The Right Wing

Why Bashing 'Politically Correct' Campuses Is Hurting Conservatism

Why baiting "politically correct" college students won’t save honorable conservatism or America. And what might.

George Will
Photo Credit: Flickr

Look Who’s Complaining

Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising — undirected by students, professors or deans but scripted, funded and promoted by people off-campus — that blames liberals for trying to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Speech codes. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. We’ve all read and heard disturbing accounts of such measures’ ubiquity and oppressiveness on campus after campus, their students depicted as demanding them en masse and administrators as rushing to establish them. 

I don’t expect these alarms to stop being sounded, or students to stop demonstrating, once the new semester is underway. But this is the time to consider what’s really driving not only the students, but the strong and largely successful campaign to condemn them.

“Our colleges and universities, though lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity,” thundered Roger Kimball, the veteran conservative polemicist, strategist and chairman of the board of the William F. Buckley Program at Yale, introducing the columnist George Will last April at a black-tie “Disinvitation Dinner” sponsored by the program to dramatize Scripps College’scancellation of its invitation to Will to be one of several conservative speakers it has been bringing to a lecture series.  

The decision by Scripps, a small women’s college in California’s Claremont consortium, was prompted by a Will column arguing that federal bureaucrats are forcing colleges to adjudicate charges of sexual assault in ways that make claims of victimhood by rape “a coveted status.” The phrase prompted justifiable outrage but also Will’s disinvitation and, with it, cancellation of students’ opportunity to debate him face-to-face. Will has no shortage of opportunities to be heard on campus and off, and since he’s been criticizing “rape crisis feminists” for two decades, he knows how to discuss his claims. College students, almost by definition, are just learning how to do that, and they might have learned a lot by engaging with Will. 

But why are Will and other conservative writers, strategists and funders of the new movement I’ve mentioned leaping to turn a small, leafy residential college of 950 young women into an emblem of liberal campus totalitarianism? This new movement ballyhoos instances of liberal students’ and deans’ imposing outlandish, censorious strictures to stop other students – often young white men — even from saying things and making gestures that might make others “uncomfortable.” Critics of the protesters are right to argue that they’re illiberal and morally wrong in trying to silence people administratively and legally simply for making sexual and racial allusions, some wholly anodyne and innocent, some even imagined by their “victims.” But the lived experience of societies is subtler and more complicated than that, and outsiders who over-dramatize liberal censoriousness on campuses are themselves deflecting attention from a deeper, often harder, reality: American college students’ intellectual and moral conformity has long been and still is preeminently a conservative goal and achievement, not a liberal imposition.

You won’t learn this from George Will or Yale’s Buckley Program or “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an Atlantic essay that’s been embraced widely as a manifesto for the blame-the-liberals campaign. So let me fill in some blanks in these accounts of our campuses. And I’d like to suggest what the truth actually portends for a conservatism that has lost its civic-republican compass in the riptides of casino-like financing and war-making that today’s global capitalism has unleashed.

Having spent more than a few of the past 40 years witnessing and often criticizing racial and other protest strategies in New York City and teaching students of many colors and orientations (at Harvard, Queens College, New York University and Yale), I’d remind fellow-critics of these institutions that an undergraduate college is a civil society on training wheels. Its administrators and faculty provide guidance and guard rails but also some accommodations of ethno-racial flag-waving and political propagandizing by students who are trying out a politics of self-definition through impassioned moral posturing.

Some of those impassioned students are decidedly conservative, by the way, and highlighting only the liberals’ excesses sidesteps truths about a conservative moral and intellectual lockstep that prompts liberals’ own feckless and counterproductive reactions, such as Scripps College’s decision to disinvite Will. In my experience, those reactions are reflections, but not causes, of upheavals in civil society that are making many Americans, conservative as well as liberal, and old as well as young, more vulnerable and afraid.

Observe the following deflection of that reality: “College Kicks off ‘Disinvitation Dinner’ Hosting Speaker Shunned by University,” read the headline over the conservative Weekly Standard’s account of the Buckley Program event honoring Will. Its supposedly bold defiance of liberal strictures on speech on campuses wasn’t staged on Yale’s or any other college’s campus, however, but in Manhattan’s elegant Pierre Hotel, the better to dramatize an abuse that hasn’t actually happened: Yale has never shunned Will, who spoke there in 2013 at the invitation of the Buckley Program itself. Nor has Harvard, where in 1998 I audited a weekly course he co-taught to hundreds of students with the conservative government professor Harvey Mansfield and the course’s lead instructor, liberal political theorist Michael Sandel. 

