Dealing with non conformity is a favorite Drill Instructor pastime. When expert marksmanship badges were handed out, I wasn’t paying attention and thanked the Platoon Commander rather than just acknowledging him with a “Yes Sir”.
Later the Drill Instructor’s brim of his Smokey Bear beat my forehead underneath the brim of my cover. “Seems like someone here still wants to be an individual!” This is usually followed by a sprinting of side straddle hops, hello dollys, push ups and leg lifts on the Quarter Deck.
Believe me….there are worse things than conformity. In California where I went to school, students that fell asleep in the classroom were required to pick up and hold the tailhook of an F-4 Phantom in the back of the class. That alone convinced me that if I had to stand to stay awake then I needed to stand.
People that chewed tobacco during formation were addressed by the Plt Sgt long enough until it was necessary to swallow it while answering his questions. Oh yes, there are things that are worse than conformity.
Its kind of odd, but I thought I felt at home in sunny Cali since I lived there from 2 years old. I didn’t realize that I didn’t really know what being home felt like, until I went to bootcamp for the Marines at age 20. I remember our first PFT, straggling in slow where the senior DI called a few of us out saying we weren’t going to make it. For the first time, I felt really at home and good because we were all the same in every way. It was strangely comforting. The senior DI kept asking for me every week to see if I was there. I made it, dropped 58–60 lbs, 300 PFT, and was yoked out. Senior DI Chavez gave me the firmest handshake at graduation and wished me well.
Fast forward to the age of 44. I lived a great life and experienced cool things all over as an American. I felt an ever bigger feeling of being “home,” once I visited S Korea for a short vacation. I rushed home, sold all, quit all, and severed most ties. I moved as quickly as I could and I’m 48 (Korean age) today! Bootcamp was the first, but this move was the most powerful. Everything and every part of me wanted to move back. It’s been fulfilling, amazing in timing, and I’m a new person. I consider this move to be the first, since it was so moving and meaningful for me. The Corps still has a part of my heart and loyalty, but the rest is with and in S Korea. I even enjoy hospital visits now.
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.
But they also include a typical conservative cluelessness about black grievances, a performative and commercialized Americanism that parodies healthy civic life, and the toxic identity politics that Donald Trump is constantly encouraging. And then, of course, the N.F.L. is particularly vulnerable to Trump’s demagogy because its business model depends on gladiatorial combat whose medical risks it has been desperate to hush up.
.. So the N.F.L. owners have a multilayered problem, cultural and financial and political and medical, to which a simple why-don’t-they-respect-free-speech solution seems woefully insufficient.
.. Everything about the intersection of sports and race relations and the Trump presidency is simply toxic, and expecting free speech to flourish where those rivers meet is like suggesting that a Superfund site cleanup begin by planting daffodils in the most polluted stretch.
.. There’s a similar problem with debates about free speech on liberal college campuses. Yes, it’s obviously bad when speakers are denied a platform, threatened and shouted down. But if every protester suddenly fell silent, the atmosphere in elite academia would still be kind of awful — and not only from a conservative perspective... Meritocracy, materialism and smartphones would still induce mental breakdowns among bright young climbers. The humanities would still be in existential crisis and possibly terminal decline. A “hedge fund with a library attached” model of administration would still prevail. An incoherent mix of ambitious scientism and post-Protestant moralism and simple greed would still be the ruling spirit.
Much of recent left-wing campus activism has to be understood in this depressing context — as a response to a pre-existing crisis, an attempt to infuse morality and purpose into institutions that employ many brilliant minds but mostly promote incurious ambition and secular conformity.
Which suggests that the dissident, “dark web” intellectuals who have gained a following by warring with those activists ultimately need (as some of them seem to intuit) a competing moral and metaphysical vision of their own, not just the procedural freedom to say some stuff that is politically incorrect.
A classical liberalism that only wants to defend its own right to argue — because that’s what John Stuart Mill would want or something — will end up talking only to itself. If you want a healthy culture of debate, it’s not enough to complain that Marxists and postmodernists are out to silence you; you need your own idea of what education and human life itself are for.