The roots of the left elite’s attack on freedom
“The CRT debate is just the latest storm in a storm that has been brewing and building for five years or so,” wrote Andrew Sullivan earlier this month in “What happened to you: the radicalization of the American elite against liberalism. “Sullivan is right that the left has turned drastically against freedom in recent years. And it vivisects the illiberal ideology about race and justice espoused by many schools, private corporations, and government agencies. Yet, by dating the origins of the largest storm, Sullivan is off track, depending on how you count it, by about 50 years, 100 years, or maybe 250 years.
Many Americans associate the recent round of culture wars with the 2015 Yale University Halloween costume mess. That fall, a university official sparked outrage among students by suggesting that they should throw their own Halloween parties. Erika Christakis – then a professor at the Yale Center for Child Studies and an associate professor at Silliman College – advised students who were able, without the help of university authorities, to use their own good judgment when choosing a Halloween costume and to let their peers know if they crossed the line of good taste or did not respect the feelings of others.
Some students vehemently disagreed. A group of voices demanded that the university supervise their parties and punish those whose festive attire offended the sensibilities of other students.
Yale faculty said little. But the president of the university, Peter Salovey concluded that the controversy somehow confirmed, despite many years of effort and spending considerable sums of money to increase minority representation on campus, the persistence of deep-seated racism at the university. Announced the allocation of an additional tens of millions of dollars to support racial sensitivity training for administration, faculty and staff, and the hiring of a decidedly more diverse staff, namely racially diverse – faculty.
The authoritarian students – the same should be said of the authoritarians in faculty and administration – of this generation are the spiritual descendants of the rebellious students of the 1960s. The insistence of students in universities to curb the freedom of the campuses Today it may seem the opposite to students half a century earlier who rebelled against university-imposed restrictions on free speech, particularly student dress. But the former carry out the work of the latter. In the 1960s, students fought for free speech, but as a means of giving voice to their cutting-edge progressive sensibilities, which included disregard for the logic and achievements of existing institutions and for the wisdom contained in books. and old ideas. Today’s students, sustained by a university culture in which that progressive sensitivity prevails, wish to impose it on everyone, in part by repressing freedom of expression.
Yet it was not college students, today or the 1960s, who first introduced the idea that progressive moral and political ideas were objectively true, irreproachable, and should be affirmed by all. We owe that presumption to the founders of the progressive era.
For example, in a 1912 essay, “The New Meaning of Government,” then-New Jersey Governor and future President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson elaborated some implications of the progressive convictions that he had been articulating for decades. both as a political scientist and president of Princeton University. The government, he argued, should be “an instrument of civilization and humanity” led by a new professional class of highly trained and scientifically skilled technocrats. By virtue of their education and impartiality, they would go beyond the mere “consent of the governed” on which the founders of the nation based the legitimate exercise of political power. They would discern “genuine public opinion,” that is, not the preferences that people express through voting and the decisions they make in all other areas of their lives, but the policies that experts determine will promote the best self and the best. best interests of the people. Through efficient, rational central administration, the experts would implement public policies that were limitless by any consideration, including the preferences expressed by citizens, apart from the experts’ authorized reconstruction of the “purpose of the people of the country.”
On what basis did progressives assume that power should be transferred to the experts because people cannot be trusted to identify their own interests, much less the public policies that would promote them? “The Social Contract,” a 1762 treatise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gave classical expression to the idea that the will of the people was something other than what the people said they wanted or what they voted for. His starting point in search of “some safe and legitimate management rule” was the proposition that “[m]one is born free and everywhere is in chains. “Rousseau had in mind the chains of custom and tradition that, according to him, corrupt minds and hearts. A properly organized government, he argued, must ensure that every citizen” is forced to be free “from inherited beliefs, practices and associations. Such coercion, Rousseau emphasized, should only be assumed by those capable of accurately discerning the” General Will “, which reflects the true interests of the people and is” constant, unalterable and pure “.
In Rousseau’s thinking, his intellectual and political henchmen over the centuries have believed that imposing on people what they should want reflects the highest expression of freedom and the purest form of democracy. Yet these covert, and often not so covert, authoritarians tend to overlook Rousseau’s stern insistence that identifying and executing the General Will requires extraordinarily rare intelligence and character.
In “If you hate culture wars, blame the liberals”- a short and insightful essay referred to by Andrew Sullivan in his analysis of the increasingly intense illiberalism of the left – progressive Kevin Drum provides evidence that his colleagues on the left would do well to take Rousseau’s stern insistence seriously . “It is not conservatives who have turned American politics into a culture war battle.“Writes Drum. “They are liberal. And this should come as no surprise: almost by definition, liberals are the ones pushing for change, while conservatives simply respond to whatever liberals do. ” [emphasis in the original]. Left liberals, however, are a peculiar type of aggressor. While, as Drum observes, “Democrats have increasingly drifted away from the median voter for years” on issues such as crime, immigration, and race, they have also been demanding increasing public submission to trials. moral and political prescriptions. In other words, the left has adopted the quasi-Rousseauian view that the public is not only wrong but must emancipate itself from its mistakes, in the contemporary case through the regulation of discourse and the redistribution of privileges and based punishments. on race, sex, and gender well understood.
Drum suggests that many on the left are wrong to view conservatives as the “culture war mongers” due to a distortion explained by behavioral economics. Since the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of obtaining a good of similar value, conservatives have reacted more intensely to “‘losing’ the customs and hierarchies with which they have lived for a long time” than progressives to their victories. , for instance. , in the recognition of the Supreme Court of the constitutional right to marriage between persons of the same sex; in spreading the idea of gender fluidity; and in the imposition of narrative control in the main media, on giant social media platforms and within universities. “This,” according to Drum, “produces more outrageous behavior on the part of conservatives even though liberals are actually the main source of polarization.”
Drum’s main concern is electoral. He believes the Democratic Party’s shift to the left, especially “the whole awakening movement in general,” is in danger of alienating enough “moderate black and Hispanic voters” to give Republicans an advantage. He is right that moderating his positions while exercising “empathy and tact” would go a long way in allowing the left to spread “to the vast center of the country.” But he fails to realize that elite institutions have assiduously cultivated casual contempt for those who stray from the progressive party line since at least the late 1960s. And that the storm by which he wants to help the left to maneuvering to safety is part of a storm that has swirled for 250 years.
To contain culture wars, it is necessary to counter the intolerant doctrine of the left that the government’s job is to force people to be free. Schools can do their part by teaching students the alternative established four years after the publication of “The Social Contract” in the Declaration of Independence. By helping students understand how a government assigned the limited task of ensuring shared rights alike enables a diverse people to flourish, schools not only pass on crucial data about American history, but also foster tolerance of which free societies depend.
Peter Berkowitz is Principal Investigator for Tad and Dianne Taube at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 2019 and 2020, he served as Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State.His writings are posted on PeterBerkowitz.com and can be followed on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.