I keep noticing something peculiar lately: Even though I seem to hear constantly about the members of the “intellectual dark web” and their war on the Social Justice Identity Politics Regressive Left, I never seem to hear very much from the Social Justice Identity Politics Regressive Left itself. I know that assertion may sound a little dubious: Surely we hear all the time about White Privilege, rape culture, gender as a social construct, etc. And yet: There are dozens of well-known critics of social justice activists: Harris, Shapiro, Peterson, Brooks, Stephens, Hoff Sommers, Weinstein, Weinstein, Murray, Murray, Rogan, Chait, Haidt, Pinker, Rubin, Sullivan, Weiss, Williamson, Yiannopoulos, Dreger, Hirsi Ali. Who are their equivalents among the Social Justice Types? Who has their reach or prominence?
I recently pointed out the irony that the supposedly suppressed anti-“political correctness” position is represented at length in numerous books, op-eds, YouTube shows, and TV interviews. But it’s worth noting the other half of this: The social justice position itself is often presented to the public through the voices of its critics rather than its adherents. It’s downright peculiar: When Jordan Peterson talks about “postmodern Marxists” we don’t really hear who they are (other than Adorno, who is dead). When David Brooks or Scott Alexander have written about the silly ideas of racial justice progressives, they have done it by imagining what the activists would say, or paraphrasing. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now strongly criticizes “social justice warriors” for their notions, but while he explains their beliefs he doesn’t really tell us who in particular he’s talking about.
The “SJWs” often come across as an amorphous, irrational, angry blob, which is undoubtedly how many of their critics see them. For the most part, they don’t seem to have names. I guess there’s Linda Sarsour; I’m told she’s one of them. But I don’t actually hear much from her, even though I can watch a video telling me why she’s a “complete idiot and a vile disgrace” (600,000 views!) or watch Dave Rubin interview someone who is not Linda Sarsour about how terrible Linda Sarsour is. This is strange, not because people who fit the conservative caricature of leftists don’t exist (they do; I’ve met one or two), or because the “anti-free speech” and “irrational” currents of progressivism are a fabrication (I’ve written about them), but because the right’s narrative is that the leftists are the ones who control the culture. If that were true, I would imagine I’d hear Colin Kaepernick talking all the time. But I’m not even sure I even know what Colin Kaepernick’s voice sounds like. Again, though, I could watch multiple interviews in which Dave Rubin talks to people about Colin Kaepernick.
I want to suggest a hypothesis that may sound outlandish: What if the whole narrative is backwards? What if people who think they are voicing suppressed dangerous ideas are actually the ones suppressing the truly dangerous ideas? What if this effort to condemn the irrational excesses of political correctness is in part a way of avoiding having to engage with its arguments and listen carefully to its advocates? What if people who seem to be “challenging” a dissent-stifling power structure are actually defending one? Now, I’m not saying this is the case; I’m just asking some questions. But let’s, for a moment, because we are rational and skeptical, consider the possibility that the conservative narrative is totally upside-down. Let’s picture a topsy-turvy world in which Donald Trump is the president and left ideas are actually marginal. Stretch your powers of imagination and consider the following hypotheticals:
- What if a cable news network that seemed to hate the president actually benefited from his existence?
- What if the national idea that “people who work hard get rewarded” was actually false? What if the people who worked the longest hours often had the least to show for it?
- What if things we consume in our daily lives are built on an almost unimaginable amount of conscious suffering?
- What if slavery never actually did go away? What if it’s still happening somewhere but we just don’t notice?
- What if elite academia wasn’t actually a hotbed of radical activism, but was a profoundly conservative place that resisted any challenges to the existing distribution of power?
- What if, as we walked through our cities on warm spring days, a few miles away there were thousands of people locked in cages, slowly losing their minds? What if the freest country in the world was actually the least free? What if sentencing people to prison also often meant sentencing them to be raped? What if we put children in adult prisons? What if we executed someone who had been in prison since the age of 15?
- What if large parts of our liberal “resistance” were actually endorsing political quietism?
- What if the people who supposedly created wealth actually created nothing of social value at all?
- What if “equality of opportunity” was a meaningless concept?
- What if the 13th Amendment didn’t actually ban slavery? What if the minimum wage wasn’t actually the minimum wage?
