The Self-Isolation of the American Left
Political subcultures fight it out in America’s schools.,
Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were among the great champions of progressive ideas in the 20th century. But they didn’t exist within an insular, self-validating community whose values and assumptions were often at odds with those of the rest of society.
Increasingly, that cannot be said of modern progressivism.
Modern progressivism is in danger of becoming dominated by a relatively small group of people who went to the same colleges, live in the same neighborhoods and have trouble seeing beyond their subculture’s point of view.
If you want a simple way to see the gap between this subculture and the rest of the country, look at Rotten Tomatoes. People who write critically about movies and shows often have different tastes than the audiences around them, especially when politics is involved.
“Hillbilly Elegy” was a movie in which the hero was widely known, in real life, to be a Republican. Audiences liked the movie fine. It has an 83 percent positive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Culture writers frequently loathed it. It has a 25 percent positive critics’ score. That’s a 58-point gap.
Dave Chappelle recently released a comedy special that took comic potshots at almost everyone. Audiences adored it. It has a 96 percent positive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (though admittedly it’s unclear how many of the raters actually watched it). A small group of people found it a moral atrocity and the current critic score is 44 percent positive. That’s a 52-point gap.
A more significant example of the subculture gap recently occurred at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Seventy-three percent of American adults believe race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions decisions, including 62 percent of Black adults, according to a 2019 Pew survey. And yet Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist, was recently disinvited from giving a lecture at M.I.T. about climate science because he’s publicly defended this majority point of view. In other words, the views of the large majority of Americans are not even utterable within certain academic parts of the progressive subculture.
Recent school board wars have been a battle of subcultures.
American educators have been gradually finding ways to teach American history that both honor the nation’s achievements and detail the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism. For example, Georgia’s “Standards of Excellence” for social studies explicitly refers to the suppression of Reconstruction-era Black office-holding. Mississippi’s standards devote a section to civil rights.
On behalf of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Jeremy Stern reviewed the 50 state history standards in 2011 and then again in 2021. To his pleasant surprise, he found that the standards were growing more honest. States were doing a better job at noting America’s sins along with its achievements. The states that had the best civics and history standards were as likely to be red as blue: Alabama, California, Massachusetts and Tennessee (D.C. scored equally well).
In my experience, most teachers find ways to teach American history in this way, and most parents support it — 78 percent of Americans support teaching high schoolers about slavery, according to a 2021 Reuters/Ipsos poll.
But the progressive subculture has promoted ideas that go far beyond this and often divide the races into crude, essentialist categories.
A training for Loudoun County, Va., public school administrators taught that “fostering independence and individual achievement” is a hallmark of “white individualism.”
A Williams College professor told The Times last week, “This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated.”
If you want to stage a radical critique of individualism and intellectual rigor, be my guest, but things get problematic when you assign the “good” side of this tension to one racial category and the “bad” side to another racial category.
It is also becoming more common to staple a highly controversial ideological superstructure onto the quest for racial justice. We’re all by now familiar with some of the ideas that constitute this ideological superstructure: History is mainly the story of power struggles between oppressor and oppressed groups; the history of Western civilization involves a uniquely brutal pattern of oppression; language is frequently a weapon in this oppression and must sometimes be regulated to ensure safety; actions and statements that do not explicitly challenge systems of oppression are racist; the way to address racism is to heighten white people’s awareness of their own toxic whiteness, so they can purge it.
Today a lot of parents have trouble knowing what’s going on in their kids’ classrooms. Is it a balanced telling of history or the gospel according to Robin DiAngelo?
When they challenge what they sense is happening they meet a few common responses. They are told, as by Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach. They are told they are racist. Or they are blithely assured that there is nothing radical going on — when in fact there might be.
Parents and legislators often respond with a lot of nonsense about critical race theory and sometimes by legalizing their own forms of ideological censorship. But their core intuition is not crazy: One subculture is sometimes using its cultural power to try to make its views dominant, often through intimidation.
When people sense that those with cultural power are imposing ideologies on their own families, you can expect the reaction will be swift and fierce.