Updated: Feb 16, 2019
A cottage industry has grown up around the premise that conservatives are routinely victimized by liberal elites who dominate American universities, the mainstream media, East and Left coasts, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, unions, human resources departments of major corporations, and Marx only knows what else. Suppression of conservative viewpoints is systemic and systematic. These truths are held to be self-evident.
On campuses across the nation liberal professors indoctrinate students with a radical ideological brew of atheism, moral relativism, communism, socialism, postmodernism, radical environmentalism, radical feminism, identity politics, multiculturalism, sexual fluidity, and no doubt other isms that escape my notice. Americans are terrorized by decrees from corporate human resources departments mandating political correctness in thought, word, and deed on everything from same-sex marriage to gender identity to pronoun usage. The media is "fake news" and the enemy of the people, notwithstanding Fox and Sinclair Broadcasting dominance of television and radio news.
John Hawkins, founder of Right Wing News, a Facebook group with more than 3 million followers, told NPR, a notorious, hotbed of radical liberalism partially funded by the government (Mak, Despite So Much Winning, The Right Feels Like It's Losing):
…the average American conservative feels bombarded daily with disrespect.
He turns on a TV show where he's insulted, and then he's like, "well, maybe I'll just unwind and watch an awards show"—the Oscars or something—where he gets trashed all day long," Hawkins said. "He goes to Twitter and he's got some you know guy calling him in a-hole...this is sort of like a pervasive all-out attack if you're a conservative. And it's all the time sort of thing.
At the risk of coming off as disrespectful, maybe the average American conservative needs to get a life. Back in the day when I owned a TV I frequently scrolled through the channel listings in vain search for a show that would not insult my intelligence before turning to a book that I should have picked up in the first place. These days I go straight to the book. The reasonable response to TV that insults or trashes me is to change the channel or turn it off and put my time to better use.
This average conservative is upset because some guy calls him names when he goes on Twitter? On Twitter? Heaven forfend. Isn't that what Twitter is all about? If you are liberal, conservatives insult you, and vice versa. If you are an alt-right blockhead, antifa blockheads jack you around, and if you're an antifa blockhead, alt-right blockheads respond in kind. &c. Twitter is a cesspool. This is what you get when you swim in it. Ah, but I digress.
Criticism of political correctness run amok is far from unfounded. Campus incidents that play into the conservative narrative are easy to find. Controversial speakers are shouted down, protests escalate into violence, and all manner of absurdities metastasize out of issues around trigger warnings, safe zones, hurtful speech, bias tribunals, and intersectionality, whatever exactly that is. These things are widely reported in the much vilified, "fake news," liberal, mainstream media, jumped on with glee by what passes for respectable conservative circles in publications such as National Review, and are the raison d'être for muckraking outfits like The College Fix, Minding the Campus, and Campus Reform devoted to exposure of liberal bias and hypocrisy on college campuses. Not much gets hidden or swept under the rug. Some episodes are outrageous, some deplorable, still others plain goofy, many are trivial, and more than a few are a mix of these ingredients. There is plenty of reason for concern about the state of American universities and intellectual life. There is also plenty that conservative entrepreneurs of grievance get wrong.
Before diving deeper into the muck, a note about terminology. Out on the rightmost fringes there is a tendency to use the terms "liberal," "progressive," "left/leftist," and "socialist" pretty much interchangeably with casual disregard for genuine ideological differences, antipathy, and open antagonism between groups. From here on out I will stick with "liberal" unless there is reason to make a distinction.
I began thinking about this topic back in the spring after reading about the case of Bruce Gilley (Shepherd, Portland State University Professor Criticizes the "New Left" As He Defends His Arguments in Favor of Colonialism), a tenured Portland State University political science professor whose paper "The Case for Colonialism" became a cause célèbre within certain circles after it was accepted for publication by Third World Quarterly, an obscure but reportedly respected journal in the field of international studies based in London. Gilley contends that "at least some if not many or most episodes of Western colonialism were a net benefit" to the people subjected to colonization, goes further to claim that anticolonial ideology caused great harm to those colonized, and proposes renewal of the colonial project as a remedy for the ills afflicting former colonies that are weak, fragile, and failed states today.
