The Fires Foretold: Willmoore Kendall and the Burning of America
The protests and riots roiling our nation would come as no surprise to one of our most brilliant and overlooked political philosophers, Willmoore Kendall. He predicted them sixty years ago, as well as their antecedent: an elite conviction that no loudmouth should be driven from a lectern on American soil, no matter how specious his research or misled his students.
Far from bringing us ever closer to truth and shared understanding, Kendall claimed, a society invested in the notion that every statement should be given a hearing will become the equivalent of a madhouse.
“I now contend,” he wrote, “that the society in question will descend ineluctably into ever-deepening differences of opinion, into progressive breakdown of those common premises upon which alone a society can conduct its affairs by discussion, and so into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war.”
That certainly sounds like America in 2020.
What’s more, Kendall predicted that this suicide pact with relativism will generate the bitterest of ironies, because as it approaches its death throes, the open and non-judgmental society will take upon itself to censor one kind of speech only. Not speech that calls for dismantling the society’s institutional foundations or moral presuppositions, nor even speech that calls for spilling blood in the streets. No, the doyens of the suicidal society will instead feel an irresistible compulsion to silence the voices insisting that there is truth, even Truth, and that therefore many other beliefs are in error.
This is the single unpardonable sin in the Church of Cacophony: a belief that some voices are pitchy. In the America where every citizen and non-citizen alike has equal claim to the stage, we’ll tolerate all manner of intolerable performances, but what we cannot abide is a Simon Cowell scowling in the wings.
Lacking any unifying principles by which to judge opinions and thereby train up the young, the completely open society, Kendall argued, will be afflicted by proliferating schisms. “As time passes, moreover, the extremes of opinion will—as they did in Weimar—get further and further apart, so that … their bearers can less and less tolerate even the thought of one another, still less one another’s presence in society.”
From Bernie Bros shooting at congressmen to the ephemeral social media posse eager to hound a store clerk out of job and home for expressing retrograde views, we have reached the place Kendall foretold, where the instinct of too many Americans is to neither discuss nor even ignore, but to punish, to cancel, to kill.
Kendall also predicted that as the rifts deepen between political tribes, governing elites, in order to avoid being themselves cast out, will embrace armfuls of sticky platitudes chosen precisely for their lack of clarity. Anyone who’s read the soporific tweet threads of city councilmen and mayors as their cities burn knows exactly what Kendall meant when he wrote that the fragmenting society, having stuffed cotton into the mouth of the boy shouting about the emperor’s lack of clothes, will “look on helplessly as within its own bosom patterns of opinion about the important things deteriorate into an ever greater conforming dullness.”
Thus society comes to resemble more and more the Twitter hellscape, where loons on left and right yodel for clicks and retweets, while above the fray, Respectable Public Figures pontificate their condemnations of what we all condemn, and call for dialogue, understanding, reconciliation, and other big soft words from the Handbook of Inoffensive Concern.
It’s little wonder that Kendall has receded from memory; his views are scarcely more tolerable to modern conservative intellectuals than they were to the academics of his day. While Democrats, Republicans, and even libertarians increasingly look to executive or judicial power to enforce their worldviews, Kendall was a man who trusted the people. Calling himself an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot,” Kendall believed that deliberative majorities in flyover country, constrained by the American system of checks and balances from acting too rashly in the heat of immediate passion, could conjure wisdom and morality far superior to the visions of majority-cobbling presidents, and certainly to diktats issued by a cabal of judges emanating almost exclusively from Harvard and Yale.
Though he hailed from the dusty plains of Oklahoma, Kendall himself was certainly no rube. He worked his way onto the faculty of Yale, where he profoundly influenced Bill Buckley among others. But while he had the intellect to work at the highest academic levels, he had neither the temperament nor the platitudinal capacity. Yale eventually paid him to forfeit his tenure.
Rooted in the Midwest but familiar with the coastal academic mindset, Kendall deployed a fierce wit that was as irreverent as Mencken, yet as folksy as Will Rogers. Writing at a time when the field of American political science had begun to deploy instruments of survey research, Kendall gleefully watched his fellow academics get mugged by the realities of American public opinion. Commenting on the release of “alarming” survey evidence that everyday Americans believed Communists and atheists should have their speech curtailed, Kendall tweaked his colleagues for imagining that the penumbral discoveries of the Supreme Court approximated natural law. Average Americans, he wrote, are not “much disturbed to learn that the Supreme Court says the Fourteenth Amendment says the First Amendment says they can’t do anything legally to prevent the Communist from speaking.”
Contesting the modern conviction that the chief purpose of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights was to safeguard individual freedoms, Kendall argued that Americans embrace a commitment to community and common good within which freedoms are both contextualized and necessarily tempered. The counter to the “let freedom ring” refashioning of the American Founding, Kendall said, could be found in the instincts of the people his colleagues studied like so many bugs. “One begins to suspect that the true American tradition is less that of our Fourth of July orations and our constitutional law textbooks, with their cluck-clucking over the so-called preferred freedoms, than, quite simply, that of riding somebody out of town on a rail.”
And not surprisingly, Kendall agreed with that inclination. To tolerate those who advocate destruction of Constitution and community was tantamount to slitting the throats of one’s great grandchildren. “My own instinct would be to let [American Communist Party Chairman] Gus Hall speak freely pretty much anywhere—until such time as the American people have the good sense to deport him to the Soviet Union.”
It’s stern stuff for all we conservatives and libertarians raised to revere Karl Popper’s open society. But another bit of folk wisdom gives one pause: The proof is in the pudding. While most of us, like former Atlantic literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, are surprised to see academic free-speech bastion University of Chicago descend into cancel culture, Kendall would say it was foreordained.
And he cautioned grimly that if we don’t curtail the tendency of the open society to devour itself, we’ll be ruined. This is, he claimed, “the issue that—make no mistake about it—bears most heavily on the very destiny of America.” We must summon the fortitude, he believed, to cast the barbarians from our academies and classrooms. And just how does one spot a modern American barbarian? By his stripes. “The stigmata by which he is to be recognized are the various forms of the wish to live off our Civilization and benefit from the commitments it imposes upon others, but not live within them.”
Like, say, expecting to be allowed to destroy entire city blocks without being molested by police. To upload videos of one’s crimes without having them censored. To teach young people to burn, burn, burn, without fear of them one day coming for your family, in your home, in your privileged neighborhood.
Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in North Carolina.