Badgered Into Submission
Avatars of political correctness in search of dissenters
Wednesday, March 20, 2019
In the political realm, power is roughly divided between Democrats and Republicans in the United States. But the cultural realm — mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and higher education — tilts dramatically left. And the latter is likely to be far more determinative of the environment in which Orthodox parents raise their children, as Stephen Prothero documents in Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).
That pattern applies even as the left grows ever more unmoored from reality and hoisted on the petard of its own internal contradictions.
As Exhibit One, I offer the confirmation hearings of Neomi Rao to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the most powerful Court of Appeals in the nation. Despite being a woman of color (her parents are immigrants from India) and possessor of impeccable legal credentials — Supreme Court clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, professor of law at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law Center, and director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Trump — not a single Democrat voted to confirm Rao.
Historically, Democrats have fought fiercely against the confirmation to the Court of Appeals of conservatives who belong to racial or ethnic minorities, especially if they are considered likely candidates to be nominated to the Supreme Court in the future, as Rao is. Democrats, for instance, filibustered Honduran-born Miguel Estrada's nomination by President George W. Bush to the D.C. Circuit for two years between 2001 and 2003, and never allowed it to come up for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. Had he been confirmed, Estrada would have been the first Latino on the D.C. Circuit, and at age 42, a potential future nominee for the Supreme Court.
Opposing highly qualified minority candidates in high visibility Supreme Court nomination hearings is politically risky and undermines the narrative of the Republican Party as the party of racists and nativists. So Democrats try to nip the danger at an early stage. Justice Clarence Thomas, raised in Georgia by his sharecropper grandparents, is the Democrats' nightmare: a conservative black justice, who can hardly be accused of alienation from the black experience.
Rao's zeal for deregulation and her skepticism about the so-called Chevron doctrine of deference to the interpretation of vague statutes given by administrative agencies is another cause of Democratic panic. She is a potential thorn in the side of the all-powerful administrative state run by unelected, low-visibility bureaucrats — the smart people — which is the Democrats' model government.
But opposing her on technical legal doctrine and democratic theory would not wash. No, she would have to be shown to be a bad person — e.g., a racist, a misogynist — however implausible the claim about a woman of color. To do so, the Democrats combed through her op-eds of a quarter century ago for the Yale Daily News.
And lo, what did they find? She once made the common-sense observation that if women sought to avoid unwanted encounters they should not drink themselves into a stupor. That sound piece of advice, as Rao told Senator Kamala Harris, is the advice her own mother gave her when she went off to college and which every halfway sensible parent gives their daughters today.
But common sense no longer carries the day. Rao was accused of blaming the victim and disrespecting women, though she had written explicitly that those guilty of assault should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Forget common sense: Rao's argument was also one until recently made by feminists. Women, like men, have agency; they are not helpless beings, but capable of making decisions and of protecting themselves.
Nevertheless — and this is the really scary point for me — Rao felt necessary to describe her youthful writings as "cringe-provoking," and to confess in a follow-up letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had been insensitive to the hurt that her words might have caused to victims of assault. Here again was an example of a phenomenon noted by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind of subjective "hurt" or "offense" — not the intent of the speaker — becoming the measure of all things, at least if the one offended is a member of a preferred identity group. (Hint: Jews do not qualify for protected status.)
All Rao's confessions of sin availed her naught. She garnered not a single Democrat's vote on the Senate floor. Hopefully, however, she'll have the last laugh on the D.C. Circuit.
THE RITUAL PROGRESSIVE hazing of Senate confirmation hearings, however, is nothing compared to the Internet, which is populated by many auditioning for the role of commissars in North Korean reeducation camps, pygmies ever in search of politically incorrect statements, no matter how subtly so, which can be used to demonize the speaker and broadcast the righteousness of the critic.
Take the case of Karen Templer, who runs an online knitting design business. She blogged recently about being "indescribably excited" about an upcoming trip with three friends to India. "I've wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember. I've had a lifelong obsession with the literature and history of the continent. Photos of India fill me with longing...."
What could be wrong with that? Kathrine Jebsen Moore asks innocently in the February 17 Quillette. Quite a lot, Templer soon discovered. She had written of a childhood friend from India whose family had offered her to accompany them on one of their return visits: "To a suburban midwestern teenager with a severe anxiety disorder, that was like being offered a seat on a flight to Mars...."
She was quickly accused of having a "colonialist-imperialist mindset." "How do you think a person from India would feel [about the comparison of going to India with going to another planet]? her accuser demanded to know. Another blogger, Sarah, chimed in that Templer had done a lot "othering" and had upset some of her non-white friends.
Templer had actually received a great deal of positive feedback from Indian friends. But even those who had initially been "inspired" now realized that they had been gravely insulted. One woman who had written admiringly of the post now found herself "ashamed that I failed to consider the impact on all us non-white people."
Another owner of an online knitting business from Seattle — hardly a bastion of right-wing thought — decried the bullying and trolling of Templer and announced she was closing her Instagram account. But not before one blogger opined that she could be ignored because of her "gleaming white face." And another "proved" her racism: "If you are against folks calling out racism, it's pretty clear whose side you are on."
For her part, Templer predictably bowed in obeisance to her accusers and sought absolution for her "insensitive post": "I've spent the week... thinking about all the things I can do to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color." The story ended, as it must, in Jonathan Haidt's words, with a confession of the primordial sin of whiteness and a resolution to do better.
That Templer had intended to praise India, not to conquer it or colonialize it, was beside the point. But here too, modern progressivism is entangled in a net of its own contradictions, or from another point of view, reduced to nothing but a hierarchy of preferred and disfavored group identities.
For by acknowledging India's exotic status in her eyes, Templer was simply engaging in the multiculturalism, with its moral relativism and emphasis on the equal validity of all societies and ways of life, that has long been a pillar of modernism. It is precisely that multiculturalism that has left Western feminists struck dumb by such Muslim practices as female mutilation, child brides, and honor killings, even when imported into Western countries. Muslims, you see, are a favored identity, and calling attention to these practices is Islamophobia.
The really sad point is that such internally incoherent doctrines and inchoate resentment against the West and all identified with it have gained such cachet. And, above all, that so many are badgered into submission and the confessional mode by the avatars of political correctness constantly in search of dissenters.