These claims are debatable, controversial, and provocative. The Pollyannas among us might expect that eyebrows would be raised, letters fired off to the editor, and papers written by other academics in the field aiming at rebuttal and refutation of Gilley's thesis. What happened instead was the eruption of a furious brouhaha as rabble were roused on all sides of the partisan divide in a macabre dance of reaction and counterreaction.
An online petition demanded that the article be retracted on grounds that it "brought widespread condemnation from scholars around the globe…lacks empirical evidence, contains historical inaccuracies, and includes spiteful fallacies…" One outraged scholar took to Facebook to propose that Princeton University should revoke Gilley's doctorate.
Fifteen members of the Third World Quarterly editorial board posted a public letter of resignation on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. That Facebook and Twitter have come to be accepted as legitimate vehicles of intellectual discourse baffles me, which I suppose is yet more evidence of my status as old fogy and outlier. Ah, but I digress again. The resigning board members charged that Gilley's essay
fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism…and that causes offence and hurt and thereby violates the very principle of free speech.
Noam Chomsky, not known for dialing back his rhetoric, weighed in here as a voice of reason and restraint. A member of the journal's board who did not resign, Chomsky averred that it was
pretty clear that proper procedures were not followed in publishing the article, but…retraction is a mistake—and also opens very dangerous doors…. Rebuttal offers a great opportunity for education, not only in this case.
He added, "I'm sure that what I publish offends many people, including editors and funders of journals in which they appear." (Flaherty, Resignations at 'Third World Quarterly).
Accounts of the affair, the case against Gilley, and arguments about whether rebuttal or retraction is the appropriate response in these circumstances can be found at Inside Higher Ed (Flaherty, Is Retraction the New Rebuttal) and Chronicle of Higher Education (Vimal Patel, Last Fall This Scholar Defended Colonialism. Now He’s Defending Himself). At National Review Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison stormed the barricades on Gilley's behalf (Bruce Gilley’s Orwellian Campus Nightmare).
In the end the paper was withdrawn at the request of the editor and with permission of the author after the editor received "serious and credible threats of personal violence." The withdrawal notice included a statement that investigation into the peer review process demonstrated that the article had undergone double-blind peer review in accordance with the journal's editorial policy.
Criticism of "The Case for Colonialism" is not unfair. Gilley does indeed ignore "all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism." He does not consider the impact of the destructive side of colonialism on peoples trying to form viable nation-states in the postcolonial era. Serendipity struck when I happened on Malise Ruthven's review of Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War between the Muslim World and the Global North by William R. Polk (God on Our Side). Ruthven quotes Polk on atrocities committed in the Congo:
…between 1884 and 1908 the Belgians are estimated to have killed at least twice as many natives as the Nazis killed Jews and Roma—some ten to fifteen million people. They also engaged in systematic rape, cut off the hands or feet of unproductive natives, and stripped the Congo of raw materials.
Yes, this is an extreme example. And yes, Gilley offers the qualifier "particularly after World War I" when asserting that the period of colonial governance was the most successful period for many of these countries "however you measure it" (Patel). But native peoples throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas were brutalized and had their lands stripped of raw materials by colonial powers, and this contributed to the challenges and obstacles confronted by new states in the postcolonial era.
Gilley affirms colonialism's civilizing mission that "led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism." This is a strong and controversial claim. He trots out statistics that point to gains in life expectancy, public health, education, &c., but makes no attempt to reckon the human cost that accompanied them, as in the Congo between 1884 and 1908. Instead he cites Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck's assertion that since independence the Congo has never had an army comparable to the Belgian colonial force and suggests that maybe the Belgians should return, whereupon presumably they would impose order and resume their civilizing mission.
A weaker but more plausible claim about benefits derived from colonial rule coupled with rigorous appraisal of associated costs could have made for a thought-provoking paper and contribution to the field. The omission leads me to wonder if Gilley was deliberately out to stir up a hornet's nest.
This stuff makes my head blow up. People who should be my ideological comrades adopt tactics best left to neofascists. Threats of violence are despicable. They should get nothing but unequivocal condemnation and prosecution of the culprits. Demand for retraction is inimical to freedom of speech, conscience, and academic inquiry. My should-be comrades lose me altogether when they lash out at "spiteful fallacies" and charge that the paper violates the principles of free speech by causing offense and hurt. By all means call out fallacies and shoddy scholarship. I am with you. Spite is beside the point. A valid argument is no less valid for being spiteful. As for principles of free speech, they cannot count for much if they do not include the right of others to say things that I find offensive and even hurtful.
