Around 2 a.m. on December 12, four students approached the apartment of Omar Mahmood, a Muslim student at the University of Michigan, who had recently published a column in a school newspaper about his perspective as a minority on campus. The students, who were recorded on a building surveillance camera wearing baggy hooded sweatshirts to hide their identity, littered Mahmood’s doorway with copies of his column, scrawled with messages like “You scum embarrass us,” “Shut the fuck up,” and “DO YOU EVEN GO HERE?! LEAVE!!” They posted a picture of a demon and splattered eggs.Chait paints a dire picture of the destructiveness of the repressive Left.
This might appear to be the sort of episode that would stoke the moral conscience of students on a progressive campus like Ann Arbor, and it was quickly agreed that an act of biased intimidation had taken place. But Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim. His column, published in the school’s conservative newspaper, had spoofed the culture of taking offense that pervades the campus. Mahmood satirically pretended to denounce “a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man” who offered to help him up when he slipped, leading him to denounce “our barbaric attitude toward people of left-handydnyss.” The gentle tone of his mockery was closer to Charlie Brown than to Charlie Hebdo.
The Michigan Daily, where Mahmood also worked as a columnist and film critic, objected to the placement of his column in the conservative paper but hardly wanted his satirical column in its own pages. Mahmood later said that he was told by the editor that his column had created a “hostile environment,” in which at least one Daily staffer felt threatened, and that he must write a letter of apology to the staff. When he refused, the Daily fired him, and the subsequent vandalism of his apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.
The episode would not have shocked anybody familiar with the campus scene from two decades earlier. In 1992, an episode along somewhat analogous lines took place, also in Ann Arbor. In this case, the offending party was the feminist videographer Carol Jacobsen, who had produced an exhibition documenting the lives of sex workers. The exhibition’s subjects presented their profession as a form of self-empowerment, a position that ran headlong against the theories of Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor at the university who had gained national renown for her radical feminist critique of the First Amendment as a tool of male privilege. MacKinnon’s beliefs nestled closely with an academic movement that was then being described, by its advocates as well as its critics, as “political correctness.” Michigan had already responded to the demands of pro-p.c. activists by imposing a campuswide speech code purporting to restrict all manner of discriminatory speech, only for it to be struck down as a First Amendment violation in federal court.
In Ann Arbor, MacKinnon had attracted a loyal following of students, many of whom copied her method of argument. The pro-MacKinnon students, upset over the display of pornographic video clips, descended upon Jacobsen’s exhibit and confiscated a videotape. There were speakers visiting campus for a conference on prostitution, and the video posed “a threat to their safety,” the students insisted.
This was the same inversion of victim and victimizer at work last December. In both cases, the threat was deemed not the angry mobs out to crush opposing ideas, but the ideas themselves. The theory animating both attacks turns out to be a durable one, with deep roots in the political left.
The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”Chait ends his article, not by condemning repressive leftism for its evil but for its ineffectiveness.
That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.Good story telling but the wordiness obscures the central point. The campus Left is happy to resort to violence and intimidation to suppress anyone with whom they disagree.
And the final paragraph is an oddity. I think the wording choices reveal the transmogrification of our language when it comes to political terminology. For example - what do you call someone who subscribes to the tenets of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and David Hume. Traditionally they are viewed as members of the Age of Enlightenment and are described as Liberals or, latterly, Classical Liberals. They shared a belief in rationalism, in individual human rights, in the fallibility of man, protection of minority rights and the importance of governance based on the consent of the governed. Nowadays we call people who subscribe to such philosophical strains Conservative, Republican or Libertarian. Well, some call them a bunch of other things as well but that's by-the-by. The thing is, not so long ago, we called them Democrats.
And what would we call someone who subscribes to the tenets of Marx, Hegel, Weber, Habermas, Foucault, and others of the Frankfurt School, etc.? Nowadays we call people who subscribe to such philosophical strains leftists, communists, totalitarians and Democrats.
Our terms and signifiers have changed and I think Chait is one among many who struggles with that. I am confident he would describe himself in Age of Enlightenment terms but would be appalled to see himself in the company of conservatives and libertarians. But the evolution of the left from respectable Age of Enlightenment human rights subscribers to identity politics, repression and authoritarianism means that there are innumerable such orphans out there.
And it messes with the mind. Look at Chait's examples of the historical record of American liberalism. It is not actually a record that is part of the modern repressive left. Blacks - Emancipation Proclamation advanced by the Republican President Abraham Lincoln. First Wave Feminism was very much a movement of classical liberalism which we now call conservative.
As if to prove the point of Chait's essay, after the publication of his article, the left responded in full vitriol mode. Chait chronicled this in his follow-up essay, Secret Confessions of the Anti-anti-PC Movement. I could not agree with his concluding paragraph more.
Naturally, people will disagree about the legitimate definition of which ideas are bigoted and which are not. I do not claim omniscience in settling these disputes — Michelle Goldberg and Freddie deBoer land on conclusions similar but not quite identical to my own. I submit that the answers need to be arrived at through reason, a channel to which everybody has access regardless of identity. That settling these questions through reason rather than through appeals to identity has become controversial is, of course, my point.Apparently the battle continues. From Anti-Trump Riots and the War Over Liberalism by Jonathan Chait.
Meanwhile, also on the left, another seemingly diametrical response to Trump has taken shape. Various radical groups have staged confrontations intended to shut down Trump’s speeches or to provoke street fights with his supporters. Thursday night in San Jose, demonstrators attacked Trump supporters merely for attending his speech. Several left-wing writers have justified these tactics.Chait transitions to the argument of the modern, repressive Left.
