End of reason: Why statue vandalism, thought policing and rise of a 'woke' religion signal decline of liberalism
To a certain extent, this upheaval was due because the US never really got down to confront its racist past the way Germans did.
The West is in the grip of a violent culture war. It started with the brutal murder of George Floyd in the US, rode on the wings of anti-racism fueled by fury against police brutality, appropriated across the Atlantic and now has become a fierce explosion of rage, outrage, looting, violence, vandalism of statues, cynicism and self-hatred.
To a certain extent, this upheaval was due because the US never really got down to confront its racist past the way Germans did. But the protests, triggered by systemic racism in the US, are also hastening the mutation of western liberalism into a virulent strain. Driven by the reactionary Left, among the many manifestations of this culture war is an all-out assault on history and a reinforcing of the ‘cancel culture’ that seeks to boycott everything that fails the ideological purity test.
This churn in western liberal democracies throws up some questions that need to be engaged with. What is driving this culture war? Why are statues being attacked? Why is there a movement to amend the past? Why are universities and liberal institutions de-platforming dissent and cultivating a form of extreme censorship instead of serving as a marketplace of vibrant, even competing ideas? Why are revivalism and violent upheaval upstaging the political process in the West? Why is liberalism ceding space to an intolerant version of itself that looks, talks and behaves like a religion — demanding unquestioning faith from its followers?
This new, dogmatic ideology lends itself to various semantical expressions such as ‘intersectionality’, ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘neo-Maoism’, ‘identity politics’ or even the more pejorative ‘call-out culture’, ‘virtue-signaling’ or ‘wokeness’ but its core beliefs run contrary to and are even antithetical to liberalism.
This dogmatism, that now dominates western (also Indian) campus, media and institutional spaces and defenestrates anyone that its pious practitioners deem as ‘not deferential enough’ to their cause, has been called ‘successor ideology’ by cultural critic Wesley Yang that succeeds liberalism but is more of an “authoritarian Utopianism” masquerading as “liberal humanism while usurping it from within.”
“Successor ideology” in its bland but vaguely minatory non-specificity may be the correct term for the melange of academic radicalism now seeking hegemony throughout American institutions. It’s my own coinage, but perhaps others will adopt it.
— Wesley Yang (@wesyang) May 25, 2019
This ‘successor ideology’ is amorphous, frequently changes its goalposts and draws tighter and tighter its chastity circle. Writer JK Rowling may testify. She has apparently been ‘cancelled’ by her own characters in the transphobia row.
This radicalism germinates from liberalism and shares some of the liberal goals, but it operates within a faith-based disciplinary superstructure that brooks no questions, imposes a stricter value system, demands total ideological conformity and installs an evangelist doctrine that carries punishment for slip-ups. The ‘successor ideology’ of social justice warriors, in effect, militates against the very notions of liberalism.
For instance, the #MeToo movement — argues New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — after achieving admirable and long-cherished liberal goals has delivered a post-liberal order where “intimate life” is subject to “bureaucratic supervision”. Presumption of “male guilt” has replaced “due process”. The line between ‘sexual’ and ‘political’ is blurred. The tension between liberal values and tenets of successor ideology is now stark.
This tension is visible in the recent controversy around gay and transgender rights where author Rowling has been called a ‘transphobe’ and hauled over coals for disagreeing with trans-rights activists’ view that gender identity is separate from biological sex.
Rowling’s focus on the reality of biological sex as a way of reinforcing the rights won by women through a long struggle has been called ‘transphobic’, and she has been “called out” for “insensitivity”.
This is an interesting paradox, and it takes us right into the heart of the debate. Rowling, a radical feminist, and trans rights activists have taken competing political positions.
If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
However, the writer’s nuanced position and unwillingness to dismiss her own lived reality have been eclipsed by the totalitarian views of the other side that negates her experiences because she is seemingly betraying the cause and her fellow travellers. We know from scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb that ‘the most intolerant wins’ but there’s more going on here.
Successor ideology may propagate some liberal ideas, but the curve of the movement takes it away from liberalism. To quote from Douthat in NYT, “In their liberal form, these causes seek an individual right to live one’s life without facing unjust discrimination. But when other constitutional rights long considered essential to liberalism — freedom of speech, freedom of religion — come into conflict with the movement, it’s assumed that the old rights must inevitably give way. And the movement’s vanguard increasingly rejects debate entirely…” Applied to this context, it looks thus: author Rowling was exercising her freedom of speech but the moment it came into conflict with the scriptures of the ‘successor ideology,’ her views were cancelled and she was ‘called out’ by the torchbearers of ‘neo liberalism’. In the sanctified world of Leftist identity politics, words are actions.
