This was in the draft of an article about the notorious Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past August, which devolved into a brawl between neo-fascists and antifa. Both of these groups — with violence practically written into their charters — descended on Charlottesville, my home city, and left three people dead and scores of injured. I arrived there at the tail end, and watched as the fascists and (self-professed) anti-fascists staged the last phase of their riot.
Fresh from my summer’s reading of The Gulag Archipelago, I was alert to left-wing barbarism as well as right. I couldn’t readily buy into the notion that equal levels of thuggery equaled “false equivalency.” Both sides wanted blood. Trump wasn’t entirely wrong when he got in front of the cameras and denounced violence “on many sides” — actually, there were only two, but precision has never been the president’s strong suit.
In time, an antifa participant stepped forward to confirm Trump’s view. Writing anonymously on the (one must admit, often rather thoughtful) antifa website It’s Going Down!, the person said, “I did not behave peacefully when I saw a thousand Nazis occupy a sizable American city. I fought them with the most persuasive instruments at hand, the way both my grandfathers did. I was maced, punched, kicked and beaten with sticks, but I gave as good as I got, and usually better. Donald Trump says that ‘there was violence on both sides.’ Of course there was.” (Italics are mine.)
Trump was grievously mistaken not to denounce fascism and right-wing bigotry at articulate length. They are a scourge and a horror. That, no doubt, should have been the substance of his speech. And he was radically mistaken when, a few days later, he came forward to say that there were good people on the right-wing side, innocently protesting the possible removal of Confederate statues. There were not.
I wrote this up for a Major American Literary Magazine. Then I sent it to a close friend with extensive experience in journalism. He nearly choked on his coffee. Whoaa, he said, you gotta get that stuff about Trump out of there. The whole world is coming off its axis about his reaction to Charlottesville. Naturally, there was no way I could come to terms with the MALM about the content of piece. When they signified all of their reservations, emendations, and directions, I withdrew it.
It now seems to me that more and more people on the left only want to read reports and analyses with which they agree. You can conform to the liberal narrative, or you can shut up.
There are now at least a dozen crucial issues that, among liberals and leftists, are taken to be resolved. No critical discussion of them is to be tolerated. These include, but aren’t limited to, immigration, abortion, gun rights, the human role in climate change, and anything to do with race, gender, or sexuality. There is, it’s felt, a fine and fair consensus on these matters, shared by all who are generous and good. To challenge the orthodoxy is to commit sedition.
But orthodoxies need to be challenged. The issues need to be discussed. There are a number of reasons for the horrible thrashing that liberals and progressives took in the last presidential election. A chief cause, I believe, is their unwillingness to be candid about consequential issues and to talk about them openly. Why not have a new conversation about affirmative action? Why not take a long look at Title IX? If progressives are right on those issues — and for the most part I believe that they are — let them offer their reasons to the world.
When conservatives talk about the brutal hold of political correctness, I suspect they’re referring not to what liberals say, but to what they don’t. The conservatives are calling liberals out for their suppressions of speech, their policing of at least a dozen no-go zones. At election time, Trump would talk about anything. There was no subject he refused to consider. No matter how dumb what he might have to say was, he was willing to address the issue. The right wing in the United States may have won the election by calling B.S. on the left for its refusal to say anything fresh and persuasively true on subjects that matter.
One recalls Hillary Clinton’s oppressively boring persona. She possessed the dull presence of the heavily repressed. “Stronger together,” her slogan, affirmed inertia. It endorsed clumping into a group, saying nothing and going nowhere. Turtle puts its head into shell; turtle hopes to win election. Me? I spent no little time button-holing for Bernie: still think he would have won it.
Trump got going as a candidate with a lucky stumble. (Lucky for him — disastrous for the nation and world.) The day he declared for president, he talked, seemingly off-the-cuff, about immigration and let fly the now-famous lines about Mexicans who had entered the United States illegally. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Saying so shot him from zero to 60. His candidacy would likely have remained a joke, but that remark got it moving. Later, Steve Bannon saw where the dark mojo was in the speech and got Trump to keep deploying it.
Maybe the people on the right who were energized by the speech were closet racists and couldn’t wait to hear someone echo their vulgar perceptions about Latinos. But maybe they were tired of tuning in to the dominant media and not hearing a critical word about immigration. In what conservatives call the Mainstream Media, anyone who argues against current immigration policies is generally held to be a bigot.
When a major story is suppressed or partially suppressed, it accrues potency. On this, Trump capitalized. Immigration has become a no-go zone on the left, so you can sound like a liberator by uttering vile half-truths about it. Immigration may be the most vulnerable of the liberal no-trespassing regions. Virtually no liberal alive would dare to pose the obvious and pressing questions about Muslim immigration, questions about gay rights, the rights of women, and the separation of church and state. Where do the immigrants stand on the rights of women? Where are they on gay rights? Do they recognize the separation between church and state? Where are they on free speech? One does not have to spend a lifetime studying Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, or Somalia to realize that these are not irrelevant questions. The questions have a couple of qualities in common — they are important, and they are not to be asked.
