I just had the strange experience of reading this great piece by Michael Hobbes about the Illiberal Left Wokeness panic immediately after doing a 30-minute interview with Hobbes over the obesity panic. What was strange was I read the piece without realizing it was written by the same person I had just been talking to on the phone. (I hadn’t even noticed the author’s name when I started reading it).
Anyway, Michael Hobbes points out in great and amusing detail that stories about the former panic feature several recurring characteristcs:
(1) Mild — and usually fully deserved — or conversely, completely imaginary martyrdoms:
Buruma, the senior editor of a national magazine, was forced to step down after publishing an article that invited widespread public backlash. As a result, his reputation suffered. This is something that happens in journalism constantly. Jonah Lehrer didn’t break any laws, but he was effectively banished from journalism after making up Bob Dylan quotes. Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Jann Wenner stepped down after publishing the infamous University of Virginia rape story. Applebaum is arguing that these consequences are not only unjust — regardless of the underlying facts — but evidence of creeping totalitarianism. . .
By contrast, here is an excerpt from Frank Dikötter’s history of the Cultural Revolution, the event to which these authors are explicitly inviting us to draw parallels:
Party activists joined the local militia in locking their victims into their own homes or makeshift prisons. They were taken out one by one. Some were clubbed to death, others stabbed with chaff cutters or strangled with wire. Several were electrocuted. Children were hung by their feet and whipped. One eight-year-old girl and her grandmother were buried alive. More than 300 people were killed, including entire families and their children, as the killers wanted to make sure that there would be none left to take revenge years later.
On one hand, a few prominent figures faced routine professional consequences for their publicly stated views. On the other, thousands of people, including children, were beaten to death in the streets despite having done nothing wrong.
If you want to argue that one of those things will lead to the other, fine. But you should at least be honest about how slippery the slope needs to be for that to happen.
More often, what happened. to people who were “cancelled” by the woke mob was — not to get too technical about it — nothing:
JK Rowling received widespread criticism after making series of unpopular and bigoted public statements, but has suffered no meaningful consequences. Duncan, a young adult fiction author, received criticism on the concept of an unpublished manuscript and decided not to publish it.
Maybe you think the criticism of Rowling is unfair (it’s not) and find YA dramas exhausting (they are), but this is not censorship in any meaningful sense of the word. If you asked a million Americans to define the term “book banning,” would a single one describe … authors being roasted on social media?
A surprisingly large percentage of “illiberal left” articles pull this same rhetorical trick. In 2019, Laurie Sheck, a New School professor, was investigated by her employer for saying the n-word in class. For weeks, centrist and conservative media outlets sputtered to her defense: The word appeared in a quote from James Baldwin! She was leading a class discussion about racial slurs! Invoking epithets wasn’t even prohibited in any school policies. The case became a totemic example of Wokeness Gone Mad that still pops up in anecdote-parade feature stories two years later.
But that narrative leaves out an important epilogue. The university cleared Scheck and levied no punishment. The pundits were right: She hadn’t violated any school policies.
Scheck’s case, as soon as you tell it in full, turns out to be an example of a university that isn’t captured by leftist ideology. Only a single (white) student had complained about Sheck’s use of the n-word. Like most universities, the New School has a grievance mechanism that allows students to file complaints and obligates administrators to take them seriously. The term “investigation” conjures up comparisons to Orwell and Kafka, but in this case it appears administrators interviewed Sheck and the student, reviewed their policies and moved on. Perhaps you wish the student had never filed a complaint in the first place, but this is the story of a system working as intended, not breaking down.
We saw this play out just a few days ago, when a Yale Law School student turned a couple of days of bumbling stupidity by law school administrators that led to exactly no consequences for him into yet another entry in Fox’s Book of Martyrs — leaving aside the strong possibility that the whole thing was a cynical set up on his part from the get-go.
Also too, there’s the little detail that essentially all of the real (as in having real-world consequences to people who didn’t actually deserve those consequences) censorship and repression of controversial views in contemporary America is coming from the right — something that the authors of these pieces tend to openly acknowledge, without noting that this makes their whole narrative about the illiberal left pretty ridiculous:
These To Be Sures acknowledge the same basic fact: The American right represents a far greater authoritarian threat than the American left. Even if elite colleges and radical activists had the motivation to install a totalitarian regime, there’s no evidence that they have the means or the opportunity. It’s hard to find a single elected Democrat who supports asking Republicans to leave a restaurant, much less censorship, book burning or Nazi-punching.
And yet, the pundits who have published dozens of near-identical “illiberal left” stories over the last five years would like us to believe that this far-fetched, slipperiest-slope-imaginable scenario warrants almost as much attention as the authoritarian creep that is already happening.
Here’s Applebaum again:
In America, of course, we don’t have that kind of state coercion. There are currently no laws that shape what academics or journalists can say; there is no government censor, no ruling-party censor.
This is absurdly, wildly, screamingly untrue.
Do I even need to spell it out? We’re in the middle of a nationwide wave of GOP legislation aimed at banning “critical race theory,” a vaguely defined category that includes everything from teaching the concept of “white privilege” to holding diversity seminars to telling children that slavery was bad. Republican legislatures are micromanaging curricula and getting teachers fired and — pulling my hair out as I type this — actually banning books.
And that’s just the K-12 authoritarianism. In 2017, Donald Trump explicitly threatened to pull federal funds from U.C. Berkeley after students protested a right-wing speaker. In 2020, he signed an executive order banning publicly funded universities from holding diversity trainings that included any mention of “systemic racism,” “intersectionality,” or “racial humility” (???). In 2019, Trump’s education department ordered Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill to “remake” their Middle East studies program to include more positive depictions of Christianity and Judaism.
I could go on. There’s the Republican Senator who body-slammed a reporter, the Republican House Rep who jokes about executing Democrats, the Republican attorney general who prosecuted an activist for laughing during his confirmation hearing. Conservatives have developed an entire ecosystem of websites and grassroots organizations dedicated to targeting left-wing professors for harassment.
Nothing remotely analogous exists on the institutional left. Democrats control the house, senate and governorship in 15 states. Yet they have made no effort to ban conservative books or “cancel” racist professors or outlaw microaggressions. The reason right-wing media constantly highlights obscure documents and non-mandatory corporate trainings is that they cannot find legitimate examples of Democrats using their power to install illiberalism.
Articles about the “illiberal left” feel like dispatches from the Upside Down, a parallel universe where American political life looks nothing like it does in reality. Why are readers of national publications constantly being told that they should worry about the left potentially, sometime in the future, becoming as bad as Republicans are now?
Hobbes points out that we’ve been here many times before, as the media take a couple of random anecdotes that on closer inspection don’t even support the larger narrative driving the moral panic in question, and just keep running with this stuff because it sells.
Read the whole thing.