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Why I’m a Liberal Who Fights the Left, Even in the Age of Trump

Why I’m a Liberal Who Fights the Left, Even in the Age of Trump

by Евгений Волков -
Number of replies: 1

Why I’m a Liberal Who Fights the Left, Even in the Age of Trump

I am a liberal. I don’t need any qualifiers stuck on the front of this word, unless perhaps “modern” or “contemporary.”

I feel no inclination to call myself a “progressive” liberal, though the term fits both in the social and economic senses — I support truly progressive social progress and justice (though not the regressive, authoritarian, narcissistic, puritanical strand identifying itself with these agendas). I don’t need to call myself a “classical” liberal, which today alludes to but only weakly resembles Millian, Jeffersonian, or even Lockean liberalism, although perhaps this term would come closest to describing my most fundamental political views. I am just a liberal — that is, generally anti-authoritarian and supportive of incremental social progress and blended economies built upon and embedded within a broader social, political, and economic framework whose backbones are republican democracy, regulated capitalism, and scientific knowledge production. I present this in direct contrast to the position of most people on the political extremes, who are, for lack of better terms, partisan lunatics.

So, I am just a liberal, and I feel no need to modify this or qualify it because the term fits as it is, unadorned. Whether this puts me within the purview of the left or the right usually depends on the issue, though admittedly, in both economic and social affairs, I tend to fall to the left of center (for an American), sometimes rather significantly. Left and right as we understand them now are largely, but not wholly, irrelevant to liberalism — most moderates on the right and nearly all moderates on the left are liberals. No partisan lunatics are liberals, and all, if I must use this term, are enemies of liberalism.

This essay is therefore largely concerned with defeating the partisan lunatics and getting universal liberalism back on track. The trouble is, as a liberal in today’s political climate, I feel it important to focus most of my time and energy to my left, not to my right, though the latter is the considerably larger danger in nearly every regard. This is a decision that needs justifying because I hope to convince you that my choice is the right one. I also hope to convince you to join me in fighting and winning this culture war strategically and on the side of universal (not “classical” or “progressive”) liberalism, whether your politics align on the right or the left. Indeed, this is an argument about how to defeat the lunatic right by criticizing the lunatic left.

The Shift from Right to Left

Long ago, when I first became politically active, I spent much of my time criticizing certain strains of conservatism — especially religious social conservatism (as an atheist) and anti-government “libertarianism” (as a sane person, as I’m referring to the followers of Ayn Rand, for the most part). I did so because the first of these is in direct contradiction to the liberal project, and the second is quixotic and farcically unrealistic, in the very kindest description. Over time, however, my focus has slowly shifted and I spend far more time now criticizing my crazy neighbors on my left. This shift in focus has led to some people believing that my antagonism is directed solely at the left and for others to go further and assert that I harbor some deep undeserved sympathies with the far right. This is a mistake that cannot stand much honest scrutiny, but it may need explaining.

Put simply, the shift is strategic. I see specific advantages to criticizing the left over the right and specific disadvantages to criticizing the right directly. Thus, rather than arguing against it, if I talk about the right, which I still do fairly often, I do so more as a “conservative whisperer.” This is a role by which I mean to say I, living so deeply within the midst of their hardliners, possess a certain ethnographic understanding of them that I find frighteningly rare and imminently necessary, given that they’ve taken over nearly the whole of the United States government and are thereby freaking everyone but themselves out, bigly. I fear that only by understanding what’s going on with right-wing hardliners do we have any hope of excluding them from much of mainline politics, which is a fairly serious issue. Worse, we mostly seem to be going about it in exactly the wrong way.

Some of those furthest to my left have accused me of misogyny, white and male fragility, and mocked my alleged “male tears.” This, of course, is as ridiculous as it is counterproductive, but they’re not entirely wrong to think that I object to the behavior I see on the left on a personal level. As a white male, I’m sick of being boxed in by socially justified and acceptable racism and sexism that we’re all supposed to ignore, pinkies raised from our glasses, in high-minded deference to an intentional conflation of racism and sexism with their systemic counterparts. I’m tired of seeing important concepts like sexual harassment and sexual assault trivialized, along with their victims, by yet another moral panic gone too far from what could have been fruitful roots. I’ve had enough of being ludicrously and generically accused of being indifferent, callous, biased, privileged, racist, sexist, something-phobic, and a potential rapist for one lifetime, along with whatever else, as have essentially all of my friends and neighbors to my right — a crucial point likely to get downplayed.

I could go on, but okay! Mea culpa! It’s not quite an ax to grind, but there’s a level of personal exasperation to this for me. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, given the circumstances, and I therefore don’t care much about the approval of people who think this way. I do care about being misunderstood by reasonable people on the left, people who don’t support the illiberal excesses and snark of the “woke” and see the problems with it. I especially lament those who think I waste my time or act counterproductively focusing so much on the left when the right is (obviously) so much more of a problem. That, then, brings us to something more meaningful.

Aside from the personal, there is an obvious reason I focus more on the left than the right. I’m quite convinced that the primary irritant inflaming the populist right (among many other complicated social, political, and economic factors I could devote pages to if I had them here) is the unique set of excesses and failures of the political left. My evidence for this belief accords with Occam’s Razor, which doesn’t necessarily make it right: rather than believing that my populist right-wing neighbors are just dupes to propaganda, I find it more compelling to believe that they also have a point.

One point that the right-wing populists have certainly seized upon with nativist, if not xenophobic, glee is that among many other similar issues, the left is generally proving itself to be a starry-eyed band of utter bunglers where it comes to dealing with what is likely to be the greatest human rights problem of our time: the roles and effects of Islamic militancy and theocracy throughout Muslim-majority countries. I don’t pretend to know many (or any) of the right answers to this incredible and terrible problem, but I can say without a doubt that moral relativism and decision making led by a certain well-exploited and irrational terror of being branded Islamophobic are nowhere among them. The right, for all its own excesses and embarrassments, doesn’t just intuit this; it knows it viscerally — and it’s right.

