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Weimar America’s Journalistic Elites

The anti-liberal radicalization of media and academia is a sign of coming soft totalitarianism
New York Times Headquarters in New York City

Well, this post by a Dartmouth historian is tonic:

I’m old enough to remember Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushnet’s 2016 piece in which he said:

The culture wars are over; they lost, we won. Remember, they were the ones who characterized constitutional disputes as culture wars (see Justice Scalia in Romer v. Evans, and the Wikipedia entry for culture wars, which describes conservative activists, not liberals, using the term.) And they had opportunities to reach a cease fire, but rejected them in favor of a scorched earth policy. The earth that was scorched, though, was their own. (No conservatives demonstrated any interest in trading off recognition of LGBT rights for “religious liberty” protections. Only now that they’ve lost the battle over LGBT rights, have they made those protections central – seeing them, I suppose, as a new front in the culture wars. But, again, they’ve already lost the war.). For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (“You lost, live with it”) is better than trying to accommodate the losers, who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.) I should note that LGBT activists in particular seem to have settled on the hard-line approach, while some liberal academics defend more accommodating approaches. When specific battles in the culture wars were being fought, it might have made sense to try to be accommodating after a local victory, because other related fights were going on, and a hard line might have stiffened the opposition in those fights. But the war’s over, and we won.

Meanwhile, at The New York Times, there’s an internal war going on over the op-ed page’s decision to publish Sen. Tom Cotton’s call to deploy the military to suppress riots. Bari Weiss, who works at the Times, characterizes it like this:

It is time — it is past time — for the non-woke among us to take these people seriously when they say that words that hurt people’s feelings (well, certain people’s feelings) are equivalent to violence. The logical endpoint is to criminalize speech, and beyond that, criminalize the people who think the Bad Thoughts. Think about it:

Who cares about the media? you think. Who cares about woke campuses? As I keep saying, if you care about your own liberty, and your ability to make a living in this country, you had better pay attention. These are the institutional elites. These are the people who represent the institutional elites. These are people like I write about in Live Not By Lies:

Arendt’s judgment of the postwar elites who recklessly thumbed their noses at respectability could easily apply to those of our own day who shove aside liberal principles like fair play, race neutrality, free speech, and free association as obstacles to equality. Arendt wrote:

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.

And this:

Propaganda helps change the world by creating a false impression of the way the world is. Writes Arendt, “The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda—before the movement has the power to drop the iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world—lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.”

In 2019, Zach Goldberg, a political science PhD student at Georgia Tech, did a deep dive on LexisNexis, the world’s largest database of publicly available documents, including media reports. He found that over a nine-year period, the rate of news stories using progressive jargon associated with left-wing critical theory and social justice concepts shot into the stratosphere.

What does this mean? That the mainstream media is framing the general public’s understanding of news and events according to what was until very recently a radical ideology confined to left-wing intellectual elites.

And this:

Why are people so willing to believe demonstrable lies? The desperation alienated people have for a story that helps them make sense of their lives and tells them what to do explains it. For a man desperate to believe, totalitarian ideology is more precious than life itself.

“He may even be willing to help in his own prosecution and frame his own death sentence if only his status as a member of the movement is not touched,” Arendt wrote. Indeed, during the late 1930s, the files of the Stalinist show trials are full of false confessions by devout communists who were prepared to die rather than admit that communism was a lie.

Totalitarianism’s most dedicated servants are often idealists, at least at first. Indeed, Margolius Kovály testifies that she and her husband embraced communism at first precisely because it was so idealistic. It gave those who had walked out of hell a vision of paradise in which they could believe.

One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases—the personal is political—captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything.

As I point out in the book, Czeslaw Milosz said that the peoples of Eastern Europe woke up one day to find that they were ruled by ideas that heretofore had only been discussed among intellectuals. We have to pay attention to what they say and think. Sociologist James Davison Hunter teaches that in most cases, change comes via elites. They may not originate a revolutionary idea, but the idea doesn’t really go anywhere until it gets buy-in from elites. As Bari Weiss points out in the case of the Times, where do you think the woke journos acquired their woke enlightenment? At universities. Probably at high schools too. From popular culture. Here’s an op-ed running now in the Washington Post calling for the cancellation and/or politicization of police dramas.