- What if capitalism wasn’t actually about respecting “individuals”? What if modern corporations were a form of collectivism?
- What if it’s leftism that actually offends establishment political sensibilities?
- What if civility masks atrocities and prevents honesty? What if bipartisanship is bad?
- What if prominent Democrats who bragged about their history of fighting segregation were actually complicit in perpetuating it?
- What if people celebrated for their honor and integrity were actually callous and ignorant? What if celebrated intellectuals actually knew almost nothing? What if people celebrated as “philosophers” could barely complete a syllogism and were also racists?
- What if crises like “teacher shortages” and “Social Security going bankrupt” were artificial? What if these ideas were pieces of propaganda designed to persuade people that austerity is inevitable?
- What if you didn’t need to feel bad about not paying your debts? What if individual consumers were being encouraged to be moral and generous to companies while companies were encouraged to be rational self-interested sociopaths?
- What if it were perfectly possible to provide cutting-edge comprehensive health care for everybody? What if attempts to convince people otherwise were sophistry and speculation?
- What if the “common sense” understandings of gender (there are just men and there are women and it’s obvious and that’s that) were actually incoherent? What if ideas about gender that seemed strange or discomforting were actually better descriptions of social reality?
- What if there was no such possibility as “the United States going bankrupt”? What if countries don’t need to raise revenue to spend money?
- What if it was actually the war criminals and atrocity deniers who were given the Peace Prizes? What if our supposed human rights champions were actually friends with the war criminals? What if killing one person landed you in prison, but killing 500,000 people got you on the Ellen DeGeneres show?
- What if the feminists had been right all along that there was a patriarchy? What if men who championed women’s rights in public had been raping and beating them in private? What if Bill Cosby turned out to have been raping women for decades? What if every time you turned on the television you had been seeing abusers and harassers?
- What if a white man known as “first black president” actually swindled and betrayed black people?
- What if our countries’ allies were murdering people in cold blood? What if one of them was enforcing ethnic apartheid? What if our tax dollars were going to give them weapons? What if a beloved Democratic president and Nobel Peace Prize winner was actually selling arms to a violent dictatorial regime? What if the “liberal” media didn’t care?
- What if there wasn’t a new Cold War? What if Russia wasn’t our enemy? What if highly credentialed intellectuals were actually trafficking in dangerous conspiracies?
- What if the planet was actually heading for catastrophe? What if corporate executives who caused the worst environmental accident in history were never punished?
- What if our country’s enemies actually sometimes had a point? What if they didn’t hate us for our freedoms but because we had murdered their people and destroyed a country? What if, when we looked at the world through other people’s eyes, we looked like the bad guys? What if the ideology of nationalism prevented us from appreciating how the things we do to others would look if they were done to us?
- What if the most trusted agencies in our government had been committing crimes for their entire history? What if instead of protecting us, they were manufacturing false threats? What if they sometimes spent millions of dollars manufacturing fake Al-Qaeda propaganda?
- What if North Korea’s dislike of the U.S. wasn’t just irrational lunacy? What if, within the lifetime of currently living people, we had burned down every town in their country, flattened 75% of their capital city, and possibly killed 20% of their population?
- What if Iranians had good reason to dislike us? What if we had once massacred a planeload of Iranian civilians, a president had dismissively refused to apologize for it in spite of the facts, and everyone had forgotten about it? What if, again within the lifetime of living people, we had overthrown the democratically elected Iranian government and propped up a repressive autocrat?
- What if “geniuses” who were being misogynistic ironically were actually just misogynists? What if you could stab your wife, stand over her as she bleeds shouting “Let the bitch die” at anyone who tried to help her, and then go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes?
- What if our country spent billions of dollars a year developing machines designed exclusively to massacre people? What if these machines were becoming more and more terrifying?
- What if you could keep women effectively as concubines/prisoners in your house, promise to destroy feminism, and then be hailed upon your death as a champion of sexual liberation?
