Our American Cultural Revolution

By May 27, 2016June 22nd, 2021Review Posts

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Delivered April 16, 2016 as The 2016 Murray N. Rothbard Memorial Lecture at the Mises Institute, Auburn, AL.

As the person who has been asked to deliver this year’s Murray N. Rothbard address, it seems appropriate to relate my remarks to the person being honored. Although the observations that follow may not have come directly from Murray, he and my speech do have some connection. My pleasurable, often edifying conversations with this remarkable polymath, the letters we exchanged, his book America’s Great Depression and, not least of all, his study of American intervention in the First World War strengthened for me beliefs that I continue to hold.

I never truly grasped where we were heading as a country until my encounters with Murray. Nor did I fully assess the worthlessness of the American conservative movement up until that point. Those realizations took place despite the fact that Murray and I did not always agree on all issues. We often debated political theoretical questions, as a mental exercise, without expecting to come to full agreement. But we did hold the same views about the present age, while I deferred to Murray on all economic matters, because unlike me, he was the proven expert. Most importantly, I finally accepted his arguments about the damage inflicted on our freedoms by America’s run-away administrative state.

Well into my forties I was going through a learning experience about the modern American government. In 1980 I was appointed as an alternate delegate for Ronald Reagan to the Republican nominating convention; a few months earlier I had spent primary night in my state, which was then Illinois, with Mrs. Reagan, waiting for her husband to achieve his by then predicted electoral victory. After Reagan’s election as president I served briefly as an adviser to the Department of Education and urged its immediate abolition, in accordance with a campaign promise made by candidate Reagan. Instead of being doomed to eradication, this department that Jimmy Carter created as a favor to the teachers’ unions, continued to flourish. Meanwhile Washington was flooded with “conservative” office-seekers, claiming to have come to this “swamp on the Potomac” in order to “dismantle the federal behemoth.”

Needless to say, these supplicants and sycophants had come for jobs and most of them stayed on as “part of the problem.” As late as the early 1980s I believed that the GOP was committed to loosening the government’s grip on our lives and earnings; I also nursed the illusion that something called “the conservative movement” would help in this process. The ease with which the neoconservative master class took over and proceeded to purge the Old Right, or that part of the Right that resisted them, removed any lingering sympathy I had felt for “the movement.” Almost overnight, I noticed the list of conservative heroes changed, from such figures as John C. Calhoun, Robert A. Taft, and Calvin Coolidge, to Martin Luther King, Sidney Hook, and even Leon Trotsky. While I had once wanted to believe that the American Right, like John Randolph, “loved liberty but hated equality,” conservatives were now urged to view “equality as the essential conservative principle.”

I also perceived how the Reagan administration went from talking about containing Soviet imperialism to launching crusades for “our democratic values.” This imperialist mission sounded nothing like what the traditional American Right, and certainly not what the interwar American Right, understood as a realistic or defensive foreign policy. It resembled the world revolutionary vision that I associated with Marxist-Leninist expansionists. It was upsetting that the American Right, together with our Republican president, dutifully followed these positions. And even more regrettably that they became standard Republican ideas.

Murray’s understanding of the American state influenced my book After Liberalism, which was the work of a recovering Republican. The state that he analyzed with scalpel-like precision was the American regime as it had grown since the nineteenth century. It was a structure of power that had vast economic resources, expanded at the expense of local and regional authorities, and engaged in war measures when the governing class thought they were advantageous. According to Murray, quoting Randolph Bourne, the US had become a “welfare-warfare state.” Although this was not intended by America’s founders, it happened nonetheless for reasons that Murray carefully explained.

After Murray’s untimely death I accorded him an honored place in my studies about the managerial state. His examination of the alliance of American public administration with crony capitalism and military expansionists infused my work on multiculturalism and political correctness. Murray’s perceptions also helped explain the rise of Cultural Marxism as the new civil religion in both the US and Western Europe. In these societies the administrative state furthers its control by enforcing ideological orthodoxy. And the state in question is not the relatively restrained bourgeois Victorian state of the nineteenth century, but something the tentacles of which reach into every social, educational and commercial activity.

