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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Today's podcast features a lecture by Daniel Mahoney of Assumption University, which explores the intellectual origins of cancel culture, and the myriad of reasons that many of today's elites reject the intellectual achievements of Western civilization. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University. He's the 2020-2021 Garwood Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and he's written and edited 14 books. His lecture is entitled, "From the Culture of Repudiation to the Cancel Culture: How Self-Loathing Gave Way to the Specter of Intellectual Tyranny." The Benson Center was delighted to present Professor Mahoney's erudite analysis of the cultural self-belittlement that has become increasingly common in our time.
DANIEL MAHONEY: Thank you so much Professor Brooks. It's a real pleasure and honor to be participating in this series. I can't think of a subject and intellectual enterprise more important today than defending the integrity of free thought and free speech. The life of the mind is so vital to self-understanding and democratic citizenship. And I love the title of the series, "The Canceled" series. Who would have thought three or four years ago there could be such a series, but there's a pressing need for it today.
Let me begin by saying a word about the long title that I assigned my remarks. I think everyone is no doubt familiar, especially in the present climate, with cancel culture, but the opening phrase, "the culture of repudiation," seems to me particularly important, and really the source, the deep, not profound, but the deep in the sense of the sources of the cancel culture. The term "the culture of repudiation" comes from Roger Scruton, the late great British philosopher who died from cancer last January. Scruton was a great philosopher, a man of letters, a thoughtful, and passionate, but also measured defender of Western civilization. But Scruton thought that the most striking feature of contemporary intellectual, maybe even political life in the contemporary Western world, so that means not only the United States, but Britain and the Western democratic world as a whole, our European friends and partners, were increasingly dominated by what he called "the culture of repudiation." And what Scruton meant by that was an intellectual movement, that was essentially coercive, that was dedicated to repudiating in decisive respects the moral, civic, civilizational, intellectual and spiritual inheritance of the Western world. I think anyone who's spent a fair amount of time in the academy recognizes immediately the power of the culture of repudiation, and that means especially a tendency towards self-loathing. The West, its civic achievement, constitutionalism and the rule of law, unprecedented levels of economic prosperity, a certain amount of political comedy, civility, that was unthinkable in previous ages. And yet so many of our elites think of our nations, our civilization, as the most guilty and culpable of all, that we're the "evil empire," a phrase that President Reagan in 1983 famously attributed to a much better candidate for the evil empire, the old totalitarian Soviet Union.
So, I'm gonna talk a little bit more about the culture of repudiation and some of its sources before moving on to this, what I'm gonna call dialectical connection, between the culture of repudiation and the cancel culture. And its connecting thread is precisely this self-loathing. Let me just ask right now or raise a question: Is it possible to sustain a free, and decent, and vital political order, social order based on self-loathing, based on the systematic negation of our inheritance or heritage? I think to ask the question is almost immediately to answer it. But it's a question we need to keep in mind, as the culture of repudiation not only institutionalizes itself at every level of civil society, but becomes an increasingly tyrannical force in journalism, in the academy, and increasingly in politics.
And you may have seen the last couple of weeks, the President of France and the Minister of Education of France both publicly stated very forcefully that they did not want this American identity politics and cancel culture to corrupt the French Republic. And in Macron's self-presentation, this was a kind of American pathology. I quite agree with them that it's a pathology, and that it is most rooted in the United States today. But there's some irony underlying Macron's remarks because the intellectual doctrines and approaches that are in danger of transforming this country, and perhaps being re-imported into a place like France, originally had their origins in continental Europe and especially in Paris. So, and, it was quite striking. I asked a prominent French philosopher who's no friend of the French thought of the '60s, do you think Macron has any idea that we're talking about French doctrines across the Atlantic, were instantiated in the universities, became hegemonic in the humanities, and increasingly in other aspects of American intellectual and cultural life, and are now sort of being re-imported into France in the name of multiculturalism, identity politics, and we really had sort of denial of the principles of civic equality, moral equality, community that are the roots of a republican order? And my friend said, "No." That he wasn't being ironic and that he really does see this as a kind of ideological pathology or virus coming from the United States.
Well, the fact is, as I said a moment ago, that the most fundamental sources of critical theory, postmodernism, deconstruction, various forms of, I would say, quasi-nihilism that are quite influential in the academy and in American intellectual life, and increasingly in the broader civil society, really were first articulated in a systematic way in Paris in the 1960s. And I think this is what Roger Scruton had in mind when he spoke about the culture of repudiation. He himself in his autobiographical Gentle Regrets talks about being in Paris in the spring and summer of '68 and seeing the most privileged, the students who were the beneficiaries of a bourgeois society, strike out at French democracy under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle as somehow this horrific source of repression.
One of the interesting things about what the French call "La Pensée 68,” the "Thought of '68," the thought that sort of informed the revolution of May '68 that almost toppled de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic, was it managed to combine a kind of libertarian or antinomian emphasis on perfect freedom, emancipation from all restraints, all authority, with a paradoxical admiration for far away and exotic tyrannies and totalitarian regimes. Raymond Aron, the great French anti-Communist conservative liberal thinker, said in his book on the May events The Elusive Revolution that it pained him to see so many French professors and intellectuals and journalists praise Che Guevara and Mao, and attack an authentic hero and defender of republican liberty like Charles de Gaulle as a tyrant. But those were the paradoxes of May '68. And some of those figures would become well known: Foucault, Derrida, of course, from an older generation, Jean-Paul Sartre. They, on the one hand, were philosophers of radical freedom, seeing all appeals to authority, the church and the army, the university and society and the family as repressive, as quasi-fascistic, as incompatible with human liberty, even as they admired some of the most repressive political regimes in human history.