Politics now has too often become religion, and fundamentalist religion at that, for those who have no other spiritual faith. The doctrine cannot be questioned. The dogma cannot be challenged except under pain of excommunication from the ranks of the righteous. From living too long exclusively on faith some of the adherents may have lost their capacity for reasoned exchanged. Perhaps they are no longer capable of a debate with an intelligent Trump supporter. There are no intelligent Trump supporters, they say and so have done with it. When I was a boy the best response I could come up with to someone who insulted the priority of the Catholic Church or the wisdom of the pope was a punch in the nose. “Good Friday is good to us,” said a non-Catholic kid on the Belmont School playground. He meant that it gave us an unexpected day off. I, in a burst of spontaneous idiocy, punched him in the face.
There’s a lot of verbal face punching out there now for anyone who challenges the orthodoxy. And then there’s the matter of personal advantage. The liberal who dramatically supports all movements for immigration gets a two-fer. He gets his lawn cut at a lower price; his dinner at the restaurant is five dollars cheaper; he gets the house cleaned at a “reasonable” rate. And he gets to feel like he’s a righteous individual who knows that this is a nation of immigrants and loves it. Give me your tired, your poor, he chants to himself, while he writes a $30 check for a $60 landscaping job.
The undocumented worker is not going to take his gig teaching literature at Dartmouth, or hers practicing environmental law downtown, or elbow in on that cool online business selling heirloom mushrooms. No, the undocumented immigrant is going to compete with my friend Paul, who runs a landscaping business in Boston. Paul is 67, on Social Security, and would make twice the money if he were not faced with what looks to him to be unfair competition.
But the heck with him. He’s white and he’s old and his kind is dying off. I have heard liberals quietly rejoice at the opioid crisis and at the suicide rate among middle-aged white men. “They are toast,” one usually sensitive colleague in my field said publicly. We just have to wait it all out — they’ll be gone soon. I don’t think so. Half of them did not vote in the last presidential sweeps and for any given election they may change their minds. Latino voters tend to vote Democrat now — but many are devoted Roman Catholics, which often goes with potent personal conservatism. And there is no reason to believe that Latino people like evasion and suppression more than anyone else.
There’s a brilliant passage in Emerson that summarizes what’s happening in liberal intellectual life. It comes in the essay “Circles,” one of the few that the sage of Concord composed end to end, rather than stitching relevant passages from his journal together. One can see it as a summary of his early essays. In “Circles,” Emerson describes growth as the process in which we push to enlarge our minds and arrive at a new set of truths. We are the generators of circles, Emerson says. We move beyond ourselves into what was disorder and ignorance and we learn more, we grow. Our views become subtler. Our interpretations take in more facts. To use the idiom of a past day, we expand consciousness.
Good enough. But if that is as far as Emerson went, the passage would be admirable, not extraordinary.
He doesn’t stop there. He tells us how in time the circle that we have created with such honest intellectual labor no longer serves our ends. It actually becomes an impediment. He says that “it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstances […] to heap itself on that ridge and to solidify and hem in the life.” There is where the passage touches brilliance. Even our best ideas and best energies will eventually calcify. From enabling thoughts, they move to being actual roadblocks, restrictions. (“The only sin,” says Emerson “is limitation.”) Our best public impulses become laws and institutions and it is the tendency of laws and institutions to become sclerotic and disabling. Kenneth Burke calls this process the “bureaucratization of the imaginative.” Ideas freeze. Their proponents become harsh-minded and dictatorial. Many of the ideas the left affirms now grew out of ’60s radical politics. Then they were vital and life-endowing. Now it seems that, though still worthy on some level, they are tired. Their proponents have no humor, no brio. They do not like to laugh. Emerson tells us that we need to pass beyond frozen, once-worthy ideas — or at least break them up and reconsider.
But who wants to do that? It’s a lot of work and it can be distressing. In a world where political convictions have often replaced religious convictions, ridges of past thought and action can attain a fundamental (and fundamentalist) strength. It’s easy to smash away at other people’s walls. It’s not convenient to smash one’s own. Richard Rorty suggested that inflexibly holding a belief system is an attempt to put ourselves in touch with something eternal — our truth is the real truth and will never die. In so doing, Rorty thought, we suppress potentially deracinating evidence of time and change and, ultimately, premonitions of death.
Emerson knows that time and death are out there anyway and if we can’t lick them, through transcendental metaphysics, we ought to join them, at least to the extent of facing change not with angry insistence on the old, but with a willingness to do what Pound told us we must — make it new. Emerson issues a challenge: “If the soul is quick and strong it bursts over [the] boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind.” Emerson’s right — the soul has got to be quick and strong and committed, as the founder of my university, Thomas Jefferson, often argued, to a life of ongoing learning, the ongoing expansion of circles.