Arguing against the right on this point is necessary but it’s almost as banal as it is pointless. There’s almost nothing to be gained by beating back the racists, nativists, xenophobes, and terrified rubes on ultimately simple points until the left has at least done the decency of taking a grown-up position on the issue. The left gives away enough authority to the right to elect Donald Trump and effect a Brexit on this issue and will continue to do so until it can publicly grapple honestly with the fact that there are a few real points underneath so much right-wing yammering about the Islamic migrant crisis — about the cultural and economic impacts of mass immigration in general, about the cultural clashes sure to follow as it comes into the West, about certain aspects of Islam and ways it is sometimes practiced, about the problems associated with imperfect vetting procedures in the given context, about its unique relationship with contemporary terrorism, and about the fundamental nature of any strongly sectarian immigrants, to name a few.

While I have neither the expertise nor the will to dwell upon the topic of Islamism and its related problems, nor upon the failures of both left and right to grapple with it like adults in a mature society, there are other topics upon which I feel this same bite of banality and pointlessness when I choose how to spend my time. I could criticize the right’s obvious, often ignorant and bigoted nonsense, say about women’s or LGBT issues, but it is, well, obvious thus both well-canvassed otherwise and boring. This is to say nothing of it being, apparently, pointless. One must surely have noticed that today’s hardliner right shouldn’t have much power and shouldhave been easy to stop from getting it, but that hasn’t worked and seems to have gone rather badly wrong. Something’s missing, and it’s not criticizing the far right for being a bunch of spiteful troglodytes. There’s an alternative, however: I could challenge the academic, mythological, and moral architecture on the left that routinely gives the far right the undeserved gift of sounding semi-sensible on these topics by comparison, a problem which, to me, seems simultaneously more subtle, intricate, and tractable.

Addressing the Biggest Problems

In making my choice of what to do with my time, I have to consider at least two things, which lead to three strategic advantages to my focusing more on the left than the right. My apologies that this is a bit complicated.

First, there’s my sphere of influence. The truth is, I think I can do something about the madness within the left, and if that brings down the social and political irritation just enough to help liberalism regain footing and power, I’m happy to contribute to that project. Ultimately, right now, the balance may need not shift much —Clinton did win the popular vote by a historic margin, after all — to tip to the left’s favor, but it’s still faced with two major problems. One is that it’s been hemorrhaging power across the national and state legislatures for a decade, and the other is that it already seems likely to end up winning big as it mobilizes like rarely before against Trump.

To the first of these problems, we need the left sane enough again to attract support from the wavering middle, people like those who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Obviously, there are many reasons why these people defected, significantly including a feeling of failed promises regarding economic and community recovery and a well-cultivated distrust of Hillary Clinton, but it is nearly beyond doubt that the fear-mongering of the hardliner right about the lunatic left played some role in swaying their opinions. This seems to require bringing the left back down to earth, both in terms of a certain snobbish, scolding elitism and in terms of wanting to call everyone in flyover country a racist hick for disagreeing with them. That won’t actually work, however, as the far left will probably not be dissuaded, so it remains to convince these waverers in the middle, especially those already aligned on the left, that cleaving to truly liberal principles is the right thing to do.

To the second, it isn’t just the hardliner right, or the right more broadly, that is reasonably concerned about the current left winning power and then abusing it. Everyone who the crazy far left calls “the right” (or “the far right” or “Nazis”), which is nearly everyone right of and including Bernie Sanders, has significant reasons for concern. Indeed, as these hypervigilant leftists have widely noticed — and paradoxically celebrated like the routing of a dangerous traitor — much of the mainline left is tipping toward the right (or ardently taking up the center) specifically to mitigate their chances of seizing political power. This isn’t just an unhealthy situation for the left; it’s bad for liberalism. We don’t need our politics to be the choice between two horrible illiberal choices if we can just muster one liberal option between them.

Clearly, both of these circumstances urgently demand that those parts of the left which are distinctly not liberal need to realign strongly with the liberal project (which is unlikely) or be excluded from it (which is a goal within reach), and soon. That is, we need the mainline left obviously sane again, so it can be strong again, and we need it legitimately sane again because should it soon come into a lot of power again, we must hope it can wield it responsibly. Optimizing this complex circumstance requires criticizing the left more than the right.

The second consideration is both simpler and more serious. We will not change the hardliner right by criticism. Speaking as a liberal atheist in the South who has tried just about everything, I have yelled at the rising right-wing hardliner tide for more than a decade — which is more than enough for several lifetimes — and I don’t plan to do it much anymore. As it happens, it still goes in and comes out, whether one can explain it or not. Second, it seems the big lesson of the last few years, for those willing to read it, is that yelling at right-wing hardliners only seems to make things worse.

The Hardliner Right

Ultimately the missing link in making sense of these challenges, thus solving them, lies in understanding that this cultural and political war has to be won strategically, and winning it for liberalism (whichever American party wishes to seize it properly!) means knowing how right-wing hardliners work. This is the unfortunate tea my whole life has been steeped in, so here is where I put my “conservative whisperer” ethnographer’s hat back on and get to the point of this essay. There is, in particular, one thing about today’s right-wing hardliners that I wish more liberals understood because it is integral to winning the culture war we’re currently embroiled in. Leftists and liberals never quite see this fact, but it elected Trump and is keeping him well-defended with staunch GOP support, so it matters rather a lot.

Right-wing hardliners will not have their minds changed from the outside.

Before elaborating on this point, pause to ask yourself how these right-wing hardliner lunatics got so much political power in the first place. Simply put, it is because they organize well, especially when they’re scared enough to circle their wagons. In times of high polarization and major social change — both of which are occurring now — right-wing hardliners tend to circle their wagons around a blanket rejection of all things they deem liberal, even to the point of nihilistic bitterness and devil-may-care spite. If you take nothing else from this, let it be that the main thing that right-wing hardliners put their backs up about is being told what to do or how to be by anyone they identify as an outsider, and that means liberals and Never-Trumpers (who they see as essentially the same thing).

To better understand the right-wing hardliner mind, I’d like to explain a couple of related examples of their mindset to you that no one outside of the American South seems to understand. Where I live I still occasionally hear the Civil War referred to as “the War of Northern Aggression,” and I cannot go a week without seeing at least a handful of proudly flying Confederate flags. “Heritage, not hate!” right? So we hear, endlessly, and — well, yes, actually. As a Southerner who thinks the Confederate flag is utterly garish and ridiculous, if not an outright symbol of treason against our nation and deeply steeped inextricably with undeniable racism, let me explain this phenomenon to you.