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, many on staff are protesting because the paper published an opinion piece about how the destruction of buildings by rioters hurts the city. In the piece itself, the author, a white woman, goes to extraordinary lengths to qualify her argument, saying that lives are more important than buildings. But, she says, riots that burn down buildings leave scars on cities that take a long, long time to heal. It’s a perfectly reasonable and necessary argument. In fact, it was not the op-ed that caused a staff revolt, but the headline:

This headline was considered so egregious that black staffers staged a protest, and wrote this open letter. Excerpts:

It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down. It takes commitment to correct and improve that relationship. It is an insult to our work, our communities, and our neighbors to see that trust destroyed—and makes us that much more likely to face threats and aggression. The carelessness of our leadership makes it harder to do our jobs, and at worst puts our lives at risk.

We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about “diversity and inclusion” when we raise our concerns. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.


This is not the start of a conversation; this conversation has been started time and time again. We demand action. We demand a plan, with deadlines. We demand full, transparent commitment to changing how we do business. No more “handling internally.” No more quiet corrections. If we are to walk into a better world, we need to do it with our chests forward—acknowledge and accept where we make mistakes, and show how we learn from them. Your embarrassment is not worth more than our humanity.

This, over a three-word headline.

Of course the paper’s editorial leadership has apologized and groveled. Last year, the newspaper’s owners warned their staff that its plunging circulation and collapse in ad sales meant the paper had five years to save itself, or shut down. So now I guess its plan is going to be to capitulate to demands to abandon basic journalism standards of fairness. They’ll be out of business in fewer than five years. Who wants to pay $195 per year to be propagandized?

In a strong piece analyzing the collapse of actual liberalism in journalism, Reason magazine’s Matt Welch — who rejects both Sen. Tom Cotton’s view and Sen. Tom Cotton himself, by the way — writes:

The woke left’s march through the institutions, from experimental liberal arts campuses to the most hallowed journalistic outlets, has been breathtaking in its speed and scope. It’s a generational war, and the GenXers for whom this stuff doesn’t come natural are learning that they have to become fluent in the new language or end up as pariahs in their own newsrooms. The country’s top editors—Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, David Remnick at The New Yorker—discover during moments of staff revolt that their old-timey notions about broad public squares and multi-viewpoint conversations are no longer tolerable.

Outlets that once waved the flag of provocative viewpoint-diversity—Salon, The New Republic, Vice—have long since become barely distinguishable enforcers of a joyless orthodoxy. Just today, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp engaged in ritual self-criticism after getting ripped by the kids for having tweeted, “I’m sorry but ‘abolish the police’ seems like a poorly thought out idea that’s gotten popular with shocking speed.”

As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf observed/predicted, “There is ascendant pressure on journalists to reify positions that are held by a minority of the public and a supermajority of journalists. If it succeeds it will not advance social justice. It will make journalistic institutions that value social justice less influential.” All this can be mortifying to watch.

Here’s what the left-liberal journalist Jesse Singal wrote about the Beauchamp flap:

He has to be made to repent.

This is a war of religion. What we are seeing happen in journalism now is the vindication of the neoreactionary essayist Curtis Yarvin’s concept of “the Cathedral,” which he defines as:

And the left is the party of the educational organs, at whose head is the press and universities. This is our 20th-century version of the established church. Here at UR, we sometimes call it the Cathedral — although it is essential to note that, unlike an ordinary organization, it has no central administrator. No, this will not make it easier to deal with.

This rising generation of soft totalitarians within journalism and academia are fueling neoreaction. What was once a fringe view on the Right is going to become more mainstream in reaction to militant left-wing illiberalism. Right-of-center normies are going to be driven to neoreaction as a matter of self-defense. It is going to get very ugly, and faster than many of us thought. The thing is, big journalism has lost its authority over the masses, and only speaks to elites. Yet the elites who pay attention to it, and who insist that their worldview is the only one that has a right to be recognized and heard, are the gatekeepers to the professions. I heard today from someone who works for a big healthcare provider, who passed along a memo announcing an antiracism protest within the institution later this week. Everyone who works there is “encouraged” to join it. Those who don’t, of course, will by their non-participation for any reason whatsoever out themselves as racist, as deplorable, as the kind of people who need to be subjected to programs antifascist deprogramming. The lives and livelihoods of countless people will be affected by what’s coming, and indeed what is already here. This is what it means for classical liberalism to collapse.

One of the Americans I interviewed for my book, a man who came to the US from an Iron Curtain country, wrote to me yesterday and said I’m getting one thing wrong in my analysis: “There will be nothing soft about this totalitarianism.”