Conservatives Should Be Nervous About This

I’m no conservative, but if I were I wouldn’t be celebrating this recent essay by David French. I’d be quaking in my penny loafers. If we’ve learned nothing else from the history of the culture wars, it’s that this kind of talk heralds the bitter end.

Here’s what we’re talking about: In the pages of National Review this week, conservative pundit David French made the case for freer conservative speech on college campuses. He decried the tactic used by progressive students to declare conservatives beyond the pale of civil discourse. Too often, French lamented, aggressive progressives freeze out any conservative challenge by labeling it “dehumanizing.”

As French puts it,

An atmosphere that is devoid of truly meaningful debate is one that is more likely to give birth to bankrupt ideas. And the woke progressive monocultures in quarters of academia and Silicon Valley have advanced and protected both the idea that speech is violence and the idea that disagreement is dehumanizing — especially when disagreement touches on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, I’m no conservative myself, yet I’m on the record as agreeing with French that college campuses should welcome real culture-war debates. If I were a conservative, though, I would be terrified to hear French talking this way. If I knew my culture-war history, I’d know that this line of argument is always a memorial to a battle lost long ago.

Consider the case of creationism in public schools. A hundred years ago (ish), at the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, the defenders of evolution education pleaded with America to allow evolution to be heard. As lead attorney Dudley Field Malone made his case,

For God’s sake let the children have their minds kept open — close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both. Let them both be taught. Let them both live….

It was a desperate argument for a losing side. Evolution education was not popular in 1920s America, at least not in places such as Dayton, Tennessee. As I discovered in the research for my first book, anti-evolution laws were usually only the sharp point of a much vaster campaign to impose theocratic rule on America’s public schools.

Fast forward seventy years, and the argument had switched sides. By the 1990s, it was the radical creationists who were pleading to have children’s minds kept open. They made their case for inclusion because by the 1990s creationists were just as desperate as Dudley Field Malone was in the 1920s. In 1995, arch-creationist Duane Gish told crowds it was now the creationists who were frozen out. Gish insisted he only wanted to fight against the “bigotry” of excluding creationism.

If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu…

What does any of this have to do with David French? A lot. Evolution-lovers like Dudley Field Malone only pleaded for inclusion when they were frozen out. Radical creationists like Duane Gish only begged for inclusion when they had already decisively lost the creationism culture war. By the 1990s, Gish’s brand of young-earth creationism had already become a relic of an imagined fundamentalist past, a fossilized idea that no longer had any real chance of returning to its spot in the American mainstream. It was still popular in fundamentalist pockets, but it had zero chance of returning to its former glories in the Princetons and Harvards of these United States.

If I were a conservative, I’d worry that French’s let-me-in rhetoric heralds the same sorry state for his outdated ideas about sexuality, gender, and race. Don’t get me wrong: I think there are strong conservative arguments that can be made in favor of greater inclusion of traditional sexual norms, but French ain’t making em.

The idea that traditional gender ideas should be included because all ideas should be included won’t convince anyone. Moreover, the fact that French feels obliged to make this case shows how desperate he is. If I were a conservative, these kinds of arguments would make me very nervous about the current state of conservatism in America.


Traditional Education II: The Cult of Multiculturalism

If we agree that education includes values, as I’ve argued in previous posts, then it is hypocritical to say we will remove traditional values from classrooms and encourage students to develop their own moral systems.  That is not what schools do.  The language of open moral dialogue and self-directed student moral learning is embedded within a cluster of ideological notions that has come to be called “multiculturalism.”  It can get confusing, since one of the primary moral claims of this ideology has been that it promotes tolerance and diversity.  Yet that tolerance, by definition, cannot extend to those who do not accept its premises.  Those who insist on traditional moral values, in which certain values have transcendent right on their side, cannot easily accommodate the notion that different value systems must be respected and even celebrated.  It is impossible, in other words, for someone who earnestly believes that Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation to agree that other religions are equally valid representations of the human quest to comprehend divinity.

Schools, therefore, will continue to actively discriminate against all those who have traditional moral values.  This is not merely fundamentalist paranoia.  Some of the most articulate voices of the cultural left have called explicitly for this kind of intolerant tolerance.  In a short 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse called for the outright restriction of freedom of speech and assembly for right-wing opponents.

Marcuse’s argument hearkened back to much older debates.  In the seventeenth century, Roger Williams famously argued for tolerance of religious dissenters.  His argument has often been mistaken by current multiculturalists as an early call for modern pluralism.  It was not.  Though Williams advocated religious liberty for all believers, including Catholics and Muslims, he did not do so because he valued a diversity of belief.  Rather, Williams was worried that the Boston church would debase itself if it stepped into the role of civil authority.  If the church assumed such authority, it would put itself in the unchristian role of persecutor for the sake of religious conscience.  Further, if the church insisted on a role as civil authority, it must include those who did not embody the true beliefs of the church.  That church, Williams believed, must be strictly limited to true believers.