And that, as I said a moment ago, is a paradox. But it gave rise over time to a cultural project. The political revolution in France failed. The Fifth Republic was not overthrown. The French still live under the Fifth Republic established by de Gaulle in 1958. They have had 20 different political regimes since 1789. We've had one since 1787. But the Fifth Republic is the most enduring Republic in the history of modern France. And yet that culture of repudiation became not a ruling political doctrine, but, you might say, the dominant cultural moment, first in France, then throughout continental Europe, and then it was imported to American universities and intellectual life in the '70s and '80s. And to use a word I used earlier, it's really become quite hegemonic at the present moment. I'm gonna just share with you a couple of slogans that were used by the so-called "soixante-huitards"--the '68ers, the half-libertarian, half-totalitarian revolutionaries in France, in the spring of 1968. Here's one: "Demand the impossible." Now that's trite. It's juvenile. It's utopian. It's stupid. But it was a slogan that animated this paradoxical revolutionary moment. "Il est interdit d'interdire!"--It is forbidden to forbid. Take your desires for reality.
So think about this, what Freud would say, the emancipation of the pleasure principle over the reality principle. A hedonistic emphasis on human desire of all forms, especially sexual desire, and polymorphous, polymorphously perverse sexual desire, as Freud would say. All of these things were celebrated, all forms of authority and all authoritative cultural and political institutions were denounced, at the same time that the dominant political thread of the "soixante-huitards" was Maoist and Castro-ite and deeply opposed to liberal humanism and liberal democracy. Now some of that would change in France in the course of a decade or so, when many of these intellectuals shed their Maoism and made their peace with bourgeois society. But I mention all of this to make the point that when you say it is "forbidden to forbid," you are on one level affirming radical freedom. On the other level, you're denying all the rich, and old, and humanizing cultural supports, the moral authorities, the social authorities that are part and parcel of every political and social order.
So liberty, if it's meaningful, is always liberty under law. It has moral prerequisites. And that's exactly what the culture of repudiation denied. It denied that liberty was unthinkable without self-restraint, without self-limitation and without, and I think this is a very pertinent point, without a sense of indebtedness and gratitude to this immense gift, which is our Western heritage, or simply civilization itself. So I think, to think of it that way, to see this paradoxical union of radical individualism with indulgence toward collectivism and totalitarianism, and then this hostility to all limitation, the emphasis, the code word, you might say, of the culture of repudiation, were words like emancipation, liberation.
Some of you may have heard of an old member of the Frankfurt School, the German Marxist who taught in the United States in the '50s and '60s, Herbert Marcuse. And Marcuse, who was another one who wanted to put Freudian, a vulgarization of Freud, the pleasure principle, together with Marxist politics. Marcuse first spoke about repressive tolerance. All doctrines, all points of view, all political positions that defended tradition, authority, what I'm going to call the essential civilizational supports of a regime of freedom, were not to be tolerated. Only those currents that emphasize emancipation and liberation. That could be Marxist politics and economics, or it could mean this more emancipatory ethos of pleasure, of self-determination shorn of obligation, indebtedness, gratitude, and restraint.
So I would say, even though Marcuse is almost a forgotten figure, very much a figure of the '60s, maybe the '70s, Marcuse is very much the prophet of the cancel culture. In the name of unlimited freedom, unlimited emancipation, unlimited liberation, a new totalitarian repression is to be celebrated as the necessary means to pass from the injustices, inequalities, hierarchies and restraints of the past to some kind of new order where people will be completely free to do whatever they want, even though many, in the name of emancipation and liberation, will be repressed. Marx, on the one hand advocated, Karl Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat, a kind of draconian repression of class enemies. On the other hand, he said at the end of history, when perfect communism reigns, a man will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and write poetry in the evening without becoming a hunter, fisher or critic. In other words, no division of labor, no restraints, no demands on our freedom. So again, that same paradox of total freedom, but also total repression as the instrument to get from here to there.
All right. So it's a long story how the culture of repudiation crossed the Atlantic. It first became, I think, influential and then dominant in English and literary departments. This idea of not understanding great literature on its own terms, or thinking that the great works of the past give us access to an understanding of enduring human nature, or richness of the drama of humanity, but that all previous thinkers were prisoners of racism, sexism, patriarchalism and all that. Deconstruction became really a way, English departments were one of the dominant majors in universities in the '50s, '60s and '70s. The number of English majors in our universities today is tiny. And I think that not only has to do with certain economic constraints, parents not wanting to pay $65,000 so their kids will drive a cab, but it's also because English departments, and departments of comparative literature, have made themselves obsolete. They don't teach Shakespeare as a liberating guide to truth, or the classics as speaking to the enduring issues of man as man. They address all these thinkers as unthinking or unconscious agents of the repression and servitude that we need to be liberated from. So I would say that one of the defining characteristics of the culture of repudiation is a radical conflation of liberty with liberation. And I'll add, and I think this is very, very important, a willful refusal to distinguish authority from authoritarianism. Hence the need to deconstruct traditional books, literature, but also social institutions. I think one of the defining characteristics of the culture of repudiation is one I call a doctrinaire, a dogmatic egalitarian moralism which co-exists with a radical repudiation of the idea of truth.
I thought it was quite remarkable when Trump was president, all of these people who for 40 and 50 years have been telling us that there's no meaningful or non-arbitrary distinction between good and evil, that truth is a social construct, that these concepts need to be deconstructed all the way down, they're perfectly contingent and historically rooted--they were suddenly telling us truth's under assault. But I'll tell you, truth's been under assault for an awful long time. The assault on Truth, with a capital T, is a fundamental, you might say, the essence of deconstruction, of cultural nihilism, of the culture of repudiation. And that's accompanied by a very dogmatic insistence that morality and justice have no other supports than the linguistic capacities and cultural assumptions of a completely contingent social order.
Now, this is heady stuff. I think it's essentially nihilsim, a denial that truth, and goodness, and beauty have any foundation in nature or truth, in reason or experience. But I think when it came to America, as Allan Bloom pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, it took on a somewhat facile and easy-going character. We could deconstruct the truth and still pursue happiness. But just to reiterate, I think this kind of repudiation and deconstruction of our civic, intellectual, moral, cultural, spiritual inheritance has always been accompanied by what we might call a totalitarian dark zone.
