’s the nominee in 2024: because as bad as he is, if he’s the only thing standing between us and the woke mob, then the less bad choice is the choice we have to take.

Watch this 2014 TED talk by Prof. Bright Sheng, about how he dealt with the Cultural Revolution. And now he’s dealing with it again, in the United States.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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