Like other realms, American intellectual life has been marked by a series of exclusions. The oldest and vastest was the exclusion of people of color from the commanding institutions of our culture.
Today, there’s the exclusion of conservatives from academic life. Then there’s the exclusion of working-class voices from mainstream media. Our profession didn’t used to be all coastal yuppies, but now it mostly is. Then there’s the marginalization of those with radical critiques — from say, the Marxist left and the theological right.
Intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left.
Conservatives were told their voices didn’t matter, and many reacted in a childish way that seemed to justify that exclusion. A corrosive spirit of resentment and victimhood spread across the American right — an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a moral superiority complex.
For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. Right-wing talk radio is the endless repetition of familiar mantras to reassure listeners that they are all on the same team. Thinking was for conquest: Those liberals think they’re better than us, but we own the libs.
Thinking itself became suspect. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts. A president who dispenses with the pen inevitably takes up the club.
Intellectual segregation has been bad for the left, too. It produced insularity. Progressives are often blindsided by reality — blindsided that Trump won the presidency; blindsided that Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The second consequence is fragility. When you make politics the core of your religious identity, and you shield yourself from heresy, then any glimpse of that heresy is going to provoke an extreme emotional reaction. The third consequence is conformity. Writers are now expected to write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group. Predictability is the point.
In some ways the left has become even more conformist than the right. The liberal New Republic has less viewpoint diversity than the conservative National Review — a reversal of historical patterns. Christopher Hitchens was one of the great essayists in America. He would be unemployable today because there was no set of priors he wasn’t willing to offend.
Now the boundaries of exclusion are shifting again. What we erroneously call “cancel culture” is an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well. Hence the attacks on, say, Steven Pinker and Andrew Sullivan.
This is not just an elite or rare phenomenon. Sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share things they believe, according to a poll for the Cato Institute. A majority of staunch progressives say they feel free to share their political views, but majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives are afraid to.
Happily, there’s a growing rebellion against groupthink and exclusion. A Politico poll found that 49 percent of Americans say the cancel culture has a negative impact on society and only 27 say it has a positive impact. This month Yascha Mounk started Persuasion, an online community to celebrate viewpoint diversity and it already has more than 25,000 subscribers.
After being pushed out from New York magazine, Sullivan established his own newsletter, The Weekly Dish, on Substack, a platform that makes it easy for readers to pay writers for their work. He now has 60,000 subscribers, instantly making his venture financially viable.
Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber bases. The Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.
The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.
It’s possible that the debate now going on stupidly on Twitter can migrate to newsletters. It’s possible that writers will bundle, with established writers promoting promising ones. It’s possible that those of us at the great remaining mainstream outlets will be enmeshed in conversations that are more freewheeling and thoughtful.
Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.
We ask Andrew Sullivan:
Do you still consider yourself a conservative?
Andrew Sullivan replies:
Absolutely. I wrote a book on my conservatism, ‘The Conservative Soul.’ But in so far as the word has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists and emotionally arrested Randians, I am not one of them. I’d fit easily into a conservative party in any other western democracy. But the GOP is a rogue in the western world – the most extremist right-wing party in any modern democracy by a mile. Banning all abortion and all gay marriages? Denying climate change science?
They’re not conservatives, they’re the loony right.
P.S.: [William F.] Buckley favored legal pot. Where are the celebrations of freedom at [the National Review]?
Live by the shrill, die by the shrill, Jonah. I like Sullivan, and his writing has many virtues, but as I’m scarcely the first to note, the sense of doubt and fallibilism he’s now advocating as central to conservatism has not always been one of them. When he was a booster for this administration and the Iraq war, Andrew was (in print, if not in person) at least as willing to suppose that people who disagreed were moral dunces at best, a threat to civilization itself at worst. He hasn’t changed styles; he’s changed sides.
As for the main argument of the book, Goldberg has two main beefs. The first is that “evil is rarely defeated by people who are unsure they are right,” which Goldberg takes to mean that a “conservatism of doubt” will be too anemic to combat the enemies of liberal modernity: He mocks the idea of a “serious political movement” founded on the slogan “We’re not sure!” But I think this misapprehends one paradoxical aspect of the relationship between doubt and confidence. I know, for example, that science proceeds haltingly, that its conclusions are always open to revision, and indeed, that many of the scientific beliefs of the past have been either rejected or developed to accommodate new facts. And this is precisely why I can be so confident in the scientific enterprise in the aggregate: Because I know there are scores of intelligent and skeptical researchers constantly testing and refining its conclusions. I can be fanatical in my defense of liberal societies, not because (like Islamists) I’m sure they have discovered the One Best Way of Life, but because they embody a process that allows fallible people to seek continual improvement.
.. Moreover, recall that Hayek’s argument is meant to show why tradition’s evolved rules are likely to produce better results than a wholesale constructivist rationalism. But this argument actually depends on people making use of critical reason, which is quite different. In effect, Jonah wants to say: Look what cultural evolution has produced—great, freeze it! But evolution works because of mutation, variation, and selection, and it’s still going on. A tradition that can’t accommodate that kind of variation is unlikely to stay adaptive for long.
Though he calls himself a Catholic, his crisis of conscience, his insistence on the primacy of his personal experience, always has a Protestant ring.
The Conservative Soul is really a kind of bildungsroman of Sullivan in the 9/11 years. For Sullivan, as for so many people, the attack on the towers was a Great Awakening, one that roused the absolutist within. On his blog, he became a poet of outrage, a fiery cheerleader for the war in Iraq, and a fierce attacker of his ideological enemies, searching for doctrinal deviation, barking loudly when he discovered it, dismissing those with whom he disagreed. But his absolutism has dissolved in the past five years—just as it had when he was a schoolboy—and the book contains a mea culpa for his excesses (“In retrospect I find the absolute certainty of my position at the time more than a little worrying,” he writes, before embarking on an exegesis of Bush’s wartime conduct that would warm Howard Dean’s heart).
The political philosophy Sullivan espouses in The Conservative Soul is chastened, based on doubt (as in, say, doubt that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction), desiccated by design. He means to make government a dismal science, so people won’t love it too much. Tradition, he writes, using a metaphor from Michael Oakeshott, the British conservative philosopher about whom he wrote his Ph.D. thesis, is the placement of the pool balls on the table—not exactly a shining city on the hill, or even Mom and apple pie. And Sullivan largely forgoes policy prescription, leaving it up to “political actors, not writers,” in what is liable to be a very short-lived resolution.
.. Sullivan’s conservatism is not a creed anyone currently calling himself a conservative is likely to follow. (Continuing an argument begun in Virtually Normal, Sullivan’s important book on gay rights, he insists that same-sex marriage can come to seem a conservative position. Next up: universal health care?) Which is not to say that he won’t have allies. A humble, ameliorative, tolerant politics of modest ambitions, based on a clear-eyed view of the dangers in the world and pragmatic notions of what can and can’t be accomplished, is what a lot of Democrats now aspire to. The political rhetoric of the past five years seems exhausted, not least on his own blog. He recently announced that he found himself in uneasy alliance with Markos Moulitsas, who, as the Kos behind Daily Kos, has been a favorite target. Both, he says, are approaching libertarianism, but from opposite directions—Goldwater Democrats, he calls them. So the lion lies down with the lamb. Surely some kind of end-time is approaching.