And it's been coextensive, not just since last year, but for an awful long time now, with what Raymond Aron called a "crisis of civilization," a loss of self-confidence in our inheritance. And once you conflate or collapse the distinction between legitimate authority and authoritarianism, then all authoritative institutions--the church, the army, the nation, and even the university in the old days, where you had in loco parentis, when professors were in some ways esteemed by their students, the days before student evaluations--it was sort of understood, I think, by an older kind of liberalism and conservatism, that authority was necessary to sustain a free and civilized order. Well, that's gone by the by. And we no longer are really capable of making vital distinctions, not only between legitimate authority and authoritarianism, but between the authority of a parent, the authority of a professor, the authority of a religious leader, and authoritarianism: cruel, and arbitrary, and willful misuse of power.
And I think there are consequences when we lose a capacity to make those distinctions. And the consequence is that we conflate ordered freedom with a form of oppression that needs to be overturned, replaced by really some imaginary and increasingly coercive utopianism. This is why I think under the influence of the culture of repudiation that the West has been reduced to an oppressive authoritarian entity that has been nothing but a cover for racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, religious authoritarianism, etc. The one last thing before I move on from the culture of repudiation, I think it's quite striking, you might say after 1968, after the '60s in Europe, but also in the United States, we in the Western world, the Benson Center is a center dedicated to the study and also the preservation of Western civilization. Well, we hardly refer to the West anymore. We act as if when Winston Churchill delivered his great Finest Hour address, the beginning of the Battle of Britain, and he said, if the Nazis triumph, there'll be a new dark age made more brutal and cynical by the lights of perverted science, right? By that he said, what's the alternative? The alternative is what Churchill called liberal and Christian civilization. The West with its rich reserves of mercy and sacrifice. Well, no one talks that way anymore. The idea that our democracy is the heir of a rich heritage that predates the endless invention and expansions of rights we never heard of an hour ago. It really shows a sea change that we've repudiated the past. And we're now defined by a project of both repudiation and negation. Now the positive side is this endless invention of rights, but these rights are almost always claims against ordered liberty and legitimate authority.
All right. Now I want to come back to President Macron's remarks. And I think Macron is on to something. And what he's on to is that the culture of repudiation, postmodernism, deconstructurism, cultural Marxism, cultural nihilism, it did take on something of an American face. And that American face among other things included the racialization of postmodernism and the culture of repudiation. And to be very frank, I think critical race theory, so-called anti-racism, is a form of racism for reasons I'll explain in just a few minutes. But if we look at the orgy of repudiation and violence this summer, and I'm going to use strong language, we need to have the courage to see what's before us. And for nine months, America was consumed by reckless violence, by nihilistic silencing, which continues. I actually think left liberals are the most in danger because they live in a world where their peers and allies are all too willing to repudiate them, to silence them, to cancel them. But also, and I think this is quite striking, this connects to my earlier theme about our lack of gratitude, lack of indebtedness to our civilizational inheritance. We saw a systematic assault on the nation's cultural and political patrimony. And all of a sudden the entire academic world, intellectual class, journalists, think of The New York Times and the, from my point of view, egregious 1619 Project. So ahistorical, so tied to a project of open and brutal repudiation of our inheritance. You know, this idea of a systematic assault on our cultural and political patrimony became, you might say, the dominant spirit or ethos of the culture.
And for a while at least, the voices of sanity were very few. And to be honest, I think we have to say that civic courage was in short supply. So we saw some of the greatest Americans, Washington, a man of republican duty, of Ciceronian integrity, a man who freed all his slaves in his will, a man who loathed slavery and actually tried to do something about it. Lincoln, who not only fought a civil war that saved the union, a union that was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. This man, who all his life expressed a hatred of chattel slavery, of the monstrosity of slavery, but Lincoln suddenly became a representative of systemic racism.
And sadly, not all, but many African American leaders, especially radical ones associated with BLM, were quite willing to repudiate, and cancel, and silence, and negate, the legacy, not only of Lincoln, but Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, who, by the way, said in an 1852 speech that the Constitution was fundamentally anti-slavery, a glorious freedom document, which was Lincoln's view too. They appealed to the Declaration and Constitution against the evil of slavery. But Douglass, who lived for many years in Rochester, New York, had his statue toppled on July 5th of last summer. U.S. Grant, the great general, Winston Churchill's statue was defaced in London. He was called a racist and imperialist. So we saw angry extremeness, toppled statues with impunity. And this is the link to the cancel culture. They began to demand absolute conformity.
And I remember an editorial in the Wall Street Journal last summer. It was a really quite striking editorial entitled "America's Jacobin Moment." You'll remember the Jacobins were the most extremist, almost the most extreme factor of the French revolutionaries. They were headed by Robespierre who carried out the Reign of Terror. And Robespierre famously spoke about the connection between virtue and terror. And for a long time, you know, those of us who thought about modern revolution and politics would contrast the way the French Revolution degenerated into a kind of proto-totalitarianism. It had features that were more fully developed by Communist totalitarianism, by the Soviet Union, for example, in the 20th century, and the moderation and sobriety of Anglo-American liberty. But to see this Jacobin moment in the United States was almost unthinkable for those of us who took pride in the success of our, and moderation of our experiment in democratic self-government and constitutional liberty.
And I think another part of the madness of last summer were the way so many people praised the Black Lives Movement, whose founders and theorists were self-proclaimed Marxists and Maoists, who denounce the republican principles of our constitutional order, who attack democratic capitalism, and who, perhaps most ominously, remain absolutely silent about those Black lives that don't fit a certain kind of a totalitarian agenda. Those who were cut down, let's say, by urban violence in Chicago or Baltimore every weekend. So here's a movement that, in truth, stood for little more than hatred and perpetual social conflict, and yet it became obligatory to praise them, even though it's a movement that does not believe in common humanity, and that is quite willing to exacerbate social tension,to the point of violence, and an open repudiation of the principles of our political order.