These two apparently ridiculous ideas about Confederate heritage are actually quite simple from the right-wing hardliner’s perspective. Before the Civil War, the South had a way of life and ordering society. It goes without question both that the Southern order was based around slavery and racism of the rankest sort and that it was wrong. Though you will find some — including some who ran recently for Senate — remarkably few Southerners disagree with these points: racism and slavery are wrong (even if some might lawyer a bit around the former). This fact is not actually in mainstream dispute. Neither is the fact that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.

We’re not talking about the realm of mainstream dispute, however. We’re talking about right-wing hardliners who are having a moment in the sun that they almost surely don’t deserve. For them, the Civil War, as seen from the perspective that calls it “the War of Northern Aggression,” wasn’t fought over slavery — not exactly. It was, instead, a war waged purely because the American federal government intended to force, by one means or another, Southern states to renounce their existing way of life and socioeconomic order. Notice the principle about right-wing hardliners is clearly at play: they will not have their minds changed from the outside.

And here’s where this gets complicated for many to understand: there are two moral principles at play here, and Southerners fly their Confederate flags in defense of the other one. The obvious principle people assume dominates, of course, is the abject moral failure of racism and slavery. Liberals tend to think when they argue about the Civil War or its Confederate battle flag, they’re arguing against lingering support for these. To be sure, to some degree, they are. Racists still exist, and lots of them fly Confederate flags because it gives them a plausibly deniable means for displaying their racism. On the other hand, by far most right-wing hardliners (and their sympathizers) who say things like “heritage, not hate!” in response are not arguing for support of racism or slavery — they know these are wrong. They’re defending their own sovereignty.

The deeper the argument with right-wing hardliners about the Confederate flag goes, the more fraught it becomes because effectively nobody except right-wing hardliners understands right-wing hardliners. Their whole cultural architecture is different. For instance, it’s probable that you see the flying of Confederate flags as a tacit symbol of racism. A “heritage ofhate,” you might even say in response to the common rejoinder. The trouble is, all of the right-wing hardliners who cling to notions of “Confederate honor” now don’t see the Civil War in those terms at all. They see it in terms of standing up for their principles, especially sovereignty, against outside aggression. Right-wing hardliners see the Confederate flag as a symbol of not having one’s mind changed by outsiders.

In some sense, as the philosopher Dan Dennett might put it, the Confederate flag is a symbol of belief in belief, together with a belief in sovereignty, and it is the preservation of thisheritage that the irksome slogan and the last part of “the War of Northern [Outside] Aggression” refers to. Whether slavery and racism were right or wrong is irrelevant to the point, from this right-wing hardliner view; what matters to them is that being told who and how to be by some outside agency is also wrong. It is, in fact, wrong enough to go to war over in an attempt to sunder a country in defense of a abjectly immoral institution that would be displaced by advances in technology within decades anyway.

So it is with right-wing hardliners more generally. For them, through a metanarrative carefully cultivated by lunatics in right-wing media, liberals are the outsiders that repeatedly seek to impose their highfalutin will upon a sovereign people who don’t want any part of it, even if it’s good for them or the right thing to do. For them, the “liberal agenda” is a powerful, shaming-driven cultural phenomenon seeking to force “roughly half the country” to live in ways they can’t abide, and the “liberal media” is its hegemonic purveyor. And for them, it’s the end of the world. The predominant idea I encounter in right-wing hardliners today about the so-called “liberal agenda” is that it seeks to rip the foundations of society apart — to undermine the family, to ruin free enterprise, to dilute (or poison) society by under-restricted immigration, to erase the role of personal responsibility, to undermine cultural norms that promote societal cohesion, to rip apart national identity and spiritual growth, to hamper free speech by asserting what is and isn’t politically correct — and this is for them an existential threat, just like the to-be Confederate states felt building through the 1850s.

This is why what the left is doing now won’t work and is making the problem worse, which is by far the biggest reason I direct so much of my energy leftward rather than rightward. It doesn’t matter if you think it should work (I do too). It doesn’t matter if you believe (or know) right-wing hardliners are wrong, factually or morally (I do too). It doesn’t matter if you think right-wing hardliners should vote their interests (I do too). It won’t work. It never has, and it just won’t. Worse, it’s one of their best recruitment tools.

Right-wing hardliners operate from a different cultural narrative which isn’t the one the left thinks it is, and they believe it essentially completely. To beat all, it is primarily one of not having their minds changed by outsiders. So, go ahead; try to tell right-wing hardliners that they’re wrong with Trump or whatever else. Go get ‘em, tiger! They’re going to spite you for it, and they’ll do it at any cost, as we can plainly see. Respond with all the moral condemnation you like — I’ll probably agree with most of it — but please know: it still won’t work, and it will make things worse.

What to Do

There’s really only one option. What calls itself liberalism must be sane and subtle enough to keep from triggering the right-wing hardliner will to absolute sovereignty, their paranoiac fears, and their boundless spite for meddling outsiders, because once triggered, they circle the wagons and recruit sympathetic partisans very effectively with fear. Thus, chief among the sensible things for the left to be doing now includes abandoning moral relativism, taking an honest liberal line about everything that’s going on with the Islamic migrant crisis, and coming completely off the abjectly illiberal everybody-is-a-racist/sexist/etc-ist stigmatizing identity ride, which steadily pours gas on the fire. The easiest practical changes to make include taking obvious steps to get the hijinks at the university in order, quelling the left-leaning media addiction to calling everyone out for alleged bigotry, dropping everything to do with accusations of privilege, and cultivating strong, appealing center-left candidates to sweep the upcoming elections.

It may be a fatal mistake to see this strategic approach to our current problem as a matter of accommodation to the far right at the expense of the left. The problems endemic to the far left are making the left illiberal, and not only is this its own serious problem in need of urgent remedy, it’s also fueling the far right. Liberals who find themselves on the left seem to realize this, but they underestimate the problem, seeing it as relatively minor in comparison to the blatant and egregious illiberalism of the far right. Well, with that view, I agree, but with underestimating the degree to which these problems are co-constitutive, I emphatically do not. Unless and until the far left is deradicalized or excluded from the left-liberal project, it will remain one of the most significant forces in undermining both itself and liberalism to the right’s advantage. Because these problems have created one another, not only is this trend self-reinforcing; it necessarily comes at the worst possible time — when the ascendant right had already been completely hijacked by hardliner lunatics.