This semantic twist turns the rules of our world upside down. As James Lindsay writes in the essay ‘How the Left Turned Words Into ‘Violence,’ and Violence Into ‘Justice’: “…under a prevalent view that has emerged from universities in recent years, a wrong opinion is seen as tantamount to a thrown punch or even an indication of a willingness to genocide—which invites the idea that an offended party who throws a real punch (or worse) is simply acting in self-defense.”
Through her opinion — regardless of whether it was nuanced and despite her protestations that she is empathetic to the cause of trans rights — Rowling had committed a cardinal sin and must be punished. She apparently has feet of clay.
When neo-liberalism (or successor ideology) has decided that words are actions, it can leave no space for dissenting views. In a paradigm where non-conformity invites charges of moral transgression and may result in expulsion from the circle, holding a contrary opinion is tantamount to issuing a ‘threat to life’. This is the precise scenario that played out at the New York Times where opinion editor James Bennet was forced to resign for… well… publishing opinions.’
Through his act of publishing on the NYT Op-Ed page the opinion of Tom Cotton — US Senator who advocated calling troops to quell rioters on American streets if local law enforcement fails — Bennet had committed such an unpardonable sin that he had to be sacked to redeem the newspaper.
This act of redemption — complete with a sincere apology from the NYT — apparently followed a revolt by the newsroom as staffers saw in Senator Tom Cotton’s words a “threat to lives”. In the ensuing battle between free speech advocates and social justice progressives, Bennet’s head had to roll to placate the offended newsroom. It ought to tell us something about a “liberal” newspaper which had to grovel for publishing a dissenting opinion, sack the commissioning editor and withdraw the article to atone for its sin.
Senator Cotton’s views could have been wrong, even provocative — though he did make a distinction between peaceful protestors and looters and rioters who had taken the law into their hands — but if journalists start behaving like thought police and carry an eraser to wipe out opinions that run contrary to their ideology then it speaks of a mediascape that has dropped all pretensions of objectivity.
It indicates that journalists see themselves as crusaders in the battle between “good” and “evil”, reserve for themselves the exclusive right to determine good and evil and perceive “neutrality” as a form of complicity with the devil. Once this Rubicon is crossed, the journalist’s moral compunction to be objective is gone, what remains is a crusade for the “truth” as designated by ‘secular ideology’. Any dissenting opinion is to be de-platformed, every contrarian voice is to be stifled.
As an author and former editor of New Republic Andrew Sullivan writes, the situation is “very reminiscent of totalitarian states where you have to compete to broadcast your fealty to the cause. In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect.”
This phenomenon is being replicated across media, campuses, institutions to a wide array of cultural symbols. Paw Patrol, a children’s cartoon on canine characters has been de-platformed. Gone With The Wind was sought to be ‘cancelled’, but instead of going away with the wind it came back with a vengeance in pop culture.
After this weeks kerfuffle getting pulled off HBO Max and nearly cancelled, Gone with the Wind is #12 on iTunes top rentals. pic.twitter.com/zHcVxMvNJe
— Matt Whitlock (@mattdizwhitlock) June 14, 2020
The editor of a top US academic publication, University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig, was sought to be de-platformed and dislodged for not being supportive enough to the Black Lives Matter cause and for criticising the movement’s demand of “defunding” the police.
Top editor at Philadelphia Inquirer Stan Wischnowski was booted out for carrying the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” in context of rioters destroying buildings; Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport was forced to resign reportedly for not being sufficiently deferential to the cause; a radio jockey was suspended for questioning the orthodoxy of ‘white privilege’; an LA Galaxy footballer was fired due to his partner’s post on BLM, a UCLA lecturer was suspended for refusing to cancel his exam for black students, and a Cornell Law School faculty member faced termination for censuring Black Lives Matter, according to reports.
Bear in mind that some of these de-platformings were done not only because some were guilty of holding “incorrect views”, but in some cases, the actors supporting the ‘secular ideology’ were considered not committed enough, reminiscent of life in a totalitarian state where insufficient zeal towards the ideology is a severe crime. Heaven help you if you were the first person to stop applauding after comrade Stalin’s speech.