And, the other thing about BLM, and I'm not concentrating narrowly or exclusively on BLM, but there's also a repudiation of the family as an essential unit of civic morality and morality simply. That was a central part of their program, the hatred of the nuclear family and a hatred of herosexism, whatever that is. And also a repudiation of the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Western tradition. You might say the Decalogue, the kind of morality that has been at the source of both the pre-modern and, for a long time, the modern West, including the United States of America.So, I think the toppling of statues, the repudiation of the great figures of our tradition, including Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, I think it was evidence of this nihilism, this urge to silence, cancel and negate that flowed from the core presuppositions and categories of the culture of repudiation.
And so again, I think the culture of repudiation has never just been, certainly wasn't in May '68, but it's never, even in the United States, simply been a set of intellectual beliefs that give people a little frisson, you know, to "épater le bourgeoisie," to shock the bourgeoisie. No, it's much more than that. If you want to repudiate our tradition, the means are necessarily going to be totalitarian, however utopian or emancipatory the alleged goals are.
Now I wanna say a little bit more about this racialization of the culture of repudiation. And I'm going to make a very brief reference to a really terrific book that appeared this fall from a Georgetown University professor, a friend of mine, Joshua Mitchell. The book is called American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time. It was published by Encounter Books. It's a very brave and thoughtful book, but it's not a typical polemic. It delves very deeply into the moral and intellectual confusions at the heart of cancel culture and identity politics. Now notice that Mitchell in the subtitle of his book calls identity politics an "affliction of our time." Why? Because he thinks that identity politics has suddenly become the regnant civil religion of our time, but it's adopted an understanding of transgression and innocence, a kind of angry ideological screed that owes much to Christianity, but undermines it, and distorts it and ultimately leaves it behind.
Let me explain. The Christian religion--which is certainly an essential and maybe indispensable part of our moral and spiritual inheritance--the Christian religion emphasizes the imperfection of all human beings, and the need for all of us to rely on God's grace to overcome our infirmity of spirit. So, Jesus famously talks about turning the sword inwards, right? We're not supposed to be blaming all our problems on others. We are part of the problem, our selfishness, our egoism, our refusal to rely on the saving grace of God. So think of identity politics as a Christian heresy that has no place for God, or for the God who forgives. So, in this world, people, all of us, are not marked by imperfection or what the tradition calls original sin. The observable fact that no human beings are born without sin, and all of us stand in need of forgiveness and repentance. That's rejected. Instead, we have a new dogmatic and extremist conception of transgression and innocence that is tied to visible groups who are guilty or innocent, not because of what they have done, but because of who they are. So, for example, white heterosexual men, even the least among them, even the poorest of the poor, are essentially or ontologically guilty. Blacks, women, or persons who identify with the ever-expanding ideological construction called LGBTQ+ are said by definition to be innocent, and forever so. Or so it is claimed.
So we have something new, a new anthropology, a new understanding of individuals in groups, that no longer locates good and evil in every human heart, but in a way replicates the ideological Manichaeism of the Communists and Nazis. The Communists famously warred on the kulaks, the successful peasants, the industrious peasants in the Soviet Union, 'cause they saw them as exploiters. "Kulak" is a Russian word for fist, the exploiters. And anything could be done to them to eliminate class enemies. The Nazis took aim at what they called the "Jewish bacillus," this insane belief that all the problems in the world were the fault of privileged, exploitative Jews who were said to be at the source of both capitalism, finance capitalism, and Communism. But it was that Manichaeism, that refusal to see the drama of good and evil in every human heart, and the localization of good and evil in specific groups, that led to the essential totalitarianism of both Communism and Nazism. Communism and Nazism both repudiated traditional religion, denied a place for repentance and forgiveness. You might say that the ideology underlying cancel culture, it wants repentance. It wants those in suspect groups to plead perpetual guilt, but it will not allow forgiveness. And thus it is an invitation to perpetual political division and social conflict. I would add something, and I think this is really important, just to emphasize this point, that what American activism or the American academy added to the culture of repudiation was this racialization of life.
I think Mitchell is absolutely right following the Black Christian conservative activist, community activist, Robert Woodson. When you tell people of color, including African Americans, that they are perpetual victims, devoid of civic and moral agency, you are denying their dignity as human beings, as free agents. You're in effect using and utilizing them for corrupt ideological purposes. And I think every community, every group of people needs pride. Frederick Douglass, for example, said to some of his white abolitionist supporters in the 1850s, "We want no special privileges. We just want to be left alone. We want to have the self-respect to be able to stand on our own." Or Booker T. Washington spoke about the importance of hard work and personal dignity as a way of advancing the Black cause within the larger context of shared American citizenship, of the American republic. So I mention Mitchell's work because I think it is a splendid illustration of what happens when the coercive categories of the culture of repudiation are applied to what Tocqueville thought was the most pressing problem of the American political order, the race problem, that goes back to the original sin of slavery. But identity politics in its most radical and nihilistic form does nothing to assuage that problem, nothing to point us forward constructively. It instead institutionalizes repression, negation, and a kind of social division and tribalism that is frankly un-American.
I'm gonna end here, but Shilo Brooks in his opening remarks mentioned a piece I had written in RealClearPolitics in the fall defending two great scholars, Diana Schaub from Layola in Baltimore, and Lucas Morel from Washington and Lee College in Virginia. Diana has written beautiful articles, heartfelt, beautiful, morally-serious articles on African American political thought. She's a great admirer of both Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. And she has a beautiful book coming out on Lincoln's major speeches from St. Martin's Press in the fall. But she was attacked for simply being a white person, treating independently and sympathetically the best African American thought in the United States. And there was an active effort to cancel her at Harvard. And Lucas Morel, a Hispanic scholar of Black Dominican descent, was almost canceled at Middlebury. He was accused of being a white supremacist for, again, writing sympathetically about Abraham Lincoln's opposition to chattel slavery, and his defense of the great principles of the Declaration of Independence, what Martin Luther King in the "I Have a Dream" speech of November 20, 1963 called "the great promissory note that we will judge everyone by the content of their character and not the color of their skin." And yet these two great scholars, patriotic Americans, people of good will, were accused heinously of racism in a rather absurd way, but in a way that almost succeeded in cutting off their right to speak and teach at major universities. So, everything has come full circle, to end with that anecdote. The culture of repudiation has revealed its fundamentally totalitarian face. I'll end there. Thanks so much.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you. Thank you, Professor Mahoney. We're now going to have the Q and A. We've got several questions that have already come in. This is a question that I think this series has seen a good amount, and that is someone says, “How can we, who are moderate progressives, challenge extremism on the left without losing our friends? What is the pathway forward?” You say in your talk that you thought that, in a certain way, people on the moderate left were at the most risk of being canceled, at one point. Their friends don't hesitate to cancel them. And so this person is asking how can they, these moderate progressives, challenge extremism on the left?
