October 12, 2017

DISPATCHES FROM THE INTERSECTION OF LIBERAL FASCISM AND THE EDUCATION APOCALYPSE: The Los Angeles Review of Books reviews Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal.

A long teaching career has provided Lilla opportunity to observe the damage this has wrought on students: “Young people on the left — in contrast with those on the right — are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas.” Instead, they engage politics from the vantage of identity, which guarantees that their alliances (with other identity groups) “will never be more than marriages of convenience.”

Even more significant is how the discourse handicaps persuasion in the public square.

Speaking as an X […] This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter […] It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

Identitarian epistemology thus forecloses the possibility of normative communication. Argument is replaced by taboo. “At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.”

It is clear why the left intelligentsia’s response to Lilla has been so vicious. For an identitarian — for whom the personal is so deeply constituted by the political — embracing Lilla’s vision requires a radical transformation of self. Despite his fondness for ridiculing the religious intensity of the “social justice warrior,” Lilla fails to recognize that a rejection of one’s political expressivism could be experienced as a religious deconversion. For some, the remedy may well be worse than the disease. Of this reality Lilla is oddly oblivious. And this is tragic. As much as one may enjoy Lilla’s scorching wit, a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition.

“A religious deconversion.” The implications of that last paragraph quoted above are chilling — they make an identity politics true believer sound like the equivalent of someone who is deep into Scientology and requires extensive deprogramming to leave the cocoon — which is apparently correct in some cases. This also dovetails with Jonathan Haidt and Insta-co-blogger Greg Lukianoff’s own assertion that trigger warnings and other SJW identity politics are impacting the mental health of students.

As William F. Buckley once wrote:

In the hands of a skillful indoctrinator, the average student not only thinks what the indoctrinator wants him to think . . . but is altogether positive that he has arrived at his position by independent intellectual exertion. This man is outraged by the suggestion that he is the flesh-and-blood tribute to the success of his indoctrinators.

Lilla’s book is a timely, enjoyable, if somewhat breezy read, and as the above review hints, no wonder he is angering his fellow leftists. If it doesn’t exist already, a detailed look at how identity politics became seeped into education at all levels (the programming starts long before college these days) and how it is taught would make for fascinating, albeit highly painful reading.

For my own review of The Once and Future Liberal last month at Ed Driscoll.com, click here.