Scribblerus Interruptus

I take a break from half-baked cogitation and its attendant scribbling about surrealism and me, or some such, to recommend a recently published interview with venerable conservative George Will (Does ‘Conservatism’ Actually Mean Anything Anymore?) and a chilling article by Anne Applebaum in the October issue of The Atlantic (The New Puritans).


George Will is someone with whom I frequently differ on topical issues and on fundamental principles, sometimes respectfully, others more heatedly, from my end at any rate. If you mention David Matthews to Will, he may think you are referring to the band if the name registers at all.


On the state of country and culture I am in substantial agreement with opinions expressed in the interview by Zach Stanton published last week at Politico. By way of example:

  • Politics is now "cut off from anything other than making one's adherents feel good…Grievances—which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with 'politics' understood as 'legislation and policy.'"

  • "[T]here’s no question that we have too uncritically said the populist trope—which is that people know what they want and the people are wise and they therefore ought to get what they want— instead of H.L. Mencken’s famous belief that 'democracy is the conviction that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.'"

  • Social media "gives velocity to appetites and to passions that are unnatural. It’s also the case that when the mainstream media was everything, that sort of offended our democratic sensibilities, but it had the advantage that there were gatekeepers. So if you were stark raving mad and overflowing with conspiracy theories, it was pretty hard to disseminate it. Now it’s easy."

  • On academic free speech: "part of the problem is that a lot of the radicals in the 1960s went to work on campus, got tenure and through the tenure system, reproduced themselves. There are a lot of people on campus nowadays who just don’t belong there —they shouldn’t be teachers; they should be political activists. Fine! Go out and do your thing, but don’t pretend that you’re going to be teachers." The issue is more complex than I want to get into here. Even so, there is something to Will's point.

Will's remarks on the Tulsa riots, where his outrage is palpable, and the 1619 Project, where his blunt critique will outrage its admirers, mirror my own. Enough said.


There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education, and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots. There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom. That’s what we called that when it happened in Cologne.


When we argue against the 1619 Project, we’re arguing against it because it is fundamentally preposterous. The essence of it, as expressed by [Nikole Hannah-Jones,] who won a Pulitzer Prize for it, is not just that America was really founded in 1619 with the arrival of slaves, but that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery because Lord Dunmore had promised that slaves who escaped and joined the British side would be emancipated. Well, by the time Dunmore talked, Lexington and Concord had already occurred; the Stamp Act, the Boston massacre, the Boston Tea Party had occurred; George Washington had been appointed commander of the Army. All of this before that. There’s a deep,almost cynical, illiteracy about the 1619 Project. The revolution was about big stuff. Read Bernard Bailyn. Read Gordon Wood. People took their ideas seriously. We had a rich newspaper culture, and a rich pamphlet culture. How many things published in America have sold, comparable to the proportion of the population, anything like "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine?


Anne Applebaum is no less blunt in the opening sentences of The New Puritans: "A growing illiberalism, fueled by social media, is trampling democratic discourse. The result is ruined lives and a chilling atmosphere in which mob justice has replaced due process and forgiveness is impossible." This runs deeper than the cancel culture conservatives screech about when they want to defend themselves from criticism, however legitimate.


[D]ig into the story of anyone who has been a genuine victim of modern mob justice and you will often find not an obvious argument between "woke" and "anti-woke" perspectives but rather incidents that are interpreted, described, or remembered by different people in different ways, even leaving aside whatever political or intellectual issue might be at stake.


For the article Applebaum spoke with more than a dozen people who were either "victims or close observers of sudden shifts in social codes in America." All are centrist or center-left liberals. She writes of Donald McNeil, who was asked to resign from The New York Times because of conversations with high school students in Peru during which he may or may not have said something racially offensive, an incident I examined in this space earlier this year (A Spirit of Inquisition).


And Ian Buruma, who stepped down as editor of The New York Review of Books over an editorial dispute regarding publication of an essay deemed to be at odds with the spirit of #MeToo, another incident with which I have some familiarity (also noted in A Spirit of Inquisition). Buruma did exercise poor editorial judgment in publishing a third-rate essay about being accused of sexual assault by Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomesi that did not measure up to the standards of The New York Review. The quality of the essay was at most a side issue for the mob that demanded Buruma's head for the crime of printing an article by someone pushing back against accusations of sexual assault.


The consequences extended beyond loss of a job. Magazines where Buruma had been writing for three decades would no longer publish him. Applebaum reports that one editor said something about "younger staff" at his magazine. A public letter in Buruma's defense signed by more than one hundred New York Review contributors, among them Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan, Ariel Dorfman, Caryl Phillips, Alfred Brendel, and Applebaum herself, carried no weight. As Applebaum put it, this editor evidently feared his colleagues more than he did Joyce Carol Oates.


Applebaum tells of Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer and political liberal who after posting a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set a courthouse on fire, "discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would sing it. After the poet Joseph Massey was accused of 'harassment and manipulation' by women he'd been romantically involved with, the Academy of American Poets removed all of his poetry from its website, and his publishers removed his books from theirs."


Loss of employment, reputations and careers destroyed, and ostracism on the basis of

anonymous and unverified reports and complaints are common themes, as are absence of due process and secretive procedures that take place outside the law. Applebaum invokes the specter of Stalinist Russia and Mao's Cultural Revolution, albeit with caution. "America," she says, "remains a safe distance from Mao's China and Stalin's Russia.


Neither our secretive university committees nor the social-media mobs are backed by authoritarian regimes threatening violence. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that says otherwise, these procedures are not being driven by a "unified left" (there is no "unified left"), or by a unified movement of any kind, let along by the government…the administrators who carry out these investigations and disciplinary procedures, whether they work at universities or in the HR departments of magazines, are not doing so because they fear the Gulag. Many pursue them because they believe they are making their institutions better—they are creating a more harmonious workplace, advancing the causes of racial or sexual equality, keeping students safe. Some want to protect their institution's reputation.


She writes that at least two of the people she interviewed believe they were punished because a white, male boss felt he had to publicly sacrifice another white man to protect his own position.


These are just some of the issues Applebaum takes up with welcome lucidity in The New Puritans. It is a lengthy article that rewards being read in full.

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