Scripps did disinvite Will, however, and he began his remarks at the Pierre by quipping, “I’m not sure we want to cure the current hostility to speech on campus if it means we won’t have more dinners like this.” He delighted his formally attired listeners by observing that “Trigger warnings are for men paralyzed by an exquisite sensitivity and by women who are such frail flowers, they must, when they hear almost anything … repair to the fainting couch … and I don’t see anyone like that in this room tonight.”

Perhaps he wasn’t looking intently enough at the audience, including the evening’s sponsors. “Factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity” are precisely what the selective American colleges were when conservative premises and practices predominated in them, as they certainly did from the 1880s through most of the Cold War. Many of their students were socially coddled and intellectually narrow, their tests of character even narrower, their “trigger warnings” against unsettling speech and gestures ubiquitous and unrelenting. 

In the liberal understanding of this history — reinforced in memoirs such as Calvin Trillin’s “Remembering Denny,” analyses such as Nicholas Lemann’s “The Big Test,” and other accounts I’m about to mention — gothically imposing but slightly dunderheaded elite, white, male colleges were pried opened to a vibrant pluralism of sex, color and class. But the truth isn’t that simple. The “old” conservatism sometimes nourished in students not self-promotion but self-denial for a republic whose destiny, as Plato taught them, was “so closely bound up in oneself that its interests and fortunes, for good or ill, are held to be identical with one’s own.” Too closely, perhaps, and the ensuing corruption and hypocrisy is rife in a new conservatism that has shed most of its old restraints — except, perhaps, in Will’s priggish diction and bow-tie. But an older American, republican conservatism did sometimes cultivate intense self-scrutiny, plain living and high thinking, understated felicity of expression, a quiet readiness to take responsibility without reward, and a capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because spiritual grace seemed thereby assured). 

After the late 1960s, the old colleges tried to deepen these virtues by throwing out the dirty bathwater of racism and sexism in which the baby of their social bonding had been bathed. But even as they opened their gates wider, they couldn’t reconcile their commitment to ordered liberty and free and virtuous inquiry with their captivity to riptides of casino-like financing and degraded marketing that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty. So the colleges draped a raiment of sexual and racial diversity over their preparation of a global managerial class that no longer answers to or cares for any republican polity or moral code. Conservatives blame the newcomers and administrators who’ve indulged them. They want to restore some of the older discipline. But it’s too late, and thereby hangs my tale.

The Buckley Program characterizes itself explicitly as a champion of “intellectual diversity” and free speech against the color-coded diversity, which it says induces liberal intellectual and moral conformity and an anti-capitalist “adversary culture” on campuses. “The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so,” Buckley himself warned, in the passage that leads the program’s website. He also opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the latest iteration of his view welcomes any non-white apostle who’ll charge, as Dinesh D’Souza has done, that “politically correct” liberal groupthink is infantilizing so many students that only a conservative campus counter-revolution can restore American liberty

Look Who’s Been Coddled

That counter-revolution was announced in 1951, early in the Cold War, when Buckley’s own “God and Man at Yale” urged Yale’s presumptively Christian-gentleman alumni to rescue their college, their faith and free enterprise from their professors’ incipiently totalitarian socialism. But Ivy alumni weren’t quite the splendid, steely gentlemen Buckley was conjuring up as his foil to leftist oppressors. John P. Marquand’s 1941 novel “H.M. Pulham, Esquire,” presented the vapid, all-too-representative meditations of a Harvard grad struggling to summarize his life thus far for the 25th reunion of his equally coddled, clueless, conformist classmates, all striding through life in a feignedly hearty but tightly correct lockstep. 

Conservative business and social elites had been manufacturing moral and intellectual conformity for nearly a century before Marquand’s novel was published. “A thought would destroy most persons whom we know. Bring a thought into a chamber full of company, it would extinguish most of them. They are exposed as counterfeits and charlatans, as rats and mice, they who strutted, a moment ago, as the princes of the world,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself a Harvard graduate, in 1858. 

