Good Friday Morning, and congratulations to the Supreme Court and making it to the end of their term. The term ended with a bang for religious liberties. Two great decisions reinforced the Roberts court’s defense of religious liberty in the past decade. The decisions on Trump’s tax returns and Congress don’t matter a ton in the overall scheme of things. The odds of Trump’s taxes become an issue in the 2020 election appears low right now. The Supreme Court remanded both cases to the lower courts, which means the fight will continue.
An open letter of sorts made the liberal commentary class go crazy this week. It’s all about defending free speech. Noam Chomsky signed it. If Chomsky is saying your leftist antics are going too far… it may be time for an intervention. Anyway, I cover why I agree with it, but don’t expect much from it. Links to follow.
- It’s in the links section too, but I wanted to highlight a remarkable op-ed in the NYT. Former Minneapolis, Minnesota Mayor Betsy Hodges wrote a piece titled: “As Mayor of Minneapolis, I Saw How White Liberals Block Change.” Hodges writes: “As the mayor of Minneapolis from 2014 to 2018, as a Minneapolis City Council member from 2006 until 2014 and as a white Democrat, I can say this: White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades. We have mostly settled for illusions of change, like testing pilot programs and funding volunteer opportunities. These efforts make us feel better about racism, but fundamentally change little for the communities of color whose disadvantages often come from the hoarding of advantage by mostly white neighborhoods.”
Where you can find me this week
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The Electoral College provides safety barriers for celebrity candidates like Kanye – The Conservative Institute.
We can only see the past with COVID-19, which is bad for the present – The Conservative Institute.
Defending free speech is an old problem, but new for liberals
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. … But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The Harper’s Letter, July 7, 2020.
“Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even specially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.”
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987).
Conservatives have long argued the progressive left, and I emphasize progressive, are growing more illiberal. And what I mean by illiberal is that they don’t want a truly open society. They despise the free flow of speech, ideas, and religion and crave a new orthodoxy for America.
Case in point, the Harper’s Letter, officially titled, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” and quoted above, set left-wing commentator’s hair ablaze this week. The piece, which lacks any conservative signatories, ostensibly calls for defending a culture of free speech and less – though they don’t say it – “cancel culture.” They request controversial ideas and writers be given free space to roam.
And while I’m sympathetic to the ideas expressed, I was left scratching my head, thinking, “what took them so long?” The time to stand up to this kind of illiberalism wasn’t in the last month. It was decades ago. Books and authors are arguing we’re too late to save some parts of society. And it feels, as an observer of the right, they’ve only started paying attention because the mob has come for them and their friends. Welcome to the club, I guess?
A brief history
FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, was founded decades ago to combat this very problem in higher education. It’s ironic higher education needs this when tenure is supposed to free professors to express unpopular ideas. But FIRE isn’t alone. A slew of right-leaning legal organizations focus on similar goals because liberal groups refused to defend the first amendment.
Allan Bloom’s polemic, quoted above, was written in 1987. Bloom was no conservative; he was a straight-up liberal. But he understood the importance of liberal ideas and defending them. In the quote above, he makes the point that successful tyranny removes any notion of alternative views. The progressive goal is to rid itself of all things in the past, all traditions. In the same book, Bloom said, “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.”
But not even Bloom was the first to notice this trend. Before Bloom’s book, Charles Krauthammer was writing for the New Republic, well before his Washington Post / Fox News days. He wrote an essay called Apocalyse, in 1983, about the similarities between the pre-tribulation evangelicals and the doomsday prophets of environmental groups in the ’80s.
Krauthammer observed that the apocalyptic mindset allowed people to shut down any debate because annihilation was ever-present. We had to move, there was a historical imperative to act, and if you didn’t want to do anything, you were part of the problem. Krauthammer called it “political blackmail.” No one was allowed to question the unending inaccuracies of the doomsday prophets, whether by evangelicals predicting the day Jesus would return or a secularist predicting a population bomb.
But even with that, you don’t have to stop with the ’80s. Conservatives have noted this central feature of illiberal progressivism going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson happily jailed dissenters before, during, and after WWI. If you go through the historical portions of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, he lays out an awful case against Wilson’s monstrous ideas and policies.
The modern conservative movement, emerging from the rubble of WWII, took on this and other challenges. Richard Weaver’s “Ideas have Consequences,” William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale,” and Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind,” all challenged heterodox progressive liberalism’s ideas. Conservatives got blasted for their efforts. Progressive engage, in short, in a battle against language and beliefs. They don’t want a debate; they want to eliminate alternative ideas. And this feature of progressivism is not new.
Orwell’s critique of political language
Perhaps no other author or thinker ever drilled this idea more squarely than George Orwell. Everyone references Orwellian things when talking about censorship or how the modern left tries to change the language. Orwell’s 1984 still sits on bestseller lists. It’s worth hitting a few of the quotes from 1984. The main character’s job in rewriting history is described at one point, “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly often as was necessary.”
