Today’s censorious victim culture is a product of the long identitarian march through the institutions.
Is today’s leftish identity politics new? Actually, no. Its contemporary symptoms are just the latest spasm of a dominant ideology in Western high culture I term ‘left-modernism’, lashing out from the institutions where it is most deeply entrenched.
It isn’t hard to find commentary pointing to the novelty of today’s social-justice-warrior phenomenon. ‘Although political correctness has enjoyed a much longer sway over academia’, remarks Michael Rectenwald in Springtime for Snowflakes (2018), ‘social justice as such debuted in higher education in the fall of 2016 – when it emerged in full regalia and occupied campuses to avenge its monster-mother’s [postmodernism’s] death and wreak havoc upon its enemies’.
Some even contrast contemporary ‘snowflakes’ with the more free-speech-oriented 1960s. This is the argument of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s Coddling of the American Mind (2018), which, while acknowledging earlier phases of political correctness, emphasises the importance of a fragile ‘i-generation’, which considers words to be a form of violence and wants adults to keep them safe from uncomfortable ideas.
It’s undeniable that a new lexicon – ‘snowflake’, ‘trigger warning’, ‘bias response team’, ‘safe space’ – has emerged since 2014. The epidemic of No Platforming of right-wing speakers has also taken off fairly recently. Diversity bureaucracies have expanded and become more proactive on American campuses, abetted by vague non-discrimination legislation like Title IX, which empowers left activists and administrators who wish to circumvent the procedural liberties of ‘privileged’ groups such as white men, or ideological opponents such as trans-exclusionary feminists.
Yet, as one who first encountered political correctness in Canadian universities in the late 1980s, and vividly recalls the release of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in 1987, I am inclined to take a longer view. The therapeutic ethos noted by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart (1985) and Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism(1979) informed what Nick Haslam characterises as ‘concept creep’. That is, the broadening of the meaning of social psychology terms like bullying and prejudice, whose remit continually expanded to encompass progressively less serious behaviours. This was not conceived in an ideological vacuum, but drew strength – in part – from a progressive mission to achieve a ‘kinder, gentler’ society for the disadvantaged. There was also a non-ideological component, tied to the longstanding and commendable desire of affluent societies to reduce discomfort of all kinds and mitigate risks to children. This more materialist ‘coddling’ took place in households of all ideological stripes, be they evangelical Christian or liberal secular, whether in Japan or America.
Yet what is distinct about today’s social-justice left is its weaponisation of the idioms of safety culture. Safetyism is not the cause of SJW activism, but rather a new tool in the hands of an older left-modernist ideological tradition. Think of how preposterous the notion is that a talk happening somewhere on campus, that most students are too busy or uninterested to drag themselves to, could render them ‘unsafe’. Such events are only ‘unsafe’ for those who go out of their way to be offended, for ideological reasons. ‘Safety’ is much more of an instrumentalised social construct than a product of psychological fragility arising from a coddled upbringing. If it were, then whites, Christians or men would also be calling for safe spaces rather than undergoing reverse-coddling (having to weather attacks on their group) by developing thicker skins than their parents.
All ideologies must innovate and comment on new developments to remain fresh and vital. American Protestant fundamentalism, for example, concentrated on alcohol, trading on the Sabbath and the evils of the city in the 1920s, but changed its focus to abortion and homosexuality in the 1980s. It has experienced periodic ‘Great Awakenings’ of religious fervour. The New Left is in its third great awakening (or ‘awokening’, to quote Toby Young in the Spectator), after the two previous campus upsurges of the late 1960s and late 1980s / early 1990s. This time, it is innovating by fashioning the language of therapeutic safety culture into new slogans like ‘safe spaces’, or tactics such as bias response teams, while touting new crusades such as trans rights. Yet the older, largely admirable causes of anti-racism and anti-sexism have been revamped, while No Platforming, a strategy first used in Britain in the late 1970s, is enjoying a resurgence. The bottles carry new labels, but the ideological wine is of an older vintage.
