Campus march against 'hate speech', 2016. Fibonacci Blue / Wiikimedia
In a recent interview on Fox News (July 6), Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz, discussed the rapid rise of deliberate incidents of violence and intimidation in public life, not just the fact of them but the systematic advocating of them. He distinguished between a liberal and a radical left proponent. A liberal wants to hear, not suppress, arguments and views other than his own. The radical left no longer attempts to persuade.
Victor Davis Hanson, in discussing the same topic (“The Left Can’t Come to Grips with Its Loss of Power,” National Review, July 5), saw the escalating incidents of public physical and psychological confrontation as a sign that the extreme left has finally realized that it has no more arguments available with which to persuade any normal person of the validity of its proposals. Its only resort is to threaten and silence others who disagree with them.
In the meantime, socialists of various stripes, mostly blind to the history of their own position, present themselves as an alternate, state sponsored cure to all these problems said to cause civil unrest. Socialism appeals to university youth as something never heard of before with no absolutist agenda of its own. Universities today are places where no real history is taught, only ideological interpretations of it. Young socialists defeat old Democrats in elections by wanting to abolish the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Any actual socialist government would replace it immediately with its own laws.
The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, perhaps the justice closest to upholding and promoting radical political views, is a new factor. The quiet defeat of the Obama legacy is another. The at least temporary silencing of ISIS is the result of direct and determined military force. Islam recedes when it is opposed on the ground. Theological reasons also exist for this Islamic concern about itself and its agenda. Since Allah can change his mind according to his will, a defeat hints that he has so changed it. Whatever happened with North Korea and consultations with Russia are also unexpected.
America's return to a constitutional civil order
It seems possible that we are witnessing a return to something like a constitutional order of a national, limited state whose primary duty is to protect and promote its own citizens and to deal fairly but firmly with other powers. Yet, if we look at recent events in Canada, Ireland, and Mexico, the refusal of the European Union to acknowledge its Christian roots, the push to the far left remains vigorous.
The normal response of the radical left to a constitutional civil order is to call any effort of a state and its citizenry to protect themselves Nazism, fascism, or nationalism. We seem to have more mention of Nazis on television today than we did on radio in 1939. Most of these references to earlier ideologies are cleverly designed to associate the present government with these totalitarian movements. One thing the radical left cannot accept is responsible, determined, constitutional order based on principles grounded in experience, human nature, and reason.
The left has been enormously successful, following the advice of Antonio Gramsci and Saul Alinsky, to take over from the inside one elite institution after another, particularly the media, the universities, Hollywood, some branches of the physical sciences, all branches of the social sciences, much of high tech business, and now even sports.
According to some Catholic writers (for example, Ross Douthat and Philip Lawler in the US, and Antonio Ureta in Chile) this takeover includes the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis.
What is going on here? Most people are familiar with the growing chorus on the radical left to shut down any criticism of its views. It is not just Representative Maxine Waters and her frenzied urgings to leave no public official un-harassed. We are seeing the culmination of generations of academic capitulations to leftist ideology in the universities now carried out by students who have never questioned or thought they needed to question the validity of what they were taught in the schools. Widely established “hate language” laws turn out, in practice, to be tools to silence any doubting of left political positions.
A secularised theology
What is the so-called “radical left” anyhow? It is, at bottom, a secularized theology, an eschatology, that purports, once in power, to right the wrongs that have resulted from the misuse of property, from resulting class struggles, and more recently from identity politics. The current radical left sought a more direct way to power after the defeat of Russian Marxism, a defeat that forced it to lay low for a while.
But all was not lost. China, Vietnam, Cuba, and several Latin American and African countries still showed that ideological power once embedded was almost impossible to dislodge. Perhaps no cry is more effective in establishing radical left governments than the claim to help the poor and establish “social justice.” “Rights” language in the tradition of Hobbes also helped enormously.
China has proved to be something of a phenomenon in that it has retained its Marxist rulership while adapting to market forces that in fact do help the poor. China, with its universal surveillance systems over all its citizens, showed that we can have a relatively prosperous country and still be totalitarian in most of the basic issues of human dignity.
But the issue today is not so much China, fascinating as that country is in all its long history. We know pretty well where it stands and how it operates. It has brought millions of people out of poverty, built modern cities and armies. It has made itself into a productivity giant. The issue is: “Why is the radical left suddenly proposing what is, in effect, civil intimidation of those who disagree with them or those whom it does not like?
Does the distinction between liberalism and the radical left have a basis in principle sufficient to guarantee that the same radical left is not swelled by those raised in liberalism? We can say that troubling aberrations like abortion and most of the surrounding issues were first inventions of a liberalism that elevated freedom over order and truth. The voluntarism of Hobbesian “natural rights” became the legal and moral justifications for these moves away from what-it-is-to-be-human. The logic of freedom without a basis in truth eventually became a radical left that, in lieu of any truth, concocted its own myth of what man was like. It then went forth to impose it on existing mankind in the name of enhancing its well-being and removing its ills. It was, again, an eschatology, an alternative theory about the real being of man. It retained basic Christian ideas, but relocated them as political agenda to be achieved in this world.
On the practical level, Hanson seems to be right. What we see in the increasing radical effort to silence any opposition to its agenda is a perplexing awareness that other ways and views about human nature and how it is to be organized are much closer to the truth, to what man is, than its own narrative about class, gender, identity, or property arrangements.
The radical left is finding that many normal citizens simply reject it as a tolerable way to proceed, but it also has the the gnawing feeling that its particular ideas are simply incoherent. The only way to prevent dissenting truths from being more widely known is to intimidate those who might hold them.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. This year he has published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.