Who Stands Up to the Mob?, Part 2
In yesterday’s edition, I gave an overview of the Great Purge that is attempting to eliminate from the public debate anyone or anything that runs afoul of left-wing mobs, whether in the streets or on Twitter. But I noted that the really important story is: Who stands up to the mob?
In recent years, the left has styled itself the Resistance while acting a lot more like the Empire. What we’re seeing in response to the Great Purge is the galvanization of a resistance against conformity, with some particularly promising glimmers among the center-left.
Tablet has been a center for this, leading off with a blistering dissection of “The American Soviet Mentality.”
Russians are fond of quoting Sergei Dovlatov, a dissident Soviet writer who emigrated to the United States in 1979: “We continuously curse Comrade Stalin, and, naturally, with good reason. And yet I want to ask: Who wrote four million denunciations?” It wasn’t the fearsome heads of Soviet secret police who did that, he said. It was ordinary people.
Collective demonizations of prominent cultural figures were an integral part of the Soviet culture of denunciation that pervaded every workplace and apartment building….
Factories, universities, schools, and research institutes were all suitable venues for collectively raking over the coals a hapless, ideologically ungrounded colleague who, say, failed to show up for the “voluntary-obligatory,” as a Soviet cliché went, Saturday cleanups at a local park, or a scientist who wanted to emigrate. The system also demanded expressions of collective condemnations with regards to various political matters: machinations of imperialism and reactionary forces, Israeli aggression against peaceful Arab states, the anti-Soviet international Zionist conspiracy. It was simply part of life….
Twitter has been used as a platform for exercises in unanimous condemnation for as long as it has existed. Countless careers and lives have been ruined as outraged mobs have descended on people whose social media gaffes or old teenage behavior were held up to public scorn and judged to be deplorable and unforgivable. But it wasn’t until the past couple of weeks that the similarity of our current culture with the Soviet practice of collective hounding presented itself to me with such stark clarity. Perhaps it was the specific professions and the cultural institutions involved—and the specific acts of writers banding together to abuse and cancel their colleagues—that brought that sordid history back.
All of us who came out of the Soviet system bear scars of the practice of unanimous condemnation, whether we ourselves had been targets or participants in it or not. It is partly why Soviet immigrants are often so averse to any expressions of collectivism: We have seen its ugliest expressions in our own lives and our friends’ and families’ lives….
In a collectivist culture, one hoped-for result of group condemnations is control—both over the target of abuse and the broader society… But while the policy in the USSR was by and large set by the authorities, it would be too simplistic to imagine that those below had no choices, and didn’t often join in these rituals gladly, whether to obtain some real or imagined benefit for themselves, or to salve internal psychic wounds, or to take pleasure in the exercise of cruelty toward a person who had been declared to be a legitimate target of the collective….
Those who remember the Soviet system understand the danger of letting the practice of collective denunciation run amok. But you don’t have to imagine an American Stalin in the White House to see where first the toleration, then the normalization, and now the legitimization and rewarding of this ugly practice is taking us.
Sound familiar? I’ve written before about our perverse self-enforcing police state, where the Twitter Stasi (as it is now called) serves as a volunteer secret police.
Why would a magazine for Jewish intellectuals be at the forefront in preventing these censors from shutting down debate? That question kind of answers itself, doesn’t it? I liked this description by Jacob Siegel in another Tablet article.
When I think of the Waverly Diner on 6th Avenue and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, I am moved by romantic nostalgia. By that I only mean that when I think of the Waverly I feel, in some way, what it was like to be young and in the rush of the conversation. The conversation was everything. It flowed all around us, in the subways and the streets, in the diners and the high-rise apartments, and if you could master it, it could take you anywhere. You could still smoke inside of diners back then and sometimes we spent whole days around an ashtray and a plate of disco fries, getting refills on the coffee. I’m not saying all the arguments were good, but sometimes it was thrilling.
Perhaps that’s a uniquely New York thing, to place so much faith in talking. But it once felt very American, too; the diner-booth yapper animated by argument, one version of the big city fast talker who reflected an aspect of the national character right there alongside the taciturn cowboy, the trapper frontiersman, and the Puritan. American because, if you could think it and you could argue it, then maybe you could be it, too. It was at least possible. And it was democratic in the best sense. You could talk to anyone, butt into any stranger’s conversation, as long as you had something interesting to say.
I don’t know how to argue in America anymore, or whether it’s even worth it. For someone like me, that is a real tragedy and so I would like to understand how this new reality came about.
The rest of the piece has a useful description of the way this new style of argument “toggles back and forth between rationalism and religiosity.” The approach is to cite just enough facts and evidence to argue that racism, for example, is an important evil that needs to be fought. But once the moral importance of the issue has been established, all further conclusions are imposed by intimidation, condemning dissent on any particular claim as a moral crime.
