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From the G-File on The Dispatch
I’ve been wanting to write about the incredible damage the campus left has done to itself in the wake of the October 7 pogrom for weeks. By now, though, a lot of folks have made most of the points I wanted to make. As is often the case, Charlie Cooke had pretty much the exact same reaction I did. From a few weeks ago:
Pick, at random, a fashionable idea about the ideal limits of free expression, and you’ll observe that it has collapsed ignominiously into the dust. The prohibition on “tone policing”? Gone. The injunction to “believe all women”? Evaporated. The insistence that “silence is violence,” that “neutrality is complicity,” or that institutions are thus obliged to speak out about any injustice that they might see? Defunct. Obsolete. Kaput. In the annals of bad human ideas, has an ideology ever been as swiftly hollowed out as was this one?
Let me expand for a moment on this—if only to get it out of my system—before I make a point I haven’t really seen made.
Virtually all of these ideas and causes are based upon the idea that hurting someone’s feelings or not ratifying their grievances is a form of violence or bigotry. But now, according to their heads-we-win-tails-you-lose worldview, speech that they don’t like is literal violence, and literal violence that they do like is speech.
I’ve written scores of columns on Orwellian language policing. I do it in part because I’m both offended by, and opposed to, a great deal of it. One reason I’m offended is that nearly all forms of vandalism disgust me, and a great deal of this stuff is little more than the intellectual equivalent of angry teenagers using spray paint to deface—and put their mark on—the world around them. I’m similarly repulsed by bullying, and so much of the verbal night-sticking used by the DEI industrial complex is little more than an attempt to intimidate people into licking frozen flagpoles in the playground. I’m also opposed to it because most of these language games amount to ideological warfare hiding in the Trojan Horse of civility.
And that compounds the offense because, as I’ve written many times, there is a kernel of justification for what often gets dismissed as “political correctness” or “wokism.” In an evolving and increasingly diverse society, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning some terms because they are legitimately offensive. We no longer call people who are mentally impaired “retarded.” We no longer call black people “negroes.”
We’ve stopped doing such things because standards of decency have changed. But these concessions to decency and good manners cannot justify the far more sweeping efforts by ideological enforcers to bend people and institutions to their will. So many of the linguistic contortions and distortions forced on us by these commissars have nothing to do with decency and good manners, and everything to do with trying to design social reality on their terms, to create shibboleths to protect in-groups, and to fashion verbal tiger traps to snare members of outgroups. That’s how neologisms like “Latinx” work. The term actually offends far more Latinos than it flatters, but forcing people to use it ratifies the stolen moral and cultural authority of those who insist upon it. The word doesn’t represent an effort to be inclusive of Latinos, but an effort to exclude rival elites.
I feel like a sucker, though, because all of these arguments and objections take this project seriously, when the reaction of large swaths of the left to the October 7 pogrom has laid bare the enterprise’s inherent unseriousness.
How can I listen to someone tell me we have to get rid of the term “master bedroom”—because “master” is offensive—when the same person refuses to condemn chants of “gas the Jews”? Before you—correctly!—reply that a great many progressives and woke ideologists have condemned antisemitic chants and mobs, I should add that many of those condemnations are followed by a “But …”
But you have to understand the context. But they have a point. But this. But that.
Even if you concede large amounts of factual or theoretical territory to such minimizations and equivocations—concessions I am unwilling to make—you’re still left with the fact that such champions of nuance are making Jews feel unsafe, or capitulating to people who make Jews feel unsafe. And I don’t just mean they “feel unsafe” because they’re forced to hear horrible things—things far, far, more horrible than using such verboten phrases as “rule of thumb”—I mean they “feel unsafe” because mobs trap them in the Cooper Union library or harass them on Harvard’s campus. A couple years ago, Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy, and Resource Center declared that you can’t say “take a stab at”—as in “take a stab at getting your term paper done on time”—because of the inherent violence of the phrase. Now the same ilk are saying that we need to respect the free speech of people celebrating the literal stabbing of Jews solely because they are Jews. It’s complicated, don’t you understand?