To borrow a now-dead phrase, this is not a drill. Though not everything, much in our sociopolitical sphere is going badly wrong and getting worse, and we need to act to preserve secular liberal democracy while its institutions remain largely intact. There are three primary goals in play, and all of them require criticizing the left more than the right. First, the left needs to be sane enough to win back a broader base of support so it can regain political power. Second, the left needs to be sane enough to utilize the power it’s likely to win in Trump backlash in a responsible way. Third, these only seem possible when the hardliner right isn’t constantly being triggered into radicalizing more people against the left. I’m pretty sure a remedy is possible, but direct assaults on the right from anyone remotely associated with the left isn’t going to do it. Thus, I am a liberal who (mostly) fights the left, even in the age of Trump. I trust you understand.

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James A. Lindsay

James A. Lindsay is a thinker, not a philosopher, with a doctorate in math and background in physics. He is the author of four books and his essays have appeared in TIME, Scientific American, and The Philosophers’ Magazine. He led the "grievance studies affair" probe.

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The Reality of the Rise of an Intolerant and Radical Left on Campus

by Евгений Волков -

The Reality of the Rise of an Intolerant and Radical Left on Campus

Are college campuses bursting with radical leftwing professors hell-bent on remaking the world in their own ideological image? Or is this image of campuses overrun by radicals overwrought rightwing propaganda?

In this essay, I argue that both of these views are caricatures. Consequently, there is a danger of dismissing the claims as merepropaganda. Although campuses are not overrun with radical professors and students, there has been a dangerous rise in leftist intolerance that distorts scholarship, corrupts the academy, and endangers academic freedom and fundamental human rights.

Definitions of Terms

I use the terms left (leftwing, etc.) to refer to anyone from center-left people who vote mostly Democratic all the way to radical Marxists. I use the term right (rightwing, etc.) to refer to anyone from center-right who votes mostly Republican all the way to fascists and white supremacists. Radical refers to those on the extreme ends of this spectrum. Intolerance refers to an unwillingness to grant basic human rights to those with whom one disagrees. Although anyone can hypothetically be intolerant, the highest levels of intolerance are usually at the extremes. Such correlations work both ways; if you know someone is extreme, they are probably intolerant; if someone is intolerant, they are probably extreme.

The Overwrought Right

The story promoted even in some mainstream rightwing sources is that college campuses are overrun with radical students indoctrinated by even more radical professors, e.g.:

“Today’s students don’t arrive on campus as fire-breathing radicals. That’s just how they graduate, after a relentless program of indoctrination from tenured social justice warriors on faculty and in college diversity programs.”

Or consider this headline from the Spectator:

“Generation Snowflake: How We Train Our Kids To Be Censorious Cry-Babies”

The article itself is filled with repeated hyperbole and histrionics (my comments appear in parentheses flagging this):

“…today we rear children to perceive the world as an endlessly scary place.” (“endlessly”? who is “we” here?)

“Today, parents go to ludicrous lengths to eliminate all risk from their children’s lives.” (How many “parents”? “All risk”?)

“So when today’s undergraduates get insulted, are they going to think, ‘No big deal; it’s only words’? No. They are going to think, ‘Oh, no, I’m being insulted! Words can kill me!’” (How many undergraduates will think in this way? “Kill?”)

One last example, though there are many others. Consider this comment from popular syndicated radio and YouTube video host, conservative Dennis Prager, who proclaims himself an advocate of reason and rationality. About 11 minutes in 


“The campus [referring to campuses in general, not a specific campus] is now run by the left; there is no open-mindedness.”

To be sure, these types of claims are not completely wrong, as I shall show in the main part of this essay. However, they are extreme and hyperbolic. These sources neither present evidence justifying such claims, nor present sufficient qualifying text to insure that readers do not come away with the impression that the articles refer to most people on campus. Whatever benefits this might have with respect to selling newspapers, or jacking up website clicks and ad revenue, it is actually counterproductive with respect to combating the very real problems of leftist bias and radicalism on campus. When rightwing outlets make these sort of extreme statements, reasonable people, inside and outside of the academy, can easily and justifiably dismiss the statements as propaganda. As such, hyperbolic rightwing critiques of universities inadvertently facilitate the unwillingness of the academy to police itself, by lending (apparent) credence to a view with some currency on the left that charges of campus radicalism reflect little but rightwing propaganda.

Political Blindness Syndrome: Few of The Tolerant Left on Campus See a Problem

Although there is ample evidence that academia skews heavily left, there is no evidence that radical academics are running wild at most universities. In many disciplines, politics hardly matters, at least with respect to scholarship (physics, chemistry, engineering), though even in such fields, it may well matter with respect to administrative policies and approaches to teaching, hiring, and admissions.

In The Righteous Mind, Jon Haidt argued that politics binds and blinds. The bind part refers to dividing us into sides, where we become largely hell-bent on defending our side at almost any cost. But I want to focus here on the blinding part. It is, of course, very difficult to see a problem if one is never exposed to it; and, of course, academics who are not politically active and whose scholarship does not challenge leftwing beliefs and values are unlikely to experience much in the way of speech threats. In the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, one’s speech would not be threatened — as long as one praised the State, Stalin, and communism. In universities, as long as one sneers at Republicans and supports diversity initiatives and narratives emphasizing prejudice and oppression, one is not likely to feel one’s speech threatened.

