The astonishing and continuing success of left illiberalism
A question I’ve wrestled with this past year or so is a pretty basic one: if critical race/gender/queer theory is unfalsifiable postmodern claptrap, as I have long contended, how has it conquered so many institutions so swiftly?
It’s been a staggering achievement, when you come to think of it. Critical theory was once an esoteric academic pursuit. Now it has become the core, underlying philosophy of the majority of American cultural institutions, universities, media, corporations, liberal churches, NGOs, philanthropies, and, of course, mainstream journalism. This summer felt like a psychic break from old-school liberalism, a moment when a big part of the American elite just decided to junk the principles that have long defined American democratic life, and embrace what Bari Weiss calls “a mixture of postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the therapeutic mentality.”
It’s everywhere. Across the country, schools and colleges are dumping SATs so they can engineer racial equity, and abolish the idea of merit. The Smithsonian backed the idea that working hard, showing up on time and perfecting a task are functions of “whiteness”. In California, there’s a ballot initiative to legalize government discrimination on the basis of race; and a new mandate that company boards add members from under-represented communities. Corporations who haven’t publicly committed themselves to the full woke project are being hounded by their employees into doing so, meaning hiring and firing on the basis of race, or forcing employees into re-education sessions, guided by DiAngelo and Kendi. The NBA, for Pete’s sake, is now a festival of wokeness, even as viewership collapses. CRT propaganda like the NYT’s 1619 Project can be exposed as untrue and unethical, but the paper can both debunk it in its own pages and still hail it as a triumph. And the pièce de resistance: 21 percent of liberal students in the Ivy League favor some level of violence to stop campus speech they disapprove of.
There seems no stopping this. But why? Why this powerful, seemingly inevitable shift, especially among white elites? I’d posit some obvious reasons, but this is a rough guess and I hope we can start a conversation here about the reason for this astonishing change — and how better to engage it.
The first, it seems to me, is emotional. The reason so many people marched this summer was because of a righteous revulsion at the visceral image of a black man being murdered slowly on the street by a bad, white cop. This revulsion is a vital and important thing — and it’s completely compatible with a liberal attempt to reform the cops and criminal justice to ensure equal treatment under the law for everyone of every race. In fact, there is considerable bipartisan support for a pragmatic shift.
But this was emphatically not the core message of the Black Lives Matter movement, rooted in critical theory. BLM’s critical race activists do not support reforming the police, they want to abolish them entirely. In fact, they demonize all cops as “bastards”, and they justify violence and exonerate crime as legitimate resistance to the far greater crime of white oppression.
Liberals, concerned about resilient racial inequality, have simply decided to ignore this. Or they think that a little radicalism is no bad thing in a polarized time: the usual “no enemies to the left” mantra in the era of Trump and white nationalism. I can see why people take this path of least resistance, but what we’ve seen is simple avoidance of the deeper issue of CRT’s profound illiberalism, a dismissal of it, or an anti-anti-woke position that sees opponents as mere hysterics (and maybe racists).
And the CRT advocates have brilliantly managed to construct a crude moral binary to pressure liberals into submission. Where liberalism allows neutrality or doubt or indifference, CRT demands an absolute and immediate choice between racism and anti-racism (defined by CRT) — and no one wants to be a racist, do they? Legitimate anguish about racial inequality and the sheer terror of being publicly labeled a bigot have led liberals to surrender their core values to the far left.
The second reason for CRT’s triumph is that it’s super-easy. Social inequalities are extremely complicated things. A huge variety of factors may be in play: class, family structure, education, neighborhood, sex, biology, genetics and culture are some of them. Untangling this empirically in order to figure out what might actually work to improve things is hard work. But when you can simply dismiss all of these factors and cite “structural racism” as the only reason for any racial inequality, and also cover yourself in moral righteousness, you’re home-free. Those who raise objections or complications or cite nuances can be dismissed by the same easy method.
Then there’s the deep relationship between CRT and one of the most powerful human drives: tribalism. What antiracism brilliantly does is adopt all the instincts of racism and sexism — seeing someone and instantly judging them by the color of their skin, or sex — and drape them with a veil of virtue. You don’t have to correct yourself when your tribal psyche makes you more cognizant of someone’s visible racial differences, and pre-judges them. You don’t have to resist this any more. You can give in to your core nature, and feel pride, rather than shame. You get to have all the feels of judging people entirely by their involuntary characteristics, while actually dismantling racism and sexism! What’s not to like?
Social aspiration also plays a part. The etiquette of wokery is increasingly indispensable for high society. They mark you as someone high up in the American social hierarchy. The right words and phrases signal your ease in this elite; the wrong ones — “sexual preference”! — expose you as a rube, a bigot or, worse, a middle class provincial. Rob Henderson argues that this aspiration to be in the upper classes helps explain why Asian-Americans, who are targeted for direct race discrimination under CRT, nonetheless often support it: “While money and education are tickets to the middle class, prizing diversity is a requirement to join the upper class. It’s part of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as cultural capital — tastes, vocabulary, awareness and mannerisms which give social advantages to those higher in the social hierarchy.” Reihan Salam has also written brilliantly about this.
There’s little doubt, either, it seems to me that there is a religious component to wokeness. A generation of nones can feel bereft of transcendence and meaning, and “becoming woke”, like being “born again,” fills that spiritual hole. In an atomized and lonely age, feeling as if you are on “the right side of history”, banishing doubt, joining with countless of your fellow converts in marches and seminars, can abate the isolation and emptiness of it all. Many moderns want the experience of religion without God. With CRT, as in the past with communism, they can have it.
But what also make CRT so successful is ruthlessness. Those who hold a view of the world in which only power, and the struggle for power, matters, have few qualms in exercising it. After all, under CRT, power is always on the side of the white cis-heteropatriarchy, so payback is always fair play. Discriminating against the unwoke or whites or males or the cis-gendered or Asian-American, is not just fair, but vital. Shutting down speech protects the oppressed; bullying on social media and in the workplace becomes a form of virtue; mercy and forgiveness are mere buttresses for white supremacy; HR departments diligently identify dissidents, and discipline them. Once you set up this system of censorship and fear, persecute a few prominent sinners pour décourager les autres, and encourage snitches, dissidents will increasingly self-censor, and dissent peter out, until the new orthodoxy is the only one.
In the past, a new set of ideas could be engaged in a clash of argument and debate. But you’ll notice that the advocates of what Wes Yang has called “the successor ideology” never debate any serious opponents of their position. This is because debate in a liberal society implies equal standing for both sides, and uses reason to determine who’s right or wrong. But there can be no “both sides” within CRT, no equation of “racists” and “antiracists”, and debates are inherently oppressive. Logic, evidence, and reason are, in this worldview, mere products of white supremacy, forms of violence against the oppressed. In CRT, remember, there is no truth or objectivity; there are merely narratives. So, yes, 2 + 2 = 5, and math is inherently a function of whiteness. And what racist is going to deny this?
The truth is that liberal democracy is hard, counter-intuitive, complicated and requires self-restraint, reason, and toleration at levels most humans are incapable of. That’s why it is such a rare and fleeting exception in the world today and all but non-existent for the vast majority of human history. Critical race theory is much more attuned to human nature. It gives you the simplest template for understanding the world, it assigns you virtue if you assent, it gives you instant power over others purely because of your and their identity, and it requires nothing more than tribal instinct to thrive. That’s why it is here to stay. And why the fight for liberalism is going to be long and hard and require as much courage, steel, and rigor as we can muster.