In the ’60s, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse proposed a new standard for tolerance that specifically excluded perspectives the Left deemed repressive. Giving air to conservative perspectives was “repressive tolerance,” in Marcuse’s coinage. Far from an underground radical viewpoint, this degenerated view of speech is becoming mainstream in academia.
A recent Harvard Crimson op-ed reprises Marcuse’s theme well: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?” And we are already aware of the Inquisition-like tactics used in the climate debate. “When we’ve finally gotten serious about global warming, when the impacts are really hitting us and we’re in a full worldwide scramble to minimize the damage, we should have war crimes trials for these bastards—some sort of climate Nuremberg.”
Last year, I finally read Shelby Steele’s White Guilt. If you are interested in why our progress on racial equality seems to move inversely with Chris Matthews’ racial hucksterism, read it. The premise is that whites in the ’60s and beyond responded to racism and tried to right past wrongs. This was obviously the right thing to do, however clumsily they went about it. But the effort necessarily and implicitly acknowledged a vacuum of moral authority in our political and cultural institutions, institutions that had acquiesced in generations of racism. That authority (which, like matter, cannot be destroyed) was transferred to the victims of historical racism. “This is why,” says Steele, “white guilt is quite literally the same thing as black power.”
Though Steele’s premise focuses on whites and blacks, it applies more broadly to any majority/minority relationship amongst our larger population. As Steele correctly observes, the majority’s ameliorative efforts, while in some respect necessary to atone for our nation’s original sins, are contrary to principle and thus anathema to a republican form of self-government. Guilt causes us to dissociate from principle, since principle, too, lost its moral authority through its association with racism. This is why we find the Left comparing “religious liberty” to racism and thus considering it a euphemism for bigotry.
The Left is unprincipled not because it cannot grasp principle or even because it disagrees with principle, but because principle is stigmatized and, more importantly, because dissociating from principle translates to power for groups that historically suffered through the aid of those principles. In this regard, if groups can be convinced they still suffer, all the better. This is why we still suffer the rhetoric and policy ideas of race hucksters. To appropriate a quote, the pace of urban reform in the United States is determined byAl Sharpton’s economic learning curve.
In a recent post at NRO, David French correctly noted that conservatives often “wrongly presume our ideological opponents have the slightest interest in neutral, generally applicable laws.” He related an experience in which “I once tried to persuade a Muslim leader to join with Christian groups in protecting religious liberty.” The leader responded “‘The college will never touch us. That would be discrimination.’”
And so it would be. The special pleading of minority status does have its short-term advantages. But what happens when your minority status is revoked and the trees of the law lay flat? When you are no longer the underdog and it becomes “repressive tolerance” to permit your speech? Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
Conservatism, not modern liberalism, stands for the classical liberal principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to property, the right to self-government, the rule of law, etc. As Steele put it, “the special character of contemporary conservatism comes from the fact that it is a reaction to the cultural decline caused by the culture of dissociation. This conservatism tends to think of itself as a historical corrective. Its great mission is to reassert principle as reform.”
It also appears that these classical liberal principles are currently spending some time “in the wilderness.” Those currently in power are not traditional exponents of those principles. More specifically, the historic ascendance of gay rights and same-sex marriage arguably was achieved by an end-run around those principles, e.g., through the courts, smear campaigns, and giving “error no rights,” as we saw recently at Stanford and in the numerous other examples dutifully catalogued by FIRE. “Does the deck seem stacked? You bet.”
So, to my question: If classical liberal principles are out-of-power, they arguably are freed from the stigma and guilt that have kept them from having purchase on non-white Americans. Doesn’t this provide a historic opportunity to forge them anew? We have been running the classical liberal project using quotes from the Founders as fuel for decades now. I love me some Founders, but the Left was playing this one three moves ahead when it infiltrated the schools. Besides, the Founders start to look uncool, being over a hundred years old, as Ezra Klein reminded us. More importantly, their moral authority is dubious for large segments of the population due to historical racism, and due to the efforts of Leftist race hucksters who trade our democracy’s moral authority for political and social power.
But that’s sour grapes. Classical liberalism now has a unique opportunity. Pro-life, pro-marriage Christians, for example, are not dough-faced, Snidely Whiplash-like racist oppressors. They are, or are fast becoming, out-of-power underdogs. And since the Left operates in the absence of principle, being out-of-power underdogs is their only stock in trade. It cannot be “repressive” to tolerate the rights of another minority group, which is why the Left champions Muslims despite the fact that the Left must find many aspects of their religion objectionable.
There is an opportunity, in other words, to fight the battle of ideas on a level playing field. Which, for obvious reasons, would scare the hell out of the Left.