Williams did not argue that each culture had intrinsic worth and deserved respect.  Instead, Williams used extensive biblical proofs to prove that the church must actively root out those who did not share fully in its beliefs.  This, in Williams’ argument, was the reason why the church must not attempt to assert power in the civil sphere, since to do so would make the church far too inclusive.  In other words, if the church sought to punish those who did not uphold its beliefs, then it implied that all the people were members of the church and subject to its rules.  Such a wide inclusive policy would destroy the true church, Williams argued.  Tolerance must be nearly unlimited in the public sphere, he insisted, not because every belief was of equal value, but rather because only one belief was true.  Only the biblical belief in the salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was true.  The rest were pernicious doctrines leading to damnation, Williams insisted.  But to force such unbelievers to follow the dictates of the true church would corrupt that church.

Consider Williams’ interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares.  In this story, Jesus warned his followers not to pull up such weeds, as they would likely disturb the wheat as well.  In other words, do not jump too quickly to judgment, lest you destroy all that is good as well.  One might think, based on Williams’ later reputation as the champion of multiculturalism, that he would use this story as proof that all people must be welcomed and all beliefs must be celebrated.  But that was not Williams’ argument.  Instead, Williams made the more complicated case that the tares were not meant to represent hypocrites.  That is, Williams argued that Jesus did not insist that the church ought to tolerate unbelievers.  Rather, Williams insisted that the church must earnestly exclude and remove such threatening belief.  Jesus’ parable, in Williams’ interpretation, did not insist that the church should leave unbelievers alone.  Instead, Williams argued, the church must aggressively seek out and remove all those whose faith did not live up to Williams’ high standards.  The tares, Williams argued, only meant those whose belief was demonstrably different from true Christian belief.  For Williams, then, the church could and must dig out false belief from among its members.  It must not allow any fence-sitters or backsliders to call themselves Christian.  But that persecution, Williams believed, must not extend to the entire society.  The church must control itself, but it must not control the rest of society.  Thus, Williams might better be understood to be the first American fundamentalist, rather than the first multiculturalist.  His objection to John Cotton was not that Cotton had acted in a way that insisted on only one truth—that was what Williams wanted—but rather that Cotton inserted state power in a religious dispute instead of leaving the dispute in the hands of the godly.

Marcuse’s 1965 essay, in any case, did not range itself on the side of Roger Williams and religious tolerance, for whatever reason.  Marcuse did not insist on tolerance of those with whom we disagree.  Instead, Marcuse revised the argument of Williams’ foe, John Cotton.  In the 1640s, Cotton was stuck arguing for the moral imperative of an overtly repressive state.  Cotton defined the question as one of civil order.  “The Great Question of this Present Time,” Cotton wrote, was “How far Liberty of Conscience ought to be given to those that truly fear God?  And how far restrained to turbulent and pestilent persons, who not only raze the foundations of Godliness, but disturb the Civil Peace where they live?”  Exactly as Marcuse would argue centuries later, Cotton insisted that toleration of those who would destroy the fragile society was a mistaken application of the value of toleration.

To be sure, there were some important differences.  The seventeenth century debate focused on the propriety of punishing Christians for following their own conscience.  Cotton was not in favor of persecution for the sake of conscience, but in favor of persecution for sinning against conscience.  He believed that the “Fundamentals [of religion] are so clear, that a man cannot but be convinced in Conscience of the truth of them after two or three Admonitions: and that therefore such a person as still continueth obstinate, is condemned of Himself: and if he then be punished, he is not punished for his Conscience, but for sinning against his own Conscience.”  In other words, he did not oppose Williams for Williams’ beliefs, but for Williams’ insistence on his right to mistaken, heretical belief when the truth was apparent to all.

Cotton’s and Marcuse’s arguments were very similar in their insistence on the perceived threat such dissidence posed to a fragile society.  Cotton asked what should happen if he should continue to espouse heretical ideas, even after being counseled by the orthodox.  “If God should lead me so far,” Cotton asked, “as to fall fearfully into this three-fold degree of Heretical wickedness, what am I better than other men? Better myself cut off by death, or Banishment, than the flock of Christ to be seduced and destroyed by my Heretical wickedness.”  In the seventeenth century, Cotton was not speaking merely theoretically about the use of state power.  He had it, and he used it.  Williams was forced to flee into a nighttime storm, eventually finding sanctuary with Wampanoag leader Massasoit near Narragansett Bay.

