interesting times

Is There Still Room for Debate?

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

In the last couple of weeks, as the purges of alleged racists have intensified in every sphere, and as so many corporations, associations, and all manner of civic institutions have openly pledged allegiance to anti-racism, with all the workshops, books, and lectures that come with it, I’m reminded of a Václav Havel essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”

It’s about the dilemma of living in a world where adherence to a particular ideology becomes mandatory. In Communist Czechoslovakia, this orthodoxy, with its tired slogans, and abuse of language, had to be enforced brutally by the state, its spies, and its informers. In America, of course, with the First Amendment, this is impossible. But perhaps for that very reason, Americans have always been good at policing uniformity by and among themselves. The puritanical streak of shaming and stigmatizing and threatening runs deep. This is the country of extraordinary political and cultural freedom, but it is also the country of religious fanaticism, moral panics, and crusades against vice. It’s the country of The Scarlet Letter and Prohibition and the Hollywood blacklist and the Lavender Scare. The kind of stifling, suffocating, and nerve-racking atmosphere that Havel evokes is chillingly recognizable in American history and increasingly in the American present.

The new orthodoxy — what the writer Wesley Yang has described as the “successor ideology” to liberalism — seems to be rooted in what journalist Wesley Lowery calls “moral clarity.” He told Times media columnist Ben Smith this week that journalism needs to be rebuilt around that moral clarity, which means ending its attempt to see all sides of a story, when there is only one, and dropping even an attempt at objectivity (however unattainable that ideal might be). And what is the foundational belief of such moral clarity? That America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start, that, as Lowery put it in The Atlantic, “the justice system — in fact, the entire American experiment — was from its inception designed to perpetuate racial inequality.” (Wesley Lowery objected to this characterization of his beliefs — read his Twitter thread about it here.)

This is an argument that deserves to be aired openly in a liberal society, especially one with such racial terror and darkness in its past and inequality in the present. But it is an argument that equally deserves to be engaged, challenged, questioned, interrogated. There is truth in it, truth that it’s incumbent on us to understand more deeply and empathize with more thoroughly. But there is also an awful amount of truth it ignores or elides or simply denies.

It sees America as in its essence not about freedom but oppression. It argues, in fact, that all the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of all human beings were always a falsehood to cover for and justify and entrench the enslavement of human beings under the fiction of race. It wasn’t that these values competed with the poison of slavery, and eventually overcame it, in an epic, bloody civil war whose casualties were overwhelmingly white. It’s that the liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy — which is why racial inequality endures and why liberalism’s core values and institutions cannot be reformed and can only be dismantled.

This view of the world certainly has “moral clarity.” What it lacks is moral complexity. No country can be so reduced to one single prism and damned because of it. American society has far more complexity and history has far more contingency than can be jammed into this rubric. No racial group is homogeneous, and every individual has agency. No one is entirely a victim or entirely privileged. And we are not defined by black and white any longer; we are home to every race and ethnicity, from Asia through Africa to Europe and South America.

And a country that actively seeks immigrants who are now 82 percent nonwhite is not primarily defined by white supremacy. Nor is a country that has seen the historic growth of a black middle and upper class, increasing gains for black women in education and the workplace, a revered two-term black president, a thriving black intelligentsia, successful black mayors and governors and members of Congress, and popular and high culture strongly defined by the African-American experience. Nor is a country where nonwhite immigrants are fast catching up with whites in income and where some minority groups now outearn whites.

And yet this crude hyperbole remains. In yesterday’s New York Times, in a news column, there was a story about the attempted purge of an economics professor for not being adequately supportive of the protests of recent weeks. It contained the following sentence, describing research into racial inequality: “Economics journals are still filled with papers that emphasize differences in education, upbringing or even IQ rather than discrimination or structural barriers.” But why are these avenues of research mutually exclusive? Why can’t the issue of racial inequality be complicated — involving many social, economic, and cultural factors that operate alongside the resilience of discrimination? And wouldn’t it help if we focused on those specific issues rather than seeing every challenge that African-Americans face as an insuperable struggle against the hatred of whites?