This brings me to the core of my argument: The most publicized critics of multiculturalism, whether neoconservatives or “cultural conservatives,” ignore with equal disregard the contemporary state’s role in generating and sustaining the object of their criticism. Allow me to list some of the standard explanations given for the spread of Political Correctness. First on my list, because it may come closest to the truth, is the “cultural conservative” lament, which stresses that our long established values are in free-fall. PC now substitutes for ethics because of our ignorance and moral blindness. We reject the great teachers of the past and those inherited religious teachings that remain relevant for our collective existence; and this has resulted in cultural and social chaos.

Another explanation for the rise of PC treats academic culture as a uniquely corrupted part of an otherwise exemplary America. Perhaps most conspicuously it has been David Horowitz of neocon fame who has popularized this argument. According to Horowitz, our democratic government is sound and our country in every way “exceptional.” But universities have become “totalitarian islands in a sea of freedom.” The government must therefore intervene and make universities conform to the standard of freedom that exists elsewhere. We also hear complaints about the spoiled generation that has now taken over, about pampered little monsters who are running wild. Or this variation on the same theme: “the young carry with them popular culture, and together they’re corrupting our entire society.” Presumably the self-indulgent young, and their transmission of popular cultural values, are the principal reasons that PC is thriving.

There is also this anti-egalitarian critique that I myself have been known to belabor, to wit, PC is the latest variation on the ideal of universal equality. Although once integrated into orthodox Christianity in a benign form, this poisonous obsession is now running riot. But since some of you have already heard me ranting against equality, I won’t rehash my peeves, at least not this afternoon. Finally, we come to this oft heard assessment of PC that issues from its least concerned critics. Here attention is drawn to the essential decency of those impulses from whence the ideology arose. Neoconservatives and their dependents maintain that we’ve simply gone a bit too far trying to be just. But we can easily address this by adopting a new government policy. For example, it’s possible to help victims of past discrimination, without engaging in “reverse discrimination,” or we can practice equity feminism instead of gender feminism or affirmative recruitment instead of affirmative action. Curiously those who minimize the social effects of Political Correctness at home often rage against it when the subject turns to foreign policy. Thus the failure to be more confrontational in dealing with a worldwide Islamicist threat or with the figure whom George Will describes as a “thug and war criminal” Russian president Vladimir Putin is attributed to an epidemic of Political Correctness.

Some of these observations do have merit. We dismiss at our peril the great minds of the past. Civilizations, which are an intergenerational human creation, decay unless we protect them. Kids are watching too much mindless TV and are not sufficiently under parental supervision; although their parents may be just as poisoned by cultural toxicity. Moreover, popular culture, as far as I can tell from occasional channel-surfing, has nothing cultural about it. It features uninterrupted vulgarity.

Despite these insights and just censures, none of the critical observations I’ve listed engages what is specifically political about Political Correctness. One might ask why so many people are paying at least lip service to something that anyone with half a mind should find laughable. Although most reported criminal violence against American blacks has been caused by other blacks, the true culprits, we are supposed to believe, are the police, whether white or black. If only the racist police recognized that “black lives matter,” then the contagion of violence in black societies would end.

Gender and racial differences are judged to be social constructs and only tangentially related to what is biologically rooted. And let’s not forget that there are multiple genders; and the same person can experience more than one gender identity within a single day. The media would also have us believe that most domestic terrorism results from white male nativists; and as Ann Coulter recently observed, our journalists, academics, and most TV commentators are “delighted” if reality occasionally confirms their superstition. Evidence is no longer required for any of these daring assertions, providing the appropriate feeling is present. Nor does evidence have to be furnished that a statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans that has stood there 131 years has to be removed because its presence is causing mental hardship to local blacks. Here as elsewhere, the PC Taliban are assumed to hold the moral high ground.

Meanwhile Princeton is about to remove plaques with the name of a former university president Woodrow Wilson, who defended segregation. Yale’s administrators and student body are renaming Calhoun College, which for the last seventy-five years has carried the name of a Southern slave-owner. Little does it matter that the South Carolina Senator who is now in disgrace may have been America’s most brilliant political theorist and as late as the 1960s was considered by John F. Kennedy and most professional historians to have ranked among our greatest senators.