In another passage, another character exclaims, “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words.” He continues:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we will make though-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. … Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing though-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
Narrowing the range of thought is the goal of progressivism. Wokism does not promote open-mindedness; it’s the shutting down of human reason. It is, as Allan Bloom described, the closing of the American mind. We’re not supposed to have the capacity to think for ourselves. The woke elite are like the medieval Catholic church telling people what to believe. Every category of the progressive agenda must get accepted, or you’re a heretic. Andrew Sullivan (no conservative) made this same point recently:
Revolutionaries also create new forms of language to dismantle the existing order. Under Mao, “linguistic engineering” was integral to identifying counterrevolutionaries, and so it is today. The use of the term “white supremacy” to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word “women,” J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by “people who menstruate.” The word “oppression” now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word “racist,” which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called “structural racism,” which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.
And there is no escaping this. The woke shift their language all the time, so that words that were one day fine are now utterly reprehensible. You can’t keep up — which is the point. (A good resource for understanding this new constantly changing language of ideology is “Translations From the Wokish.”) The result is an exercise of cultural power through linguistic distortion.
The difference between Orwell’s vision, where a state performed these functions, and our reality is that the government isn’t controlling power. Culture is driving these changes in America. On a purely constitutional basis, speech is the freest its ever been. But if you look around, no one feels that freedom anymore. Everyone is self-censoring; social media functions like a witch hunt, with actors that make Salem seem like the pinnacle of protecting cultural due process.
The best of Orwell’s point on this comes from his Politics and the English Language essay, from 1946. This essay is a bit longer, but it’s good:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’ Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
That’s the war on language. Orwell identified it in WWII in the socialist movement, and it’s continued ever since. The new woke have adopted all the same tools as the socialist and progressive counterparts of the 20th century.
The war on ideas too
It’s not just censorship of thoughts, where people get canceled, or de-platformed, or harassed for saying something. We’re beyond that point. It’s now hard facts and science that must get taken out of the discourse.
The authors of a study on race and police shootings recently retracted their study. The reason? Because too many right-wing people were using it. Specifically, Heather MacDonald uses it in her arguments on police misconduct:
Psychologists Joseph Cesario of Michigan State and David Johnson of the University of Maryland analyzed 917 fatal police shootings of civilians from 2015 to test whether the race of the officer or the civilian predicted fatal police shootings. Neither did. Once “race specific rates of violent crime” are taken into account, the authors found, there are no disparities among those fatally shot by the police.’
MacDonald goes on, “On Monday they retracted their paper. They say they stand behind its conclusion and statistical approach but complain about its “misuse,” specifically mentioning my op-eds.” And so the study is being pulled from public research.
Now, I should say right here; I disagree with MacDonald on the issue of dealing with police misconduct. There are a variety of reasons to bring more accountability to the police, and racism is only one factor. But debating her ideas requires questioning the actual data — and now the woke are rejecting even the presentation or acknowledgment of facts and scientific studies that challenge them.
Claire Lehmann shared a picture from a Washington State STEM conference where one of the PowerPoint slides said, “If you conclude that outcomes differences by demographic subgroup are the result of anything other than a broken system, that is, by definition bigotry (racism, classism, sexism, etc.).” That is, by definition, censorship. These people are public censors trying to act like Orwell’s Big Brother.
I started this piece talking about the Harper’s Letter before veering off into painting the full historical problem. The history reemphasizes my overarching quandary with them: I agree with them, but I cannot fathom why it took this moment to wake them out of their stupor. And watching how that vanilla letter caused such an uproar among progressives proves that point. If the woke stop eating the left (an unlikely scenario), it suggests these so-called liberals would stop calling out the progressives and socialists among them.
Like the movements before it, we have to let this thing burn itself out and eat its own before it finally collapses under its own absurdities. It is far more preferable for these people to eat their own and destroy their movement. The more alienated they become from each other – because no one is ever woke enough – the better for the country.
Maybe the Harper’s Letter is a harbinger of a new-found defense of liberty on the left. If so, I welcome it. But history has shown liberals to be very fickle on these matters. Until then, it’s better to assume they won’t show up for the fight, especially when the consequences are the fate of cancel culture.
Links of the week
As Mayor of Minneapolis, I Saw How White Liberals Block Change. – Former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, New York Times
Yes, And — : On open letters, open debate, and how the arguments against illiberalism could be even stronger – Oliver Traldi, Arc Digital
An increase in people dying at home suggests coronavirus deaths in Houston may be higher than reported: In Houston, one of the nation’s fastest-growing coronavirus hot spots, more residents are dying before they can make it to a hospital. Medical examiner data shows that an increasing number of these deaths are the result of COVID-19. – Charles Ornstein of ProPublica and Mike Hixenbaugh of NBCNews, The Texas Tribune
Why do Muslim states stay silent over China’s abuse of the Uighurs? – Nick Cohen, The Guardian
Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What: Public health experts decried the anti-lockdown protests as dangerous gatherings in a pandemic. Health experts seem less comfortable doing so now that the marches are against racism. – Michael Powell, The New York Times
A takedown of the Blaine Amendments – James Hirsen, SCOTUSBlog
Best-selling children’s author sacked after posting hashtag ‘I stand with JK Rowling’ on Twitter – Nick Craven, The Daily Mail
1776 Honors America’s Diversity in a Way 1619 Does Not: Academic historians, conservatives, and Trotskyist socialists rightly reject The New York Times’ reframing of the past. – Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Opinion: Bring back ‘ramming speed’ – Duffel Blog
Baptists Lose Hundreds Of Pounds Thanks To Canceled Potlucks – The Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!