The New Left was a heavy boulder heaved into the pond of American society, and the ripples are still disturbing the surface. We currently find our little boat rolling in the turmoil of the second big wave of political correctness to follow that initial splash. Regular readers know my story — I didn’t go to college, and thus was not exposed firsthand to the original PC outburst that was taking place at that time. My shallow liberalish identity, forged largely in response to the aggressive, mean-spirited right-wing environment I grew up in, didn’t survive exposure to the millennial generation’s PC resurgence, which was spread wider than ever before by social media, rather than remaining quarantined on college campuses. For the last few years, I’ve been reading as much as I can to give me a better philosophical understanding of who these lunatics are and which crack in the roof of hell they crawled out from.
John M. Ellis’s 1997 book Literature Lost is one of the better sources I’ve found for my purposes, engagingly written and refreshingly free of polemical excess. He starts with context, showing that cultural history has been a long series of footnotes to Ecclesiastes, in which everything we thought was new is just another remake. Today’s radicals reflexively oppose anything to do with straight, white, Western men, but Tacitus was the first to use a romanticized image of barbarian outsiders as a selectively polished mirror in order to shock his own society with its ugly reflection. We may stare in utter disbelief as campus leftists insist that races and genders need to be effectively segregated, not for the benefit of white society this time, but rather to prevent those white devils from appropriating and microaggressing against cultures of color, and yet Johann Herder, as Isaiah Berlin has elsewhere explained in depth, had already laid the intellectual foundations for tribal group identity and cultural relativism long ago. And then, of course, haunting the whole sorry spectacle is the malignant shade of Rousseau, the original social justice warrior. Rather than rehash his many intellectual crimes, I’ll just step outside to hawk and spit on the ground at the mention of his accursed name.
From there, we read about feminists complaining that “easy dismissal of feminist writers, journals and presses” and “malicious humor directed against feminists” are common examples of “harassment”, which exists on the same continuum as actual, literal rape. This, by the way, is from a Modern Language Association newsletter from 1991, not from a post last week on Tumblr. (Peggy McIntosh, the mother of intersectionality, who is uniquely responsible for the fact that no one currently between the ages of 20-50 will ever want to hear the word “privilege” again no matter what the context, makes several appearances in this book.) We take a look back at the primitive precursor to Twitter show trials, multisignature letters, in which dissident scholars find themselves being publicly attacked by mobs of enraged academics, ad hominem-style, in prominent publications, for their apostasy. And we are reminded that intellectual philistines have been insisting, for decades now, that politics is the most important content of literature (or art in general), and that opposing oppression by straight, white, Western men is the primary concern of all politics.
In making the persuasive case that the uniqueness of Western culture lies not in its crimes, but in the moral/intellectual framework it developed and practical action it took to atone for those crimes, Ellis does oversimplify the Enlightenment and its consequences, in my view. You wince, for example, as Ellis writes, “Torture now occurs for the most part only in those areas of the globe where Enlightenment values have not fully penetrated,” knowing as you do that Abu Ghraib would be news less than a decade later, and that waterboarding would be something that Republican presidential candidates happily espouse as a campaign promise today. He rightly argues that “stumbling” toward moral progress is forgivable for a Western culture that codified the very ideals by which it is being harshly judged, but seems to consider it a foregone conclusion that the rest of the world will eventually adopt “Enlightenment” values. Well, as critics of this sort of “it gets better” school of historical thought, such as John Gray and Timothy Snyder, have pointed out, the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Maoists were all attempting to use science and reason to rationally improve human society, however inconvenient that is for P.R. purposes. Noting this is not to claim, a la Slavoj Zizek, that there is no meaningful difference between Jefferson and Stalin, so we might as well choose the “honesty” of the latter; it is merely to suggest that this is an unnecessary weak link in an otherwise strong argument. The ideals could be defended without hitching them to a tendentious, vague equation of “the Enlightenment” to “anything we consider good, happy, positive, and beneficial in our society.”
Still, that’s a minor quibble. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in gaining perspective on the left side of the culture wars.