November 2, 2021
Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue, decried the woke left campus culture’s oppressive censoriousness. My 2020 review* ended by noting that the infection hadn’t much spread beyond academia. But already that needs a revisit.
The Economist recently had a cover story about this. It begins, “Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.” Meaning the classical liberal philosophy arising from the Enlightenment, and countering the “confessional state” of the prior millennium, that pervasively enforced religious conformism. Enlightenment liberalism believes free debate is the route to truth and progress, honoring individual human dignity, with all coercive power constrained.
This is widely sneered at today (notably by China’s regime, espousing very different values). In the West, it’s a case of “what have you done for me lately?” short-sightedness. In fact, liberalism’s principles were greatly responsible for stupendous human progress, in so many ways, in the past few centuries. But now those principles are being eroded, and consequently progress is faltering.
The threat from the populist Trumpian right is clear enough. An atavistic tribalist assault on the very concepts of truth, universalism, and a common public interest. January 6 an attempt to achieve by force what debate and democratic processes could not.
You might think the left, being focused on still-persisting injustices, would push back with a redoubled liberalism. But the “woke” left has gone the opposite way, and off the rails. Even indicting “neoliberalism” as a bête noir.
There is a (perverse) logic to it. Classical liberalism wants to remove barriers to individual flourishing. Something the illiberal left actually deems a snare, a way of maintaining illicit hierarchies of power — racial, sexual, class, etc. Which they obsess about — seeing every problem as one of power and privilege. Like having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail. Hence, ideals of individual human dignity must yield to group empowerment (for favored groups).
Which is the essence of tyranny. Giving us the naked authoritarianism of speech codes, cancel culture, suppression of any ideas contravening a rigid orthodoxy. Literally believing no one has a right to any opinion they deem inimical to their own. Because, of course, they’re right and virtuous. Thus too they feel entitled to impose desired outcomes by fiat rather than discourse. Indeed, deeming the marketplace of ideas itself illegitimate — just another construct of the power dynamics they demonize.
All together reconstituting the old “confessional state;” the Inquisition. The Economist does note that at least nobody today is burned at the stake. Not literally — but many careers have been destroyed.
And not just in academia. It’s moved out to the wider society. The Economist documents how “woke” left thinking has markedly spread, particularly among younger, more educated Americans, especially Democrats. And especially when it comes to race matters.
Well, Trump, and George Floyd, had much to do with that. Yet it seems ironic that the woke left’s stridency about racial justice probably has worked to aggravate racial tensions and cynicism. As you’d expect when pitting group against group. Is it surprising some whites react with hackles up?
David Brooks, in a recent column, notes how a prominent scientist was disinvited from lecturing at MIT because he’s publicly argued that college admissions should not consider race. That issue is indeed arguable; and a clear majority of Americans agrees with the scientist. Yet their view is treated as a scarlet letter at MIT. Thus does the woke left make itself outrageous to mainstream Americans not only in the ideas it pushes but also its arrant intolerance. Handing a cudgel to the populist right in our culture wars.
Perhaps woke ideology’s spread from campuses was inevitable as they pumped out legions of graduates thusly indoctrinated. Even while most students actually hate the oppressiveness, cowed into silence by those louder voices. With the internet and social media providing newly powerful megaphones, while traditional forms of journalism and public discourse are shouldered aside. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The Economist also sees this as a generational conflict, with Gen Z and young Millennials contending for sway against Boomers and Gen Xers who still largely run things.
One of wokism’s watchwords is a fetish for “safety,” including emotional safety, trumping liberalistic concerns. Thus the overblown snits about “microaggressions,” and hostility to ideas that might create discomfort. With the huge irony that the people made truly unsafe here are the targets of this intellectual pogrom. Their rights — their safety — don’t count. The Economist cites a book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, tracing extremist “safetyism” to America’s wave of overprotective parenting. Creating a sense of entitlement to live in a cocoon undisturbed by life’s rumbustiousness. Including exposure to discordant viewpoints.
And meantime, as the magazine also notes, for all their shrillness attributing group inequalities to entrenched power hierarchies, that need to be smashed, the woke left is remarkably silent about concrete racial inequities that the old left cared about — nonsexy issues like persistent segregation in poor neighborhoods, and especially the concomitant problem of rotten schools in those areas. A gigantic factor perpetuating and even aggravating American inequality. If you seriously want equalization, schools would be a terrific place to start (even if they don’t teach critical race theory).
The Economist casts its discussion as hopefully a rallying cry for true liberals to stand up more forcefully against wokism’s perversion of their philosophy. But while the magazine does (like Boyers did) see some signs of a backlash against the illiberal left, its final line darkly opines that “America has not yet reached peak woke.”