- What if the United States had committed horrific crimes within living people’s lifetimes? What if we had needlessly wiped out two entire cities with atomic weapons? What if, in a separate incident, we had perpetrated the most destructive bombing in human history? What if it had entirely flattened one of the world’s great cities and we had simply forgotten about it? What if, in the lead-up to that bombing, we had actually drawn maps of the most flammable parts of the city so we could incinerate the most people? What if we had supported mass murderers, dictators, and genocide? What if we had waged an entirely unjustified decade-long war in Vietnam that resulted in millions of deaths? What if we were responsible for scores of war crimes that were never widely exposed? What if we had done so in part because Lyndon Johnson was afraid that people in his dreams would call him a pussy? (For more on Vietnam, see our new print edition.) What if we had spent nearly ten years dropping millions of tons of bombs on poor peasants in Laos, a country hardly anyone even knows we bombed?
- What if people like Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, and Albert Einstein were actually socialists? What if they would have been disgusted to see how their views have been sanitized and their radicalism erased? What if even Abraham Lincoln sometimes sounded like a socialist?
- What if we think of history like this without remembering the parts like this? (WARNING: graphic content) What if slavery wasn’t actually that long ago? What if there were people alive today who had met people who were once slaves? What if there were people alive today whose childhood was spent under Jim Crow? What if segregation hasn’t gone away? What if the black-white wealth gap was the direct result of a massive historical racist plunder? What if microaggressions were real? What if people of color still found themselves treated like outsiders and criminals no matter how hard they worked or how much they achieved?
- What if the country was still trying desperately to ignore the contemporary results of the historic crime committed against its native population? What if American Indians were rendered almost totally culturally invisible?
- What if it turned out we didn’t actually have universal adult suffrage?
- What if tens of thousands of people were killing themselves every year and nobody cared? What if behind closed doors, people who pretend to be happy were lonely and desperate? What if transgender teenagers were crying alone in the bathroom right now? What if that wasn’t inevitable, but was the consequence of an ideology that encouraged people not to care about each other and insisted that the pursuit of self-interest benefits everyone?
- What if celebrated American heroes were actually cruel and bigoted? What if the author of our most beloved founding document beat and raped slaves? What if he had been informed of his hypocrisy but didn’t care, and tried to send his daughter to the auction block? What if the president we celebrate on the $20 bill, whose portrait Donald Trump has put in the Oval Office, was not just a genocidal “Indian killer” but had blown hundreds of freed black slaves to smithereens in a massacre nobody ever talks about?
- What if the horrific violence in Mexican border towns wasn’t actually because Mexicans are inherently violent but because the United States’ endless demand for drugs has increased the incentives for cartels to become as brutal as possible? (See our new print issue.)
- What if the people who wanted to deport criminals weren’t actually trying to reduce crime? What if they just wanted different people to suffer?
- What if America wasn’t really a “city on a hill” but a fortress keeping out the world’s poor? What if borders can’t be justified? What if our country is ruled by psychopaths who have no qualms about tearing babies from the arms of their pleading mothers? What if our comfort depends on other people’s deprivation?
- What if hardly anybody knew the names of our country’s most important contemporary activists and civil rights leaders? What if there were still 700 monuments to Confederate racists but not a single one to Erica Garner? What if the very existence of the labor movement was almost totally ignored by the mainstream press? What if kids could go all the way through high school, even college, without ever learning who Hubert Harrison was?
- What if it’s wrong to have so much in a world were so many have so little? What if being wealthy is just immoral? What if people are being preyed on, exploited, and put into debt ? What if “freedom-loving” libertarians would rather live in a world where poor people sell their organs to live than a world in which wealth were shared among all?
- What if people were being manipulated constantly? What if advertising was a trick, food was designed to be addictive, and public support for wars was created through propaganda? What if media figures who questioned the government were fired? What if the USSR was never actually socialist?
- What if the media had an implicit hierarchy of which lives were worthy of attention? What if that hierarchy was racist? What if, in a profit-driven media, the hardest and most important truths get buried because they are uncomfortable and nobody wants to hear about them?
- What if dissidents weren’t actually being heard, while those who justified all of the above were being amplified by massive corporate media institutions and heard by millions? What if we didn’t live in a democracy, what if Congressmen openly admitted that they only listen to those who can afford to bribe them and public policy depended far more on what rich people want than what the rest of us want?
- What if none of this were necessary? What if our problems weren’t the inevitable result of genetic defects or cultural pathology, but were solvable? What if the only force keeping things the way they were was the widespread consensus that they couldn’t change? What if a better world was possible?
