Letters to the Editor | The Economist
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The working class
Your warning about the dangers of wokeism would leave many old left-wing thinkers to turn in their graves (“Out of the Academy,” September 4). The stunt by the illiberal left is their claim that they are the champions of the marginalized. I have no doubt that many are sincere, just as the leaders of the Catholic Church were during the Inquisition. Religious fundamentalists of all kinds are sincere. But just thinking you know best doesn’t make the world a better place. Unless you are willing to openly debate your ideas, you are by definition an authoritarian conservative.
Modern book banners, non-platforms, freedom of speech deniers and opponents of universalism in the name of identity politics are not from the left, the liberal left or even the new left of the 1960s. As a student in the 1960s, I marched to demand freedom of speech, an end to the war on Vietnam, and civil rights. We were sentenced as communists and beaten so unlucky to be near a police baton. Voltaire and John Stuart Mill have inspired us. Here is what Eric Hobsbawm, a British Marxist, had to say about identity politics:
The political project of the left is universalist, it is for all human beings… It is not freedom for shareholders or blacks, but for everyone… It is not fraternity only for old Etonians or gays, but for everyone. And identity politics is essentially not for everyone but for members of a specific group.
The Economist got the ball rolling in the right direction.
University of Queensland
The rise of the illiberal left is something I have observed with concern for 40 years in academia. There are many reasons for this, but the most important was the sustained attack on the ideals of the Enlightenment which, ironically, were adopted by Karl Marx. He would almost certainly have treated awake people with contempt.
The problem lies in our inability to properly understand the original premises of our Enlightenment heritage. The ideals you refer to (“The Threat of the Illiberal Left,” September 4) are for the most part fully developed by Adam Smith as a moral philosopher (not as an economist). Smith’s mentor and teacher was Francis Hutcheson, whose influence is most clearly visible in Smith’s first book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Here, Smith relies on Hutcheson’s arguments against greed and self-interest. The original reasoning in favor of individual liberty and liberty was to enable people to develop their talents both for their own worth and for the good of the community.
Hutcheson was also scathing about the rights, which could quickly become a cover for greed and selfishness. Hutcheson therefore posited that rights must always be weighed against the virtue of an act, or its effect on others. This is an important moral corrective that is continually ignored in our quest for individual rights or narrow identity groups.
Francis Hutcheson Institute
Free and open debate is great, in theory. In practice, we tend to hear a bit more of what the billionaire with a megaphone has to say than the young single mother.
Your articles exposing illiberal progressives are unique in the mainstream media today and will hopefully inspire slackers to join them. By explaining why the awakened plague is out of dormancy, you focus on academia. But the locus isn’t the cause, and while you’re right to point the finger at college students and administrators, we also have to ask ourselves how they got infected.
The virus comes from a new class, a “meritocracy” based on the test results, a New Elite. Earlier elites were based on strength or wealth, but today its wisdom is believed to have been “proven,” and thus cut short all dissent.
Loyalty oaths are not a new “awakened” development at the University of California. Loyalty oaths were imposed on its employees in the 1950s, when a right-wing state legislature found itself in red fear and tried to flush Marxists out of the closet. It completely failed. At the very least, there are quite a few Marxists in the California university system today. Ironically, Ernst Kantorowicz, a specialist in medieval studies and vehement anti-Communist, lost his job when he refused to take the McCarthyite oath on principle. Awakened oaths will also fail.
Oh, Economist, I thought you got over it all. Saving the liberal order is a defensible, albeit chimerical, goal, but tackling progressive excesses and dismissing criticism as agitation does not help. Objectivity begins at home.
Just consider the economy and the mantra that businesses shouldn’t be immune from storms of creative destruction. Fair enough. If you want to win, you accept the rules. But liberalism sees only the game and its actors. What about collateral damage? The costs of capitalism’s creativity are paid for by chronic disease, family stress, community disruption, social scapegoats, political dysfunctions and climate disasters. Impatience is justified.
English and comparative studies teacher
Ohio State University
I’m not a blind enlightenment supporter, but your arguments were so one-sided that I realized the awakened ones were right to stand up for greater diversity in powerful institutions like The Economist.
Moreover, it was not the awakening that drove Brexit in Great Britain, nor the January 6 insurgency in America. It was not the revival that enabled the resurgence of covid-19, not the revival that plotted to kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan, or convinced millions of Americans that the 2020 election was stolen, or stifled any honest American confrontation with the currency climate.
It is true that the awakened too often stifle debates and end careers, but they are not the threat to democracy and the reason that right-wing warriors and profiteers are.
University Station, Texas
It is important to stand up for what you believe in and stand up for your beliefs, but we must also aim for humility. It would be good if everyone remembered the words attributed to Bertrand Russell:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, and the wisest so doubtful.
Stellenbosch, South Africa
One thinks of the sociological experiments of Michael Macy illustrating how, in the face of illogical group consensus, individuals tend to publicly agree and even condemn dissidents, while privately expressing their concern.
Unsubstantiated theories, such as those of the illiberal left, that have taken root in societies demand that courageous individuals break the cycle and voice their disagreement, regardless of the condemnation. But someone else can come first.
This article appeared in the Letters section of the print edition under the title “On the rise of illiberalism”