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The Totalitarian Temptation

The message of “Shut up” is being directed at whites and blacks with unapproved thoughts


Nearly thirty years ago, after the first Gulf War, I read in the once-serious New Republic a poignant first-person account of a young Shiite in southern Iraq, in which she described the period when it still appeared that freedom from the hated Saddam Hussein had been obtained. She described how, in that heady moment, she and a number of other young people in their early twenties experienced for the first time in their lives the opportunity to speak openly to another human being without fear of being informed upon to the regime.

It would be a serious exaggeration to describe the United States today as a similarly fearful totalitarian society. But it is hurtling in that direction at a frightening rate. According to a July 23 Cato Institute poll, 62 percent of Americans withhold from ever stating their political views, lest they be found offensive. That number rises to 77 percent among self-identified conservatives. Strong liberals are the only ones among whom a majority feel comfortable expressing their views — 58 percent.

In the course of researching my recent feature on Professor Jeffrey Poelvoorde and his refusal to submit to a campus mandate to take anti-bias training, I discovered just how rare is the kind of courage he displayed. A senior partner in a national law firm whose politics lean conservative told me it would be unthinkable for her to follow Poelvoorde’s example. She had no question that doing so would result in her being fired. Even questioning the narrative of “systemic racism,” or denying that differential outcomes of any kind are proof of institutional racism, might provide sufficient cause for her to be hounded out of her job. In such circumstances, she admitted, keeping silent is the better part of valor.

A recent guide to “Whiteness,” produced by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, includes in its description of “White culture” such ideas as planning for the future or delaying gratification, the view of time as a commodity, belief in the nuclear family, an emphasis on rational linear thinking, and cause-and-effect relationships. These ideas and aspirations are antithetical to black culture, the Smithsonian suggests. At least we no longer have to search for nefarious explanations of black underrepresentation in the sciences: It is an outgrowth of the black rejection of the scientific method, according to the Smithsonian.

What John McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics at Columbia, wrote of anti-bias trainer Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility applies with equal force to the Smithsonian exhibit: “[White Fragility] is actually a racist tract. Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us.” McWhorter writes that his race “has had no effect on my access to social resources; if anything it has made them more available to me than they would have been otherwise.” He cannot imagine why blacks possessing any normal self-regard would allow themselves to be “openly infantilized” by DiAngelo’s ideas.

McWhorter points to all the traps that have been laid for whites to force them to shut up. Speak of a “bad neighborhood” and you are referring to black ghetto, but call it a “black neighborhood” and you are openly racist. Try to speak to blacks about their experience, and you will be told that they have “no obligation to educate you”; but try to educate yourself via books, and you will be accused of “holding black people at a distance.”

Unfortunately, it is the DiAngelos, not the McWhorters, who currently hold sway in academia, the media, and a large swath of corporate America. And increasingly, the message of “Shut up” is being directed at whites and blacks with unapproved thoughts.

McWhorter writes in a recent Atlantic that he and his fellow black Ivy League professor, Glenn Loury, have been “receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their careers because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook.” One non-white professor bemoaned “the new norm of intolerance and cult of social justice, [which] has marginalized me more than all the racism I have ever faced in my life.” A philosophy graduate student dropped out because the entire job market in philosophy is exclusively for those eager to teach “philosophy and critical race theory or philosophy and gender.”

McWhorter notes that few of those writing are conservatives; they just happen to be supporters of “free speech, scientific data, and healthy debate.” Even those concerns put them beyond the pale. Many of the letters, says McWhorter, “sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.” One tenured professor wrote with alarm of a university administration considering an “anonymous reporting system” for students and fellow professors to denounce perceived bias.

Even silence does not protect, for in the new woke dispensation, “silence is complicity.” Bad as it is for those who have chosen the life of the mind to have to keep their mouths shut, writes Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, far worse for young academics “is that they must positively subscribe to things they believe to be bad or false. And this is the mark of totalitarianism.”


GARY SAUL MORSON, perhaps America’s greatest teacher of Russian literature, draws a thought-provoking parallel to the present moment in the response of the Russian liberal intelligentsia to the cult of revolutionary violence that reached its apex between 1900 and 1917 (“Suicide of the Liberals,” First Things, Oct. 2020). Between 1905 and 1907, for instance, 4,500 Russian government officials, and an equal number of civilians, were killed or injured in terrorist attacks. Yet one of the leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party in the Duma (the Kadets) refused to condemn terrorism. “That would be the moral death of the Party,” he proclaimed.

Even when Czar Nicholas’s chief minister, Pyotr Stolypin, offered to enact the entire Kadet program, the Kadets refused to work with him. The prevailing attitude of Russia’s educated classes, the intelligentsia, was that it was better to side with those a mile to one’s left than with those an inch to one’s right. (Recall that one would have listened in vain during the Democratic convention for any condemnation of the widespread urban violence in recent months or of leftist panaceas like “defund the police.” Only when directly challenged on this last point did the party’s nominee, Joe Biden, disavow it.)

Solzhenitsyn pilloried the intelligentsia of the period in his novels November 1916 and August 1914. In the former, the character Colonel Vorotyntsev attends a social gathering where every single person is mouthing the same progressive pieties — pieties about the “people,” which he knows from the common troops under his command to be false. Yet when he utters one discordant remark, all conversation stops and all eyes turn on him. He quickly retreats, for fear of being thought a “reactionary.” A professor in the same novel refers to a whole school of thought that must remain unspoken — not just in lectures, but in private opinion as well.

In the eyes of the Russian intelligentsia, there existed a set of beliefs that were “totally certain, scientifically proven, and absolutely obligatory on any moral person,” chief among them commitment to the total destruction of the existing social order and its replacement by a utopia solving at once every social ill. The criterion of being “scientifically proven,” of course, had little to do with what we think of as science. The Soviets would, after all, reject genetics, quantum theory, and relativity, at various times, as being inconsistent with dialectical materialism.

For the intelligentsia, it was axiomatic that all questions are ultimately political, as defined by Lenin’s question “Kto kogo?” (“Who-whom?” — shortened from “Who will overtake whom?”) When a young girl in August 1914 wonders what will happen if the counter-revolutionaries act with the same wanton cruelty as the revolutionaries, her intelligentsia aunts are horrified by her failure to recognize that there is no moral principal of mutuality: “The Party takes all blame on itself so that terror is not murder, expropriation is not robbery.”

And what became of the intelligentsia? As soon as Lenin gained power, his Cheka liquidated the Kadets and the rest of the intelligentsia, who had, as he predicted, “bought us the rope and hire[d] us to kill them.”

Too bad those most subject to the totalitarian temptation in America today, particularly the young, have never read Orwell, or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, or Solzhenitsyn, and have no knowledge of the millions upon millions of lives claimed by the Bolsheviks or Mao or Pol Pot.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 831. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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