John Jay Chapman, another Harvard alum, was even more scathing in 1898, lamenting “a civilization based upon a commerce which in all its parts is corruptly managed” and is “made up of people afraid of one another, whose ideas are shopworn, whose manners are self-conscious.” In 1904, Henry Adams characterized Harvard students as languid, snobbish dunderheads. 

Examining Ivy alumni in the CIA of Buckley’s own time, Evan Thomas’ “The Very Best Men” attributed their foreign-policy blunders in Guatemala, Iran, Cuba and Vietnam to their preppie cohort’s cultivated cluelessness about much of the world. David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” covered similar ground, as has the movie “The Good Shepherd,” starring Matt Damon. 

Who was being shepherded? Students whom William Deresiewicz recently dubbed “Excellent Sheep” have been shepherded through elite colleges for a long time. The secret societies and fraternities that Owen Johnson’s “Dink Stover at Yale” depicted and challenged in 1911 were firmly in place as snobbish, white cultural safe houses in the 1960s (and, in some cases, for years after). The signature refrain of the college’s premiere a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs was and still is, “We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa… Gentlemen songsters off on a spree, damned from here to eternity, Lord have mercy on such as we, baa, baa, baa.” 

The self-spoofing in that self-pity anticipated a conservative coddling of the elite American mind captured in the historian R.H. Tawney’s  deconstruction of “the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert.” The Whiffs’ ritual bleating helps its songsters and their audiences to sublimate dark intimations of their futures in finance or marketing through crooning and camaraderie, which ease them toward Marquand’s lockstep and its clubby consolations. That women and people of color are now admitted hasn’t changed this a bit, as I can testify from following Yale students beyond graduation for the past 15 years. 

The philosopher George Santayana’s novel “The Last Puritan,” published in 1935, portrayed this coddling and deforming as a plutocratic corruption of the original Puritan, communal covenants of Harvard and Yale. The wealthy turned Calvinism into “a mean calculation of superstition and thrift and vengeance… They had flattered themselves… that God had sent down Moses and Christ to warn them of the dangers ahead, so that they might run in time out of the burning house, and take all the front seats in the new theater. And they didn’t dare call their real souls their own: wanted to mother them: wanted to find, in some underhanded way, what was the will of God, so as to conform to it and be always on the winning side.” 

Mothering. Conformity. Plutocracy at its most sanctimonious: Louis Auchincloss’ “The Winthrop Covenant,” published in 1976, traced this corruption in intimate, poignant vignettes of old American families across generations. The historian Tawney judged that America’s “individualist complex owes part of its self-assurance to the suggestion of Puritan moralists that practical success is… the sign and the reward of ethical superiority” and that “distress is a proof of demerit.” That suggestion “has always been popular with the prosperous,” he noted drily. “By the lusty plutocracy…, roaring after its meat… it was welcomed with a shout of applause.” 

It still is. Today’s campaign to blame liberal students’ distress on their demerits gathered momentum in 1987 as its progenitors misread Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.” Bloom wrote that free-market capitalism and right-wing populism were as destructive of freedoms of inquiry and expression as the countercultural excesses that conservatives made him famous for denouncing. But only the latter were targeted by Roger Kimball’s 2005 manifesto “Re-Taking the University—a Battle Plan,”  which portrayed ”the rise of conservative talk radio, the popularity of Fox News [and] right-of-center populist Web logs” as ”a widespread counter to the counterculture” of universities. 

The campaign assumed still-darker intensity in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, when a Yale Daily News opinion-page editor fled to the Harvard Crimson to write “Free Speech Thugs,” a column prompted by pro-war students’ and activists’ harassment of war critics in New Haven. (I made similar criticisms as a lecturer at Yale at the time and was attacked nationally by the Weekly Standard’s Hugh Hewitt and an army of trolls, and by the cable TV show host Joe Scarborough, who was more militantly conservative then.)

The campaign has become even more extreme since 2010, when the Citizens Unitedruling extended First Amendment protection of citizens’ political speech to corporate fiduciaries of shifting whorls of anonymous shareholders. “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’ asked Theodore Olson, counsel for Citizens United, the corporation that produced a movie to swift-boat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. 

Olson’s subtext: Let liberals rant, as long as we can overwhelm them with expensive megaphones and words that titillate or intimidate. The consequence: Conservatives are cheating fatefully and destructively on their older insight that what the Constitution rightly protects, civil society rightly modulates, lest a free-for-all become a free-for-none. Liberty wouldn’t exist without limits against which it defines itself and upon which it therefore relies. Free expression requires self-restraint, not hurling scare words and sex words in ads, entertainments, and political diatribes thatu bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and our wallets or votes, short-circuiting the dialogue and deliberation a republic requires. 