Unfortunately, Siegel tacks on to the end the assertion that the current purge shows “the deep contradictions and corruption…of the liberal individualist moral regime.” This is a common claim of the illiberal nationalist right, and it is offered here completely without context or explanation, probably because there is no explanation. Individualism is, quite obviously, the foundation for freedom of speech and the protection of non-conformists.
The old-fashioned liberal Andrew Sullivan does a bit better, also honing in on our self-enforcing police state.
It’s about the dilemma of living in a world where adherence to a particular ideology becomes mandatory. In Communist Czechoslovakia, this orthodoxy, with its tired slogans, and abuse of language, had to be enforced brutally by the state, its spies, and its informers. In America, of course, with the First Amendment, this is impossible. But perhaps for that very reason, Americans have always been good at policing uniformity by and among themselves. The puritanical streak of shaming and stigmatizing and threatening runs deep. This is the country of extraordinary political and cultural freedom, but it is also the country of religious fanaticism, moral panics, and crusades against vice….
In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect….
If you argue that you believe that much of this ideology is postmodern gobbledygook, you are guilty of ‘white fragility.’ If you say you are not fragile, and merely disagree, this is proof you are fragile. It is the same circular argument that was once used to burn witches. And it has the same religious undertones. To be woke is to wake up to the truth—the blinding truth that liberal society doesn’t exist, that everything is a form of oppression or resistance, and that there is no third option.
He ends with this wonderful paean to old-fashioned liberalism.
Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology—friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance. It is a spirit that deals with an argument—and not a person—and that counters that argument with logic, not abuse. It’s a spirit that allows for various ideas to clash and evolve, and treats citizens as equal, regardless of their race, rather than insisting on equity for designated racial groups. It’s a spirit that delights sometimes in being wrong because it offers an opportunity to figure out what’s right. And it’s generous, humorous, and graceful in its love of argument and debate. It gives you space to think and reflect and deliberate….
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values,” President Kennedy once said. “For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Let’s keep that market open. Let’s not be intimidated by those who want it closed.
The only off note here is his dismissal of “ideology.” If his point is that there are whole swathes of life that are outside the realm of political ideology, then he’s absolutely right. But they are not outside the realm of ideas, and you will notice that implicit in Sullivan’s whole description of liberalism is one philosophical idea in particular: the value of logic, thinking, deliberation—in a word, the centrality of reason in human life.
Above, Siegel described the way the apologists for the mobs oscillate between reason and moralizing, but he doesn’t really have a constructive answer of his own. Black conservative Glen Loury does a little better. In an interview in which he challenges the prevailing narratives about racism and policing, he also makes a profound observation about the necessity of freedom for “moral reasoning,” which presumes that morality is a matter for rational thinking.
I think we do not live in a really free space where we can discuss these questions. Pressure to conform is intense because nobody wants to give the impression that they stand on the wrong side of the great moral questions of our time. Ironically, this reticence undermines the possibility of genuine and effective moral reasoning. Instead, everyone follows the other, spouting platitudes, as in a herd.
If you want to see this short-circuiting of moral reasoning in action, Jonathan Chait tells the story of a young “progressive” who was first intimidated into recanting and then fired from his job anyway—attempting to appease the mob is always a mistake—for sharing a link to a political science paper which argues that riots set back the cause of civil rights.
Yes, that’s right, it has now become an article of faith among “progressives” that one must endorse violence as a means of political change.
Incidentally, the academic paper in question is by a black political scientist named Omar Wasow. Check out his paper but also his evisceration of a white “progressive” writer who decided to set himself up as an arbiter of racial sensitivity. The highlight: “Nathan J. Robinson’s rhetoric suggests someone concerned with the ideas of Black Lives Matter. But, if you read his work closely, the writing betrays an attitude that, unless they serve him, actual Black people matter not at all.”
Chait goes on to echo Andrew Sullivan’s motto that “we all live on campus now,” that the spirit of ideological conformity that people were complaining about on college campuses a decade ago has spread into the adult world.
The preconditions that permitted these events to go forward are the spread of distinct, illiberal norms throughout some progressive institutions over the last half-dozen years. When I wrote about the phenomenon in 2015, a common response was to dismiss it as the trivial hijinks of some college students, a distraction from the true threats to democratic values.
There is a lot more to be said about this phenomenon, about what the kids were being taught on campus that made them into illiberal fanatics, and about what made “progressive institutions” so willing to be taken over. The young people coming out of the campuses are exploiting ideas that have been at the heart of the left’s philosophy all along, particularly its rejection of reason and individualism in favor of a philosophy in which the content of all of our brains is “constructed” by forces driven by racial collectivism.