What this successor ideology seeks is absolute moral clarity, and it rejects all manner of complexity. It refuses to see humans as complex beings and human societies as complex structures that cannot be straitjacketed into an absolutist doctrinaire. ‘Cancel culture’, that remains a prominent symptom of this neo-liberalism, functions on the notion that every perceived deviation is a microaggression and a betrayal of the cause, whose purity must be upheld at all times.
One of the reasons why liberalism is ceding space to this totalitarian strain is that the cancel culture makes an easy replacement for activism, providing the same adrenalin rush of feeling good about oneself merely by being judgmental about others. This, as Barack Obama had pointed out last year during a youth convention, isn’t real activism.
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb… then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change… If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”
And yet this totalitarian ideology has gained massive ground among the educated urban youth in democracies because it cuts through the complexities and ambiguities of human nature and offers a clear sense of purpose, moral clarity and “a thrill of solidarity, a spiritual horizon for ordinary human life,” things that an “exhausted liberalism” fails to do, points out Douthat in NYT.
And yet it is a false clarity that fails to consider the agency of an individual and dismisses the notion that human beings can be flawed and yet virtuous, and one doesn’t cancel the other. Obama had stressed this very point when he said, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff… You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities… People who do really good stuff have flaws…”
The protestors who had declared a war on the statues and sought to deface or bring down the effigies of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Christopher Columbus, George Washington or even Abraham Lincoln, apply modern standards of morality on historical figures, try to sort them in simplistic boxes of good and evil, and if found ‘inadequate’, proceed to cancel them from history.
This act is problematic on multiple counts. First, dismantling of statues is a symbolical act of ‘erasing’ the past — making it difficult for later generations to honestly confront events which they an inescapable part of. Any attempt at editing history makes us rootless, places us in medias res without a context and erodes our identity. In this, the totalitarian neo-liberalism ideology takes a leaf out of Chinese playbook. The Communist Party has meticulously erased all links to its violent past when Mao Zedong’s ‘permanent revolution’ destroyed millions of lives.
China has sought to erase that history to the extent that “a visitor wandering the streets of any Chinese city today will find no plaques consecrating the sites of mass arrests, no statues dedicated to the victims of persecution, no monuments erected to honor those who perished after being designated “class enemies.”
The Communist Party did that because any acknowledgement of guilt, it fears, may delegitimize the party. It speaks of insecurity that ‘successor ideology’ seeks to emulate.
Second, the secular ideology driving this statue activism isn’t that different from the Taliban’s act of destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas to underline the threat cultural motifs of the past pose to dominant ideologies of the present. The Taliban sought to establish its power structure by destroying the past, the ‘woke Taliban’ seeks to amend the future by doing a surgical procedure on history.
Gandhi may have held problematic views on racism at an early stage in his career but to cherry-pick that ‘flaw’, amplify it, define him solely through that prism and invalidate one of the 20th century’s greatest political leaders is a perfectly ‘woke’ and pointless thing to do. The call to ‘cancel’ Cromwell, Churchill, Columbus, or even Edward Colston, a 17th-century philanthropist who made his money in the slave trade, arises from the same infantile impulse — rid the public sphere of characters who fail the modern purity test. No allowance is given for context, human agency, flaws and complexity of characters.
As Sahil Mahtani writes in Spectator, “The Taliban drew strength from cultish beliefs taught in schools – and so, too, are we now seeing the maturing of a moral system developed on campuses. The Taliban were anti-Shia, seeing their revivalist Sunnism as the only acceptable version of Islam. The statue campaigners think they are the only acceptable heirs of liberalism…”
India, too, has witnessed the removal of cultural motifs of the colonial past but that process — be it renaming of roads or cities — has largely been a slow, evolutionary and political process unlike the violent upheaval of a beheaded Columbus. There have been instances of vandalism, for sure, but those were borne more out of political opportunism than any grand and coordinated ideological purge.
As Swapan Dasgupta writes in Times of India, “Indians, it is often said, have a feeble sense of history. Yet, in today’s world, we seem remarkably at ease with it.
Western liberalism, though, is facing a crisis of confidence, upstaged by a transmogrified version of itself that demands obeisance, genuflection, unquestioning faith and gives the thrill of moral upliftment and cohesion in return. It represents the end of reason and America’s irreversible ideological decline.
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