It is a fascinatingly bifurcated response. Vote for Trump! Or maybe suppress his campaign through violence! Anything other than, you know, just trying to elect Hillary Clinton. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is actually consistent. And not just because the most likely result of violently confronting Trump is to enable his election. It is the expression of a backlash on the left against liberalism — with all its maddening compromises and deference to the rights of the enemy — which fetishizes success as the by-product of cataclysmic struggle.
The defenses of violence revolve around the same point. If Trump poses an extraordinary threat to the sanctity of American democracy, doesn’t this justify an extraordinary response?
To be sure, the advocates of violence against Trump would disagree with this conclusion. And that disagreement lies at the heart of a deeper ideological fissure that has opened up on the left over the last couple of years. Liberalism sees political rights as a positive good — rights for one are rights for all. “Democracy” means political rights for every citizen. The far left defines democracy as the triumph of the subordinate class over the privileged class. Political rights only matter insofar as they are exercised by the oppressed. The oppressor has no rights.There's an odd phrasing in there. "Liberalism sees political rights as a positive good." I am not sure what Chait is getting at. In constitutional law, the distinction is between positive rights and negative rights. Our constitution is structured primarily around negative rights. Rights that the government is not allowed to transgress: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Negative rights ensure that something you have (your natural rights) are not infringed upon. Positive rights place a burden of responsibility on some party, usually the government. The right to free health care is a positive right. The government is not being constrained from infringing on your natural rights that you inherently have (negative rights) but is being made responsible for providing you something you do not already have (positive rights).
“Free speech, while an indispensable principle of democracy, is not an abstract value,” as one fairly representative left-wing polemicist explained. “It is carried out in the context of power disparities, and has real effects on peoples’ lives. We can defend freedom of speech — particularly from state crackdowns — while also resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.” A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this “right” as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.
Regardless of the tangle of terminology, I think Chait has it right in the last couple of sentences.
A liberal sees Trump’s ability to deliver a speech before supporters as a fundamental political right worth defending. A radical sees this “right” as coming at the expense of subordinate classes, and thus not worth protecting.This is worth dwelling on. We too easily obscure the principles when we blindly apply tribal labels that no longer carry meaning. My interpretation and extrapolation from Chait's comment is that the division is no longer between the tired old monickers of liberal and conservative or Democrat and Republican. Those terms have ceased to have real meaning.
The division now is between believers in individual natural rights and authoritarians who believe individual natural rights are subordinate to some greater cause.
In this reading, virtually all Libertarians, nearly all Republicans and a plurality if not a majority of traditional Democrats fall into the individual natural rights camp. They might have policy differences and differences in priorities but they have a common language and a common respect for one another.
In the other camp are those who self-identify as radical left, Marxists, etc. who are most easily identifiable by their causes and organizations. Most anyone associated with Acorn, Black Lives Matter, MoveOn.org, Occupy Wall Street, Liberation Theologists, Social Justice Warriors, Anti-globalization advocates, etc. All these movements deny freedom, liberty, and individual natural rights to people. The individual is only as important as their ability to advance the collective cause, they have no inherent human rights as individuals.
Chait concludes his most recent essay with:
I started writing about this resurgent phenomenon at the beginning of last year. The pushback on the left has evolved from an outright denial that any such trend exists to an acknowledgement that it may exist, but it’s just the antics of some goofy college kids. But the campus was merely the staging ground for most displays of left-wing ideological repression because it is one of the few places the illiberal left has the power to block speakers and writers deemed oppressive.His essay leads me to view things a bit differently. The labels are all wrong, deceptive, meaningless and hostage to historical tribalism. Let's strip away the noise.
The now-routine appearance of this illiberal ideology on the presidential-campaign stage (previous displays having occurred in places like Chicago and Arizona) ought to sharpen the irreparable contradiction between two styles of politics. Does the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement lie in building a revolution, or in the continued work of (small-d) democratic liberalism?
The signal seems to me to be that we have two opposing philosophies, INR and BAMN. Individual Natural Rights (INR) philosophy has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment philosophers. There are all sorts of versions and tributaries in that great river but the First Amendment is a nice lode star to their values - freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom to petition. Of course, there are more natural rights than that, but that is a good cornerstone.
In contrast, those of the By Any Mean Necessary (BAMN) philosophy brook no opposition to their passionately held positions. They are right because they believe themselves to be right and any action is justifiable to achieve their end, including the suppression of individual natural rights.
Most Americans, conservative, liberal and moderate, are INRers. Granted, there are plenty of INRers who aspire but fall short of their ideals, both in behaviors and in terms of their actions. But they recognize those failures when confronted by them and usually attempt to rectify their failure.
But there are indisputably BAMNers embedded among Libertarians, Democrats and Republicans. BAMNers represent an existential threat to our open free society and we cannot address those threats until we focus on the goals and actions of BAMNers instead of their nominal labels.
If we are to continue to be a nation of free people endowed with individual natural rights, we will need to figure out how to confront BAMNers. The easiest approach is simply to hold them accountable to the law. Right now, as exemplified by the attacks in San Jose on Americans exercising their right to speech and assembly, we are letting parochial labels (I am a Democrat mayor and therefore I won't interfere because the victims are Republicans) cloud the existential threat of one philosophy (repressive authoritarianism) to another (free individual natural rights).