In London’s Hyde Park, the famous Speakers’ Corner stands as a tribute to the victory of John Stuart Mill, the most prominent thinker in the liberal tradition. In the occasionally stultifying intellectual climate of Victorian England, Mill led a successful campaign for the right to protest in London’s public parks. His main concern was not government censorship but the chilling effect of social conformity. In his famous essay On Liberty, Mill advocated for a culture that offered a rich diversity of viewpoints that would enable the pursuit of truth.
“Society can and does execute its own mandates,” he wrote, “and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
Mill recognized that the tyranny of groupthink posed lethal dangers to individual behavior in an ostensibly free society. “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any effort at their diffusion.” The indirect force of orthodoxy and peer pressure fashions “the mind-forg’d manacles” (in William Blake’s phrase) that render society mute on questions of vital public importance just as surely as official censorship. The ultimate objective of cancel culture seems less to cancel the actual target of abuse than it is pour encourager les autres. Mill believed fiercely in the virtues of free inquiry and open debate, and he wanted to uphold the kind of society that gave a podium to those virtues.
That is the podium that is being pulled down across the United States today, from academia to the basketball court to the boardroom. Bari Weiss has become something of an expert witness on the illiberal urge to haul down the podium of free and rational thought. Weiss, a former editor with the New York Times opinion page, has resigned from her position after being the target of an extraordinary campaign of bullying and intimidation on account of her political views—only yesterday considered within the broad liberal mainstream but now, in the current environment of radical identity politics, unforgivably heterodox.
— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) July 14, 2020
The level of vitriol directed at this self-described “left-leaning centrist” has been incredible to behold, and it has not been restricted to the readership of the erstwhile paper of record. Weiss’s own colleagues at the Times openly joined the left-wing chorus calling for her ouster or worse.
Last year I wrote a not-uncritical review of her book on the disturbing trend of resurgent anti-Semitism. There are differences of principle and differences of emphasis that inhere in our political worldviews. The same could be said of Weiss’s former boss, James Bennet, and Senator Tom Cotton, who had been commissioned to write an op-ed proposing a federal military response to rioting in certain American cities. For the indignity of furnishing a sitting US senator with space in the New York Times, Bennet was forced to resign.
None of the critics calling for Bennet’s scalp in that case suspected that he endorsed the views of the junior senator from Arkansas, any more than he was presumed to have endorsed the views of Vladimir Putin or Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, who also appeared on the New York Times op-ed page. It was enough for Bennet to have challenged the readers of the Times with evidence and argument that did not confirm their existing beliefs and prejudices.
The principle of free speech is not quite at issue here. Rather, it is the dignity and necessity of intellectual engagement. That’s the tradition Weiss’s colleagues at the Times have failed to uphold. It would be a mistake to single out the Times, however. Its trembling attitude toward the “woke” mob is sadly more typical of elite organs and institutions than it is exceptional. On the same day that Weiss tendered her resignation, for instance, Andrew Sullivan announced he was leaving New York Magazine.
In her public resignation letter, Weiss nails her theses to the door of liberalism’s old cathedral. She advocates a classical liberalism that takes to heart “the lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society.”
These are no longer the hallmarks of the ascendant progressivism that seeks to impose a “new McCarthyism” in American life. Its adherents have no wish to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They just want to root out “privilege,” end “micro-aggressions,” and create “safe spaces” for the elect.
The curtailed and inhibited exchange of ideas today is occurring thanks in good measure both to those who know better and those who don’t. Those who know better are those weak-kneed liberals who agree with Mill’s contention that the pursuit of truth requires the combination and sometimes the collision of discrete and sometimes discrepant ideas and propositions, but who refuse—as Robert Frost mordantly said of liberals—to take their own side in a fight. This ilk has mastered the act of lying supine before those who don’t know better: the aggressive authoritarians who, in their ignorance-induced rage, are convinced they possess the one true faith and are duty-bound to inflict it on everyone else by means fair or foul. Until there is nothing left but the echo of the chamber.
Nowadays the institutions of American life—the durable forms of society, as Yuval Levin has defined the concept—that have traditionally instilled respect and a degree of reverence for Mill’s virtues are being hollowed out by forces across the political spectrum. More and more, the prevailing forces on the Left and Right have jettisoned any attachment to the social structures responsible for fashioning individuals into citizens. This crisis of dissolution can be seen across the range of society, from schools and churches to political parties and business enterprises. It can fairly be said that we are living in an era marked by what the American sociologist Robert Nisbet called “a vacuum of allegiance.” But that is more descriptive of today’s feeble political center than it is of the radical forces that are righteously assaulting the country’s symbols and institutions.
This all makes for a precarious state of affairs. “At all times friends of freedom have been rare,” said Lord Acton. That is evidently true today. Those who are friends of freedom, whatever their partisan stripe, embrace a philosophy grounded in recognition of the pitfalls of groupthink and the rigors involved in the pursuit of truth. They should not let Weiss and others like her fall unwept, unhonored, or unsung.
Most of all, the partisans of freedom must not abandon the battered and infiltrated institutions that are subject to open and covert attack. The most that should be permitted is de Gaulle’s preferred military option—to retrench in a strategic manner. These institutions’ continued existence and proper function are vital to a free society. They must not be allowed to remain, as they are at this hour, in the wrong hands.
Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.