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The Old Left Has Lost the Will to Live
Empty gestures won’t stop the march of the woke radicals.
Liberals are right at the cusp of a Great Awokening—but they won’t take the plunge.
Many of them are alarmed about the rise of despotic illiberalism on the Left, and some of them are even speaking out publicly against the Woke Mob. But as long as they are afraid of being labeled “scary conservatives,” they’ll never put their money where their mouths are. On the Left these days, you can converse with reasonable people across the aisle and get pilloried, or you can keep quiet and continue getting invited to elite social gatherings. But you can’t have both.
Recently a group of notable professors, academics, and journalists signed a letter in Harper’s magazine calling for an end to our increasingly “intolerant climate” and defending “democratic inclusion.”
Gestures like this inspire a mixture of approval and disappointment in me. The Letter was good. It was an important act of opposition from prominent figures, virtually none of them on the Right, to the illiberal suppression of ideas. These would-be rebels stood up for free speech, even albeit timidly. Reading their words, one can imagine briefly that there’s some hope for our dying institutions. But probably not.
The letter scapegoated Trump as the nefarious cause of our woes, the reason why action was needed in the first place. The true malevolent force—Marxian Leftism—wasn’t addressed head on. How revealing that, even when defending basic foundational principles of the West, liberals still have to put blame on Trump to retain their social capital.
So, I’m glad the letter defended the need for open dialogue—although it’s a bit rich that such a defense only came when liberals understood that they, too, are in the fast-track line for the guillotine. People like Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, and Joe Rogan had been ringing the alarms against Woke intolerance for years as conservatives were exiled from elite institutions. Where were the Harper’s signatories then?
I’m not saying there haven’t been outspoken and unapologetic liberal voices against leftist intolerance. Professor Steven Pinker deserves the utmost praise: a man of true courage. But until very recently, such voices have been the exception to the rule. For the longest time, cancel culture was a ratchet that only turned one way. Liberals relied on this: “If I keep my head down, only those pesky conservatives will get burned.” But the crosshairs have shifted and liberals are scoped in. That’s the only reason they’re speaking up now.
It used to be that conservatives were the “establishment” and progressives were the counter-culture. Now, the people who built their personal and professional identities on “fighting the power,” are the power. They control the media and academic institutions that shape our society.
Now those people’s identities are crumbling as they realize that they have become what they feared. So they’re in denial. I get it. When your lose your sense of self, you mentally disconnect. But a few brave souls have almost figured out that they need to switch teams or at least begin to befriend conservatives. Take J.K. Rowling, slowly getting red-pilled on trans issues. Or Eric Weinstein daring to share airspace with Ted Cruz on his podcast. We’re getting close. Normally I would be gloating. But this is one of those rare times when I am not. The breakthrough we really need isn’t quite there.
The few good guys remaining on the Left think they’re going to reclaim the genteel, reasonable liberalism of their past—the kind of liberalism that favored them and made them darlings of the upper echelons. They haven’t realized that the good old Left is never coming back.
It’s at least five years too late for that. The soul of liberalism, the esteemed institutions of the New York Times and Yale University are lost—forever. Their essence has been drained and replaced with Leftism. As David Burge elegantly puts it, our institutions have been killed, gutted, and will now be worn as a carcass in a demand for respect. This all happened while liberals stood idly by, content to see folks like Rubin and Peterson eaten alive for moving away from the Left.
When the Chips are Down
While ranting about this topic—my primary writing process—I spoke with a friend in the academy. He mentioned that the dividing line isn’t between Left and Right. It’s between the Woke and the non-Woke. That’s correct, and it does—or should—transcend political parties.
But it is also true that it’s almost exclusively conservatives that are alienated and exiled, and liberals who refuse to rein in the radicals. If this continues—as unfortunately it seems likely to do—liberals will end up politically powerless, yelling into the twitter void until that, too, is closed to them.
People with institutional power—tenured professors, columnists, and editors—can do a lot more than write a letter to defend open discourse. I’m eagerly awaiting the liberal defense of Coach Kucera—the varsity basketball coach fired for tweeting such bland statements as “Trump is our President.” What are liberals actually putting on the line? The answer is, not very much. It’s a passive defense for those liberals in illiberal leftist circles, one that avoids too much contact or association with the unmentionables (i.e., Trump voters).
How genuine are your actions if you’re only willing to defend yourself? Will you defend conservatives against injustices from the Left? Will you dare run a legitimately conservative op-ed? Things will only get better when people start daring to put something real on the line and place the blame where it belongs: on the Left.
The grand irony is, when the Harper’s letter got even a little backlash against its timid defense of free speech, two of the signatories denounced their support because people they disagreed with—people who aren’t fringe in the slightest—also signed it. But the whole point was supposed to be about tolerance for opposing viewpoints! That was when it became clear that the letter, like other performative displays of its kind—is little more than a symbolic gesture.
At this point you either speak up, and refuse to renege when doing so produces consequences, or you accept that your eventual banishment is inevitable. Even if you do manage to parrot all the social justice slogans and radical positions today, your progressive beliefs from two years ago likely fall short…. As a consequence, you will still be banished. And if you work in the media ecosystem under a banner that isn’t explicitly conservative, just try to walk into your office tomorrow and make the case that maybe you should run a truly conservative op-ed by a Republican Senator, even if it’s a viewpoint 58% of Americans agree with. Just see what happens.
This of course became clear when New York Times editor Bari Weiss abruptly departed from the NYT with a scathing resignation letter, followed by the hasty removal of Andrew Sullivan from New York Magazine. Weiss was the rare liberal who showed true resilience in the face of a hostile workplace at the NYT. I hope she can continue to pave the way for others. There will only be an end to this madness if the Left develops the courage to rein in their radicals.
At the moment, though, most liberals are in something like a hostage situation. Consider this tweet:
Even if you’re more concerned with the culture-war stuff than anything else — and I would argue this is quite myopic — electing Biden is much more likely to calm things down than electing Trump. Trump is one of the major causes of the present weirdness.
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) July 20, 2020
In other words, the cancel mob is saying: “if we cannot depose the sitting president by way of rioting and intimidation, we’ll only triple down on our efforts.” Do we really think things won’t get worse if Biden wins? He’s clearly a Trojan horse, a placeholder for the radicals who really drive the Democratic Party.
And so the thinking is that once those power-hungry activists seize power…they won’t rain hell upon us? It’s far likelier that this will only embolden them. In their unbridled rage toward the legacy of Trump, they will dismantle virtually everything they believe he stands for. Which, at this point, includes American liberalism. Things will only get worse.
The reasonable center-Left of 50 years ago is dying, and Wokeism killed it. The New York Times no longer caters to facts-first reporting for the betterment of the country. Journalism has become activism, and effective activism at that. If classical liberals continue to placate the noxious toddlers, megaphones in hand—most of them will eventually be fired. Their replacements will undoubtedly be radical ideologues. And at that point, you can kiss the old liberal Left goodbye.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.