I know, it’s all such a mad delusion. You’d have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe it all. But don’t worry, it’s only a thought experiment. I’m just asking us to imagine a strange world in which the interests of the wealthy mattered far more than the interests of the poor, and in which the good people got left behind while the bad people were honored and celebrated. But let’s stick with the idea, just a moment longer. In this kind of world, what would we make of people like the members of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” who insist that their ideas pose a challenge to the mainstream consensus? Well, first we’d have to look at the ideas themselves. But if those ideas turned out to coincide remarkably well with the interests of those who are already wealthy and powerful, and if those ideas seemed to downplay, deny, and evade all of the contrary evidence, we might begin to suspect that these Dissident Intellectuals should not, in fact, rightfully be considered dissidents. In this kind of world, the real dissidents would be the ones whose names we didn’t know, the ones who were trying to dredge up the truths nobody wanted to listen to, rather than the people whose faces and opinions were constantly in the newspapers. The dangerous ideas would be the ones that weren’t spoken from the White House and on cable news, because they actually indicted those institutions rather than benefiting them.
I know we’re all glad we don’t live in the kind of world in which the things I’ve described are true. But let me make an observation: Over the past two years of running a magazine, I have noticed something very important. With some exceptions, the things people want to read about are the things they least need to read about, and the things they most need to read about are the things they least want to read about. When we publish articles about suicide or immigration or atrocities, it doesn’t matter how well-written they are. Nobody wants to read them. Why? Because they’re depressing. They’re discomforting. They’re painful. You’d have to be a masochist to intentionally inflict this kind of thing on yourself.
We can easily understand why the media obsessed over every last absurd thing Donald Trump does, and doesn’t pay any attention to violence in Mexico. Donald Trump is fun to read about, he’s fun to hate. The hierarchy of victims is not a conspiracy, it’s a quite accurate metric of predictable audience interest. Why do we hear more about Scott Pruitt’s soundproof box than the Palestinians shot by Israeli snipers? For a number of reasons: it’s more entertaining, it’s less miserable, most of us implicitly devalue Palestinian lives, and the U.S. is pathologically committed to supporting Israel no matter how many times it may violate international law.
There are explanations, then, for why hear so goddamn much about the Crazy Campus Activists and their Social Justice, despite rarely even hearing from a named campus activist, and despite the fact that it’s a totally overblown controversy largely confined to a few elite liberal arts institutions. Bashing millennial identity politics gets lots of clicks and views from angry white guys, it’s a delicious controversy to read about, and it’s fun to make fun of kids who think the dining hall sandwiches are cultural appropriation. But it should be obvious that these are not “dangerous” thoughts. They do not threaten those with economic, political, or military power. They target 19-year-old Oberlin kids, and 19-year-old Oberlin kids do not control the world. Instead, our world is largely ruled by callous and hypocritical people like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Andrew Cuomo, Dianne Feinstein, Theresa May, Kim Jong Un, and Ted Cruz. (Yes, the levels of evil vary.) Sometimes you get a seemingly nice guy, like Barack Obama, but in order to get to the top they can’t pose a serious threat to the powerful.
The intellectuals who point these things out do not get included in mainstream discourse. Norman Finkelstein was kicked out of the academy, while the far less intelligent and much more dishonest Alan Dershowitz had life tenure at Harvard. (So much for radical academia!) The names of those who bash social justice are far better known than the names of those who defend it, and critical black intellectuals are erased to the point where someone like Sam Harris doesn’t even appear to be aware that they exist. Show me a news network that spends more time talking about the bombing of Yemen than Michael Cohen, and I will reconsider my assessment of which topics get priority. To be sure, the left has made progress in exposing things as they really are, and America’s culture is far more progressive now than fifty years ago. Christopher Columbus’s reputation is a bit tarnished these days and someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates can successfully force the National Review to acknowledge the racial wealth gap. But so much suffering is still ignored, so many lies still pass for common sense.
It’s important, of course, to talk about why people like Bari Weiss are so full of crap when they imply that Jordan Peterson—one of the world’s least silent men—is being suppressed and pushed out of mainstream discourse. But it’s even more important to remind people which views aren’t heard, which truths do get buried, and what the “dangerous” ideas truly are.
My new essay collection, Interesting Times, is now available for purchase!
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