Many scholars who comment on issues of political bias and intolerance are in the social sciences or humanities — two areas in which the left skew is particularly severe. And consistent with this political blindness notion, these scholars typically deny the existence of a problem of leftist intolerance or dismiss its importance. A series of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, all of which highlight threats from the right and either deny or downplay internal threats from the left (some are behind paywalls) reflect this blindness:

  • Yale professor Jason Stanley, dismissed Heterodox Academy’s call to provide greater faculty political diversity as disingenuous, while also calling for more feminists in economics.
  • UCLA professor Russell Jacoby titled his article: “Academia is Overrun by Liberals. So What?”
  • Institute for Advanced Studies professor Joan Scott argued that the real problem is the right’s “weaponization of free speech” — an oxymoron if there ever was one; and yet the large number of laudatory comments by faculty to this column suggest a problem that goes well beyond the column itself.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently published a special issue of its flagship journal, Academe, on threats to speech and academic freedom. Here is the full list of titles of articles appearing that address political (rather than corporate or fiscal) threats:

  • “Facing the Reality of the Trump Regime”
  • “The AAUP in the Age of Trump”
  • “Academic and Free Speech on Campus” (which may sound even-handed, but it is an interview with the same Joan Scott who presented us with the “weaponization of speech” oxymoron described above).
  • “A New Reality? The Far Right’s Use of Cyberharassment Against Academics”
  • “Trump’s Travel Ban and Embodied Activism”
  • “The Tyranny of Neoliberalism in the American Academic Profession”

The Logical Irrelevance of “What About the Right?”

I am not denying the reality of threats from the right, some of which I described in one of my own recent essays. Why, then, am I not addressing these threats here? First, they have been more than adequately discussed in the aforementioned sources. Second, this essay is about threats from the left, which fundamentally differ in character from threats from the right. Threats from the right are largely external; they come from government and special rightwing interest and action groups. In contrast, leftwing intolerance is mostly internal to academia; as such, it has been largely invisible (because so few are looking internally) even though it is a far more proximal and influential form of intolerance.

I am also not discussing rightwing threats because “whataboutism” is irrelevant here. Whataboutism is the attempt to invalidate one concern or criticism with a charge of hypocrisy (“If you are so worried about X, why aren’t you worried about the other side’s Y?”). It is not, however, useful for figuring out what is actually true. Each criticism stands or falls on its merit, not on the criticizers’ evenhandedness in applying such criticisms to all conceivably relevant instances. A claim that communists are a threat to free speech is not refuted by a claim that fascists are also a threat to free speech.

Last, this excellent piece by James Lindsay, titled “Why I am a Liberal Who Fights the Left Even in the Age of Trump” lays out several very good reasons to do so. Lindsay argues that “… we need a left sane enough to attract support from the wavering middle.” And, “…second, it isn’t just the hardliner right, or the right more broadly, that is reasonably concerned about the current left winning power and then abusing it. Everyone who the crazy far left calls ‘the right’ (or ‘the far right’ or ‘Nazis’), which is nearly everyone right of and including Bernie Sanders, has significant reasons for concern.” Other prominent intellectuals who identify explicitly as progressive or who have scholarship advancing progressive narratives — such as, 

, Richard Nisbett, , Helen Pluckrose, John McWhorter, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying — have begun to vigorously defend against the attack on truth and freedom originating in leftist intolerance on college campuses.

In this essay, I identify some of the reasons reasonable people across the political spectrum should be concerned about the rise of an intolerant left on campus.

The Reality of the Intolerant Left on Campus

In this section, I present existence proofs of threats to speech and academic freedom on college campuses around the country. I also present evidence that leftist censoriousness, harassment, and intimidation have been increasing. I will present further evidence that the extreme leftist skew in academia provides a fertile breeding ground for radicalism and intolerance. I am not arguing that most faculty or students are dangerous radicals. “Most” faculty and students do not need to be intolerant radicals in order for the rise of intolerant leftism to become a dangerous social problem.

The Pyramid of Radicalization

The pyramid model of radicalization provides one way to understand the social and intellectual foundations of radical movements. It also reveals why they can be dangerous without requiring “most” or a “majority” of any population to be violent radicals. The pyramid model was originally developed to explain terrorism but is applicable to almost any radicalization. I adapted it here to understand radicalization on college campuses.

  1. The pyramid suggests there is:
  2. A large uninvolved base.
  3.  A somewhat smaller but still large base of those who sympathize with many of the goals of those who are more radical.
  4.  A still smaller number who provide political and intellectual justification for acts of intimidation and violence.
  5. A still smaller number who commit acts of violence.

This pyramid is useful because it means that those who wish to dismiss political harassment, intimidation, and violence on campus as the action of a few are literally correct. Very few (out of the millions of students and faculty on campuses) commit acts of intimidation and violence. They are wrong, however, to dismiss the dangers of such acts on these grounds, because they are built on a much larger edifice of support, because intolerant minorities can have outsized influence, and because these radical intellectual currents have begun to seep into the wider culture. Let’s work our way up from the bottom.

The Uninvolved

One might think the uninvolved do not matter. But they do. Relatively few people are activists for most causes. This is important, because the huge base of the uninvolved means that attempts to dismiss concerns about the rise of the intolerant left on campus on grounds that most faculty and students are not wild-eyed radicals are literally, but trivially, true. Such attempts are literally true because so many students and faculty are simply not activists.

However, by virtue of being uninvolved, nor do they contest the growing radicalism on campuses. Whether they are simply disinterested or cowed by the activists hardly matters. This base is usually quite large, and does not actively resist radical politics.

The size of the uninvolved base is irrelevant, however, with respect to evaluating the dangers of the rise of radical leftist intolerance. An aggressive minority can wreak havoc. Hitler was brought to power by a minority vote. The Bolsheviks never had the support of more than about 25% of the Russian population. In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy and the post World War II Red Scare damaged U.S. democracy and ruined many individual lives. In all of these cases it would be literally true to declare that “most Germans weren’t Nazis,” or “most Russians weren’t Bolsheviks” or “Most Americans were not red-baiters.” Of course, the radical academic left has not committed the atrocities of the Communists or the Nazis. The point is merely that the argument that they are a minority does not constitute a refutation of the idea that they are dangerous.


There is a vast left skew in the academy. In the social sciences and humanities, the skew is often 90% or more faculty on the left. This skew does vary from field to field; the disproportion tends to be a bit lower in political science and economics, but even in such fields, the left skew is very large. Perhaps surprisingly to many people, even most business schools skew left.