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, I think progressives have to worry a little bit less about being progressive. I think the old common sense distinctions between fairness and unfairness, good and evil, decency and indecency are much more fundamental than the rather problematic distinction between progress and reaction. So I think when we think in terms of, is something progressive, there's something tyrannical in that, because there's a tendency then to want to dismiss, or perhaps in a very extreme way, silence those who are seen as insufficiently progressive. So, that said, I think if there is a solution to this problem, and it's going to be a long-term solution, but it's gotta begin now, it's gonna come from honest liberals and moderate progressives who remain faithful to the best liberal traditions, who see that the idea of closing off free debate or dismissing people, as I said in the last part of my talk, as ontologically guilty because of the group they belong to, that kind of thing. I think all those premises have to be rejected. And I think there are certainly plenty, or at least a vocal group of independent thinkers on the left who are doing that. There's African American thinkers like John McWhorter and Thomas Chatterton Williams and Glenn Loury. There are very courageous liberals like Bari Weiss, who spoke in this lecture series. And they're showing civic courage, and I think they're exposing the conceit that those who stand for repudiation, negation and canceling are authentic liberals. I would say this, it's very frightening to see the decline in the commitment to free speech as a shared value, you might say, of the left, the right and the center in the United States. And I think what moderate progressives and old-fashioned liberals can do is make clear that the commitment to dialogue and free speech and free inquiry is at the heart of any meaningful liberalism or what's best in the progressive tradition. So, and not being a moderate progressive or a conventional left liberal, I can't speak for those who self-define in that way. But I can say that for an awful long time, despite the serious differences and disagreements that mark any free political community, there was a consensus, an American consensus that we could all appeal to. And I think that has to be renewed. And a good part of that renewal is going to have to come from true liberals who are willing to expose, and criticize, and depart from the tyrannical faux liberalism that's gained the upper hand in the academy, in journalism, a large part of civil society. So I have no ready-made answer other than to say it's going to take courage, and it's gonna take a willingness to call things by their name, to say that this, what we call the cancel culture, is profoundly illiberal and not worthy of being affirmed or tolerated by authentic liberals.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you, yeah. I'll both answer this and ask you too. It's a simple question. People are asking for the title of the article. What can they Google, this article we talked about, about Diana Shaub and Lucas Morel?
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, let's see. I think I have it here somewhere. "A Liberal Totalitarianism on Campus." It was not my title, because if you just heard my remarks, I don't think these people are liberal. I think this kind of coercive authoritarianism is the furthest thing from authentic liberalism. But whatever you want to call it, it's a kind of, as I put it in a recent talk, a not-so-soft totalitarianism. You know, we should distinguish between the hard totalitarianism of 20th century despotic regimes and sort of a creeping soft totalitarianism. I'd say of late the creeping soft totalitarianism has a much harder repressive edge. But yes, the piece is called "Liberal Totalitarianism on Campus." And it appeared at RealClearPolitics on the 16th of October, 2020.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. So everybody can Google that and you can get a hold of that piece. Here's a question from a colleague of mine who admires your work. He says he's curious. “What do you make of thinkers like Patrick Deneen who see in liberalism itself key anticipations of the liberationism and emancipatory morality that you ascribe to the culture of repudiation? Is our current set of problems simply the result of an influence foreign to liberalism, or is it the inheritance of trends and shifts that have been afoot since Locke and Smithian libertarianism?”
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, you know, George Will once said, with every political approach and doctrine, there's truth up to a point. So there's truth in what Deneen says up to a point. And I would say this, I think modern philosophical liberalism, the political philosophy of liberalism, has always defined itself, in part, as a rejection of the past, of a past that was dogmatic and superstitious, that was unduly repressive. Even at the beginning of the American founding, there's some of that enlightenment language, the new order of the ages. I will say this, in United States, we didn't establish a revolutionary calendar that said 1787 or 1776 were year zero, day one. You know, you studied the French Revolution, and, you know, Robespierre killed in the year two on the ninth of Thermador. Well, you know, we never had 13 months and eight days of the week to get rid of the Christian Sabbath. And we didn't say everything was darkness before 1789, and then there was electricity. So I think there's a good deal of continuity in our tradition. It is true our founding fathers used an idiom of rights, but they always tied that idiom of natural rights to a broader Western tradition. First of all, a tradition of republican self-government that, to some extent, went back to the classics and to Rome. They read classic books. They studied their Plutarch, and Thucydides, and Aristotle. And also, there's a great letter from Thomas Jefferson written eight days before his death. He and John Adams, some of you may know, both died on the 4th of July, 1826. So the co-writers of the Declaration died on the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence. But in that letter, Jefferson said the Declaration of Independence was an expression of the American mind, and of the great books of natural and public right: Aristotle, Cicero, Sydney, and Locke. In other words, there was kind of deference to the broader Western tradition. And I don't think in America we ever had that openly anti-Christian emphasis or attitude that informed the French Encyclopedists or the spirit of much of the French Revolution, the open declaration of war against the Catholic Church, the religion of reason and all of that. The Virgin Mary was turned into Lady Liberty in Notre Dame. I know that may have something to do with specifics of French history and the important political role of the Catholic Church. But I don't think as political men, as statesmen, the founders of the American republic saw themselves as being part of a cultural or intellectual project to simply repudiate the Christian centuries of the classical past. That said, our political order places much more emphasis on rights than it does on duties. It sort of took things like moral duty, patriotism, for granted. And some social and political theorists call this the inherited moral capital. I don't think, for the longest period of time, American statesman did anything to actively undermine that inherited moral capital. But I think it's fair to say our principles don't talk about them very much. They sort of, if I can use a word, they presuppose them.