Before the list was withdrawn, Stanford’s Harmful Language Initiative informed us that we must have zero tolerance for terms like “blind study” because such language “unintentionally perpetuates that disability is somehow abnormal or negative, furthering an ableist culture.” But turning a blind eye to the people who dismembered babies and children—or the people who celebrated that dismembering—is okay, or complicated, or painfully necessary, or something-something? That’s the mark of intellectual sophistication? Screw you.
In other words, you can condemn the horrors perpetrated by Hamas all you like. And you should. But if you go on to argue that we need to make social and cultural space for those who don’t, I can’t take you remotely seriously about all of that other stuff. Watch this video from Harvard. If this kind of intimidation happened to a transgender kid, black kid, gay kid, Asian kid, or kid of virtually any other demographic, it would be grounds for immediate expulsion. It would be a national scandal. And rightly so. We’re told that praying outside an abortion clinic is fascistic, but hounding Jews on campus is what? Okay? Regrettable? Complicated?
No. It’s none of those things. It’s evil.
After the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, enormous numbers of social justice warriors celebrated and blamed the Jews for it. Even larger numbers of progressives made allowances for the people celebrating the slaughter, as if reveling in the butchering of families is just an immutable characteristic of their identity that has to be given some degree of respect. We make classrooms handicap-accessible. So too we must make allowances for people who, for identitarian reasons, cheer when paragliders slaughter concertgoers.
The majority of campus commissars may lament the bloodlust and Jew-blaming to one extent or another, but many can’t let go of the condescending logic of multiculturalism and the twisted admiration of youthful zeal. So they tell us we have to greet such moral deformity with understanding, nuance, or even a certain degree of tolerance.
There’s ample room to criticize Israel for myriad things. There’s no doubt that many campus progressives don’t deserve to be tarred with guilt by association with what the Hamas apologists say or do. But the simple fact remains: If a decades-long project of zero-tolerance for bigotry and bullying can produce such large numbers of bigots and bullies, that project is an utter failure. The virtue-signalers cannot have a carve-out for violence against Jews—linguistic or literal—and still claim that virtue is on their side.
Okay, that went longer than planned. But let me finally make the point I haven’t seen elsewhere.
The MAGAfication of the left.
In 2015, I started to set fire to my good standing on the right because I believed—and still believe—that the arguments and tactics gaining hold on the right would do lasting damage to both conservatism and the country. I see something similar happening on the left.
Now, I should pause and say that labels are complicated here, because there are many factions that fall under the rubric of the “New Right,” and they are not all the same. There are nationalists who aren’t post-liberals, and there are post-liberals who aren’t nationalists—or even Trump fans. Many on the New Right despise the Nick Fuentes crowd, while others seek its approval. You can’t lump them all into the same category without being unfair to some of them.
But what broadly—if not uniformly—united this populist popular front of rightists in 2015 and 2016 was a varying degree of tolerance for some truly terrible people and ideas. Under the flag of people like Steve Bannon, the “alt-right” was sanitized as a faction of the broader Republican or Trumpist coalition, while people who didn’t want to be part of a movement that included such people were anathematized as “RINOs” and bedwetters. That’s what popular frontism is: a willingness to accept anyone on “your side” who hates the “other side” more, and an unwillingness to put up with people who have a problem with popular frontism.
I would get lectured during that campaign cycle about making too big a deal out of neo-Nazis, neo-Nazi apologists, Pizzagate and Sandy Hook truthers, and general sleazeballs like Roger Stone. We need to unite against Hillary, they’d say. A lot of good and decent people—a few still friends of mine—adopted the view of, “Yeah, these are terrible people, but the times require an anti-anti-terrible people stance.” At least the terrible people “know what time it is.”
I’ve been wrong about a great many things in the last eight years, but I was right for rejecting all of that garbage. The idiotic speakership drama is just the latest evidence that the GOP is no longer a party united around conservative principles. Sure, it is still home to most conservatives, but the loyalty tests now have little to nothing to do with conservative commitments. Today you can be a diehard constitutionalist and social conservative, but if you don’t like Trump, you’re a “RINO.”
