The Threat from the Illiberal Left

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.”

* Here, and in Skeptic Magazine:

17 Responses to “The Threat from the Illiberal Left”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Agreed. The “middle path” is needed. Swedes call it lagom. Wisdom, truth with tolerance.

  2. Don Bronkema Says:

    –let all speak, let all take the consequences
    –no punition for opinion
    –finance radical action contra disequity by returning to 94% taxation of income over 2MPA, per 1944 CE
    –settle Mars
    –provolve interstellar hominid species

  3. Robyn Blumner Says:

    You are so very right to call this out.

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Tue, Nov 2, 2021 at 7:25 PM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” 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 Economis” >

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    This latest of our panics will cool, absent provocation. But if demogogues exploit Anglo fear of deracination to reclaim the hegemony of 1954 or 1859, the ‘aginbite of inwit’ could trouble progressives til the fait-accomplis of caucasoid-minority in 2052. Indeed, on present trends, merger-heterosis in ethno-pigmentation & physiognomy will likely render race disgermane by 2300 CE. Perspective is de rigueur.

  5. Lee Says:

    You go on and on against the concept of “woke” (at least a particular aspect of it) and do a great job of beating up what you think it to mean. It’s like the old battle between people who say “it’s always this way, except when it isn’t” versus people who say “it’s never this way, except when it is.” In short, without concrete examples we can imagine that we are in wild disagreement based upon which of these two equivalent generalizations we espouse.

    But when it comes to actual concrete examples, most people are in agreement. Despite your eloquence against one version of the generalization, you provide just one example. A guy who was jogging was shot by vigilantes. No, that wasn’t it. A woman who was sleeping was killed by police. No, that wasn’t it. A boy who can’t remember living in any other country was deported to a country where he doesn’t speak the language. No, that wasn’t it. A trans woman was murdered for looking at someone wrong. No, that wasn’t it.

    Ah, yes, the example is someone who argues that the best way to deal with racism that has been in our country for the past 402 years is to ignore it. He was told that instead of being invited to give a forum designed to attract students, he would be invited to give a department seminar to existing faculty and students. The latter is a *better* place for him to talk about his research. Unless his plan all along was to argue that doing nothing about racism is the best approach, this is a net win for him. If that was his plan all along, it is reasonable that MIT did not want to pay him to do that.

    Could some details of this scenario been handled better? I suspect so. But is this an example of woke out of control that is worth all the ink that it has received? Not a chance. The ink is needed for the jogger, sleeper, immigrant, trans individual, and many others.

  6. David Lettau Says:

    We must realize that many of our fellow citizens,be they liberal or conservative,are not committed to free speech.Cancel culture is intolerant,while conservatives are abetting populist closed- mindedness All speech should be protected,except of course for the well known exception of yelling fire in a crowded theatre (unless of course the theatre is actually on fire) As for Safetyism,it refuses to acknowledge that life lived well requires pursuing sometimes risky,ambitious goals. As Douglas MacArthur once said,”There is no security in life,only opportunity”.

  7. Lee Says:

    Speech is protected from government intrusion. MIT is not obligated to pay speakers nor to supply specific venues.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    I noted James Carville on tonight’s Newshour attributed Democrat election setbacks to the prominence of woke craziness, turning off a lot of voters (exploited by Republicans whose even worse craziness somehow fails to register). Sorry, Lee, you are in an ivory tower and can’t seem to see it.

  9. Don Bronkema Says:

    L’aissez les bons parles rouler! But as oft noted, once we caucasoids, soi-disant, are 49% [c. 2052], the issue of hegemony will be resolved & we can return to perfecting society & making Earth a seamless ecodise. No? MIT says tek bench-level or already Beta can make this transition easier than most imagine. Likewise, scanning this nonagenarian’s 158,410-pp file [1948-2021] never fails to persuade. At some vast interstellar remove, the last Man will mutter to the vacuum, “Yes, my state is lethal, but not serious.” Meanwhile, toca cardia!

