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The Paranoid Style and the New York Times


I want to highlight a comment Murc makes about this truly unhinged passage from Hillel Halkin’s review of Bari Weiss’s new book:

Yet the intellectual terror [ETA: JFC]that has much of the American left in its grip today, not only in regard to Israel and Zionism but relating to a wide variety of issues on which one can be pilloried for being a millimeter out of step, strongly suggests that Stalinism, though it lost its political battle with liberalism, is winning the cultural one. The United States is no longer a society in which, in “progressive” circles, freedom of expression (and perhaps even of thought) can be said to exist.


Okay. Look. It is entirely legitimate to accuse intellectual or political movements of being cramped, narrow, ossified things devoid of substantial intellectual chain and hobbled by a slavish devotion to orthodoxy in which reflexive, brutal tribalism has replaced actual exchanges of ideas. Those accusations may or may not be right, but that’s a legitimate thing to say, it’s an argument you can make and be wrong about while not simultaneously being risible.

But what you can’t do is equate the above with, you know, actual-factual Stalinism unless the people you’re talking about want to deploy the power of the state in order to silence and brutalize dissenters.

Such people exist on the left; very occasionally they appear in these here comments. We used to have a guy who would pop into speech threads saying shit like “yes, actually, the government should engage in prior restraint and have fairly rigid speech codes, and if you don’t agree with that you empower oppressors” while being immune to the irony of this position.

But they’re a tiny, marginalized component of the left and are largely treated with the ridicule they richly deserve. We police our own, which is more than can be said for many political and cultural movements.

This is a classic con job, a rhetorical two-step that seeks to use abstract procedural and moral objections to avoid defending specific arguments and positions on the merits. If you want to accuse progressives of intellectual narrow-mindedness, of excluding ideas and people and unleashing twitter mobs on them for spurious reasons, you have to actually build that case with specific examples of it happening. You have to have the argument on the merits.

Or you can put together an argument that the mere exclusion and ostracization of people from that sphere is a priori bad no matter what. That the content being policed and excluded here doesn’t matter at all. (A common way of doing this is to invoke the First Amendment, which of course as we all know binds STATE conduct but not that of private individuals.) This argument is much easier to make because it’s entirely abstract and doesn’t require you to get into the weeds. It’s also lazy and borderline unethical; at best, it reveals you as an uncritical, unserious thinker.

Compare and contrast: suppose Halkin were to claim that criticisms of writers like Weiss by “progressives” (note the pointless scare quotes) represented a “cultural Holocaust,” very much like the real Holocaust, except its chief weapons were sarcastic social media comments rather than gas chambers and mobile killing squads.

The outrageous absurdity of such an argument would be immediately evident, especially, of course, because Weiss herself is Jewish. But somehow equally outrageous and absurd rhetoric — comparing, on the one hand, informal social pressures to subscribe to certain beliefs considered important by members of a group to, on the other, the horrors and barbarities of the Stalin regime — is routine in elite American media discourse, and especially on the pages of Even the Liberal New York Times.

But Halkin goes even further: not only are progressives subjected to a — wholly metaphorical and indeed wholly imaginary — totalitarian regime in regard to freedom of expression, even “freedom of thought” is prohibited (on Twitter?).

Halkin thus dragoons Orwell’s famous satire of totalitarianism in general and Stalinism in particular, which gave the world the concept of “thoughtcrime,” into the service of his deranged description of intellectual life on the American left in 2019. I am using the word “deranged” quite literally: such claims are every bit as delusional as sincere birtherism, or the votaries of the Comet Pizza conspiracy.

But unlike those effusions of right wing paranoia, equally nutty claims regarding the totalitarian regime of political correctness in progressive circles are treated regularly, on the pages of the nation’s most prestigious editorial page, as banal observations about an unfortunate truth, as opposed to the barking lunacy they actually represent.

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