Repressive Tolerance

 

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.

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There are 28 comments.

  1. Tim H. Member

    This is a clever idea, and your article is really well written. I can’t think of a good response just yet, but I wanted to say how much I liked what you wrote, while I ponder it some more.

    • #1
    • March 23, 2014, at 5:51 AM PDT
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  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tim Kowal:
    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…

    Hang on. Noticing that the Left doesn’t share our principles of

     …”neutral, generally applicable laws.” …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.

    is not the same as saying the Left has no principles. After all, classically-liberal principles aren’t the only kind of principles it’s possible to have.

    Cosmic justice, as Sowell puts it, is a fool’s errand, but man is (fortunately or unfortunately) free to adopt foolish principles. John Rawls’s “difference principle” and his version of the “liberty principle” are… probably principles, even if they’re not thoroughly workable ones. Likewise the principles of deciding from an “original position” behind “a veil of ignorance” are.. principles, based on unrealistic thought-experiments though they be. As is the principle of “preferential treatment for the poor”.

    That a just society should “favor the ‘disempowered'” is a principle, even though it suffers from knowledge problems such as “How do we know who is disempowered?”, “Who decides who the disempowered are?”, and perhaps most importantly, “How do we know our ‘favoring’ them is really doing them a favor?”

    • #2
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:24 AM PDT
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  3. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    MFR, “classically-liberal principles aren’t the only kind of principles it’s possible to have.” Fair enough. But here we’d have to put our interlocutors on the couch since we don’t know what their principles really are, as they won’t say. Here’s Michael Tomasky’s articulation of… well, you decide whether this purports to describe a principle:

    Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”

    • #3
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:43 AM PDT
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  4. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Since posting late last night, I’ve been trying to think of a concrete example to assert “principle as reform.” It was staring me in the face: http://www.torontosun.com/2012/11/16/gay-activists-have-met-their-match-with-muslim-barbers?token=7fb943f2141b7e3d15b9487eafa82358

    The article is tongue-in-cheek, but the story, I assume, I real. How does a Leftist purport to resolve a conflict between a Muslim barber and a lesbian customer? Classical liberals must be ready to assert and defend principle as a solution (and keep their snickering at shaudenfreude to a minimum) in instances where Leftism’s reductio obtains.

    • #4
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:47 AM PDT
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  5. Randy Webster Member

    As Steele correctly observes, the majority’s ameliorative efforts, while in some respect necessary to atone for our nation’s original sins.

    I didn’t sin.

    • #5
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:49 AM PDT
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  6. Randy Webster Member

    And if you think the United States is a good thing, then you ought to at least give a pass to slavery, cause there wouldn’t be a United States without recognition of it.

    • #6
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:58 AM PDT
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  7. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Randy, nor quirks Steele suggest otherwise. His point is that our institutions, being impersonal and timeless, have. The question is not of blame but of how to restore moral authority of the principle on which those institutions are based.

    • #7
    • March 23, 2014, at 8:04 AM PDT
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  8. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Nor “would” Steele. Phone autocracy// autocorrect. There it goes again.

    • #8
    • March 23, 2014, at 8:10 AM PDT
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  9. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Randy — Can’t afford to be glib on the matter, but I take your basic point. If we can’t get through this gloomy era of identity politics and return to the principles on which this country was founded, we will be in a very bad spot. The success of the American project is still, after all this time, cannot be taken for granted. Slavery and racism were grievous sins whose effects still pose existential threats.

    • #9
    • March 23, 2014, at 8:32 AM PDT
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  10. Richard Fulmer Member

    Randy Webster: As Steele correctly observes, the majority’s ameliorative efforts, while in some respect necessary to atone for our nation’s original sins. I didn’t sin. The clock is running out on the white guilt game. I’m 57 years old and was only 12 when Martin Luther King was shot. How much guilt do I bear for his murder and black oppression? The only state-sanctioned discrimination my children have ever known is reverse discrimination. How much guilt do they bear? It won’t be long before there are no white people left who remember the South’s Jim Crow laws.

    • #10
    • March 23, 2014, at 9:28 AM PDT
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  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tim Kowal:
    MFR, “classically-liberal principles aren’t the only kind of principles it’s possible to have.” Fair enough. But here we’d have to put our interlocutors on the couch since we don’t know what their principles really are, as they won’t say. Here’s Michael Tomasky’s articulation of… well, you decide whether this purports to describe a principle:

    Tim, the purpose of the piece you linked to isn’t to explicate liberalism’s founding principles, it is to snark on a conservative book once those principles (such as they are) are already assumed.

    Here is the full quote, with your ellipsis removed:

    Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. Liberal theorists from John Locke to Cass Sunstein, with hundreds in between, have addressed this point. It is absolutely central to liberal theory and liberal practice. We do believe in such a thing as the common good, yes we do. We want more of it, and we want a democratic leader who will summon us to believe in it, who will locate for us the intersection of self-interest and common interest at which citizens can be persuaded to participate, together, collectively, in a project larger than their own success. But where that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals – I mean liberals who know something about liberalism – get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.

