Saturday, 2 June 2018

Regressive Left Pt. 6: Conservative Complacency


It is worth pausing in our analysis of the regressive left to ask ourselves what the right wing had been doing this whole time. What have the defenders of western civilization been doing while the progression analysed in the last five installments was transpiring?

Paleoconservatives and neoreactionaries constructed their own mirror-image narratives of cultural hegemony and socially constructed "reality" to serve powerful interests, only these cast white western Christendom as having been colonized by Frankfurt School inspired ideas, which we looked at briefly in the last installment in this series, Radical Ruckus.  Western culture had to be deconstructed in order to groom the populace for a revolutionary socialist takeover, we are told, even decades after communism fell. With the more recent rise of the alt-right, the Jewish identity and ancestry of many Frankfurt associated intellectuals is increasingly emphasized.  Let it never be forgotten that absurd regressivism is by no means exclusive to the left.

However, the right's "cultural Marxism" concerns were not completely ill founded, as our previous explorations of critical theory and postmodernism suggest. The problem with the right wing take on the idea, though, was that if the intent was to pave the way for socialism, this long march through the institutions could not have failed more miserably.  Eight years after Herbert Marcuse wrote favorably of this concept in his 1972 book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, one would reasonably expect a more leftist political climate to be the result.  The elections of Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK would suggest otherwise. 

At least on the surface of it.  But while economic Marxism was by then in decline, the results of growing progressive dominance in academia and, by extent, higher culture, were being felt in more social and cultural realms.  Plus, if there had been a leftist capture of academia, the Reagan-Thatcher neo-cons either didn’t notice or didn’t care.  The right wing in America especially, but elsewhere too, tended to sneer at and ridicule the academic left, but no more than that. 

Rogue journalist Milo Yiannopoulos would gain some success highlighting the excesses of campus leftism before being brought low by his own sordid past. The very recent emergence of the Intellectual Dark Web, so called, would call more attention to the crisis in the universities, though this is hardly a monolithic right wing movement, despite what the regressive left blogosphere would tell you. Concerns raised about postmodern leftism's emergent hegemony in academia recently raised by the likes of Johnathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson are far too little, too late.

2018 is a generation removed from the feminist transformation of the academy that took place in the 1980s. People born when Peggy McIntosh first unpacked the knapsack of white male privilege are now wondering whether it's wise to trust anyone under 30. Why did it take so long for the political mainstream to realize the true scope of the problem?  They can't say they weren't warned, that's for certain. Among works attempting to call public concern to the nature of regressive leftism published over the years are:

God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom"  - William F Buckely, 1951(!)
Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students - Allan Bloom, 1987
The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption In Higher Education - Charles J. Sykes, 1990
Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education - Roger Kimball, 1990
Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus - Dinesh D'Souza, 1991
The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex - Warren Farrell, 1993
Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women - Christina Hoff Sommers, 1994

This list is by no means exclusive. I'm sure you can add your own. The mainstream right cannot, therefore, plead ignorance. They knew it was happening and were warned of what the consequences would be if the matter was left unaddressed. It's also not like the US right at least lacked the power in many cases. They held the presidency from 1980 to 92 and 2000 to 2008 timespans, control of the House of Representatives from 1994 to 2007 (and again since 2010) and sporadic control of the Senate in the same time frame, including from 2003 to 2007. Over the course of the Obama years, the G.O.P has gained control over numerous state legislatures. Was there nothing they could have done to curb leftist dominance in the culture, the academy especially, during that time?

Or beyond occasionally using the issue as a pretext for slashing funding and bringing the private sector into higher education to the worsening of the overall problem, did they just not regard it as a priority?

Since the Reagan years, an anti-intellectual climate had been setting in among conservatives, and they found much more political kinship with evolution-denying Christian fundamentalists than with those professors still defending the western cultural canon in the English department. Ultimately however, the ascendant neoconservatives of the 1980s and after would care little for either cultural tradition. The real weakness of the late 20th century right is best described by author Thomas Frank in his 2004 expose of conservative dominance in American elections, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America:
The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.
Riding a wave of popular frustration with eight years of democratic party rule and a smug, politically correct culture, Donald Trump's surprise 2016 election victory is a classic case in point of what Frank describes above. Among his most significant legislative achievements as of this writing is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. And this has been par for the course going back to Reagan and even Nixon. They might appeal to cultural and social conservatism come election time to garner votes, but once in office, the neo-cons displayed concern mainly for cutting taxes, weakening unions and projecting military power in the middle east and elsewhere. This would eventually prove every bit as essential to the rise of the regressive left as anything taught in the women’s studies department.