So yes, there's something to Deneen's thesis, but where I would fault Deneen is his simple rejection of liberalism. He sees it really, and I think very problematically, as this self-conscious project to precisely bring about something like an anti-religious, anti-traditional culture of repudiation. I just think that's dead wrong. And I think what we need today is not a quasi-theocratic restoration, nor do we need simply a return to an older conservatism. I think we need to bring together the best of the liberal order with the pre-modern sources of civilization that perhaps in the past, we took too much for granted, but are really indispensable even for a liberal order to preserve itself, not to mention to thrive. I think in a way, Pat Deneen's a good friend of mine, but I think his kind of thinking is part of the problem because he ends up paradoxically wanting to repudiate much of our heritage the way the coercive left does. And I think we shouldn't repudiate our inherited heritage. We should reaffirm it, but do so in a way that is conscious about some of its limitations. In other words, liberalism is most healthy, most vigorous, most true when it understands itself in some continuity with the broader field of Western civilization.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you. That was a great answer. So someone here asks about the word "hypocrisy." You didn't use this word, they say, in your presentation, but do you think that, would you describe folks who cancel others as purely and simply, willfully in a way, hypocritical?
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, how would they be hypocrites? Just unpack that for me for a second.
SHILO BROOKS: Well, that they, my understanding of hypocrisy is that one says one thing and does another and so--
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, I think part of the problem is that a lot of these people aren't saying one thing. It's a point I made about the serious diminution of the broad commitment in intellectual circles to things like free inquiry and freedom of speech. So, I think more and more "soi-disant" liberals and leftists are repudiating the old liberalism with the glorious exception of people like Bari Weiss. I'm not sure how hypocritical they are. I would say this, there's a lot of, if it's hypocritical, maybe that's the right word, but there's a lot of moral preening. People who cancel others or betray others or break friendships or abandon old commitments because they don't want to be canceled. In other words, they want to show their purity. I think that's what the Wall Street Journal meant when it referred to America's Jacobin Moment. That sense that I got to get ahead of the curve because I belong to one of those ontologically suspect groups. And the only way I can prevent myself from being canceled is by canceling others. There's a good deal of moral perversion in that. But I'm not quite sure hypocrisy is the right word. But there's something other than the purity of intention. Never underestimate the self-preservative dimension of those who feel driven to silence and cancel others.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you. So someone here is read widely, appears in your work. They ask, they say that they were struck in your Solzhenitsyn Reader how much of his writings had not been translated, parts of the Red Circle series, all of Two Hundred Years Together. Do we need, given your talk, a press to publish all of Solzhenitsyn?
DANIEL MAHONEY: That's actually happening. One reason we brought the Solzhenitsyn Reader out in the fall of 2006 was, unlike, let's say France, where Solzhenitsyn had a very major impact, and really in response to both the indulgence of French intellectuals toward Communism, but also toward the kind of culture of repudiation and cultural nihilism I spoke about. Solzhenitsyn had a huge impact in giving birth to a sort of new currents of French thought that were explicitly, emphatically anti-totalitarian. All of Solzhenitsyn's works in Russian are also available in France. That's not true in the States. But I think in our Solzhenitsyn Reader we had selections from something like 80% of Solzhenitsyn's corpus. So the Reader went a long way to making available large parts of Solzhenitsyn's work that hadn't seen the light of day. It's really amazing. I mean the Gulag Archipelago sold 40 million copies worldwide. Solzhenitsyn at one time was the most famous writer, one of the most famous human beings in the world. And then these New York publishers wouldn't publish him. The Red Wheel is an absolutely timely work. It's become more timely. It's now coming out, the remaining volumes, 1917, March and April '17 are coming out from University of Notre Dame Press. Two volumes have appeared. Two volumes of Solzhenitsyn's memoirs, Between Two Millstones, which deal with his 20 years in Western, mainly American exile, have been published by Notre Dame with forwards by me. So a lot's coming out. But what has made The Red Wheel so timely again, is Solzhenitsyn shows the unheard moral and intellectual corruption of the Russian left. Instead of working toward a form of the established order, there was limitless indulgence toward terrorists. There was an attitude "pas d'ennemi a gauche"--no enemies to the left--even if the left was Lenin, you know. And many of these people, the liberal and socialist intellectuals, would perish within a matter of years during the civil war or in the gulag.
The inability to critique the open nihilism and totalitarianism of the revolutionary left--this is something Dostoevsky also dealt with as far back as the 1870s in his great and prophetic political novel Demons, which is about revolutionary nihilism. So in a way I'm really glad The Red Wheel is coming out now, because I think if it had come out 10 or 15 years ago in English, the typical critical response would have been, this is yesterday's news. It's not yesterday's news. The attitude or the, as Gary Saul Morson, the great Russianist [indistinct] is always pointing out, the Russian Intelligentsia provide a kind of inspirational model for the nihilism of the contemporary Western intellectual. Not only the "no enemies to the left," but also the willingness to excuse the inexcusable, if it's at the service of emancipatory or liberation as to progressive call. That's why my critical remark about progressivism as before is we gotta be very careful, because all of these terrible political and intellectual movements sort of appealed to progress, to justify the repudiation of their enemies.There's a good kind of progress too, but if progress means simply wiping away the past, a clean slate, a political and moral and cultural tabula rasa, I think it's a really problematic thing. And that was a very dominant attitude among Russian intellectuals between, let's say 1870 and 1917. And the consequence of that attitude was 70 years of totalitarianism. But yes [indistrinct] probably the most famous line in the Gulag Archipelago is when Solzhenitsyn is talking about his own movement from revolutionary socialism to something like Christianity. Initially, more a moral sensibility, and then later a more open affirmation of Christianity. But Solzhenitsyn said, "I discovered that the line between good and evil lies, not between ideologies, or classes, or races, or nations, or states, but it cuts through every human heart." That we can never eliminate evil from the human heart, but we can control it.