Invoking the older, better conservative wisdom about the  liberating value of self-restraint, Senate minority leader and 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole assailed “liberal” Hollywood for its degrading, demoralizing entertainment. But he didn’t challenge the insidious affronts of consumer marketing that are driving the pornification of public life. It was private investors in free markets, not sexual liberationists, who put Calvin Klein’s borderline kiddie-porn ads on the sides of public buses in New York a decade ago; only non-market, civic forces yanked them off, and those forces are losing ground to the “free speech” of Theodore Olson’s nude dancers and flag burners. 

And so conservatism’s uncritical celebration of markets began to betray its republican principles. Upon retiring from politics, Dole made a television commercial for Pfizer in which he said that Viagra helped him cope with erectile dysfunction. “The poor fellow looks like he’s restraining the impulse to unzip and show us the happy change,” protested the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, author of “The Naked Public Square.” But Dole wasn’t all that far from the nude dancing and flag-burning that Theodore Olson and other conservatives now invoke to justify “robust speech” in politics. Nor, of course, is Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Citizens United has given business corporations, which Dole attacked in Hollywood but shilled for in New York, the same untrammeled “free speech” right to assail public figures that individual citizens have enjoyed, as radio “shock jock” Don Imus did at the expense of George Will at the 1996 annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington when he described Will this way: “Anyone that buttoned up…is spending part of his weekend going home and standing in front of the mirror and wearing clothes that make him feel really pretty.” 

Letting anonymous interests pay anonymous announcers to disparage people almost as nastily as Imus did in expensive commercials at election time is no better for civil society than is making and selling more and bigger guns in response to gun violence. It’s even worse, invading and conquering the public space where sovereign citizens alone should set rules governing markets and corporations themselves. 

Where’s the old conservative resistance to “free market” forces that are unleashing into the public square the social mayhem that leaves young Americans adrift, fearful and angry? What has happened to the conservatism – and, for that matter, the bourgeois neoconservatism and the liberal humanism – that once embraced Rochelle Gurstein’s magisterial lament about “The Repeal of Reticence,” as the title of her widely discussed 1998 book expessed the “free market’s” social dilemma? 

The new “Free speech” crusaders cannot reconcile their yearning for ordered, republican liberty (a yearning I share) with their almost-knee-jerk obeisance to whims and riptides of global capital that are dissolving republican virtues and sovereignty before their eyes. Because they can’t reconcile them, they’re blaming liberal moralism, not investment and marketing run-amok, for de-sexualizing and disorienting young people, and liberal permissiveness for pornifying public places, gladitorializing sports, and generating homeowners supposedly weak-willed susceptibility to predatory lending, along with the attendant social breakdown that prompts more surveillance, institutional secrecy, police militarization, mass incarceration, and runaway markets in drugs, guns, and other responses to this rout of public trust and comity. 

To rage at privileged, pampered college students is to dodge this reality. As Thomas Edsall showed in a recent column, family breakdown and violence are soaring in states where liberals have little influence. 

 Look Who’s Being Censorious

The real “cry-bullies” emerging from market and political mayhem are exemplified by a trustee of the conservative American Institute and Manhattan Institute, the financial analyst and capital manager Clifford Asness (B.S. in English, B.S. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business). New York magazine called him “the filthy-stinking-rich quant behind AQR Capital Management” in a story about a public letter he’d written, pouting and raging over President Obama’s comment in 2009 that financiers and bond holders should sacrifice more, as other Americans were doing, to repair the damage caused by destructive corporate management and their own casino-like financing. 

“The President’s attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him,” Asness wrote — even as millions of working Americans were losing their homes and jobs to the predatory lending and financing that investment managers had accelerated. “This is America,” he fumed. “We have a free enterprise system that…. is not an owned lackey of the oval office to be scolded for disobedience by the President. I am ready for my ‘personalized’ tax rate now,” he ended sardonically — and petulantly. (Almost amusingly, the president of Asness’ American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, criticized the “culture of victimhood” last December, in a New York Times column prompted by the campus protests.) 