    Rather than explain the foundations of liberalism himself, he references theorists, such as Cass Sunstein, who he believes have already laid out these foundations. Much as we might reference Sowell or Milton Friedman during an argument, rather than re-inventing the wheel. It is convenient shorthand for those already in the know, not proof that foundational principles are lacking.

    • #11
    • March 23, 2014, at 10:41 AM PDT
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  12. MJBubba Inactive

    Yes, the lefty progressives do have moral values. No; we don’t need to wonder what they are.

    Read Jonathan Heidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Or, search for his TED talk, or check out his web site. You could start with the WSJ review of the book:

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303830204577446512522582648?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702303830204577446512522582648.html

    “Mr. Haidt, until recently a professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, says the surveys conducted by his research team show that liberals are strong on “evolved values” he defines as caring and fairness. Conservatives value caring and fairness too, but tend to emphasize the more “tribal values” like loyalty, authority and sanctity.”

    I added the quotes on “evolved values” and “tribal values.” Since Heidt is a lefty himself, he naturally goes with the idea that the left are evolving into a better kind of person than the conservatives, who are clinging to relatively primitive ways of looking at the world. Still, his work is tremendously informative and is definitely worth your time.

    • #12
    • March 23, 2014, at 11:40 AM PDT
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  13. Z in MT Inactive

    MJBubba:
    Yes, the lefty progressives do have moral values. No; we don’t need to wonder what they are.
    Read Jonathan Heidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Or, search for his TED talk, or check out his web site. You could start with the WSJ review of the book:
    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303830204577446512522582648?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424052702303830204577446512522582648.html

    “Mr. Haidt, until recently a professor of moral psychology at the University of Virginia, says the surveys conducted by his research team show that liberals are strong on “evolved values” he defines as caring and fairness. Conservatives value caring and fairness too, but tend to emphasize the more “tribal values” like loyalty, authority and sanctity.”

    I added the quotes on “evolved values” and “tribal values.” Since Heidt is a lefty himself, he naturally goes with the idea that the left are evolving into a better kind of person than the conservatives, who are clinging to relatively primitive ways of looking at the world. Still, his work is tremendously informative and is definitely worth your time.

     MJ,

    Thanks for the link the WSJ article. Sounds like an interesting book, but it sounds like Haidt should read some of Tomas Sowell’s economics books in addition to “A Conflict of Visions”.

    • #13
    • March 23, 2014, at 12:39 PM PDT
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  14. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    We’re flogging a footnote. I have enjoyed the bits of Haidt picked up here and there, and Righteous Mind is on my list. The taste you’ve provided sounds like we’re conflating values/psychology with principles. Amorphous values like “caring” and “fairness” either are incapable of doing work or would have no idea when to stop. Specific polices mentioned in the WSJ piece, like taxes, gay marriage, public unions, while informed by principles, aren’t themselves principles.

    I’ve spent years writing on a lefty blog probing for principles that guide their thinking. Very little headway. Will search in Haidt, but his work appears to be one in psychology, biases, blindspots, etc., not political philosophy. (Which is not to impugn — they are areas of great interest to me.) I have a psychological urge for “fairness” qualitatively identical to any lefty, I’m quite sure. But when to suspend principles of the rule of law, etc. when they fail to yield the preferred result? I submit the liberal has no principle to inform that decision, other than a psychological diagnosis that he places a greater quantitative value on “fairness.”

    But like I said, this is a footnote.

    • #14
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:20 PM PDT
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  15. MJBubba Inactive

    Tim K., I don’t see much difference between “principles” and “values” so perhaps you could explain that.

    I agree that liberals are squishy regarding their own values, but they do have values, and Haidt did a great job of explaining them.

    • #15
    • March 23, 2014, at 7:55 PM PDT
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  16. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Values are discrete moral facts. Principles are general rules of action.

    (This is why I have made an effort to lay out what I call “presuppositional” principles to our Constitution, i.e., principles that must be true for the Constitution to be intelligible, and why it is dangerous for courts to purport to alter, supplant, or ignore those principles. But that’s a topic for another time.)

    Values might include (from the liberal perspective), progressive taxation, robust economic regulation, criminal justice reform, open borders, etc. They are described by their proponents as substantive or intrinsic goods.

    Principles of American government include: self-government, representative democracy, the rule of law, due process, separation of powers, enumerated powers and limited government, checks and balances, federalism, accountability and non-delegation, bicameralism and presentment, the judicial protection of individual rights, equal protection of the law, and institutional ethics such as preventing conflicts of interest. They are described as procedural or mechanical goods (though this does not mean they do not have intrinsic value as well).

    • #16
    • March 24, 2014, at 8:29 AM PDT
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  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tim Kowal:
    Values are discrete moral facts. Principles are general rules of action.

    I would say John Rawl’s rule of trying to decide everything from “original position” behind “a veil of ignorance” is a general rule of action. It is impossible, of course, as it assumes a kind of omniscient ignorance in which we can suppress all our own cognitive biases. But it is general.