A growing body of protestors, including New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, are working to rename Yale University, which commemorates an eighteenth-century London merchant. Yale’s early benefactor, Eli Yale, funded the infant educational institution as a way of fostering Christian learning in the New World. But this merchant may have pocketed money that he obtained, however circuitously, through the slave trade. At Lebanon Valley College, a few miles down the road from me, nationally publicized demonstrations broke out against the name of a particular building. This edifice bears the moniker of a long-dead munificent college benefactor, Clyde Lynch, but his name also bears a phonetic association with a practice once linked to racial oppression. Suitable replacement names have also been provided by the demonstrators but I shall spare this audience the pain of having to listen to them.

The neoconservative New York Post demanded in the wake of the Charleston killing that the racist movie “Gone with the Wind” cease being publically shown. In the same issue a Post columnist proposed that a tile in the New York City subway that depicts a Confederate Battle flag be torn out. The tile, which shocks neoconservative sensibilities, was the gift of the German Jewish owner of the Times Adolf Ochs. This man’s family, which resided in Chattanooga, had fought for the Confederacy; and the tile in the subway was intended to honor a cause to which Ochs’s parents had been especially devoted. Little did the newspaper owner know how vigilantly our neoconservatives more than a hundred years later would expose this vile act!

Since the audience should get my drift by now, there may be no reason to multiply my examples further. All such illustrations feature claimants to a fictitious moral high ground who revel in bullying others; and since the others offer no resistance, the bullies feel free to go on making trouble. PC’s advocates appeal relentlessly to the ideal of equality, but it is only the white Christian world that is attacked for breaching this ideal. Although all identities would appear to be sacred, in practice only those identities that please designated victims or their self-styled advocates need to be accommodated. If, for example, I chose to advocate for a neo-Confederate or secessionist position, neither the state nor its subject institutions would have to honor my choice. A university or employer might even be morally or legally impelled to “discipline” me for being hateful.

If one compares these student and faculty protests to those of the 1960s, certain differences become apparent. In the 1960s students were protesting a sometimes life-and-death issue. They feared being drafted and sent to Vietnam in a bloody war that went on and on. In the 1960s student protestors opposed institutions that often resisted the protestors and sometimes even sent in police to arrest them. Now the kids and their instructors manufacture grievances as the action unfolds. Protestors are for or against the wearing of Hallowe’en costumes on campus, depending on which side can be used to humiliate gutless administrators. They take offense at the name of any dead white man or denounce any form of lookism or micro-aggression, providing the resulting protest permits them to express outrage.

In the early 1960s such things did not happen, and for a self-evident reason. Sixty years ago we did not have a vast state apparatus fighting “discrimination,” judging “hate crimes” and by implication “hate speech,” and monitoring the treatment of protected minorities. It’s no surprise that establishment Republicans and so-called conservatives tip-toe around this fact. Those who live off government patronage and from devising government policies are not likely to bite the hand that feeds. And the last thing I would expect them to do is notice the most powerful institution promoting Political Correctness.

I know the response these arguments are likely to elicit from the political and verbalizing classes, if they spoke to me, which they don’t. I’m oversimplifying a complex problem that has to be addressed in various ways. Such ways would include a new batch of government policies, preferably drafted through Heritage and then implemented by a non-extremist Republican president. I’m also blaming the state for what the “culture” has done. The state only reflects cultural forces that operate independently of politicians and administrators. It supposedly responds to conditions that the “culture” brings about. Finally I’ve no decent respect for all the good things the American “liberal democratic” state has already done, for example, combatting racism, sexism, homophobia and more recently, popular revulsion for cross-dressers and transsexuals. Without the modern administrative state, women would still be chattel slaves, our electorate restricted to white male property-holders, and women’s “health services” would not be readily available to those who want to dispose of their fetuses.

Such speakers and I would discover that we had irreconcilable differences. Unlike them, I don’t particularly care about pursuing “social justice” or “ending discrimination.” But I am interested in restricting the scope of the modern mass democratic state. Its overreach concerns me far more than creating larger electorates or empowering the federal and state bureaucracies to go after insensitive speakers and micro-aggressors. I am terrified by a public administration that engages in massive social engineering without effective restraints. Thus I’m disgusted when conservatism, inc. tries to have it both ways, as for example when I read the commentary of Republican columnist Betsy McCaughey slamming the Obama administration for forcing employers to hire and promote underqualified women. This is viewed as a continuing abuse committed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But this justified complaint comes after the qualifying remark: “Race and gender discrimination is already against the law. As it should be.” Given that McCaughey and others of her ilk happily concede vast power to anti-discrimination enforcers, why are we surprised that the government exercises that power to the hilt? Does McCaughey expect the EEOC to ask her to decide what does or does not constitute “discrimination”? As usual government administrators will make such decisions.

If you accept living under a highly centralized administrative state that is aided by unelected judges, then don’t complain about diminished freedoms. After all, it is not Disney Studies or Jay Z who exercises coercive power over our lives. Nor is it Oprah Winfrey or Martin Sheen who can destroy my business, as soon as a black female, homosexual, or some other designated minority member issues a formal complaint.

Woman students on our campuses are now encouraged by the state to accuse male students of rape; and those who have state power on their side are in a position to wreak havoc on those they accuse. Although felony laws protect women who have been physically assaulted in colleges and elsewhere, the Department of Education and other government agencies insist on more stringent guidelines. They mandate sensitivity training for faculty and staff and demand that university authorities give concentrated attention to well-rehearsed grievances. And the government, under both political parties, has created this Inquisition.

The EEOC and the Department of Education, no matter which recent presidential administration, have pushed universities into embracing affirmative action programs and at least implicitly minority studies programs. And let’s keep in mind that the admission of a single student by a “private” educational facility that is receiving government funds renders that facility subject to a slew of anti-discrimination requirements. The feds have the additional power to withdraw a school’s tax exempt status, as happened at Bob Jones University in the 1980s when this institution was considered insufficiently receptive to interracial dating. The government can also unchain the IRS-attack dog to force its subjects into compliance with whatever it wants.

To ask Lenin’s highly relevant question: What can be done? For starters, those who fear the present political order should work to drive public administration out of education and social affairs. This power-hungry intruder monopolizes anything it touches. If government influence on education and other cultural affairs cannot be contained, it should at least be limited to the local level. It is easier for taxpayers to deal with government at this level than it is for them to move out of the country in order to avoid being bullied. But Mayor di Blasio’s fans needn’t worry. If despite my caveats, NYC wishes to accord special rights to polysexual claimants to government favors, then the Big Apple should be left to its own pleasures.

In conclusion, I would note that unlike Murray and many in this room, I have never presented myself as someone who regards the state in any categorical sense as “the enemy.” In historical perspective, I can appreciate the state as a Western invention pulling Europe out of feudal anarchy, promoting safety for its subjects, and providing a political framework for the growth of historic nations. At times the state has been a generous benefactor to humanistic learning; and one can cite as an example the Habsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary, who generously patronized the early exponents of the Austrian School of Economics. I would further note that public support of American education has not always led to its present unspeakable evils. There was a time when government did not make war on the traditional family, gender roles, and religious liberties.

But that was in the past; and it seems unlikely that we can rein in this regime by electing a Fox-news Republican president or by teaching in our public schools prepackaged “human rights” and “democratic values.” A GOP website that I recently scanned praises the restrained fashion in which the administration of George W. Bush handled the grievances of female students; supposedly this was light years away from what happened under W’s successor. The difference to my knowledge is exceedingly slight: ten years ago those males who were charged with misconduct by accusatory females had minimally more opportunity to defend themselves, before they were publically humiliated. Unless there is evidence that assault and battery has occurred, legal recourse should not be available to women making accusations of harassment or sexual misconduct, let alone should the government be tyrannizing male students because of their non-violent interactions with coeds.

I’ve no doubt that PC would still be around even if our managerial, sensitizing regime vanished through some act of divine favor. My point is not that every attack on freedom of thought or the traditional Right originates with the state. It is rather that every cultural threat is made much worse because of state intervention. What is more, the state does not contribute to this problem in a half-hearted fashion. Concerned administrators and progressive judges are morally committed to their mission of fighting-discrimination. Although the state’s sponsorship of PC may not be the only reason for its existence, it should be the starting point for those seeking to understand it. And one may suspect something less than a disinterested perspective, when the analyst disregards what in this case should be clear for all to see.

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is the president of the H.L. Mencken Club, a prolific author and social critic, and emeritus professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College.

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