Hedge-fund manager Daniel Loeb (Columbia, B.A. in economics), founder of Third Point LLC, switched hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from Obama and other Democrats to Republicans whose deregulation of Wall Street had brought on the disaster. He explained his shift by snarking, “I am sure, if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the president will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words. I mean, he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it.” A Wall Street Journal story quoted Loeb, noting drily that “Hedge-fund kings have feelings, too, and the president appears to have hurt them.” But this cry-bullying has consequences not just for collegiate civil societies on training wheels but for an adult civil society that’s unravelling at a speed which the conservative “free speech” campaign has only accelerated. 

Yale’s Buckley program stages ostensibly decorous exercises of free speech that seem calculated to provoke liberal student protests that inevitably draw criticism. In 2014, it hosted Ayaan Hirsi Ali, raised as a Muslim but now a vehement critic of Islam, prompting a furious reaction from Yale’s Muslim Students Association that the Buckley people and the conservative noise machine promptly ballyhooed as an instance of liberal repression, even though Ali spoke unhindered.

In 2015, the program invited Greg Lukianoff, co-author of “The Coddling of the American Mind” and president of the conservative Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, to address a pre-registered Yale audience, one of whose members provocatively posted the speaker’s flippant remark about wiping out an American Indian village, thereby drawing noisy protesters to the event, again to its sponsors’ ill-concealed delight. Lukianoff also videotaped a dark-skinned female student cursing out a Yale professor who’d defended wearing provocative Halloween costumes. Responding with a classically right-wing populist feint, the conservative website the Daily Caller made the video of the shouting student viral under the headline, “Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor,” posting the $730,000-assessed value of her parents’ suburban home. 

The foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead joined Tawney’s plutocrats in “roaring after their meat ” by inveighing last year in The American Interest against Oberlin College students’ complaints about cafeteria offerings that had “culturally appropriated” other societies’ distinctive recipes in ways the students judged insensitive. Silly though their complaints may have been, they weren’t as silly as the lavish food fights I saw in Yale dining halls 50 years ago or as destructive of civility as the conservative student Dartmouth Review’s hosting a free-lobster-and-champagne feast to protest a campus fast for the world’s hungry. Mead offered no such historical context. 

This eagerness to inflate liberal censoriousness suggests something stranger and more troubling than a desire to correct political correctness. It reflects conservatives’ denial and displacement of their own long complicity in scaring and coddling students into tightly scripted campus rites of passage toward war-making and reckless or clubby financing. Yale’s exclusive, national-security-oriented “Grand Strategy” seminar is attempting to restore those rites, with many of their old trappings, but when the seminar visited West Point in 2008 to discuss a book about Iraq with cadets, the Yale students “decided not to record the discussion because they did not want to have ‘views expressed in the spirit of intellectual debate be used against them at a Senate confirmation hearing,’” according to Grand Strategy’s associate director, who treated their discretion as evidence of their future importance. The cadets, who would soon risk their lives to defend free speech, had no fear of recording the session.

When posts in The Atlantic and Foreign Policy and criticized former Gen. Stanley McChrystal for teaching his Yale course on leadership “off the record,” some of his students issued a public statement insisting that although McChrystal hadn’t asked them to sign any pledge not to disclose what’s discussed in the class, they would decline to talk with anyone about what was said or done there. They refused to share anything from the seminar’s supposedly broad discussion of leadership, not even with professors teaching other courses on similar matters, two of whom had invited McChrystal himself to share his insights, only to be rebuffed.

Here we have the enthusiastic self-censoring of students who are shrinking from liberal education’s contradictions and seeking an Oath and an Order. Self-censorship is usually prompted by fear of higher power in business corporations or regimes like that of Singapore, with which Yale has partnered injudiciously to establish a new undergraduate college bearing its name. But the instances I’ve just mentioned are of self-censorship that’s prompted not by fear of established power but by attraction to it: Students silence themselves willingly, hoping to get closer to insider networking and power itself by proving they can be relied on never to reveal that an emperor has no clothes. 

There’s a legitimate difference between being discreet and being silenced — that is, between exercising sound judgment not to do or say something and accepting blindly that something is simply “not done.” Agreement to take certain things off the table may facilitate a discussion and freedom of thought. But when self-censorship by seduction emerges in a Grand Strategy seminar’s visit to West Point or in McChrystal students’ public pride in public silence, it perpetrates a sad misunderstanding of liberal education and democratic deliberation. Its discourse bears about the same relation to freedoms of inquiry as military music bears to music. This kind of self-restraint, even if softened by the Whiffenpoofs’ singing in white tie and tails, hastens the decay of trust and freedom inside and outside halls of power. And it has had a long, quite embarrassing record at Yale and other colleges long dominated by conservative premises and practices.