In some important senses, this Protestant cultural hegemony lingered well into twentieth century.  It had been challenged, certainly, by a dynamic American society, including the increasing political power of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.  By the 1920s, cultural and demographic changes left this traditional Protestant domination of the public square vulnerable.  For instance, at the Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925, where a Tennessee schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching evolution, one of his lawyers made a plea for tolerance.  That lawyer, Dudley Field Malone, pleaded with the court and the assembled audience to “Let the minds of the schoolchildren be kept open!”  Tolerance, in 1925, meant not inflicting Protestant orthodoxy on public schools by force of law.

Reflecting on the balance of tolerance and intolerance on display at that 1925 trial, journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann concluded that the main danger to liberty came from the kind of majoritarian dominance on display in Dayton, Tennessee.  Yet in his widely read 1928 book American Inquisitors, Lippmann argued that true tolerance could only be extended to those willing to abdicate their claims to transcendent values and moral claims rooted in those values.  Lippmann acknowledged that “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.”  Unlike most of his non-fundamentalist colleagues, Lippmann recognized that this demand placed an impossible burden on those, like the fundamentalists of his day, who claimed that truth derived from the Holy Scriptures.  Lippmann recognized that any dedicated fundamentalist “would cease to be a fundamentalist if he were no longer convinced that above human reason and the available evidence there is a gospel which contains a statement of facts that are the fundamental premises of all reasoning.”

By the time of Marcuse’s entrance into this long-running debate, the monocultural hegemony of Protestant republicanism had been much diminished.  Marcuse no longer needed to plea, like Scopes’ lawyer Malone, for open-mindedness about ideas other than traditional Bible-believing Protestantism.  By 1965, Marcuse argued against tolerating those who do not accept the foundational principles of toleration.  He fulminated against those who use the language of toleration to mask continuing dominance by an elite class.  In Marcuse’s mid-1960s analysis, he identified the apparent tolerance of liberal democracies as a sham.  Such apparent tolerance only served to limit true debate to those ideas which supported the status quo.  And that status quo, according to Marcuse, funneled dollars and influence into the already stuffed pockets of the existing elites.  In order to “reopen” the public square to truly democratic ideas, Marcuse argued, activists must embrace “apparently undemocratic means.”  First, Marcuse called for “the withdrawal of toleration from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.”  Marcuse made here a sweeping call for the disempowerment of a shockingly wide segment of his political opposition.  Not only would these policies silence those who called for political aggression and white supremacy, but also anyone who disagreed with the increasing power of the government to provide public services.  Not only would those extremists who advocated violence against racial minorities or communists be barred from participation in public life, but even those who believed in the inherent superiority of the United States.  Furthermore, Marcuse explicitly renounced the notion that these repressions should be reserved only for those who posed a “clear and present danger” to public peace and welfare.  Such hesitant liberal policies, he insisted, had done nothing to stop the rise of totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany.  No, the current state of political threat, Marcuse argued, called for more decisive action.  Political movements of the Right must be preemptively silenced, banned from public life, before they could muster enough power to inflict harm.  More directly relevant in this context, Marcuse specified the need for “new and rigid restrictions on teaching and practices in the educational institutions” in order to promote the true opening of society to democratic ideas.

Marcuse was no bogeyman plucked from academic obscurity to illustrate the paranoid fears of fundamentalist America.  He was among the most prominent public intellectuals of the 1960s, often called—against his will—the “Father of the New Left.”  His ideas about the suppression of dissent in the name of true freedom became and remain enormously influential.  For example, in a late-1980s debate over the nature of the cultural canon sparked by a curricular change at Stanford University, Harper’s Magazine sponsored a forum on the notion of America’s common culture.  One of the eminent scholars invited to participate in this roundtable discussion echoed Marcuse’s call for strict limits on the boundaries of toleration.  That scholar, Gayatri Spivak, now University Professor at Columbia University, insisted at the time, “Tolerance is a loaded virtue because you have to have a base of power to practice it.  You cannot ask a certain people to ‘tolerate’ a culture that has historically ignored them at the same time that their children are being indoctrinated into it.”

In other words, tolerance must not extend to all viewpoints.  In the world of today’s public schools, in which the dominant—if sometimes muddled—ideology of multiculturalism is often the only moral system in effect, those who do not embrace the equal status of every idea are not to be tolerated.  Those who insist on one transcendent truth not only are not tolerated, but must not be tolerated.  Marcuse’s call for a “democratic educational dictatorship of free men” has come to pass in many ways.  Those who disagree with the pluralistic, multicultural ideology of public schools have found themselves fired or constrained in their public speech.

FURTHER READING: Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore Jr., Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969), John Cotton, The Bloudy Tenent Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb (1647); Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644); “Forum: Who needs the Great Works?,” Harper’s, Sept. 1989, pp. 43-52, quotation on p. 46; Walter Lippmann, American Inquisitors: A Commentary on Dayton and Chicago (New York: Macmillan, 1928).