The following column appeared in my local newspaper the other day. It is well written and thought-provoking—two areas that I like to focus on in my blog, so I am sharing it with you today. The author is Joel Kotkin, executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. You can learn more about him at the end of this post.
By Joel Kotkin
In the past, the right, notably the segment affiliated with religious belief, was closely associated with censorship and control of thought. Today, enforced orthodoxy derives primarily from the left, emboldened by near total control of the media, university curricula, and cultural products.
Remarkably, a recent study by the Atlantic found that “the most politically intolerant Americans” tend to be white, highly educated urban progressives. Conservatives may have once driven intolerance from the pulpit and the press, but they no longer have the ability to exercise thought control in a meaningful way.
Long ago, religious zealots embraced feudal ideals, but increasingly it’s the ultra-secular progressives who reprise the role of Medieval Inquisitors.
This move toward leftist orthodoxy is not unprecedented. McCarthyism in the 1950s may have been cruelly inquisitional, but not nearly as totalitarian as Stalinism. Unfortunately, it is largely on the left that we find the authoritarian demand for unanimity on virtually all issues.
Progressivism’s feudal turn
At the heart of intolerance lies with the notion of “absolute truth.” Traditionally, Western liberalism embraced the ideal of healthy debate and interchange about values and objectives. Liberals and conservatives alike took empiricism and rationality seriously.
Today these ideals are being undermined by a fevered rush to reject empiricism and complexity. “There’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” suggests the left’s super-star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
This emphasis on intent and “morality” reflects a more medieval attitude than that of a reasoned politics that grows from facts and evidence.
As in the Middle Ages, the new progressives often seek to impose a secular version of the imperial theocracy. Like the Medieval Catholic Church, new school progressives often exhibit hostility to the roots of our own past, whether verities contained in Shakespeare, the writings of the founders or even the notion of disinterested jurisprudence. In the new fundamentalism, as in the old, there can be only one set of truths, while all others are viewed as evil.
The green religion
The globally ascendant environmental movement follows the medieval script perhaps more than any element on the left. Theirs is also a movement defined by the imminent apocalypse, with mankind’s fate doomed by natural disasters, like fires, sea level rise, or even unusual weather brought about by our own sinfulness. There’s increasingly little debate even about the best ways to address climate issues without undermining the economy.
Today, even distinguished skeptics deeply concerned about the impact of manmade warming such as veteran climate scientists like Roger Pielke and Judith Curry or economist Bjorn Lonborg have been essentially driven out from most mainstream media. No longer willing to countenance any dissent, many scientific associations have become open advocates for a particular climate agenda. Modern media all too often reflect what the RAND Corporation calls “truth decay,” that is, substituting assertion over evidence if evidence diverges from the accepted narrative embraced by journalists.
There is, for example, a refusal to confront the long history of exaggerations in environmental prophecies — dating back at least to the late 1960s.
But whenever the apocalypse fails to appear at its appointed time, the green priesthood simply pushes the timeline further out again, knowing full well the media will not report on their misleading prognostications.
The Inquisition of the Enlightened
There’s a price paid when an influential part of society embraces a kind of fundamentalist hysteria reminiscent of the grassroots religious movements common in the Middle East and also plagued Medieval Catholicism. The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells is just the latest “climatista” to suggest that constitutional democracy as we know it may not be up to meeting the apocalyptic challenge.
In many places, the worst intolerance pertains to issues relating to gender or race. Holding up the banner of social justice, campus activists have ejected liberal values for those of Mao’s Red Guards, chasing those with differing ideas, including distinguished professors, off-campus, as recently occurred at both Harvard and Cambridge.
These tendencies are hardly weakened by the fact that so many college administrations — Oberlin, Evergreen College, Williams — have not only tolerated assaults on those considered, often falsely, as racist or sexist but seem to embrace them. Some progressives such as Cass Sunstein fear that students raised in current homogeneous college environment “are less likely to get a good education, and faculty members are likely to learn less from one another if there is a prevailing political orthodoxy.
A recent survey of first-year reading assignments at 350 schools by the National Association of Scholars found that most are now dominated by contemporary authors, usually focused on progressive topics like racism, Islamophobia, or gender issues. Not on the reading list: Pretty much anyone who wrote before 2000, including Homer, Confucius, Shakespeare, Milton, de Tocqueville, V.S. Naipul or the Founding Fathers.
Given their muddled elders, it’s not surprising that many millennials reject the ideal of free and open expression. In 2017, 43 percent of college students approved the banning of extreme speakers, twice the number in 1984. Over two-thirds of older Americans believe that it is extremely important to live in a democracy; but among millennials, less than one third do.
The technological threat
Free speech’s future prospects are not made brighter by an internet controlled by a handful of tech oligarchs. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through Facebook and Google; as those tech companies systematically destroy the economics of the news business, their dominance will only grow, particularly among the young.
Based largely in the Bay Area — a hotbed of progressive sentiment — these firms use algorithms to suppress anything they find mildly disturbing.
This has already resulted in the mass de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, Pinterest, You-Tube, and Twitter.
The power over information wielded by the oligarchs, the shaping of the next generation by the progressive professoriate and cultural clerisy represent a clear danger to the future of free thought. It will take a concerted effort by people of good will, both left and right, to demand a return to an appreciation of the great thinkers of the past and humankind’s beautiful diversity of thought. We can’t let our cultural legacy be squelched by today’s inquisitors.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).