And that's where political liberty is important, but that's also where the great philosophical and spiritual traditions of the European world are so important. And I think that kind of wisdom, I've called it an anthropological wisdom, it's tied to religion. But it's the answer to these doctrines, these doctrinaires who think that evil is located over there. And that whole groups of people . . . I mean, this literature on whiteness is so perverse. I mean, it really literally mirrors the assumptions of 20th century totalitarianism [indistinct]. That the evil is localized in whole groups of people. And Solzhenitsyn, I think, is a very, very, very powerful antidote. Obviously he didn't have our situation in mind, but he knew that, I guess we could call that the ideological temptation. It's a permanent temptation under conditions of modernity. And we see it again. I was talking to my friend Pierre Manent the other day, the great French political philosopher. And he said, "I think one reason we're in this mess is we never drew proper consequences from the Communist episode." When 1989 came around and Soviet Communism imploded between '89 and '91, and the Iron Curtain was lifted, and we had a return to something like civilized life in east central Europe, how did we react to it? The silly claims of Francis Fukuyama, we had arrived at the end of history, which was a kind of a Maxist account, a reverse Marxist account of the victory of democratic capitalism over Communism. Or this is yesterday's news, or giving silly and stupid reductive, a kind of mystic argument. You know, this is just a matter of economics. We never really reflected on why Communism turned out to be such a monstrosity. And it had something to do, Solzhenitsyn called Communism, with great irony, "the progressive doctrine." This claim that we could establish heaven on earth, through coercion, and that we could somehow escape the human condition. And I think Manent's probably right, that structurally the new ideologies repeat all the errors of the old totalitarism without anyone noticing it. And perhaps as a civilization, if we had stepped back and had given far less superficial explanations for Communism, its nature, and also its fall, perhaps we might've learned some enduring lessons that would give us the spiritual resources to resist new forms and expressions of ideology.
SHILO BROOKS: Here's a question that we get pretty frequently. And the question involves the way in which the ideological positions which you have critiqued have worked their way into mainstream culture. One sees these things in corporate America as sort of a branding almost, on clothing, on basketball courts, or whatever the case may be, Hollywood of course. And so this person asks, this view that you have, it would seem to be that for it to take hold, there has to be a cultural endorsement of it somewhere. How can this critique be yoked to a kind of mainstream culture, such that it succeeds in the way that progressive ideology has, in sort of captivating that culture, or is that fight just not worth fighting?
DANIEL MAHONEY: Well, I'm not convinced that renewal, much needed intellectual renewal, spiritual renewal is primarily going to take place in the universities. Speaking quite frankly, I'm not sure I could get hired today. I've been translated into 13 languages. I've written or edited 13 books. I've written over 300 articles and reviews. But I think somebody like me with my views would find it a very hard time getting hired anywhere.That's not a polemical observation. I just think it's something like a fact. So I think we're going to need what the Czech dissident Vaclav Benda called a "parallel polis." We're gonna have to create . . . if we can do it within universities, like the James Madison program or the Benson Center, and again, not a counter ideology. I mean the Hillsdale model of a conservative college. I welcome it, but it shouldn't be the norm. What we should have is a college. We should have a place, as you said in your opening remarks, where civilized, thoughtful people can talk and explore ideas without getting silenced. I don't wanna ban Marxists from campus. I just want thoughtful Marxists that don't want to ban me. And then, I have limited hopes. I think, this renewal, maybe it will have a foothold in the periphery of the academy. But to go back to Benda, I think we have to get creative about establishing alternative cultural and educational institutions that reach people outside of the hegemony of a certain kind of wokeness, in an academic and cultural setting. You have some of this. I don't know how long they'll be tolerated, but there are some of these groups that are sort of connected to Ivy League schools like the Abigail Adams Institute, or the Morningside at Harvard, or the Morningside Institute at Columbia. That's a good model, again, if it's tolerated by these institutions. And I know there are many faculty who don't want . . . People talk ad nauseum about diversity on college campuses, but you can bet your booty the last thing they mean is intellectual diversity. In fact, if you're a professor out there, try it as an experiment. Go into the faculty senate, and talk about the absence of intellectual diversity on campus. My experience, 'cause I've given those speeches, and I've given them rather eloquently, my experience is the vast majority of faculty have no idea what you're talking about. The idea that diversity might have something to do with the life of the mind is just literally unthinkable. In the corporate world, I can't believe that all these chairman of major corporations, multinational corporations, all this, are really converts to wokeness. I think they're making a devil's bargain. They think if they capitulate on all the cultural issues, they'll be left alone in the realm of political economy. In other words, the socialist rhetoric of the left won't turn into policy that will limit their room for maneuver in the economic realm. I think it's a mistake. But, look, the other thing is, how did we end up with Bari Weiss having to resign from The New York Times because The New York Times newsroom had become committed to the repression of independent thought? Because the people hired by The New York Times all went to universities where there was an absence of intellectual diversity. And I think on the center right, there was the domination of too much libertarianism and economism. Sort of this view that, well, that's the nonsense they teach in colleges. But then people graduate, and they go into the real world, and they have to raise a family, and make a living. And that will cure them of all that stuff that doesn't refer to anything real. The fact is, for a while, much of the culture of repudiation, not all of it, but much of it was localized in a kind of academic intellectual world. But now it's spread, as, Shilo you said in your opening remarks, into civil society. And if there is an emerging quasi-totalitarianism, as you also alluded to, it's coming more from civil society than it's coming from the state. So it's a kind of, I know this sounds dramatic, but it's a kind of self-enslavement. And I don't have a solution, but I do know that, let's say, having forums like this, where some alternative ideas and analyses are presented, and we're not canceled for now, these are good steps, I think, at the individual level. And I think this is particularly important for moderates and liberals having the courage, the intellectual and civic courage to speak out. And I think it's really, really important. I think eventually, to come back to a question I raised in the course of my remarks, I do not believe a social, cultural, and political order dedicated to self-loathing can sustain itself. I do think that this will play itself out. Now that doesn't mean there will be the kind of renewal we want. But it does mean that nothing constructive can be based on hatred and negation.