It has been argued that the academy has undergone a purity spiral. In Psychology, for example, from the 1930s to the 1950s, the ratio of liberals to conservatives was about 2:1. A majority of liberals for sure, but there was also a strong conservative presence. This skewed to about 4:1 between 1970 and 1990. It is currently about 14:1. Bill von Hipple and David Buss, in a chapter reported in this book, found that 305 social psychologists reported having voted in 2012 for Barack Obama; four for Mitt Romney. That is 75:1. Although not quite this extreme, the general pattern has occurred across academia:

Although many of these academics do earnest work and are not involved in the social justice wars, the evidence that social “science” is sometimes distorted to serve political goals has become overwhelming. Strong claims that advance narratives of oppression — the power of self-fulfilling stereotypes, the importance of microaggressions, the pervasiveness of implicit biases, or the evils of conservatives have often pervaded the social “scientific” literature and yet ultimately found to be on weak or nonexistent evidentiary grounds.

Sympathizers may not support violence or radicalism. But they are often sympathetic to the goals of the radicals, and, sometimes, provide intellectual and political cover for radical positions. Few, if any, are likely to express concern about anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reason ideas of the radicals for two reasons: 1. They actually sympathize with them, even though they do not engage in radical actions; and/or 2. They fear repercussions from their colleagues. If one speaks out against the radicals, one risks being seen as opposing social justice outright – and the stigmatization that comes with being seen as opposing social justice is a cost many may not be willing to pay.

Intellectual Supporters

The next level of the pyramid involves intellectual supporters. These people do not actually commit acts of violence, but they provide political and intellectual cover and justification for intolerance. Marcuse’s “intolerance of intolerance” would be a prime example of such intellectual support. Those who are obstacles to the march of “progressivism,” for Marcuse, did not deserve toleration. This sort of rhetoric provides “justification” for activists to violate the basic human rights of those who they see as obstacles. Marcuse’s modern intellectual descendants, whether they have read Marcuse or not, are those who promote justifications for blacklisting, firing, punishing, stigmatizing, and abridging the basic human rights of those whose views they oppose.

Before continuing, it may be useful to remind readers of what universities are supposed to stand for. The ideal of the academy is a place where ideas, even taboo ideas, can be raised, promoted, debated, and critically evaluated. In science, social science, and the evidence-based humanities (such as history and, sometimes, philosophy) evidence, reason, and logic supposedly not only matter, but are the means by which differences are resolved, truths revealed, and bad ideas winnowed out. The Harvard motto is Veritas (Truth). The Stanford motto is “The wind of freedom blows.” The University of Michigan motto is “Arts, knowledge, truth.”

Marcuse’s notions trample these aspirations. Attempts to suppress ideas and evidence are spears thrust at the heart of what a great university once was supposed to represent. Many leftists now declare words and ideas that they disagree with as leading them, or members of various protected groups, to be “unsafe.” They routinely charge that words constitute violence.

Gentle reader, I urge you to read the two articles linked above; they are quite short. The “unsafe” claim is made in an open letter from faculty at Wilfred Laurier College in Canada; the “speech is violence” link is a New York Times editorial by a famous psychologist. This language equating the political positions of conservatives with “violence” has become disturbingly common throughout academia. Similar rhetoric conflating speech with violence and harm has occurred at Cornell and Yale, and has seeped into the wider culture, most notably at Google.

The Google Memo fiasco of 2017 occurred when James Damore, an employee, was fired for authoring a memo arguing that scientific evidence suggests that biological and personality differences may partially explain the gender gap at the company, and calling on the company to do a better job at handling diversity. Let’s forget, for the moment, that his scientific claims are debated among actual scientists (meaning they were debatable, rather than dismissible). Let’s further leave aside that one of his main conclusions was a call for a discussion of the issues.

That he was fired is emblematic of two disturbing social and cultural trends:

  1.  The academy provides intellectual justification for blacklisting, silencing, and firing people seen as obstacles to social justice.
  2. This censorious view, like a virus leaping from one species to another (a metaphor explicitly embraced by some feminists), has sprung from the academy to the wider society.

The normalization of this view in the academy was put on stark display when Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky’s essay in Fortune Magazine weighed in on the Damore firing. It starts with the innocuous sounding title:

“Google’s Anti-Diversity Crisis Is A Classic Example Of Right Vs. Right”

By the third paragraph, however, Dr. Galinsky gets to his main point:

“He [referring to Google CEO Pichai] made the right decision in choosing option 2: firing Damore.”

How does he justify this?

“Pichai is right: A biological explanation for sex differences implicitly endorses separation and offers justifications for discrimination … Thus, Damore’s diversity of ideas was so problematic because it had the potential to limit the diversity of people.”

This is the 

 “what you are really saying is…” problem. In a now infamous interview with Jordan Peterson, the host, Cathy Newman, repeatedly restated his claims in such a manner as to cast them as far more extreme and offensive than they actually were. It has a family resemblance to the rise in the U.S. of reductio ad Hitlerum, where those making arguments interpreted as contesting social justice narratives are sometimes compared to Hitler, Nazis, fascists or the alt-right. I saw this twice in my own university: 1) an email from a colleague compared Trump to Hitler; 2) At a Departmental meeting discussing a recommended diversity statement, I suggested that, in addition to demographic diversity, it should explicitly embrace political diversity. I was immediately accused of welcoming Nazis into the Department. Returning to Damore and Google, it is worth noting that there is absolutely nothing in the memo that endorses separation and it explicitly condemns discrimination.

That this censorious view has leapt from the academy to the wider society goes well beyond the Damore firing. Other tech companies are even more politically intolerant than is Google. Political intolerance even infects organizations of technology professionals that are not tied to particular companies. And the National Labor Relations Board rejected Damore’ complaint on the grounds that merely discussing how biological sex differences could create employment inequalities justified his firing — meaning that government lawyers now buy this whole line of argument.

The intolerant cat is out of the academic bag; where it will end up before it is put back in — and whether it will be put back in — is anybody’s guess.

This is dangerous stuff, and students are definitely getting the message. If someone contests leftist notions of social justice, they will likely be seen as “violent.” If speech is “violence,” then people are “justified” in defending themselves with actualintimidation and violence — tactics many of us associate with goons and brownshirts. Which gets us to:

The Academic Intolerant Left’s Actual Attempts to Suppress the Free Exchange of Ideas

F.I.R.E. is an organization dedicated to defending free speech and academic freedom on campus. It maintains a disinvitation data base, of all known attempts, successful and unsuccessful, on campuses, to disinvite, deplatform, or prevent those invited from speaking. It is as vigorous in defending leftwing as rightwing speech, but, again, my focus here is on threats from the left.