This background makes it all the more important, though, that there are some old-fashioned liberals who are speaking up in favor of a remaining kernel of respect for the individual and the mind. Here is Chait’s best effort.
Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action—a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model—by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat….
The norm of suppressing a belief because somebody saying it makes them or others unsafe has left a trail of absurd or horrifying episodes in academia and elsewhere that many progressives insisted didn’t matter because It Wouldn’t Happen Here.
Some of this new resistance is coming from the mainstream left-of-center media, and some from a few of the bolder figures in popular culture.
The legendary comedian John Cleese talks these days with the air of a man who has nothing to lose, because that is in fact the case—he has to fear neither for his reputation nor his livelihood. He weighed in on the recent controversies by posting an old video in which he sardonically describes how the attraction of becoming a fanatic is that it makes you automatically right and good and everybody else automatically wrong and evil: “You can strut around abusing people…and still think of yourself as a champion for the truth, a fighter for the greater good, not the rather sad, paranoid schizoid that you really are.”
Cleese commented, “Hard to tell if I recorded this 30 years or 10 minutes ago,” and added, “We need to start fighting back and helping people who are ‘cancelled,’ especially ordinary people who lose jobs.”
The most striking show of resistance probably comes from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter children’s book series. In Rowling’s case, the source of the controversy is different: not the Black Lives Matter protests, but her refusal to support the dogmas of the radical transgender agenda. Yet the style of her response is exactly what we need as an answer to the current era: thoughtful and deliberate, but firm and unapologetic.
What is particularly interesting about Rowling’s response is that she puts the hysterics of a small but vicious online mob into perspective.
I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.
What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful, and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic, and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice, and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody—least of all trans youth—well.
Rowling’s case is particularly interesting because a whole generation of young people have been raised on her books and took them, somewhat presumptuously, as validation for every fashionable political cause—to the point where Harry Potter references have became a lazy cliché. But as I have pointed out, her books have also been taken very superficially, missing Rowling’s actual message.
One of the recurring themes of the Harry Potter books—and one of the reasons I enjoyed them so much when I read them with my kids—is the importance of moral courage, the necessity of choosing between “what is easy and what is right.” The book’s hero is frequently called to stand up for the truth in the face of social disapproval and overbearing authority.
Rowling is demonstrating that she really meant it. Some of the actors who have portrayed her heroes? Not so much.
Rowling speaks with disappoint about “many people, institutions, and organizations I once admired, who’re cowering before the tactics of the playground.”
“They’ll call us transphobic!” “They’ll say I hate trans people!” What next, they’ll say you’ve got fleas? Speaking as a biological woman, a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair….
It would be so much easier to tweet the approved hashtags—because of course trans rights are human rights and of course trans lives mattes—scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow. There’s joy, relief, and safety in conformity….
But endlessly unpleasant as its constant targeting of me has been, I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode “woman” as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.
The most significant line, though, is when Rowling describes her history on this issue and says, “I must have been on my fourth or fifth cancellation by then.” One of the sources of her courage is her knowledge of how toothless the mob is when confronted by anyone who doesn’t choose to cower before it.
Now, you could point out that Rowling can afford to defy the mobs because she is so phenomenally successful. I smiled, for example, when a saw an article about four unknown authors who stalking off in a huff from Rowling’s literary agency when it refused a demand for what the agency called “re-education” of its employees. There is no way a literary agent is going dump the author who keeps the lights on to appease authors hardly anyone has heard of.
But don’t underestimate how important—and how surprisingly rare—it is for people like Rowling to stand up, precisely because they are in a secure position. I’ve had occasion once or twice to stick my neck out, and it has always been with a little bitterness that I watched people in much more secure positions run for cover. How much easier would it have been for me to take a stand, if people who could do so with much less risk had led the way?
JK Rowling taking the heat for this will make it that much easier for a lesser-known author to avoid bending a knee to the orthodoxy—certainly easier for them to find a literary agency, since there are a few new vacancies. Andrew Sullivan dressing down Political Correctness will make it that much easier for a younger, less prominent liberal writer to do so.
A lot of these people make some concessions I wouldn’t make, or defend their position in philosophical terms that vaguer and less consistent than is really needed—something I knew would be the case when I chose to survey mostly left-of-center examples. But what they show—Rowling above all—is the importance of resistance as such. Every act of defiance, every individual standing up to say, “No,” everyone who is “canceled” for her fourth or fifth time but just keeps going, makes a difference.
We may be sliding toward a self-enforcing police state—but that’s just the thing, isn’t it? It’s self-enforcing, which means that the conformist mobs have only the power people choose to give them. This should be the moment when a lot of people across the political spectrum realize the urgent need to deny them that power.