This, Too, Is Scary
Here is the other side of the coin, so to speak, to my blog of July 11, “This Is Scary,” on “Christian Nationalism.”
My subject is what has been referred to as “Cancel Culture” and “Woke Ideology,” or less often “critical theory.” I suspect I’m on thinner ice here with most of my readers who probably regard “Christian Nationalism,” the Religious Right and the Republican Party as much more dangerous than anything coming from the Left. Moreover, you may accuse me of playing wishy-washy “both-siderism.” So be it. I, for one, think the threat at both extremes of the spectrum is, if not equivalent, then real and scary. They are also similar in attacking the fundamentals of the American experiment.
A couple years ago most of what I was hearing about cancel culture/ woke ideology was coming from a distance, stories about and from people who had been with the New York Times or New Yorker magazine or the Washington Post and in various academic settings.
More recently, the stories I am hearing are closer to home, personal accounts. Friends tell of beloved teachers being pilloried for alleged sins exhumed from their distant past. There are accounts of a school, usually someone’s alma mater, destroying the career and livelihood of a once esteemed scholar because he or she isn’t lining up with the new orthodoxy or has dared to question it. Or of a church/ denomination that dismisses an employee for “racism” without any evidence given.
Cancel Culture which cancels, or “de-platforms,” those who challenge the new orthodoxy makes the Puritans look pretty open-minded (which contrary to the stereotype many actually were at least for their time). I am reminded of Martin Marty’s observation that “we live in a society where everything is permitted, and nothing is forgiven.” Grace has gone way out the window in the world of cancel/ woke. A mistaken word, even if innocently uttered, is grounds for cancellation. A scientific study that doesn’t confirm the dominant narrative of ours as a white supremacist society is grounds for shaming, shunning and dismissal.
The journalist who has done the most to bring all this to wide attention may be Bari Weiss, who is herself a Jew and a lesbian. Following the 2016 election, Weiss was hired to help the New York Times and its readers hear from and understand a wider swath of America’s people. She discovered that the NYT wasn’t really interested in that. Another writer who hits these points is Andrew Sullivan (he also happens to be gay) who was shown the door at New York magazine because of the threat his alleged conservatism posed to his colleagues. They felt “unsafe.”
John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and a black man, has also been a critic of Woke, calling it a new religion in his book, Woke Racism. Another is Jonathan Haidt whose long essay on “Why the Last Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” appeared this spring in The Atlantic and who before that wrote, The Coddling of the American Mind.
For the purposes of this blog I will draw mostly from a recent lecture given by Weiss at the University of Austin, a new school founded to do what most universities once said they were about but aren’t any longer, the free and fearless pursuit of truth. Weiss here spoke to UATX’s first students about the kind of “New Founders” America needs. Before enumerating the particular qualities she sees as necessary to move us beyond our “Uniquely Stupid” era, she summed up the ideology that has made many colleges and universities and some “progressive” churches a kind of cult. Her piece is long and I can’t quote even all her description of the new ideology’s most salient features, but here’s an excerpt.
The ideology that is trying to unseat liberalism in America begins by stipulating that the forces of justice and progress are in a war against backwardness and tyranny. And in a war, the normal rules of the game must be suspended. Indeed, this ideology would argue that those rules are not just obstacles to justice, but tools of oppression. They are the master’s tools. And the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
So the tools themselves are not just replaced but repudiated.
Persuasion—the purpose of argument—is replaced with public shaming. Moral complexity is replaced with moral certainty. Facts are replaced with feelings. The rule of law is replaced with mob rule.
Ideas are replaced with identity. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with disinvitation and de-platforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion with exclusion. Excellence with equity.
In this ideology, disagreement is recast as trauma. So speech is violence. But violence, when carried out by the right people in pursuit of a just cause, is not violence at all—but in fact justice.
In this ideology, bullying is wrong, unless you are bullying the right people, in which case it’s very, very good. In this ideology, information that does comport with The Narrative is recast as disinformation, its proponents as conspiracy theorists. In this ideology, education is not about teaching people how to think, it’s about re-educating them in what to think. In this ideology the need to feel safe trumps the need to speak truthfully.
In this ideology, if you do not tweet the right tweet or share the right slogan, your whole life can be ruined. Just ask Tiffany Riley, a Vermont school principal who was fired—fired—because she said she supports black lives but not the organization Black Lives Matter.
In this ideology, the past cannot be understood on its own terms, but must be judged through the morals and mores of the present. It is why statues of Grant, Lincoln and Washington were torn down. It is why William Peris, a UCLA lecturer and an Air Force veteran, was investigated because he read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out loud in class.
In this ideology, intentions don’t matter. That is why Emmanuel Cafferty, a Hispanic utility worker at San Diego Gas and Electric, was fired for making what someone said they thought was a white-supremacist hand gesture. In fact, he was fidgeting with his fingers out of his car window.
In this ideology, you are guilty for the sins of your fathers. In other words: you are not you. You are only a mere avatar of your race or your religion or your class. That is why third graders in Cupertino, California, were asked to rate themselves in terms of their power and privilege. It is why an elementary school in Washington, D.C. gave kindergarteners a “fistbook” asking them to identify racist family members.
In this system, we are all placed neatly on a spectrum of “privileged” to “oppressed.” We are ranked somewhere on this spectrum in different categories: race, gender, sexual orientation and class. Then we are given an overall score, based on the sum of these rankings. Having privilege means that your character and your ideas are tainted. This is why, one high schooler in New York tells me, students in his school are told “if you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.” This is considered a normal and necessary redistribution of power.
Victimhood, in this ideology, confers morality. “I think therefore I am” is replaced with: “I am therefore I know.” Or: “I know therefore I am right.”
This ideology says there is no such thing as neutrality, not even in the law, which is why the very notion of colorblindness—the Kingian dream of judging people not based on the color of their skin but by the content of their character—must itself be deemed racist.
I encourage you to read Weiss’s entire talk.
I’ve gone on too long already. But the point is that the extremes of left and right look much like each other at some point. Both want to force their vision, I think it’s fair to call it a “religion” following McWhorter, on everyone else and on the whole society.
Both possess the truth whole and unimpaired. They have no doubts or uncertainties. Classical liberalism, characterized by the rule of law and seeing people first as individuals and as of equal value, are attacked by both extremes precisely because liberalism does not promise a politics of perfection or purity. Classical liberalism does not look to politics for salvation. Those who do look to a totalistic and utopian politics for salvation have regularly visited damnation on the world.