What we’re seeing now on the progressive side is the refusal to bust up the circle — and angry reprisal against anyone who dares to suggest that all is not well in the progressive world. Sexist! Racist! Transphobe! Fascist! Homophobe! These words fill the air whenever someone transgresses. The refusal to break up the progressive circle infuses the left’s skepticism about free speech. More and more progressives seem to be applauding efforts, especially by students, to shut down speakers that seem noxious. That includes Ann Coulter at Berkeley, Charles Murray at Middlebury, and Milo Yiannopoulos wherever he goes. It includes the instructors in an introductory humanities course at Reed College, to which protestors come regularly carrying signs protesting the content. When the professors tried to offer an introductory lecture on plans for the course, the protestors grabbed their microphones and shut the session down. It includes the neo-fascists who hoped, and were legally entitled, to rally in Charlottesville. It includes Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada, who has been harassed for refusing to conform to recent Canadian law and commit to using the pronouns preferred by certain gender non-conforming individuals. Peterson said he might be willing to use those pronouns, but he’d be damned if he was going to let the state compel him to do so.
Many progressives do not like the platform denial business at all: but a shocking number do. A recent poll taken in California indicates that more than half of Democrats believe that extreme right-wing speech should be restricted. The Washington Post reported that a fifth of college students now believe that it is legitimate to use physical force to shut down speakers who make “offensive and hurtful statements.” Almost half of us all, it seems, believe that “hate speech” is not protected by the Constitution. (It is.) Many progressives cheered on the antifa when they attacked right-wingers in Charlottesville and when they helped shut down a free speech rally in Boston, that was supposed to be put on by fascists but was not.
Why do so many want to shut speakers down? Free speech has for a long time been a mainstay of liberal commitment. People have followed the thinking of John Stuart Mill, who brings forward good reasons to endorse free and open speech. He believes strongly that the power of truth to dominate error is unquestionable. So let all of the nonsense into the world that the world can hold, then add a bushel and a peck. People are equipped with bullshit detectors. People have inner compasses that point true north. Ultimately, we do not like to be deceived. In the final analysis, bullshit will walk. And then, Mill says, if we are going to have censors, who exactly will they be? On whom will be conferred that particular right? Some of us believe that freedom of speech and thought is the primary and ultimate freedom. As John Milton says in his defense of intellectual liberty, Areopagitica, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Apparently, many Americans no longer believe this or anything like it. They see the election of Donald Trump as evidence that all too many of their fellow citizens are off their rockers and not to be trusted with serious decision making. Mill, who wrote the central work on freedom of expression, also believed that the strength of one’s vote should be proportional to one’s level of education. Two votes for a BA? Three for a master’s degree? Four (or maybe five) for the holders of the PhD? This would play well in the faculty lounge. But it would not be in tune with the best aspirations of democracy: one man one vote, one woman one vote.
Progressives have forgotten how to argue. Their circle has turned into a stone wall. Right-wingers deserve only exasperation, or an invitation to return to the caves. It makes one wonder whether progressives fear that they are not right. Do they doubt that men and women are equal, that blacks and whites are? Are they disciplining in others the wayward sentiments they find in themselves?
The psychological term for this is projection. How often, when we criticize others, are we criticizing ourselves indirectly? Ann Marlowe says that the ability to stop doing that is one of the hallmarks of successful psycho-therapy. Can we ever see a flaw in anyone that is not also our own flaw? You see a mote in your neighbor’s eye and miss the log that is in your own, says the rabbi.
When I was growing up and first becoming aware of intellectual and political life, the right-wingers were the major “conversation stoppers.” (The term is Richard Rorty’s.) It seemed that they would not talk about anything that mattered. “My country right or wrong.” “Support the president.” “Stop communism.” One heard that sort of utterance frequently, and one concluded that such thick-headed circle-reinforcing was the exclusive habit of the reactionary mind.
Alas, one sees that circle-solidifying may simply be the habit of the human mind when its ideology of choice has triumphed. The left seems just as adept at this trick as the right.
If progressives are going to regain ground, they need to stop stonewalling, stop blowing exasperated air from out of their noses down on the benighted, develop their philosophy of change and let people know what’s up. For on the deepest level what progressive want is in harmony with the highest aspirations of democracy: openness, tolerance, humanity, solidarity among all citizens, an end to racism and homophobic oppression. Yet the song of progressive democracy ought to be sung in loud, joyous, and semi-harmonious tones — not as a monochrome dirge, full of Thou Shalt Nots and You Better or Else’s.
I give the final word here to the American poet who understood our great experiment better than anyone before or (I believe) since. “This is what you shall do,” wrote Walt Whitman.
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His newest book, The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching, came out from Bloomsbury in February 2018. He is at work on a book about Walt Whitman and democracy.