By the 1960s, other than behind the Iron Curtain and their unofficial American outpost at the Frankfurt School, the whole world was California Dreamin’, to coin a phrase. “Young people in the U.S.—in the form of the Psychedelic or Flower Generation—were helping themselves to wild times that were the envy of children all over the world,” Tom Wolfe wrote in his 1976 essay, “The Intelligent Coed’s Guide To America,” reprinted in his Purple Decades anthology:
In short, freedom was in the air like a flock of birds. Just how fascist could it be? This problem led to perhaps the greatest Adjectival Catch Up of all times: Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance.” Other countries had real repression? Well, we had the obverse, repressive tolerance. This was an insidious system through which the government granted meaningless personal freedoms in order to narcotize the pain of class repression, which only socialism could cure. Beautiful! Well-nigh flawless!
So how’s that “repressive tolerance” working out today? Well, it’s making everyone in America as miserable as Marcuse and the gang were, which might actually put the tiniest smiles on their faces, as they trundle along in their charcoal gray flannel suits down in Socialist Hell. Which brings us, at last, to Theodore Dalrymple’s column this weekend:
One of the reasons our society appears less tolerant than it ought to be, and why so many people are now afraid to speak their mind in so many situations, is that a spirit of puritanism of opinion is abroad. This puritanism is not puritanical in the old sense. On the contrary, it is inclined to attach itself to libertinism. But it wants to send to Coventry all those who think that the removal of restraints on conduct is not necessarily a good thing. It brands them as ipso facto bigots (as, of course, some but not all of them will be), and is prepared to punish them, so far as is possible, for holding the wrong opinions.
Thus are created what one might call microclimates of totalitarianism in which people live in fear: fear of losing their jobs, fear of social ostracism for having said or even thought the wrong thing.
This is a problem that is neither of the government’s making nor susceptible to solution by government. (Indeed, government action can only exacerbate it.) The problem lies in the human heart—in its lust for power and thirst for domination, in its pride in its own goodness.
Tolerance is a habit of the heart that is acquired by self-restraint and not merely through a set of political arrangements. If we are not tolerant of those with whom we disagree, we are not tolerant. After all, it takes no great tolerance to tolerate those who agree with us. Insofar as our societies remain tolerant, it is not because the people who compose it are tolerant. It is because they are not politically powerful enough to impose their views on everyone else.
The new puritans, viewing themselves as tolerant, would be prepared to repress the intolerant—by definition, those with whom they disagree. Thus does repressive tolerance come to have a real meaning in our time. As Herbert Marcuse’s favorite philosopher, Hegel, said: The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk.
And thanks in large part to the Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt School, wintry nighttime is descending rapidly, where there had once been carefree California sun: