Roots of totalitarian liberalism

With the cashiering of Brendan Eich as Mozilla’s chief executive officer last week, we are struggling to understand what we have just seen. There is an important book that remains to be written about the totalitarian imperative at the heart of liberalism, and the insight into the nature of the larger forces at work is one of the many reasons Eich’s forced departure strikes a nerve. It is a revealing moment. This is where we are headed.

Former New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein took a stab at documenting the phenomenon in its manifestation as multiculturalism. In Dictatorship of Virtue, Bernstein writes that “the multiculturalist rhetoric has the rest of us on the run, on the run for fear of being branded…racist” and so on. “In such a way does multiculturalism limit discussion: it makes people feel afraid to say what they think and feel; it presents dubious and cranky interpretations as self-evident, indisputable truths.”

Benstein’s book was published in the glorious dawn of the Clinton administration, and yet it resonates. Its analysis extends beyond the operation of the articles of the multicultural faith. Bernstein continues, describing the doctrine: “It often operates, not through the usual means of civil discourse and persuasion, but via intimidation and intellectual decree. It rewrites history.”

And not just that! “It sanctions a cultivation of aggrievement, a constant claim of victimization, an excessive, fussy self-pitying sort of wariness that induces others to spout pieties. And that, in turn, covers public discussion of crucial issues with a layer of fear, so that we can no longer speak forthrightly and honestly about matters such as crime, race, poverty, AIDS, the failure of schools, single-parenthood, affirmative action, racial preferences, welfare, college admissions, merit, the breakup of the family, and the disintegration of urban life.” The latter is of course a phenomenon of one-party, left-wing rule in our big cities.

Bernstein was on to something. In the thesis he offered in his underdeveloped prologue, he traced the phenomenon back to the French Revolution. Yuval Levin explores the terrain most recently in greater depth in his new book on the birth of right and left in the argument between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the French Revolution.

Whether or not the impulse runs back to the French Revolution, or to the Marxist tropism of left liberalism, the tendency is totalitarian. It is not just dissent that must be stifled, it is “incorrect” thought, for incorrect thought may lead to incorrect speech and incorrect speech may lead to incorrect action. The book on the roots of totalitarian liberalism that remains to be written would be an important book.

The Progressive faith of the modern American left is devoted to rule by experts, to unlimited government, to repeal of the distinction between public and private. Thus the constant erosion of the structures intended to protect us from the manipulation and control of the state. Government without end, Amen. It is, dear readers, un-American.

Kevin Williamson usefully assimilates the Mozilla moment into a larger pattern in “The Liberal Gulag.” Williamson doesn’t address Mozilla’s statement explaining itself. It is an important document in its own right, for it supports Williamson’s thesis, suggesting that we are entering the world that George Orwell wrote about in 1984, i.e., the world of the Gulag.

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