The other 1960s
Campus anti-intellectualism and direct action were pioneered in the 1960s. On 5 November 1968, for example, radical black students at San Francisco State College issued the president with a list of 10 demands, including the immediate creation of a department of Black Studies with 20 positions, and a school of Ethnic Studies for ‘Third World’ groups, with 50 positions. They demanded the reinstatement of a Black Panther professor who had assaulted the editor of the student newspaper. They called for all non-white students who applied to be admitted. Not much respect for the free-speech tradition here. The president caved in to the demands for Black and Ethnic Studies, but held the line on reappointing the wayward professor. This led to a year-long ‘Third World Strike’ in which the president sued for peace.
Nothing of this magnitude has taken place in the past few years. As bad as Evergreen (a ‘non-whites day’ stunt), Middlebury (a campaign to No Platform a conservative thinker), and Berkeley (protests against an alt-right speaker) are, they cannot match the 1960s for audacity and stamina. What is new is the popular pushback online, and the routine flagging of the excesses of the campus left by the conservative media.
By contrast, the leftist politics of unreason of the 1960s led to no sustained resistance in the high culture. Old leftist, mainly Jewish, academics like Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, shifted to the right in disgust at the anti-intellectualism of the student rioters to form the early neoconservative movement – a small current of right-wing thought, largely operating off-campus, that focused on domestic policy and had no clear link to its hawkish 2000s namesake. The 1960s revolts also mobilised a conservative generation of voters who first elected Nixon then Reagan. Yet there was no sustained intellectual counter-movement within the university or mainstream media to check the advance of New Left ideas. Instead, the composition of these institutions became ever more progressive and hospitable to the claims of cultural radicals.
The rise of political correctness in the late 1980s
The radicalism of the 1960s didn’t die with that decade, but began spreading in the fast-growing university sector and the arts. Between 1950 and 1970, the share of Americans attending university more than doubled, from 15 to over 30 per cent. Television penetration went from nine to 95 per cent. This would prove a force-multiplier for left-liberal ideas in the ensuing decades. As left-liberal Baby Boomers entered the new culture industries, they began shaping its ethos.
To take one example: in 1976, left-wing sociologists used a ballot and mass mobilisation to install a mediocre activist academic, Alfred McClung Lee, as president of the American Sociological Association (ASA). Where once this had been an honour bestowed on those with glowing publishing records, it now became just one staging post in the long march of the left through the West’s cultural institutions. When a prominent sociologist, James Coleman, argued, using reams of data, that school districts which implemented the policy of bussing black students into white schools suffered white flight, he was attacked, with academics waving ‘racist’ placards on stage as he delivered his 1975 address to the ASA. Meanwhile in biology, as Robert Plomin recalls, genetic explanations for social phenomena were ‘Verboten… in the 1970s. Everything was environmental. Even schizophrenia was thought to be due to what your mother did in the first few years of life. It seems ridiculous now, but that was the orthodoxy back then. And to mention genetics was just beyond the pale.’
Representative data backs up this chronology. Drawing on Google’s Ngram Viewer to look at mention of the terms ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ in relation to ‘anti-Semitism’ in English-language books since 1800 shows that while ‘anti-Semitism’ spikes in the 1930s and is stable from 1946 to the present, use of ‘racism’ begins to ascend after 1965 to a plateau in the 1970s before taking off again in the late 1980s to reach a new cruising altitude in the early 2000s.
Use of Selected Terms in English Language Books, 1960-2000 (source: Google Books Ngram Viewer)
This second phase from the late 1980s corresponds to the Baby Boomers’ arrival in large numbers in universities and the media, where they began changing the culture. A study of psychology academics in America shows that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans began to soar only in the late 1980s, rising from 4:1 to 14:1 by 2014. ‘Sexism’, ‘racism’ and ‘homophobia’ all enjoy a significant upsurge in use beginning in the late 1980s when ‘political correctness’ entered the English language and Allan Bloom wrote his bestselling book.
