The Young Puritans
In addition to our own contributions to the intellectual defense of liberalism here in Symposium, I will occasionally round up interesting commentary on the future of liberalism that we see elsewhere. (And if you see an interesting one, send it to me at email@example.com.)
We live in an era of increasing pressure for ideological conformity, but this is also becoming a vibrant time for intellectual defenses of freedom of thought.
See a blockbuster dissection of the new woke puritanism by Anne Applebaum.
We read [The Scarlet Letter] with a certain self-satisfaction: Such an old-fashioned tale! Even Hawthorne sneered at the Puritans, with their "sad-colored garments and grey steeple-crowned hats," their strict conformism, their narrow minds and their hypocrisy. And today we are not just hip and modern; we live in a land governed by the rule of law; we have procedures designed to prevent the meting-out of unfair punishment. Scarlet letters are a thing of the past.
Except, of course, they aren't. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.
But Applebaum also offers a more recent and more disquieting parallel.
A decade ago, I wrote a book about the Sovietization of Central Europe in the 1940s, and found that much of the political conformism of the early Communist period was the result not of violence or direct state coercion, but rather of intense peer pressure. Even without a clear risk to their life, people felt obliged—not just for the sake of their career but for their children, their friends, their spouse—to repeat slogans that they didn't believe, or to perform acts of public obeisance to a political party they privately scorned. In 1948, the famous Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik sent what he later described as some "rubbish" as his entry into a competition to write a "Song of the United Party"—because he thought if he refused to submit anything, the whole Union of Polish Composers might lose funding. To his eternal humiliation, he won. Lily Hajdú-Gimes, a celebrated Hungarian psychoanalyst of that era, diagnosed the trauma of forced conformity in patients, as well as in herself. "I play the game that is offered by the regime," she told friends, "though as soon as you accept that rule you are in a trap."
The whole article is very well worth reading, particularly her description of what happens to those on the receiving end of this kind of banishment: the isolation, the inability to work, the cowardice of old friends who wish you well privately but won't stick their necks out in public. It all sounds very familiar to those of us for whom none of this is new.
One of the targets of cancellation mentioned in Applebaum's article is Ian Buruma, who makes the same comparison to puritanism but fills it out a little more by citing a specific form of Protestant devotion that emphasizes public confession.
Such cases of dissenting opinions on matters of race and gender resulting in confessions, apologies, and firings are happening in other, mainly Western countries. But the spectacle of public shaming, linguistic prescription, and declarations of virtue and ideological purity is especially common in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent in some other Anglophone countries, such as Canada, Australia, and the UK. Why could this be?...
Since the Reformation, Protestants would confess in public not for their private sins to be forgiven by God, but to affirm the purity of their faith. This custom, originally imported to America from Britain, is ingrained in American culture, affecting even non-Christians. Testifying is an essential part of Christian evangelical gatherings, vastly amplified by radio and television, not just to confess sins or lapses of faith but also to cement the believer's place in the religious community through a public testimony of faith....
I would argue that the ideological fervor on the identitarian left is a secular version of the evangelical zeal that has marked the cultural history of the US.
There is a definite plausibility to this. Religious traditions tend to become ingrained cultural practices and expectations, and even in a secular age, these attitudes tend to be transferred over to the new ideology.
Applebaum points out that while Twitter is the epicenter of modern puritanical shaming, what happens on social media has a disproportionate effect on mainstream institutions. In Buruma's case, for example, he was fired from the New York Review of Books because the other editors were afraid to face the ire of younger staffers who spoke for the Twitter mobs.
Megan McArdle puzzles over this phenomenon.
Many, including me, have noted the corrosive effect of social media on institutions. The mystery is why so many institutions have so passively allowed this to happen....
[F]or technologically adept younger workers, social media functions as a coalition-building tool, enabling them to construct enormous lateral networks that effectively overwhelm the tighter, but smaller, organizational hierarchies their elders control.
But that's arguably half of the story. The other half is the demographic structure of the older generations, which seem, conversations with people in various industries suggest, to be muting even the resistance we might expect.
In the battle of the Youngz vs. the Oldz, on one side we see the huge millennial cohort and Generation Z; on the other, a gigantic baby boom generation, followed by the significantly smaller Generation X. This means that the Oldz coalition consists more disproportionately of people who are going to retire within 10 years than it would if the demographic pattern were smoother.
Accordingly, the boomers are more likely to be thinking about the next few years as a gracious capstone to their careers than as a prelude to the next two decades of their work life. This dampens the appetite for bruising internal fights with Youngz proclaiming that theirs are the values of the future. The danger for Team Oldz is that its members aren't just handing the keys over a little early but that they are also failing to transmit their knowledge and insights, allowing impatient youngsters to spend down what economists call "organizational capital."
I have to confess that I am inclined to accept this explanation because it is yet another excuse for Generation X to complain about how the Baby Boomers messed everything up—and about how we are once again going to have to do the unglamorous and unheralded working of cleaning up after them.
I am glad to see a flourishing opposition to the current orthodoxy. But I've noticed over the years that too single-minded a focus on this one issue can sometimes distort the opposition. As Nietzsche warned, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."
There is plenty that is monstrous in the new orthodoxy, such as the return of school segregation in Georgia under the guise of "antiracism."
But one of the people who makes a job of exposing these stories, Chris Rufo, also offers something of a cautionary tale. See Cathy Young's takedown of how Rufo thinks that the real reason we lost in Afghanistan is because we promoted women's rights. There are many, many things you can criticize in our Afghanistan strategy, but that is not one of them. Yet it fits a conservative narrative in which wokism is the one answer to every question about anything that goes wrong in the world. And so conservatives are tending toward a weird sympathy with the Taliban because, hey, at least they're not Politically Correct.
Is that going a bit too far? Maybe, but check out the latest step of China's conservative cultural crackdown—with "conservative" here meaning a desire to return to old-fashioned mid-20th-Century Communism—in which the regime has banned effeminate men on television in the name of promoting "revolutionary culture." And then notice the usual suspects on the right, Tucker Carlson in the lead, eager to praise a genocidal dictatorship for defending the kind of fake, chest-thumping manliness.
Applebaum warned that under the rule of wokism, "we will become a flatter, duller, less interesting society," and "the arts, the humanities, and the media will become stiff, predictable, and mediocre." This can happen under the influence of conservative dogma, too.
We need the elites and yes, the older generation who run the institutions, to offer a different answer and make a priority out of the restoration of liberal values.
Such an effort might even count as a gracious capstone to their careers.