Although some protests have involved extreme figures (white supremacist Richard Spencer or rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous), many have involved very conventional Republican or conservative figures such as Condoleezza Rice, Heather MacDonald, Eugene Volokh, and John Derbyshire (and, sometimes, simply people there to contest some sacred leftist narrative — such as the power of gender or racial oppression). Whatever case one could make for preventing extremist speech, one cannot make that case for these figures. Attempts to prevent them from appearing declare, in essence, “viewpoints that reject leftist orthodoxies and sacred cows will not be permitted.”

Worse yet, these disinvitations and shutdowns from the left have been increasing over the last several years:

This first chart, above, shows the rapid rise in successful attempts to disinvite speakers. These include disinvitations, heckler’s vetoes that prevented a speaker from actually talking, and withdrawals, where the invited speaker chose not to attend in the face of protests. The next chart shows the rapid rise in unsuccessful attempts. Their lack of success, of course, is no testament to the tolerance of the protestors. Often the talk occurred because of a determined administration beefing up security and, sometimes, even removing protestors, thereby allowing these events to continue.

Second chart lee

Egregious Examples of Faculty Led Suppression and Attempts at Silencing

Beyond the broad pattern of data, there are several additional examples of particular egregious attempts by faculty to silence views that radicals oppose.

A Forced Retraction. Bruce Gilley is a political science professor who published an article in the peer reviewed journal, The World Quarterly arguing that there were many advantages and benefits to colonialism. He further argued that many places were worse off without colonialism, and that some modern places would be better off if they accepted a return of colonial administration.

The article evoked an immediate hue and cry and was ultimately retracted (though it is available here). Was it retracted because Gilley was exposed as making up fraudulent data or historical facts or sources? No.

Instead, over 16000 people signed petitions condemning it and calling for its retraction. Although I do not know how many were academics, the organizers of the petitions were academics. With few exceptions, rather than refuting its arguments, it was simply denounced as a racist diatribe (this exception does provide a trenchant critique and explicitly does not call for retraction). For example, this quote is from the petition:

“Gilley then devolves again into his white supremacist and Eurocentric call for ‘civility.'”

It was ultimately retracted because Gilley and the editors started receiving “credible threats of violence” (that is a quote from the online page on which the retraction now appears).

Where is the behavior that most closely approximates fascism? Is it publishing an essay on (the debatable, perhaps even unjustified claims of) merits of colonialism? Or in the threats of force used to pressure a retraction of that essay?

Denunciations I: Transracialism? Don’t Even Suggest it. Rebecca Tuvel is a philosopher at Rhodes College. After Rachel Dolezal, an official of the NAACP who presented herself as black was exposed as having been born to and raised by white parents, Tuvel published a paper titled “In Defense of Transracialism.” In it, she drew on common postmodernist ideas suggesting that race, like gender, is not an essentialist or biologically determined category, that it is socially and psychologically constructed, and that what really counts is identity. She further drew parallels of transracial identity with transgendered identities.

The paper was immediately denounced by hundreds of academics who signed this open letter calling for retraction, including associate editors at Hypatia (the peer reviewed journal that published it) and two members of Tuvel’s dissertation committee. The now-familiar claim that Tuvel caused “harm and violence” surfaced. As with the Gilley and Damore cases, this article shows how the claims in the denunciation were almost entirely unfounded. Fortunately from an academic freedom standpoint, Hypatia’s board of directors stood firm, and refused to retract the article.

Hundreds of academics signed an inaccurate denunciation and call for retraction without refuting her main arguments. Hundreds of academics endorsed unsupported and wild claims about “harm” and “violence” in an effort to silenceTuvel’s view. They may not represent “most” academics, but nor is this some sort of infinitesimal fringe.

Denunciations II: The Unmitigated Gall of Defending Bourgeois Values. Amy Wax and Larry Alexander are professors of law at Penn and University of California, San Diego, respectively. They wrote an editorial identifying the breakdown of what they considered the strong elements of 1950s bourgeois culture — emphasis on family, marriage, hard work, and civility — as sources of many modern social ills, from homicide to opioid addiction to poverty.

In response, like Damore, Gilley and Tuvel, Wax and Alexander were denounced with the modern lexicon of leftist slurs (white supremacist, racist, etc.) by faculty and graduate students from around the country, and then by 33 members of the Penn Law Faculty. The latter affirmed her right to speak and, also their right to criticize her. But you must read the denunciation to believe this — there is no actual criticism. Instead, there is condemnation and a thinly veiled threat. They conclude with: “To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.” The Penn Law School’s Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild questioned her fitness for teaching first year law students, and, according to Wax, Penn Law then asked her to take a leave of absence because of the firestorm (something Penn Law denies).

These denunciations failed to actually silence Wax (

 is a clarion call for academic freedom and political debate). As she states at about 1.5 minutes in,

“The short answer [to the question of how views that sharply depart from leftist narratives should be handled] in my mind is this: the only really acceptable response is to refute views one disagrees with on the merits, and to explain in a reasoned way using logic, evidence, facts and substantive arguments why certain opinions are in error.”

Despite the failure to silence Wax, I strongly suspect that these strong-arm tactics succeed at chilling the intellectual climate on many campuses. How many other scholars, such as this professor and woman of color at the University of Maryland, self-censor for fear of incurring the type of backlash to which Wax and Alexander have been subject? As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, in On Liberty, social stigma is usually a far more serious threat to the free exchange of ideas than are legal penalties.

Harassment, Intimidation, Violence

Last, there are incidences of actual intimidation and violence. These are not easily dismissed as “students are always revolting.” Student violence was not common prior to 2014 (though student protests did shut down campuses during the Vietnam War). Furthermore, the recent aggressive focus on silencing certain ideas is new.