And that's a sign of hope. I think ultimately, especially if the overreach continues, maybe we'll reach a point where enough people will say we need a comprehensive reconsideration of these dogmas that have led us to such division, to such illiberality, etc. So that's what happened with 20th century totalitarianism. But it took a million dead people and the extirpation of free culture and free politics and religious liberty in a third of the world. I don't think that's going to happen in the United States to the same degree or to the same extent. But I do think an awful lot of damage can be done before these approaches that are anti-natural, or not in accord with the deepest wellsprings of nature, reveal themselves for what they are. So better to take action and to resist before we have to start from scratch again. There's always hope. But if you look at the situation today, if you're a friend of liberty, a friend of civilization and you look at the self-hatred, the self-loathing, I think of the words of W. B. Yeats: "Come fix your eye upon me. I thirst for accusation." Well, how can we have . . . who's interested in liberal education if liberal education just means self-hatred? There's this guy at Princeton in the classics department. He's gotten a lot of attention. He's a Dominican. I forget his name. Padilla, I think. And he says the only purpose of a classics department is to teach people that the classics are tools of oppression and exploitation. Why get a major in classics? You already know that. It's tyrannical, ideological cliche. You don't need to read Virgil or Cicero. You've already gotten your marching orders from Professor Padilla. So I just don't, I don't see how this mode of approaching education or culture can endure without it leading not only to massive social and intellectual destruction, but to boredom. It's really boring.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you. Yeah, that's quite a good answer. We only have a couple minutes left, two or three. So there's a question from--it's either a young person, or it's inspired by someone who's trying to advise young people--which is a moving question to me. A number of people--there's more questions than we can answer--but they've been impressed by your erudition. And I think it's rare that one comes into contact with a professor as widely read as you whose views are heterodox. And so people want to get recommendations from you. And this person asks in the two minutes we have left, “You've mentioned Solzhenitsyn and other things, and you just referred to Cicero and others in passing. Are there two or three books or movies for teenagers, that, you know, student-age, that honor the truth," they say, "in the best of Western civilization, that in conclusion you could recommend students look at, that their other faculty professors may not know about, or may not recommend that they look at?”
DANIEL MAHONEY: That's a really a good question because it's often the case that some of the very best books and thinkers are simply not taught in universities. I think of a great eloquent statesman and writer. You know Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature. He was not only a great statesman, anti-totalitarian statesman, who helped save Western civilization, His memoirs of the Second World War, especially the first volume, The Gathering Storm, which is his account of the atmosphere of some mixture of cowardice and foolishness that dominated intellectual and political life in Britain and much of the West in the 1930s. It's a wonderful, wonderful book. It's not a kind of book that's taught in university classes, But it's a book that alerts one to fundamental things. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. It's part autobiography, part spiritual meditation, part ideological indictment of Communism and all its works. It's united by a marvelous sardonic authorial voice. And it relates, as I tried to point out earlier, to all the issues we're talking about, a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. The drama of good and evil doesn't lie in the human heart. It lies in unjust social structures or unjust groups. I think there's no better thing that one could do than read at least the authorized abridgment of The Gulag Archipelago. Tocqueville's Democracy in America. It's a big book, two volumes. But if you read the right 100 pages or so, it allows one to understand the promise, but also the peril of modern democracy. Tocqueville was a friend, but not a flatterer, of democracy because he saw some of this coming, the specter of various kinds of despotism, but he also thought that democracy, at its best, acknowledged certain fundamental truths about common humanity, for example, that previous aristocratic orders didn't.
I think good Shakespeare plays, political plays like "Henry the Fifth" or "Julius Caesar," "Macbeth." Think of this. Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War, cabinet on a boat, going down the Potomac, and he was reading excerpts from "Macbeth" to the cabinet, 'cause Lincoln thought, he said there's nothing greater than "Macbeth." It's a study of tyranny of the human soul. That's a great play. The speeches of Cicero shaped all the founding fathers. His eloquence, his commitment to republican liberty, his opposition to despotism. They're great reading, even though no one reads them anymore. Plutarch's Lives set a great influence on the Founders, the lives, comparative lives, of the noble Greeks and Romans. You can pick up an edition of those. And they're moral biography.
I like some of the popular histories, like Richard Brookhiser's Lives of Washington and Lincoln. They're very well done. They're learned, but they're accessible. They're not written in academese. There's a lot of academics who think if they write badly, with jargon-laden prose, that somehow they're above the mass of human beings. It is possible to write well and eloquently and thoughtfully and in a civically-accessible way. That's the history people read. They go to Barnes and Noble. They pick up Brookhiser. They don't pick up academic history, because people love biographies for that reason. Read a biography. Read Lord Charnwood's biography of Lincoln. Read the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. Read General Grant's memoir. Read Charles de Gaulle's memoir. These are the reflection of serious political men who were not only committed to liberty and civilization, but who were cultured and literate men. Hard to believe, but republican statesmen used to be cultured and literate men [laughter]. I'm not criticizing FDR, but he was the first American president not to write his own speeches. When you pick up the "Library of America" volume of Lincoln's speeches, Peggy Noonan didn't write them, or Harry Hopkins didn't write them. He wrote them. Calvin Coolidge wrote his own speeches. It's a beautiful speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1926. There's a lot out there. There's great literature. The Russians, I mean, is there anything better than reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, except for the fact that these are incredibly long books, books like The Brothers Karamazov are a feast for the soul. So, all right. That's my haphazard set of bibliographical recommendations.
SHILO BROOKS: That was good, very useful, a very fine map for all of you out there looking for your way. Well, thank you, Professor Mahoney for the terrific talk. Thank you all so much and goodnight everybody.
DANIEL MAHONEY: Thank you.
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at email@example.com or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.