Tyrannizing the Marketplace of Ideas

Inasmuch as we Americans are heirs to the Enlightenment, we are inclined to see in the exchange of viewpoints and their public debate a sign of political health. We should recognize, however, that such openness to alternatives is by no means a typical presupposition of political life. The authoritarian impulse -- the inclination to enforce a political consensus -- has a long history, and where this inclination prevails, the censoring of unwelcomed alternatives follows.

Inasmuch as we are partisans of liberty, we'd like to think that fostering an atmosphere of free and open debate is bound to sap the authoritarian impulse, thereby ensuring the persistence of political alternatives. Our political culture (as transmitted through our founding documents) assumed that debate will ultimately lead to reasonable outcomes and that a public imbued with an attitude of "live and let live" would encourage a spirit of compromise and conciliation, with reciprocal toleration prevailing and democratic habits and practices sustaining themselves over time. As charming as it may be, such sappy optimism seems increasingly out of kilter with what we see around us. As we survey the contemporary political landscape, we are forced to wonder if the authoritarian impulse is not more durable, more insistent than its presumed political antidote. This compels us to offer up some observations that may shed some light on the ongoing degradation of our shared political culture that threatens to strangle our public life.

To begin with, one could say that in its youthful, fighting phase the classical liberal tradition proposed that in the absence of arbitrary and artificial constraints, people would naturally flourish. While this hopeful vision was useful in undermining thoughtless devotion to thrones and altars, it failed to allow that thoughtless devotion can be a source of comfort, since it fends off insecurity. Moreover, the very proliferation of alternatives so characteristic of a free society, with its swirl of unsettling uncertainties, is apt to exacerbate the insecurity some understandably yearn to escape. There is, then, a certain willingness on the part of people to submit to authority, and this is at variance with their presumed inclination to live freely. Hence, we may assume there is an audience-in-waiting for a forceful authority, if not an active quest for the kind of fully invigorated life that only devotion to a full-blown fanaticism provides.

We should not be surprised, then, that in a free society the marketplace of ideas would cater to this segment of the public, just as it caters to others; where there are buyers, after all, there will be sellers. Indeed, it seems that the market for authoritarianism may be expanding. But one might ask: Who are the present-day purveyors of these ideas, and what considerations (aside from vulgar self-promotion) prompt them to enter the market? And how do they attempt to close the sale?

Language is the medium of debate. To the extent that language is impoverished, the ability to engage in debate is diminished. Where one cannot silence debate entirely, one might instead seek to restrict it by limiting the available vocabulary. The deliberate impoverishment and perversion of language is a means available to the aspiring tyrant operating in a free society -- it is a way the tyrant might work to impose a consensus. Language may be impoverished via such techniques as persuasive definition (in which everything to be discredited is redefined as "racist," for example) and by reimagining history so as to enshrine one's own politically expedient slanders in the handling of the past. The denunciation of the American experiment as an exercise in "white supremacy" isn't just sick and demented, it is deliberate and purposeful, part and parcel of an effort to smear any defense of the classical liberal tradition as an expression of racism. As for the authoritarian impulse itself, this may be redefined as a most benign sentiment and sold to the public as "social justice." And so it is. Yet there can be no denying that the advocates of social justice brazenly promote tyranny. They demand the policing of language and the purging of attitudes. They assign collective guilt on the basis of race. And in all this and more, they act in accord with the tenets of postmodernism.

Postmodernism is a now-fashionable variant of relativism. The postmodernists deny there is any truth accessible to reason or discoverable through debate. Any way of thinking that gains currency and wields power is held to do so through brute domination. The only remedy to such domination is a more forceful exercise of domination (on behalf of a rival discourse). Since all political activity consists of domination, anyone engaging in political activity necessarily seeks to tyrannize, and all past political traditions are dismissed as little more than disguised tyrannies. In a typical move, the postmodernist denies there is ultimately any distinction worth making between liberty and tyranny, and so discredits liberty while exalting tyranny.

The embrace of such relativism is a license to dominate. When a free society is deemed to be based on nothing other than domination, it presents itself to its internal critics not as a framework of liberties worth preserving but as a political arrangement that has -- up to now at least -- been improperly dominated and therefore demands to be dominated anew. The free society thus presents itself to the aspiring tyrant as an opportunity waiting to be seized upon or -- to put it differently -- it presents itself to the social justice activist as a society woefully in need of more virtuous domination (on the part of the social justice activist, of course). To state the obvious, these are not people who argue in good faith. Language, they maintain, is an arena of political warfare and it is the medium through which tyrannies establish themselves. The mastery of language is the pathway to power, and the success of their agenda thrives on its perversion and misuse.

The postmodernists and their social justice popularizers are not the first to propose that political life consists in nothing other than a quest for domination unmoored to any rationally discernible standard governing their activity; they were preceded in this by the fascists. Benito Mussolini himself put it succinctly in 1921: "If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth... then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable." Like the fascists that preceded them, the social justice activists assert a right to invent justifications for tyranny and to rule arbitrarily on the basis of these tendentious legitimations.

Let us be blunt: in the decisive sense, the social justice activists (the "antiracists," the "critical race theorists," and other assorted self-labeling social justice charlatans) are fascists -- they arrogate to themselves the right to impose on us their perverse reading of American history (as has most recently been shown in the belligerent posture of the NEA); they strive to dominate the political landscape not by winning others to their point of view, but by brainwashing children while smearing and censoring their critics. They seek to sanitize their own tyrannical impulse by associating it with a putatively humanitarian aim (a well-worn tactic of the left), yet their agenda reveals all its ugliness on the slightest examination. These activist bullies seek to choke off public debate just as their academic "thought leaders" supplanted responsible scholarship with puerile rantings and activist mouth foam. Progressive liberal social justice activists are not people with whom one might agree to disagree; they are proto-fascists who aspire to install a tyranny. While many intuitively sense this (and are resisting), it is essential to understand the "thinking" that drives these postmodern fascists, to call it out, to see it as the willful exercise in malignant falsification it is, to reject it, and to combat its already excessive influence over our public life. In short, we should spare no effort to shrink the market for this trash.

Image: Thibault Roland

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