  10. Lee Says:

    Absolutely, there are a huge number of people who think that cancel culture is the worst thing since Nazis and use that belief to justify sitting on the sidelines rather than actively fight racism. However, I am not arguing with a generic third person. I urge *you* dear reader to look past the scary generalizations that you construct, at the actual examples themselves.

    Is the canceled person an innocent victim or is it quite a bit more complicated? (Hypothesizing that the Nazi’s should have killed more Jews, or that racism is no longer a thing, … is complicated.) Is the canceling itself as harsh as the treatments that Ahmed, George, Breona, Sandra, Tamir, etc. received or something orders of magnitude less severe? I am not saying that you will never find something that needs correcting — but much of the time you will find that some level of canceling was appropriate and much of the time you will find that the chosen level of canceling is pretty close to the desired level.

  11. Lee Says:

    If for the annual “recruit more members” party, your coin club arranged for a speaker to speak about coins, and then you notice that the speaker has gotten recent press arguing that the Nazis should have killed more Jews, what would you do? Even if you were excited about the speaker’s perspective on coins, might you have shifted that speaker to a speech for people who are already members? After all, when trying to recruit new members, the whole Nazi thing is just way off message.

    If you do make that shift for the speaker, I hope for your sake that that it isn’t national news that you are trying to stifle free speech!

  12. d Says:

    Do confine Nazis to extant members…

  13. Don Bronkema Says:

    confine nazis per supra

  14. Lee Says:

    Regarding COVID-19 rules installed at schools, The New York times says ”Across the country, parents have threatened board members and vandalized their homes. One board member scans his driveway before walking to his car.”

    The lesson is that the illiberal left may cancel someone by taking their shopping dollars elsewhere, but the illiberal right likes to cancel via violence and vandalism. But, by all means let’s keep focusing on the illiberal left!

  15. Don Bronkema Says:

    Well-said! The US Left has never been systematically violent, but the Sturmabteilung has butchered outright a min of 14K Blacks, Amerinds & Mexicans. Pathogens & disequity have dispatched millions more.The answer to hatred long-term: inter-copulation, w/concomitant heterosis, per respondent’s three marriages. Each must do his part, however painful…Meanwhile, DJT has reached his hoch-wasser mark. Prep to celebrate norm-regression tonite w/Joe’s historic triumph in the House.

  16. Lee Says:

    > The wokery madness emanating from the Jacobin left will be used by the fascist right to win the 2022 midterms and the White House in 2024.

    Indeed, those are likely outcomes if anti-trans talking points are repeated without intervening thought occurring. That is why it is very important to look at the details rather than simply chanting the detail-free refrain that wokeness is trying for thought / speech control.

    > I also believe it undermines the moral foundation of the civil rights movement.

    Yes, the manufactured generalizations that the anti-trans talking heads claim represent “woke” would indeed undermine civil rights. Thank goodness the vast majority of progressives do not support these manufactured generalizations.

    > We need honesty in civic discourse, not a war on truth and a nation afraid to speak its mind.

    Yes, please be part of the discourse. Note that if you are not trying to help the marginalized, or if your discourse seems to be designed to make the marginalized feel separate and other then you might want to question yourself — why are you saying it? Lives depend on you getting this right, so please be careful!

    > Ironic is it not,that “wokery”, is helping to lead to the sleep of reason.

    The sleep of reason is promulgated by the people who are accepting the manufactured, anti-trans generalizations of “wokery” uncritically.

    > And we all know where that leads.

    Yes, this has been happening for millennia and is happening right now. The cure is to think critically rather than jumping on the anti-trans bandwagon that invokes “free speech” as justification for saying mean things that have no positive purpose.

  17. Lee Says:

    @rationaloptimist I somehow managed to post the immediately above post to this article’s forum instead of the one where it belongs. If it is consistent with your policies, please feel free to delete that post and this one from this article’s forum.

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