From the autumn of 2015 through the end of Donald Trump’s vulgar, violence-invoking, free-speech-threatening ascent to the presidency, a broad swath of America’s chattering classes and upscale college alumni consumed itself in denouncing something different. Instead of taking alarm at Trump's many breathtaking threats to quash freedoms of dissent, the chorus of conventional wisdom panicked about the “creeping totalitarianism” that former Harvard President Lawrence Summers warned was being insinuated into American life by sanctimonious liberal college students and campus elders and by recent graduates in the media and government.
It was a massive, almost desperately determined avoidance of facing what was actually threatening our freedoms.
The year-long public paroxysm over the scourge of racial and sexual political correctness was ignited in September, 2015 by "The Coddling of the American Mind," a widely read essay with a scarifying subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education — and mental health.”
The public psychodrama climaxed 14 months later with Mark Lilla's "The End of Identity Liberalism," which blamed Trump’s “repugnant” victory primarily on a condescending, censorious liberalism that privileges racial and sexual identities which many Trump supporters viewed as marginal, deviant and worse. Liberals had forced “diversity” down Americans’ throats; now, "real" Americans would vomit it back out.
The “Coddling” and “Identity Liberalism” articles became book ends for what Greg Lukianoff, co-author of the former and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — an organization supported by right-wing funders, as I reported here — celebrated as “an epic year” for their brilliantly orchestrated crusade to blame politically correct parenting and pedagogy for asphyxiating free speech and other rights in education and, by extension, in public life. That crusade was reinforced by some breast-beating liberals, and it was hijacked by opportunists such as Trump himself.
To be sure, liberal “identity politics” has sometimes thwarted the open inquiry and expression that liberal education and democracy should defend, and it has sometimes diverted effective responses to the serious threats to freedom that are now upon us; As the author of "Liberal Racism," I've long warned against such political correctness.
But during the campus free-speech crusade's “epic year," Lukianoff and his co-author, the business psychologist Jonathan Haidt, scurried like itinerant preachers from campuses to green rooms and lecture halls across the country, brandishing First Amendment claims and professions of academic heterodoxy while casting college students and deans as the most dire threats to open inquiry and expression.
Many journalists joined the crusaders in prowling campuses with video-cams and open notebooks to construct what Yale President Peter Salovey, in an address to freshmen this September, assailed as “false narratives” about threats to freedom of speech on campuses. Although Salovey didn’t mention anyone by name, he surely had in mind some of the tall tales about brave students and professors being silenced and martyred on altars of free speech by politically correct hordes.
Even as growing public awareness of murders of unarmed black men (by police, vigilantes, other black men (and, in my view, by National Rifle Association lobbyists against reasonable gun-control) spurred the Black Lives Matter movement and introduced justified racial activism into the supposed self-indulgence of campus protests, millions of Americans remained fixated on a video Lukianoff had shot of a 20-year-old black student hurling imprecations at a professor and on others’ characterizations of black college students as “privileged.”
By the time Trump joined in denouncing political correctness — even while abusing his own freedoms of speech to humiliate and silence others and encouraging supporters to do likewise — the crusade against identity politics was all-too obviously diverting effective public responses from the real danger at hand.
Now the unfolding horror show of Trump’s transition to the presidency is revealing political correctness to have been only one symptom, among others far more virulent, of the wide-ranging corruption of American public discourse and politics. Those who are still gloating over liberals’ comeuppance and who think Trump has expanded their freedoms of speech by speaking his mind about smug liberals will soon find themselves gulping instead of speaking their own minds about, say, Trump’s collaborations with cronies on Wall Street or with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, or about his promised crack-downs on freedoms of the press and of speech, and his likely moves to roll back public and private-workplace rights and benefits and to abrogate judicial and congressional checks and balances.
In the cold light of 2017's dawn, the passing year's “free speech” crusade looks a lot like other paroxysms that have gripped American upper-middle classes whenever civil society has been under great stress. At such times, self-appointed keepers of conventional wisdom have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they blame for the crisis.
In the 1690s, it was witches, hysterical women and girls whom Puritans said had been taken by Satan. From the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, whom a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884 said were besotted with “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and unwashed immigrants, including pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was American Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies and traitorous opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 2001, it has been American Muslims and, in 2003, critics of the Iraq War. And, of course, in every decade before and since, it has been feral, riotous blacks.
This sorry progression of scapegoating should have warned otherwise-intelligent people against the "free speech on campus" crusade and other recent stampedes against scapegoats. Yet many of the same pundits and propagandists who've crusaded for “free speech” this year also sneered at Ned Lamont's campaign of 2006 against Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a champion of the Iraq War; they also lambasted the political psychologist Drew Westen for wondering, “What Happened to Obama's Passion?," in his column accusing the president, quite fairly I think, of deferring too much to government shut-down artists during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.
Some of the same critics disparaged Occupy Wall Street protestors who forced a public reckoning with this country’s increasingly illegitimate and unsustainable inequalities. Even as these same critics bewailed political correctness this year, they found time and reasons to assail Bernie Sanders’ campaign against those illegitimate inequalities.
No matter whether such spasms against internal dissent are orchestrated impulsively and demagogically or coolly and strategically, they always egg on many who are fretting that the society they’ve made their peace with is unravelling and who want someone “safe” to blame.
Always, these crusades also draw some support from breast-beating, finger-wagging liberals (Mark Lilla now prominent among them) who hope to stave off the worst by condemning whatever's most noxious on their own side of the spectrum. Twice this year, professors at small, leafy, upscale undergraduate residential colleges told me that political correctness is much worse than I’d reported. No doubt, they were right about their colleges. But they let their local grievances eclipse the larger dangers gathering force beyond their campus gates. And some journalists let their own ambivalences about college skew their assignations of blame.
Now, though, with Trump’s inauguration impending, the conventional-wisdom keepers’ “epic year” may have been their last hurrah. No longer is there much seductive, thrilling relief in assailing “cry-bullies,” teenaged “snowflakes” and “smug liberals.”
No longer can this year’s paroxysm help the crusaders to shrug off their earlier paroxysms during the run-up to the Iraq War, whose opponents they harassed in 2003; or during the 2008 financial meltdown, whose most-powerful perpetrators they excused in a frenzy to blame public-sector accomplices; or the government shutdown efforts of 2011 that they contrived to blame on those like Westen who were pleading with Obama to rouse the public against a do-nothing Congress.
They won't be able to keep on blaming such scapegoats for the casino-like financing, predatory lending and intrusive, degrading consumer marketing that are really causing our crises.
"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1777. “You can't build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture," Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of the conservative icon Whittaker Chambers and, soon, of William F. Buckley, told a less-than-receptive audience the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2007.
True, today’s turbo-capitalism isn’t the only danger. Greed, the lust for power, tyrannical empires and technological upheavals were part of human history long before there was capitalism. One might argue that there has always been a festering hole in every civilization’s soul.
But today's capital is deepening the hole because it's less entrepreneurial than it is ensnaring, trapping us like flies in a spider's web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing and surveillance machines.
Why not direct the next crusade against those creeping threats to our liberties? The dispiriting answer lies in stampedes like the one for campus "free speech" that abetted Trump's triumph instead of advancing Americans' freedoms.