The crudeness and certainty of this analysis is quite something. It’s an obvious rebuke to Barack Obama’s story of America as an imperfect but inspiring work-in-progress, gradually including everyone in opportunity, and binding races together, rather than polarizing them. In fact, there is more dogmatism in this ideology than in most of contemporary American Catholicism. And more intolerance. Question any significant part of this, and your moral integrity as a human being is called into question. There is little or no liberal space in this revolutionary movement for genuine, respectful disagreement, regardless of one’s identity, or even open-minded exploration. In fact, there is an increasingly ferocious campaign to quell dissent, to chill debate, to purge those who ask questions, and to ruin people for their refusal to swallow this reductionist ideology whole.

The orthodoxy goes further than suppressing contrary arguments and shaming any human being who makes them. It insists, in fact, that anything counter to this view is itself a form of violence against the oppressed. The reason some New York Times staffers defenestrated op-ed page editor James Bennet was that he was, they claimed, endangering the lives of black staffers by running a piece by Senator Tom Cotton, who called for federal troops to end looting, violence, and chaos, if the local authorities could not. This framing equated words on a page with a threat to physical life — the precise argument many students at elite colleges have been using to protect themselves from views that might upset them. But, as I noted two years ago, we all live on campus now.

In this manic, Manichean world you’re not even given the space to say nothing. “White Silence = Violence” is a slogan chanted and displayed in every one of these marches. It’s very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect. The cultishness of this can be seen in the way people are actually cutting off contact with their own families if they don’t awaken and see the truth and repeat its formulae. Ibram X. Kendi insists that there is no room in our society for neutrality or reticence. If you are not doing “antiracist work” you are ipso facto a racist. By “antiracist work” he means fully accepting his version of human society and American history, integrating it into your own life, confessing your own racism, and publicly voicing your continued support.

That’s why this past week has seen so many individuals issue public apologies as to their previous life and resolutions to “do the work” to more actively dismantle “structures of oppression.” It’s why corporate America has rushed to adopt every plank of this ideology and display its allegiance publicly. If you do this, and do it emphatically, you can display your virtue to your customers and clients, and you might even be left alone. Or not. There is no one this movement suspects more than the insincere individual, the person who it deems is merely performing these public oaths and doesn’t follow through. Every single aspect of life, every word you speak or write, every tweet you might send, every private conversation you may have had, any email you might have sent, every friend you love is either a function of your racism or anti-racism. And this is why flawed human beings are now subjected to such brutal public shamings, outings, and inquisitions — in order to root out the structural evil they represent.

If you argue that you believe that much of this ideology is postmodern gobbledygook, you are guilty of “white fragility.” If you say you are not fragile, and merely disagree, this is proof you are fragile. It is the same circular argument that was once used to burn witches. And it has the same religious undertones. To be woke is to wake up to the truth — the blinding truth that liberal society doesn’t exist, that everything is a form of oppression or resistance, and that there is no third option. You are either with us or you are to be cast into darkness.

And that’s where Havel comes in. In his essay, he cites a greengrocer who has a sign he puts up in his window: “Workers of the World, Unite!” If he did not put one there, he’d be asked why. A neighbor could report him for insufficient ideological zeal. An embittered employee might get him fired for his reticence. And so it becomes, over time, not so much a statement of belief as an attempt to protect himself. People living under this ideology “must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

Mercifully, we are far freer than Havel was under Communism. We have no secret police. The state is not requiring adherence to this doctrine. And it is not a lie that this country has some deep reckoning to do on the legacy of slavery and segregation. In so far as this movement has made us more aware and cognizant of the darkness of the past, it is a very good thing, and overdue. But in so far as it has insisted we are defined entirely by that darkness, it has the crudeness of a kind of evangelist doctrine — with the similar penalties for waywardness. We have co-workers eager to weaponize their ideology to purge the workforce. We have employers demanding our attendance at seminars and workshops to teach this ideology. We have journalists (of all people) poring through other writers’ work or records to get them in trouble, demoted, or fired. We have faculty members at colleges signing petitions to rid their departments of those few left not fully onboard. We have human-resources departments that have adopted this ideology whole and are imposing it as a condition for employment. And, critically, we have a Twitter mob to hound people into submission.

Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology — friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance. It is a spirit that deals with an argument — and not a person — and that counters that argument with logic, not abuse. It’s a spirit that allows for various ideas to clash and evolve, and treats citizens as equal, regardless of their race, rather than insisting on equity for designated racial groups. It’s a spirit that delights sometimes in being wrong because it offers an opportunity to figure out what’s right. And it’s generous, humorous, and graceful in its love of argument and debate. It gives you space to think and reflect and deliberate. Twitter, of course, is the antithesis of all this — and its mercy-free, moblike qualities when combined with a moral panic are, quite frankly, terrifying.

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values,” President Kennedy once said. “For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Let’s keep that market open. Let’s not be intimidated by those who want it closed.

Trump’s Plummet

I remember last winter talking to a good friend about the resilience of Donald Trump’s support and the growing likelihood of his reelection. We didn’t know who his opponent would be, but we could look at an economy with full employment, recall his lizard-brain genius at touching the base’s political erogenous zones, and witness his capacity to drive his opponents crazy — and it did not look good. After a few more drinks, we came to the conclusion that only a completely unexpected event — say, a sudden global recession — could turf him out.

And here we are. COVID-19 was the known unknown epidemic that gave us the recession that might destroy Trump’s core argument for his reelection. And the emotional intensity of the horrifying video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a cop created for the public, stuck at home for months, a shot of resistance adrenaline. More to the point, Trump’s response to the epidemic has more plainly revealed a man utterly out of his depth in ways even his strongest supporters must now quietly understand. And then his tone-deaf, tin-pot dictator act in reaction to the Floyd protests and subsequent riots put him beyond the pale for many of the persuadables. Left-wing activists, for a change, didn’t play into his hands — although they’re doing their best in Minneapolis and Seattle.

Bereft of incendiary rallies, Trump flailed. His COVID press conferences became so embarrassing even he realized it was time to end them. His knee-jerk defense of acts of utterly indefensible police brutality, and the way in which some cops were obviously thrilled by his love of state violence — and engaging in gratuitous violence and thuggery, as he had long said they should — was deeply disturbing to many, including me. He was shown incapable of compassion for the sick, deranged in his medical forays, and crude and counterproductive in his failed attempt to impose order. That hideous, authoritarian performance in Black Lives Matter Plaza outside the White House was both frightening and pathetic. When he held up a Bible he has never read, it didn’t evoke anything but nausea.

And the polling suggests a real slide — down to his core base of 40 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s poll of polls, with disapproval jumping four points since May. Only one incumbent president had a higher disapproval number at this point in his first term — George H.W. Bush — and he went on to win a mere 37 percent of the electorate in November, bleeding support to Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, and losing the election. This time, there is no third-party candidate, but Joe Biden is winning over 90 percent of those who disapprove of Trump, and a 40 percent approval rating just isn’t enough to counter it.

I’ve never allowed myself to feel real confidence that he would lose in November, but I have to say this time seems different. The economy may rebound — but Trump will still be presiding over an unemployment rate that would be far higher than the one he inherited from Obama. COVID-19 is an unknowable factor, but it sure doesn’t seem to be over to me, and there could well be a big surge in the fall — possibly prompting another attempt at a national shutdown, which in turn could be widely resisted. If that happens, it’s probably over, and only a major self-own by the Democrats — a convention beset with mob violence, for example, or a Biden debate performance that deepens worries that he’s simply too old for the job, or a platform aiming to defund the police — could derail it. But this is the first time in years that I feel emboldened enough to say: Know hope.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Is There Still Room for Debate?