 Who’s Truly Conservative?

The old, covenantal conservatism understood this truth. “To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” Yale president Kingman Brewster told entering freshmen in 1965.  This has not been done by administrative edict . . . [but] by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions.” Tempting though it is to dismiss his pride in an ethic of “loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard” as a snob’s boast about an in-crowd, Brewster, a direct descendant of Plymouth Pilgrims, was more likely channeling Puritan minister Richard Mather’s admonition of 1657 that “Imposters have but seldom got in and set up among us; and when they have done so, they have made a short blaze and gone out in a snuff.” The Puritan in him really wanted students to learn how to tell true leadership from false and to understand the consequences for how Americans live, invest, and wage wars.

When he cautioned against wearing colors of high purpose falsely, Brewster wasn’t criticizing “people of color” or women. Ninety-five percent of the freshmen before him that morning in 1965 were young white men in dark suits (myself among them); George W. Bush was a Yale sophomore at the time, John Kerry a senior. Brewster, who’d presented an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1964 commencement, knew perfectly well that any of us might end up wearing colors of high purpose falsely. Half a century later, we’re reaping the consequences of choosing leaders who did. 

Brewster’s ancestors wove John Bunyan’s Christian myth of personal salvation, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” into the pedagogy of their communities of law and work. John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, reminded them of the “true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.” He understood that a healthy society, like a healthy individual, strides on two feet: a “left foot” of what I’ll call the foot of social provision, the foot of the village that raises a child, without which ordered republican liberty couldn’t flourish, and a “right foot” of irreducibly personal autonomy and conscience, without which even the best-intentioned social engineering would reduce persons to clients, cogs, or worse. 

When a pilgrim or any other person is walking, only one foot at a time is on the ground, bearing the body’s weight, as the other one swings forward and upward in the direction of the pilgrim’s progress. In this metaphor, each foot bears the distinctive truths I’ve mentioned, and each seems noble while on the upswing against the other’s grounded weight. People who champion only one foot’s nobility make it swell, turning its distinctive truths into half-truths that soon curdle into lies and leaving themselves right only about how the other side is wrong and hobbling the society’s stride. 

A sign of political maturity is an ability to respect each foot’s central truths and to play some role in balancing them. “[A]nyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to. If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others,” Brewster wrote three years after admonishing my class to detect and reject those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely. At the time, indignant campus leftists had closed their minds to persuasion, forfeiting their claims on the audience of Americans they wanted to persuade. 

Today’s conservatives would insist that they, not liberals, are keeping the civic-republican faith that inspired Brewster because they value intellectual diversity over defensive solidarities that wear “colors of high purpose” falsely and that close their wearers’ minds to persuasion. But their free speech campaign’s descent into provocations by Roger Kimball, George Will, Greg Lukianoff, Tucker Carlson, Niall Ferguson, Walter Russell Mead, Clifford Asness and Daniel Loeb prevents recovery of a balanced, republican stride. If none of them can pause long enough to respect the other side’s central truths, their blame-the-liberals campaign will turn Republican solid ground into quicksand. It will accelerate currents that are leaving us all groundless and weightless, flies caught in the spider web of commercial seduction and surveillance that an increasingly profit-driven world-wide-web is weaving all around us.

Conservatives believe –rightly enough, I think — that a republic must count on its citizens to uphold voluntarily, not by fiat, public virtues and habits of rational deliberation that aren’t nourished  by the classically liberal state or by what capitalism has become. The nurture of citizens falls, to civil society— colleges, schools, churches, civic associations, and sports programs that stand somewhat independent of states and markets. But that independence is being swamped now by tsunamis of financialization and social breakdown in conservatives own constituents. And it’s only because conservatives are so vehemently in denial about this that they’re working so energetically to shift the blame. If they’d re-read their Edmund Burke instead of their William Buckley, they’d challenge much of what today’s capitalism has done to their (and our) cherished civic-republican principles instead of shilling for the malefactors and looking for scapegoats.

 

 

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990).