Afrocentrism, Ebonics and the multicultural curriculum emerged as talking points alongside speech codes during the last great wave of political correctness. Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger, Francis Fukuyama, Nathan Glazer and others criticised these trends, but within elite institutions their sway was limited by the supply of activist students, faculty and administrators willing to push the envelope.
Occasionally an egregious episode would make the papers, leading to ridicule, which acted as a temporary restraining mechanism. The near implosion of the Political Science department at the University of British Columbia in 1995 is one example. Several leftist graduate students wrote a memo accusing the department of ‘pervasive racism and sexism’ and hostility to feminist theory. They couldn’t name any guilty individuals, but insisted that ‘the first symptom of racism is to deny that it exists’. The university appointed an activist lawyer, Joan McEwen, who was paid $247,000 to issue a report on the department. Its verdict read guilty in the first degree. While she couldn’t cite any offenders, McEwen revealed that the department was riven with ‘systemic’ discrimination, sexism and racism. She said the culture of the department had an adverse impact on those who don’t share its prevailing characteristics: ‘older, white, male, heterosexual, middle class, of Anglo/European cultural heritage.’ She recommended that no more graduate students be admitted until the climate improved. Lacking evidence, and with such an open-ended recommendation, it was only a matter of time before the grotesque report became a laughing stock. Within days, it made national headlines. Margaret Wente at the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote that this would make professors afraid to criticise the work of female students or talk to them outside class.
Haidt and Lukianoff’s 2015 Atlantic piece on the ‘Coddling of the American Mind’ (recalling Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind) and the viral video of students assailing Nicholas Christakis at Yale, over an email his wife Erica sent urging students not to take offence so easily, were the opening shots in a new era of left-modernist activism. Tracking the use of the same terms online since 2004 in Google Trends shows that there has been another increase since 2009-10, and especially from 2013, though not as dramatic a rise as that of the late 1980s.
Plotting the frequencies of the terms ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ online between 2004 and 2017 in Google Trends by US state, one finds a high correlation in their use, with liberal New England states like Vermont most keen, and conservative southern or western states like Utah and Texas the least. This gives us confidence that the terms are reflecting political sensibilities rather than actual incidents of racism or sexism, which are probably more frequent in the conservative states.
Google search frequency for racism and sexism, 2004-2017
The foregoing tells us that as the Boomers entered academia, the media and the professions, the left-modernist sensibility of the 1960s, embodied in the new generation, came to revolutionise the cultural institutions of society.
The central features of the left-modernist paradigm can be enumerated as follows:
Anti-intellectualism: a preference for protest, occupations, accusations and non-sequiturs rather than reasoned argument, analytic principle, scientific method, generalisable evidence and deliberation. This is why the law so rarely supports left-modernist claims.
The sacralisation of group equality: claims by, or on behalf of, members of racial and sexual minorities are sacred and cannot be challenged. Personal testimony counts as evidence, and cannot be held to the standards of science. In other words, claims of racism and sexism need not be measurable and falsifiable, evidence need not be generalisable, and definitions and measures do not have to be valid or reliable.
The totemic place of race, sexuality and gender: while there is a nod to class, disability and other forms of disadvantage, the lion’s share of ideological attention is focused on the holy trinity of race, sexuality and gender. These groups have a longstanding political consciousness and effective organisation, which is why their grievances have been sacralised while straight white males are the totemic outgroup. By contrast, less mobilised groups like the disabled, mentally ill, dwarves or redheads lack symbolic capital.
To wit, we are currently witnessing a variation on a well-established theme of leftist anti-intellectual activism. In fact, we need to adopt a much longer historical perspective to appreciate the contemporary moment.
Left-modernism: an intellectual history
The ideology of today’s social-justice left is a hybrid I term left-modernism. This is a late-20th-century fusion of what sociologist Daniel Bell dubbed ‘modernism’, the post-1880 rejection of tradition in Western high culture and attendant pursuit of diversity, novelty and cosmopolitanism; and the ‘left’, which aims to weaken the strong and strengthen the weak, but tends to prioritise a few dimensions of inequality out of the many strands of disadvantage documented by intersectional theory.