Harassment and intimidation in the name of social justice predate 2017, such as events that occurred at 

 and . Consistent with F.I.R.E.’s Disinvitation Report, such events have been increasing in both their frequency and intensity. As a result, I focus exclusively on summarizing the most recent such events, all from 2017:

  • At University of California Berkeley, there were a series of violent protests and/or shutdowns of controversial events. Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on Feb 1. A peaceful protest morphed into a riot and the event was canceled. Violent protests at a March 4 pro-Trump rally resulted in seven injuries and ten arrests. An April 27 appearance by conservative personality Ann Coulter was canceled by the administration on safety grounds. Conservative Ben Shapiro did speak on September 14 — at a reported cost of $600,000 for security. Similarly, a whole crew of conservative commentators and personalities came to speak on September 24-27, and did so — at a reported cost of a million dollars in security.
  • Violent protests at UC Davis prevented an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulous and Martin Shkreli, who had been invited by the colleges’ Republican Club.
  • Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College invited social scientist Charles Murray, in order to debate him and debunk his claims. In the controversial book The Bell Curve, Murray reviewed evidence that addressed the question of the extent to which racial differences in intelligence and achievement resulted from biological and genetic racial differences. Murray is often accused of being a racist. Students rioted, and Professor Stanger ended up with a concussion.
  • Heather MacDonald, a Manhattan Institute scholar who has written a book titled The War on Cops, and has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, was scheduled to speak at Claremont MacKenna College. Protestors blockaded the venue and prevented the talk from being held there (it was subsequently held before a small audience and live streamed). The University did ultimately suspend three protestors.
  • Evergreen College in Washington has a long tradition of social justice activism. Some have argued that radicals — a minority to be sure, but not a tiny one — with administrative support, essentially cowed faculty and students into a cult of conformity which rejected dissent as, essentially, racist, sexist, and fascist. This activism led to a call for a Day of Absence — in which white faculty and students were supposed to not be on campus. Bret Weinstein, a professor of biology, refused. He and his wife were subject to repeated harassment and intimidation some of which can be found in the videos available here. As Weinstein and Heying wrote:

“These protests at Evergreen were not like protests many readers will remember from their own college days. Nor were they like the ones we had participated in ourselves … It was heady stuff, but it never approached violence. And, agree with us or not, we were objecting to policy, not claims of bias that are immune to scrutiny.”

Following these incidents, faculty sent public emails about how “proud” they were of the student protestors; Weinstein’s class was forced off campus by student harassment and doxing of students in his class. Police warned him that he was under threat and they could not protect him. Weinstein went on Fox News to tell his story — and faculty then called for disciplinary action against him, as if appearing on Fox was somehow actionable. Evergreen refused to provide Weinstein and Heying a leave of absence, instead making clear it wanted them gone. They resigned, and now self-describe as “professors in exile.”

  • In perhaps the ultimate irony, Ryerson University in Canada canceled a panel discussion titled “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” featuring Gad Saad, Jordan Peterson, Faith Goldy, and Oren Amitay. The university cited “security concerns” after protestors had claimed that the speakers were perpetrating “violence” and were tantamount to Nazis and fascists. (As a brief reminder to anyone reading this who may not be that familiar with the history: actual Nazis perpetrated multiple genocides ultimately claiming eleven million lives, and started a World War ultimately responsible for about 80 million deaths).

This is not a complete list. Further, there is no reason to think this sort of intolerance is ending anytime soon.

Reasons for Hope

Although rightwing rhetoric overstates the extent to which campus radicals dominate intellectual life on universities, the problems are very real. There is more than ample evidence that the dominance of some fields by critical theory/postmodernism has led to an embrace of activism over truth. And there is more than ample evidence of a growing leftist intolerance of controversial speech. Indeed, if actual fascism is characterized, in part, by the use of intimidation, threats of violence, and violence to abridge others’ fundamental human rights (which includes speech), it is clear that the accusation that speakers are Nazis or fascists is being used to “justify” tactics bearing a family resemblance to those employed by actual fascists to take power.

This all sounds quite dark. The darkest part is not the rise of radicalism, but the passive acquiescence of the vast majority of faculty and students. I do believe, however, that that is beginning to change.

Prominent academics and public intellectuals have begun rallying to a defense of reason, evidence, and academic freedom. There has been a rise of outlets such as Areo, and Quillette, as forums for an evidence-based and reasoned analysis of current social issues and problems, and for giving a platform to heterodox thinkers. Public intellectuals whose politics are personally left are now calling out the dangers of leftist radicals. F.I.R.E. held its first faculty conference last year, on speech and academic freedom; it was lively, informative, and well-attended by faculty who I suspect were mostly progressive in their politics (I was there). Heterodox Academy, which is an organization for academics dedicated to speech, academic freedom, embracing diverse viewpoints and debating them openly and with civility, has grown from an essentially idiosyncratic fringe of a dozen disenchanted faculty in Fall 2015 to an organization with over 1500 academic members, an active and influential blog series, a research arm, and an outreach/educational arm. Harvard psychologist and public intellectual Steven Pinker has a new book out defending the importance, indeed, the crying need for, an academy and society dedicated to reason and science. Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett, who has published an entire book contesting many of the claims in The Bell Curve, has also recently given this talk ripping into the postmodernist/radical constructivist/neo-Marxist academic left as being anti-science, anti-reason, and as being at least as disdainful of truth as is Donald Trump.

My home field of psychology is moving in the direction opposite to that of academic social activist radicals.Psychology is not immune to criticisms surrounding its failure to live up to its scientific ideals, but the new Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science is dedicated to making psychology a far more evidence-based science than it has been in the past. Even the National Science Foundation recently sponsored a conference on “implicit bias” (which I attended) — in which many of the more extravagant claims made by its early proponents in the name of activism and social justice were severely criticized and contested. One referred to the once-common claims of the power of implicit bias as “irresponsible.”

I suspect that it has taken so long for defenders of science, reason, and truth to gather themselves because, until recently, most of us took for granted that these values were so self-evident they needed no defense. But they clearly do. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, one of the reasons to embrace civil debate even with views that are completely and utterly wrong is that, if the right view is not occasionally challenged, our ability to defend it withers away. We become vulnerable to superstition and falsehoods. Reasonable people everywhere, in the academy and out, need to stand up and support the slow rousting of the defenders of reason, evidence, and the existence of truths in the hope that this will be sufficient to stem the rising tide of unreason and intolerance.

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts” —

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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Lee Jussim

Lee Jussim is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. He has chaired his department, published over 100 scholarly articles and chapters, and several books. He blogs regularly at Psychology Today.

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