This is the heart and soul of conservative complacency. Against their own better knowledge, the right in America and elsewhere lost sight of the importance of culture and tradition as the bulwarks that preserved social stability. The Reagan Revolution achieved that which it truly set out to achieve, and it had had a lot less to do with freedom than it did with profits. They got reduced taxes on high income earners, weakened unions and regulations, and a world secure for the plundering through neoliberal globalization and neoconservative power projection in strategically important areas with important resources. The demise of the Soviet empire in that time was the icing on the cake. It isn't that there wasn't an important socially conservative element on the late 20th century right, it's that this element was more about mobilizing electoral support for corporate conservative candidates than it was about actually preserving liberty and western culture.

What social conservatism there was had degenerated into rank religious fundamentalism. While this was not fervently opposed to the "Western Canon" like the postmodern left was, they certainly had no interest in preserving it either. Separated from Christendom's long theological tradition, conservative evangelicals in America (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) rendered unto Caesar much more than they rendered unto God, and had little interest in anything more than curtailing abortion and gay marriage, seeing apocalyptic "end times prophecies" fulfilled in the middle east, and lining their own pockets. When the leaders of a religious tradition stray so glaringly far from the founder of that tradition, known for cleansing temples of money exchangers, calling out elitist moral hypocrisy and remarking that it is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven, you know that tradition is in trouble as a vital spiritual force. Eventually, increased numbers of younger Americans saw through the sham that was the religious right, and this paved the way for the rise of the new atheism.

While the emergent progressive Obama coalition would abandon the right's religiosity, it would not abandon the right's morally busy-body nature, as we've seen. Perhaps the key role played by the religious right here were as trailblazers, and sometimes even partners with the regressive left in censorship. Indeed, the social conservatives worked hand-in-glove with radical feminists in opposing pornography in the 1980s, and Anita Sarkeesian’s criticism of video-game culture followed a path well worn by social conservatives such as Jack Thompson a decade earlier.

The tragic outcome of this is not only that liberals were slow to accept threats to free speech coming from the left, but that conservatives had little credibility with which to defend free speech against campus speech codes or to criticize the science-denialism of postmodern feminists who insisted gender and sexuality are entirely socially constructed. Had conservatives only so recently tried to censor heavy metal music and deny the theory of evolution? Do they still not favor the penalization of protest they deem unpatriotic, such as football players taking the knee during the national anthem? And this when the right bothered to care about these issues at all, which they rarely did. 

Consistently throughout its more recent history, the regressive left has adopted for itself models of organizing that had only a short time earlier been pioneered by social conservatives.  From feminists adopting strategies devised by conservative media watchdog groups like the Parent’s Music Resource Center, to progressive strategists such as George Lakoff counseling the democrats on techniques of using language to frame issues in morally ideological ways pioneered by Newt Gingrich, to the pink hat wearing anti-Trump "Resistance" intentionally aping Tea Party tactics, the regressive left has drawn on right wing as well as its own worst traditions.

As such, the right bears considerable responsibility for enabling the rise of the current crop of regressive leftism. And some responsibility also resides in broader political, social and demographic trends. The gerrymandering of congressional districts, done mainly by GOP dominated states, results in a strengthened tendency towards ideological purism within the parties as opposed to both parties tending towards moderation to win over independents, swing voters and moderates.  

The tendency towards demographic “sorting” of the population into ideologically homogenous communities works in basically the same way.  Media echo chambers have been the growing trend ever since the rise of cable TV relaxed the grip that the “big three” had over broadcasting. Right leaning Fox News blazed the trail in this regard. Since then, the far right has led the tendency towards online echo chambers that care more for feeding red meat to their core audiences than they do about substantive issues that effect us all. The regressive left would merely end up copying these business models. And on the right, the red meat craved by the base had much more to do with Obama's birth certificate, Obama somehow managing to be a Nazi, a communist, a liberal and a Muslim simultaneously, FEMA camp conspiracies, gun grabbing hysteria that doesn't simmer down despite the gun grabbing never actually happening, chemtrails and Illuminati conspiracism than they did with what had happened on campuses over the last several decades.

As mentioned previously, by the time Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Sousa, Christina Hoff Sommers and others began raising the alarm over “political correctness” back in the late 80s and early 90s, the foundations were in the final phases of being set. The matrix of critical theory, postmodern relativism, identity politics, the long march through the institutions, repressive tolerance, power plus prejudice, the authority of experience, privilege theory and intersectionality that mark today’s post materialist regressive leftism were already firmly established. 

This matrix was itself rooted in the disillusionment that post WW2 western leftists had towards Marxism – the practice of which became the single most oppressive and bloody exercise in regressive leftism in human history, and that other great post WW2 western reaction against Marxism – neoconservatism, was poorly equipped to deal with it.  

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