Disconnect: Kirsten Powers' The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech

Kirsten Powers’ new book,The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech provides a thorough account of the hypocrisy, intolerance, and just plain nastiness of what she terms the “illiberal left.” It is indeed refreshing to read a self-proclaimed “lifelong liberal” call out the abuses of her co-progressives, even if she breaks no new ground in doing so: informed conservatives are already well aware of what regularly goes on in academia, Hollywood, traditional media, and other environments dominated by the left.

In her introductory chapter Powers admits that the systemic phenomenon she reports is only found on the left, though she spends no time there -- or anywhere else in the book -- seriously discussing why that may be so. The ensuing chapters take on the various offenses against speech, logic, honesty, and common decency regularly committed in our universities, media, and public punditry. Powers focuses particular scorn upon hard-core feminist intellectuals who eagerly attack any man and especially woman who may stray from current progressive/feminist pieties. She writes:

When men disagree with illiberal feminists, a favored silencing tactic is to accuse them of “mansplaining.”…[I]liberal feminists have forged the notion of “mansplaining” into a weapon to silence any man who expresses an opinion at odds with feminist orthodoxy. How it works is relatively simple: a “pro-life” man who talks about abortion with a “pro-choice” woman is “mansplaining.” (But a “pro-choice” man agreeing with a “pro-choice” woman is not.)

Powers is also incredulous over the feminist-inspired legitimization of the “micro-aggression” and “trigger warning” regulations increasingly infecting college campuses today, lamenting the left’s focus on “protecting” students from thought that may trouble them, rather than insisting that they encounter and rigorously engage such thought. As she observes:

If a college student is going to be traumatized by The Great Gatsby, then they are going to find day-to-day life unbearable once they step outside the child-care programs that are passing for universities today.

The remaining examples she provides in the nine chapters of the book are familiar: intimidation of students who hold traditional views on religion, marriage, and morality, the hypocritical dismissal of deeply misogynist insults heaved by leftist males against conservative women, and deliberate misrepresentation and fabrication of “facts” in order to promote the progressive worldview.

Curiously, however, with the exception of noting President Obama’s role in the attempt to delegitimize Fox News, Powers is apparently uncurious when it comes to examining similar abuses against free thought and speech promoted by leftist politicians  (e.g., Clinton, Reid, Pelosi, Wasserman-Shultz, to name just the headliners) who regularly demonize their political opponents and actively promote the intolerance and hypersensitivity that Powers eschews.

No doubt Powers is genuinely offended by what she labels the “illiberal” impulses and practices of progressives who attack rather than argue against opinions that do not comport with their own enlightened views. She cites example after example of attempts by these leftists to shame, defame, destroy, and otherwise shut down debate and politicize virtually every issue, public and private. Throughout the book, Powers proudly professes her liberalism, and posits, but doesn’t really argue -- i.e., provide evidence other than her own sensibilities -- that “true” liberalism requires free and respectful debate and consideration of the opinions of others. In this she convinces the reader of her fair-mindedness, if not her clear thinking. She cites a litany of dots, but can’t bring herself to connect them. The reader is left thinking: how can she catalog and condemn all this leftist behavior and not see its connection to its underlying philosophy?

For what is hugely missing in Powers book -- and powerfully present in say, David Mamet’s tale of conversion from a “brain dead” liberal in good standing to a thinking conservative -- is the recognition that the attitudes and practices that she abhors are not a distortion or aberrational trend of her professed political proclivities, but an inescapable consequence. Notwithstanding the lofty rhetoric about helping the downtrodden and the “little guy,” the left has ever been about seizing and holding power to enforce equality of condition upon all but the elite who exercise that power. That goal can ultimately brook no dissent. Powers constantly emphasizes her personal preference for respectful debate, but fails to recognize that with very few exceptions, modern liberals have no interest in engaging in free and fact-based debate to persuade others; they see themselves as possessors of the “Secret Knowledge,” and want to impose it upon the benighted masses who are incapable of leading useful lives without it.   

Powers’ conceit of the illiberal vs. the liberal left is a valiant attempt to elide the cognitive dissonance that must gnaw at her -- how can people who share my opinions and basic worldview behave so badly?

It is inarguable that well over a century and tens of trillions of dollars spent on liberal programs to combat poverty and various other injustices by attempting to reengineer human nature and absolve various classes of people from responsibility for their lives and behavior have failed to achieve the left’s espoused goals and indeed have resulted in incalculable harm to millions of their “beneficiaries.”  Inasmuch as the nobility of the progressive Vision may not be challenged, all that remains is to blame external factors. Powers would probably cite too little money spent, or perhaps even honest disagreements over policy, rather than mean-spirited, racist, homophobic, white, Republican men who hate children and women, but she is a decided minority. She doesn’t seem to understand what “illiberal” progressives -- which is to say all but a handful of today’s politically active liberals, with whom Powers presumably communes -- manifestly do, even if only viscerally: 1) there are no good objective arguments for the progressive vision for society; and 2) naming and shaming ideological opponents is therefore not only the best option for advancing the Cause, it works! 

In fairness, The Silencing is not an argument for the progressive worldview or the efficacy of Democrat policies. It is a call for civility in our public discourse, and as such is welcome, though Ms. Powers acknowledges that it will likely go unheeded by the totalitarians she targets. What she doesn’t say, but must realize, is that in fact, the phenomena she recounts will only get worse, given the influence the left will continue to wield on the nation's campuses for the foreseeable future. A better book would have explored why the left’s intolerance of dissenting opinion is so pervasive, and how the politicians and party leaders she presumably votes for and otherwise supports actively encourage such attitudes. Such an inquiry, of course, raises dangerous questions that could be fatal to Powers’ liberal illusions of how the world actually works. 

In the end, Powers’ book is best characterized as a variant of the old joke, “What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?” Answer: a good start.  Kirsten Powers has travelled further towards honesty than most modern liberals ever will, but she still has a way to go if her ultimate destination is to understand reality as it is, not as progressives think it should be. 

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