The term ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ is a clumsy attempt by today’s commentators to get a handle on the mix of these two ideas. Postmodernism is merely the latest twist in modernism’s thrust to be shocking, new and different. Neo-Marxism isn’t quite right because the leftist impulse has no connection to the historical materialism and class-based analyses of Marxism. Its egalitarianism and tendency to see the world in black and white reflects a Marxist reflex, but the objects of its concern – subaltern cultural groups – and its emphasis on feelings over theory and analysis, would have been derided as bourgeois by earlier generations of Marxists. Indeed, this was precisely the charge levelled at William English Walling, a pioneer founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) by the Socialist Party of America in the first decade of the 20th century.
Modernism is focused on expressive individualism and transgression and disruption; the left on egalitarianism or even retributive justice. The two principles routinely came into conflict, especially in the 1930s, when the Soviet-approved aesthetic of socialist realism clashed with modernist desire to experiment.
These ideas can be traced back to early 19th-century utopian socialism and anarchism, succeeded, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by urban bohemianism and modernism. Left-modernism, sometimes known as the ‘lyrical left’, arguably emerged with groups such as the Young Intellectuals in New York from 1912 and the Surrealists in Europe during the interwar period. As state socialism disappointed the faithful in stages, from Stalin in the 1930s to the last gasp of 1989, its doctrinaire egalitarianism and Manichaean worldview (ie, typecasting enemies as ‘bourgeois’) fused with modernism’s celebration of diversity, leading to a new left-modernist hybrid.
By the late 1930s, left-modernists of the New York Intellectuals group around the journal Partisan Review were freely using the term ‘fascism’ to attack the vernacular American motifs of Regionalist artists like Thomas Hart Benton or architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. The new left-modernism was pro- rather than anti-capitalist and even worked with the CIA to discredit Communism. No wonder it emerged triumphant when first fascism, then Communism, fell away.
In the 1950s, the prominent beatnik group of left-modernists, like their Young Intellectual forebears of the 1910s, contrasted the ‘square’ white Protestant mainstream with what they took to be the lively and expressive African-American and Mexican milieus. By the 1970s, as American Catholics and Jews assimilated or became accepted as part of the white majority, whites tout court (not just Anglo-Protestants) could be isolated as an oppressive ‘other’, with ‘white male’ replacing ‘bourgeois’ as the ideology’s iconic bogeyman.
In conclusion: left-modernism goes mainstream
Political correctness is only partly about the cross-fertilisation of modernist and leftist ideas. More important is that the ideas of small circles of cosmopolitan intellectuals penetrated what Daniel Bell in 1975 dubbed the ‘new class’ of knowledge workers in the emerging professions. Bell’s ‘adversary culture’ was able to scale up, thanks to the exploding university system and television media of the late 1960s, from small groups of bohemians, like the New York Intellectuals or the beats, into a mass movement. It had long dominated high culture, but it could now enter pop culture, the mass media, universities, knowledge industries and political parties. Combining bourgeois capitalism with bohemian mores, bohemian bourgeois (‘BoBo’) hotbeds emerged in places like Manhattan and Silicon Valley. These have steadily advanced to the present day.
In 1924, when America passed immigration-restriction legislation, the influence of anti-WASP left-modernists like the Young Intellectuals on the Democratic Party – and even on the anti-Prohibition movement – was extremely limited. Today, the modernist left, which champions diversity and warns of white privilege, is a powerful influence on the Democrats’ platform, pushing its immigration policy in the direction of open borders.
In conclusion, what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning term the ‘rise of victimhood culture’ is not just a qualitative change from a free-speech culture to a censorious victimhood culture – it is also the product of a quantitative change, in which high culture has been steadily penetrated by left-modernist ideas to the point of their predominance.
Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of
Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, published by Allen Lane.
Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, published by Allen Lane.