The New York Times ran a frank op-ed on Friday from a fiction writer burned by the progressive penchant for identity politicking. In her piece titled “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?” Lionel Shriver describes an illiberal example of political correctness gone awry that left her hurt and confused.
A millennial woman of color had walked out of a speech Shriver was giving, dismayed that a white woman was defending cultural appropriation. Shriver was dismayed this young woman had labeled as racist and intolerable Shriver’s civil attempt to address an important topic. Shriver was even more dismayed that the liberal press and the institution that had earlier approved her remarks subsequently sided with the offended young woman.
Conservatives should be forgiven if a wry smile lifts their lips upon hearing such a story. It describes a phenomenon we have been warning about and arguing against for years. When self-described liberals find themselves caught in the web of contemporary leftist speech policing, it is a kind of vindication.
But Shriver gets something wrong in her article, and it is central to progressives’ inability to confront the intolerance in their midst. The question isn’t whether the Left will survive millennials. The question is whether millennials will survive the Left, at least as heirs to the Western tradition of intellectual investigation.
Don’t Blame Millennials for What We’ve Taught Them
Mocking millennials’ neediness and intolerance has become common. We bemoan them as special snowflakes who demand kudos for even the most banal accomplishments. We decry their lack of intellectual rigor and unwillingness to participate in a free and open marketplace of ideas. We chide their frequent choice to privilege emotion above reason in their approach to justice. Fair criticisms all.
But millennials are not imposing this flawed philosophy on the Left. They are following orders given by people born long before 1980. In a recent article, Robert Tracinski lays out exactly where these cultural practices’ roots lie: “It’s important to remember that the contemporary code of political correctness emerged from an actual, literal totalitarian ideology. Karl Marx argued that all of culture—ideas, religion, art, everything—was just a ‘superstructure’ built to disguise and perpetuate the real foundation of society, which was the economic relationship between labor and capital. Modern neo-Marxists turned this idea into the slogan ‘the personal is the political,’ which was the origin for the concept of political correctness.”
What we are seeing here is the effect of Marxist nostalgia. What Francis Fukuyama missed in his “End of History” was the extent to which the democratic, capitalist West would in victory reinvent its nemesis, communism, free of all its pesky flaws. He didn’t foresee celebrities wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. We’ve lost the very nuanced relationship between Cold War-era American liberals, Karl Marx, and communism. It wasn’t just that the intellectual and academic American liberals of the 1950s and 1960s feared blacklisting, they feared the totalitarian tendencies of Marx-based governments.
Irving Howe had a complicated relationship with communism. In 1965 he wrote the following about totalitarianism in a piece called “On the Nature of Communism and Relations With Communists”:
Now, if we take as typical…Hannah Arendt’s ‘Origins of Totalitarianism,’ and Orwell’s ‘1984,’ we see that both books, whatever their faults and ‘exaggerations,’ did us an immense moral and intellectual service by insisting that totalitarianism was not merely an extension of monopoly capitalism, Russian expansionism, Leninist dictatorship, man’s inherent sinfulness, or anything else. To one extent or another, such elements were present in the totalitarian regimes; but what made them so powerful and frightening was their break with old traditions, be they good or bad traditions: precisely, that is, the extent to which they embodied whatever is distinctly new in the totalitarian ethos.
Howe understood, at least eventually, the horrors the Soviet Union was committing. He lived through them. The young woman who walked out of Shriver’s speech did not. Unlike Howe, she believes in the totalitarian promise of the new ideas about privilege, cultural appropriation, censorship, and speech codes. But she didn’t just wake up one day believing these things. She was taught them. In the words of a classic anti-drug ad, “I learned it from watching you.”
Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind
The Western tradition, at least since Descartes, is one of challenge. It demands that you prove your position for others to accept it. The current academic model is suspicious of this basic assertion. We find its skepticism in the work of the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. He explains Parrhesia, the Greek idea that one should speak freely, that one should say what one knows to be true. He rightly explains that what we think is true is not always true. But for too many academics, Foucault’s limited liability statement has become the end of the Western program.
Every time a liberal outlet expounds upon the common sense of a guaranteed annual income or an end to proactive policing, every time they call our government fascistic, they exacerbate the problem. They see all the value of dis-incentivizing work and forgiving crime, but accept none of the downsides. The millennials who want to burn it all down are their children. Just as Donald Trump supporters are the children of a Right that does not hold to its principles.
Shriver is a victim. She was treated shabbily, and she deserves to vent in The New York Times. But she is not the greatest victim here. The greatest victim is that woman who walked out on Shriver’s speech. She has been sold a bill of goods that conservatives have been warning against for years. Her tenured professors will still have jobs while she struggles.
So let our sympathy not lie with Shriver. She’s doing okay. It’s too bad she was embarrassed, but our sympathy should be directed towards the young people who think what they feel is the be-all and end-all. They are facing a rude awakening. The leftists selling them the snake oil will still be cashing checks when these young people are fired from jobs or killed by police who do not take a postmodern approach to institutional power struggles.
I feel bad for Shriver but, frankly, I doubt she did anything before publishing her grievances to address the real problems facing our culture and its capacity to self-govern.
An earlier version of this article misidentified Lionel Shriver as a man.