    Tim Kowal:
    (This is why I have made an effort to lay out what I call “presuppositional” principles to our Constitution, i.e., principles that must be true for the Constitution to be intelligible, and why it is dangerous for courts to purport to alter, supplant, or ignore those principles. But that’s a topic for another time.)

    The common law inherited from Mother England at the time the Constitution was written, with its notions of property rights and such, by itself provides pretty decent presuppositional principles for interpreting the Constitution. Now, the common law itself is perhaps ultimately rooted in natural law. But in any case, it is good to look to legal history, and not just abstract principles, to understand how notions of property and individual rights came to be.

    • #17
    • March 24, 2014, at 9:44 AM PDT
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  18. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: I would say John Rawl’s rule of trying to decide everything from “original position” behind “a veil of ignorance” is a general rule of action. It is impossible, of course, as it assumes a kind of omniscient ignorance in which we can suppress all our own cognitive biases. But it is general.

     True, perhaps, but trivial. Debating a Rawlsian is like debating the wind. Whatever position a liberal holds is made true somehow by Rawls, given an unlimited word count and possible universes. Maybe it all hangs together when holding court in a Rawls graduate study group. But most liberals operate on something much more like Tomasky’s ipse dixit.

    • #18
    • March 24, 2014, at 1:06 PM PDT
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  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tim Kowal:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: I would say John Rawl’s rule of trying to decide everything from “original position” behind “a veil of ignorance” is a general rule of action. It is impossible, of course, as it assumes a kind of omniscient ignorance in which we can suppress all our own cognitive biases. But it is general.

    True, perhaps, but trivial. Debating a Rawlsian is like debating the wind. Whatever position a liberal holds is made true somehow by Rawls, given an unlimited word count and possible universes. Maybe it all hangs together when holding court in a Rawls graduate study group. But most liberals operate on something much more like Tomasky’s ipse dixit.

    You don’t think it’s just possible that liberals feel the same way about debating us?

    That “all is vanity, and chasing after the wind”? :-)

    • #19
    • March 24, 2014, at 1:46 PM PDT
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  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Moderator

    Tim Kowal:

    …Will search in Haidt, but his work appears to be one in psychology, biases, blindspots, etc., not political philosophy. (Which is not to impugn — they are areas of great interest to me.)

    I suggest checking out the Cultural Cognition Project. Better than Haidt, in my opinion.

    As for political philosophy, don’t you sort of need to address blind spots and biases to do it philosophize about politics effectively? We’re all motivated reasoners, after all. No shame in it, since we can’t help it. But it’s good to be honest about it, when possible.

    • #20
    • March 24, 2014, at 1:55 PM PDT
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  21. Tim Kowal Inactive
    Tim Kowal Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: You don’t think it’s just possible that liberals feel the same way about debating us?

     I dare not underestimate liberals’ capacity to “feel” all sorts of things. But this tempts us to find a false equivalence. I have not found sites and publications expounding liberal thought in the quantity or quality of those expounding conservative and classical liberal thought. Perhaps this is the natural product of the fact that conservatives have been the dark horse for almost a century.

    To invert Reagan, when you’re losing, your explaining.

    • #21
    • March 24, 2014, at 2:15 PM PDT
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  22. donald todd Inactive

    The Left has principles, the main difficulty in finding out what principles the Left has is because they are shifting principles depending on the zeitgeist of the moment. Global warming, which has been in a hiatus for 17 years, is now Climate Change – whatever that means – but which is a means to take control over the ordinary person/citizen and shove whatever the Leftist manure is down the ordinary person’s throat.

    Another principle is that very minute minorities have rights which large minorities or even small majorities no longer have. Homosexuals can adopt children but Catholic agencies can no longer look for adoptive parents because those agencies won’t consider placing children with homosexual parents. So something under two percent of the population have rights not given to about 30 percent of the population.

    Caucasians can be racist, but “people of color” cannot be racist, and any attack on a white person by a “person of color” cannot be a hate crime, although that cannot be said for a white person.

    My best hope for this is that enough people find the success of the Left condemns them to the leftovers to cause a real political revolution without getting lots of heads split open (or worse). Then a massive housecleaning party will examine everything and discard the stuff that needs to be discarded, leaving the stuff that we actually need.

    It will be a great thing to abolish the controllers and their skidding agenda of what is right and what is not and return to something universal and timeless.

    • #22
    • March 24, 2014, at 2:49 PM PDT
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  23. The Mugwump Inactive

    We should not engage liberals in an argument over principles because our conclusions will be far too abstract for average voters. We should argue instead about the affects of government programs on select groups such as minorities. Is it moral for a government to strip a man of his dignity by offering easy access to government relief? Is it moral to make the unborn pay the price for sexual promiscuity? Is it moral to provide relief for the otherwise able-bodied? If you believe that government programs are primarily designed to buy votes, is it moral to take from Paul to pay for Peter’s vote? Most of what the left claims is “principle” is in practice a con to acquire and maintain power. Redistribution is the new greed: It preaches that a man has the right to claim the fruits of another man’s labor based on the perception of grievance. It is the deadly sin known as envy and nothing good can come of it.

    • #23
    • March 24, 2014, at 3:35 PM PDT
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