Today’s left is obviously extremely different in a number of ways, but it’s hard not to see a similar dynamic playing out in front of our eyes. The primary reason so many conservatives twisted themselves to the new reality of the Trump era was that it was in their short-term political interests to go with the herd. Trump was popular. So how can you expect a politician—or media personality dependent on the same audience—to say his or her customers are wrong?
This is one of the key dilemmas presented by both democracy and populism. It is very easy to condemn bad ideas when bad ideas aren’t held by very many people. But when bad ideas become popular among the broader public—or among a sizable enough faction of a narrower coalition—the holders of those ideas stop being “wrong” and start becoming “a constituency.” This is an even bigger problem in a country where both parties have little to no interest in winning over voters outside their coalitions. If every election is a base election, then the last thing you can do is piss off anyone in your base.
Election-deniers on the right are wrong, full stop. But there are a lot of them. So even Republicans who know better have to pretend it’s all so very complicated. The full-bore anti-vaxxers are wrong. But you can’t say so without inviting more headaches, so Republican politicians—including Trump himself—play word games to avoid offending the crowd that thinks that anyone who died of a heart attack was killed by Pfizer. I think Trump is manifestly and obviously unfit for office, and whether you disagree with me or not is immaterial to my point. A great many Republican lawmakers agree with me—including many of the Republican politicians running against Trump in the presidential primary—but few can bring themselves to say so publicly.
Now of course, this has always been part of politics. Politicians have always parsed, evaded, trimmed, and hedged on various issues that divide their coalitions. But not all issues are equal; some are corrupting if you compromise on them. Liberals in the 1940s and 1950s realized this when it came to the problem of domestic communism. They eventually recognized that playing footsie with communism wasn’t merely wrong, it was suicidal for Democrats, for liberalism, and, if appeased long enough, possibly for the country. That’s how Americans for Democratic Action was born. Slavery played a similar role, first for the Whigs and ultimately for the nation. A house divided and all that.
I think the conspiracy theorizing, cult-of-personality garbage, and post-liberal nonsense play similar roles for the right. I don’t mean to say they are equal to the threat communism posed or as morally freighted as slavery, but if left unchecked, they pose profound, even existential, threats—to conservatism certainly, and to the country potentially. There are, for instance, a small number of New Rightists who bleat and prattle about civil war, national divorce, or secession. Their numbers, in my opinion, are as low as their patriotism and their IQs. But if such ideas were allowed to grow unchecked, the dangers are obvious. I don’t think those ideas will be allowed to spread unchecked for myriad reasons, not least because Donald Trump won’t live forever. But that’s all a conversation for another time. I think you get the point.
The split we see on the left poses similar problems for liberalism and the Democrats. For starters, the intellectual left has a lot more post-liberals in it than the right does, and the left’s post-liberals have much better perches. A lot of them have tenure. But the more relevant point is that the left cannot endure as a coherent movement with a faultline like the one we see opening up before us.
For the same reason that I, a politically conservative secular Jew, did not want to be in a popular front alongside people who would routinely tell me that they wished Hitler had taken care of the job of putting my grandparents in an ashtray, I don’t think many liberal Jews will want to remain in a popular front with apologists for butchering Jewish babies and raping Jewish women. The point isn’t that most—or even many—people on the left believe any such things. The point is that even having a “big tent” that includes such a minority is both untenable and corrupting. I expect to see Democratic politicians play the same games we’ve grown familiar with from Republicans. Some Hamas apologist like Rep. Rashida Tlaib will tweet something awful, and Democrats will say, “I haven’t seen the tweet” when we know they have.
There’s plenty of room for criticizing Israel from the right or the left. And both parties have long included factions that fall along a relatively broad spectrum of support or opposition to Israel. But a moral and political law of the excluded middle applies when it comes to butchering babies, never mind butchering babies solely because they’re Jews. Either you think it’s entirely and wholly evil and unacceptable or you don’t. You can’t build a coalition, at least not an enduring one, that makes room for both sides.