Then there is Dr. Gilley's agenda, illustrated by his comments about a letter to The Times of London signed by eighty academics (Patel) responding to the campaign against Third World Quarterly and Gilley with a staunch defense of "the right of editors, journals, and presses to publish any work—however controversial—that, in their view, merits exposure and debate." The letter expressed concern about "censorious attitudes embodied in the campaigns directed against the journal" and its editor, which are
part of a rising tide of intolerance on university campuses and within the academic profession, with certain scholars and students seeking to close down perspectives with which they disagree rather than debating them openly.
This was not enough for Gilley. He was miffed because most people who supported his right to publish did not agree with his argument. He considers this evidence that the academy is "highly illiberal and intolerant" of his viewpoint. The possibility that reasonable people of good will might dispute his argument on the merits is not an option.
The invocation of liberal bias as cause to the exclusion of other explanations is a common thread at the heart of conservative grievance. In a recent article in National Review (Ten Commandments of the Supreme Court, July 17, 2018 ) Victor Davis Hanson, a regular contributor to the magazine and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, laments that the
majority of post-war Republican Supreme Court nominees, who were initially perceived as conservative, turned liberal on the bench…or went from right-wing to center-right or centrist
while Democratic nominees, always liberal, hardly ever swing in the other direction to centrist or conservative. This is an interesting observation worthy of research and analysis not to be found in Hanson's article, where causality is obvious.
Perhaps it is the pressure for approval by the liberal social and political culture of Washington DC. If not that, it must be concern for reputation determined by liberal media and historians who "will praise and memorialize a 'maverick' who 'grows,' 'matures,' or 'evolves,' while dismissing a 'recalcitrant,' 'hard-core,' or 'reactionary' justice who remains a strict constructionist." Or it is because a president has an eye to his legacy, which will get more praise from the left than blame from the right "when his malleable nominee bolts and become progressive." On the other wing, Democratic justices "realize that university appearances, favorable media coverage, and legacy and historical memorialization all hinge on remaining liberal or intensifying their liberal fides."
No extraordinary discernment is required to appreciate the role social and cultural pressure, concern for reputation, and desire for a certain legacy play in human affairs. But to reduce the decisions Earl Warren, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, and others to these motivations denies the possibility that they might have acted out of conscience and integrity. Apparently it is inconceivable that justices could be swayed by the strength of the arguments of a case, still less that their understanding of the Constitution might be influenced over time by the requirement to reach decisions on vexing matters of which the authors of the Constitution could have had no inkling.
Last spring National Review correspondent Kevin Williamson was within the space of one week hired by The Atlantic as an ideas columnist who would offer a conservative perspective, then fired after it came out that he has argued that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide, clarifying in a tweet that by this he has in mind hanging. Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg initially resisted calls to fire Williamson on the principle that people should be given a second chance. Goldberg reversed his position after meeting with Williamson and concluding that the language in the tweet did indeed represent his views.
Williamson's colleagues at National Review were quick to take umbrage at this perceived injustice and rose to his defense with familiar charges of liberal hypocrisy, censorship, and suppression of conservative views, implicitly denying that it might be within the purview of The Atlantic's editors to decide that Williamson's views fall beyond the pale for a writer who will represent the magazine. I wrote about the Williamson affair in Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, April 7, 2018. For a more extensive account, see Sharon Kann, Kevin Williamson also said on his podcast that people who’ve had abortions should be hanged.
Along comes the intellectual dark web, a strange conglomeration of "iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities" (Weiss, Meet the Renegades of the Intellecutual Dark Web) bound together by self-identification as freethinkers and victims of political correctness who have been marginalized by liberal elites.
Some of the group consider themselves to be of the left, others are of the rightward persuasion. Among the names I recognize are neuroscientist and "new atheist" provocateur Sam Harris, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, former Muslim and current feminist critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali, American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and professor and pop psychologist Jordan Peterson. What issues animate them?
Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered "dark." (Weiss)
To Weiss's account Jacob Hamburger appends a few items that throw light on this bunch:
A listener of Harris’s podcast might add to the list a vociferous defense of the validity of genetic explanations for IQ differences between racial groups, a follower of Peterson’s videos might insist on the nefarious influence of "postmodern neo-Marxism" on college campuses, and a fan of Ben Shapiro might contribute a skepticism toward the reality of "transgenderism." (The "Intellectual Dark Web" Is Nothing New)
Hamburger traces the intellectual dark web's lineage back to polemics about political correctness that cropped up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when neoconservatives like Allen Bloom, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D'Souza, and the more mild-mannered David Brooks crusaded against the influx of radical postmodernist ideas into the academy. While Intellectual dark websters see themselves as eclectic and "transpartisan," and many do not consider themselves conservative, Hamburger makes a persuasive case that "these supposedly centrist crusaders against political correctness may have more in common with their conservative predecessors than they let on."
Collectively and individually they are aggrieved because their viewpoints are suppressed by the usual suspects, which is to say, they are not accepted as authorities in their fields, their ideas are subjected to criticism and considered controversial, they are shut out of the debate by magazines that elect not to publish their work, and they find themselves unwelcome on college campuses. Yet these same victims have books published by major publishers. These books are reviewed in serious publications, if not necessarily lavished with the glowing praise that the authors think they are due. They hold positions at universities and prominent think tanks. Their public lectures draw audiences that pack arenas. Their podcasts have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of listeners. This makes for a bizarre conception of suppression and marginalization. As a dedicated scribbler and party of one whose readership may on the good days soar into the low two figures, I am not sympathetic with their plight. Through it all runs a weird sense of entitlement, a delicacy among ironies what with harpooning liberal sense of entitlement being something of a blood sport among conservatives. Bruce Gilley is entitled to have his argument about colonialism accepted by his peers. Kevin Williamson is entitled to be published in The Atlantic. To be fair to Williamson, he has not, to my knowledge, taken this stance, but his colleagues have. Charles Murray is entitled to have his ideas about race and IQ along with their implications for social policy accepted. No allowance is made for honest difference of opinion, legitimate criticism, or contrary interpretations and conclusions.
It is difficult to take up the topic of conservative grievance without getting into a tedious back and forth about culpability and goofiness on both sides. There is temptation to wish a pestilence on all their houses. Nonetheless, it is worth making an effort to call out a futile dynamic where rejection of conservative viewpoints is taken by conservatives to be de facto evidence of liberal intolerance while conservative critiques of liberal dogma are dismissed out of hand as racist, sexist, homophobic, &c. There is a fine tradition of raucous exchange between firebrands and hotheads on both ends of the social-political-intellectual spectrum. I would not want to see this lost. We go astray when this mode of discourse slops over into forums where respect for difference of opinion and a measure of decorum once held sway in principle if not always in practice.
Colleen Flaherty, Is Retraction the New Rebuttal, Inside Higher Ed, September 19, 2017
Colleen Flaherty, Resignations at 'Third World Quarterly, Inside Higher Ed, September 20, 2017
David French, National Review Critics Miss the Point of the 'Intellectual Dark Web,' May 11, 2018
Victor Davis Hanson, Ten Commandments of the Supreme Court, National Review, July 17, 2018
Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison, Bruce Gilley’s Orwellian Campus Nightmare, National Review, March 26, 2018
NIgel Jaquiss, On Columbus Day, the Washington Post Details Blowback from PSU Professor’s Controversial Essay Defending Colonialism, Willamette Week, October 9, 2017
Sharon Kann, Kevin Williamson also said on his podcast that people who’ve had abortions should be hanged, Media Matters for America, April 4, 2018
Tim Mak, Despite So Much Winning, The Right Feels Like It's Losing, NPR, April 27, 2018
Vimal Patel, Last Fall This Scholar Defended Colonialism. Now He’s Defending Himself, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2018
Eleanor Robertson, Intersectional-what? Feminism's problem with jargon is that any idiot can pick it up and have a go, The Guardian, September 30, 2017
Malise Ruthven, God on Our Side, The New York Review of Books, June 28, 2018
Bari Weiss, Meet the Renegades of the Intellecutual Dark Web, The New York Times, May 8, 2018