The Coddling of the American Pundit

In an absurd reaction to the New York Times nonfiction bestsellers list earlier this week, New York writer Andrew Sullivan tweeted “We. All. Live. On Campus. Now.” The problem, Sullivan said, was that the list had numerous “radical critical theory books, written by people deeply opposed to the foundations of liberal democracy” that “were now required reading for employees.”

The following day, a thread of tweets arguing that doxxing racist students helped to “stop them from attending a university that will allow them to become a racist healthcare worker, teacher, lawyer, real estate developer, politicians, etc.” received a similar reaction from Sullivan. “This is beyond chilling,” he tweeted. “It’s the logic of purges and cultural revolution and mob ‘justice’. It has over 400K likes. Liberal democracy is extinct.”

Sullivan and other “contrarian” thinkers with large salaries and gigantic platforms have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last decade obsessing over what teenagers at colleges—Berkeley and Harvard are favorites—are doing on campus, whether that’s getting racists disinvited from cushy speaking gigs or caring about intersectionality and social justice more generally speaking. The broad strokes of their argument are that one day the people pushing for their universities to be more inclusive and to not give platforms to racists will graduate from those universities and will become leaders in America and bring their ideologies with them. Sullivan and others say that this will be bad—bad for free speech, bad for liberal democracy, bad for America, and, most of all, bad for well-paid pundits. America as we know it will be consumed by “campus.” And that moment, where We. All. Live. On. Campus., is now, when hundreds of thousands of people are protesting Black people being killed by the police (or perhaps it was 2018).

Alone, this sort of hysteria is insignificant and also expected of Sullivan, who has spent years promoting and trying to legitimize racial science and declaring war on those who aren’t interested. It’s part, though, of a larger wave of right-wing liberal and conservative writers warning that the American public is undergoing an authoritarian turn. State forces violently suppressing protests sparked by state violence isn’t the concern here, nor is the president attempting to designate antifascists as terrorists. No, it’s the specter of “the campus”—an imagined site of oppression in the reactionary mind where free speech goes to die.

Never mind that it’s students who are bravely in the streets fighting against actual state authoritarianism—marching in the hundreds of thousands nationwide, storming and burning down Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct (which one survey shows the majority of Americans think was justified), and creating an “autonomous zone” in Seattle spanning six city blocks that features an occupied Seattle police precinct along with vehicle barricades and armed protesters standing guard. Never mind, for that matter, that what’s happening isn’t the result of people avoiding uncomfortable ideas but of engaging with them and taking them seriously enough to take action in the name of a better and more just society—precisely what liberal education and liberal democracy hold as an ideal. What matters is that the “campus” has taken over, and that this is bad.

If this “campus” is now everywhere, it’s worth taking stock of who seems terrified of it, and why. So far, it appears to be no one facing any type of oppression.

Take the staff revolt sparked by Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed “Send in the Troops” among staff over whether the fascist screed should’ve been published. Times op-ed editor and columnist Baris Weiss warned of a “civil war” between “the (mostly young) wokes [and] the (mostly 40+) liberals” that resembled the “campus culture wars.” Many have mocked her, Sullivan and other conservative thinkers for obsessively writing about campus, but this uprising at the Times, she said, proved her right all along. “This was always why it mattered: The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.” Weiss casts radical students—or former ones—as the real authoritarians for engaging in the marketplace of ideas by debating the merits of an article written by a sitting United States senator advocating for the actual deployment of the military against Americans exercising Enlightenment-era rights. (The original position that led to the Times soliciting this op-ed was that the troops should kill them.)

In Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, the fear that grips the reactionary mind is described as safetyism—”a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” For some, safetyism is an ever pervasive threat; for others, coronavirus ended this Age of Coddling, for some reason.

Clearly the young people in the streets facing down violent cops are not overly concerned with their safety. Nor are journalists risking their jobs to protest against their employers publishing government propaganda.The people who seem most obsessively concerned with being protected from ideas that challenge their worldview, in fact, seem to be coddled writers and thinkers who are worried about the safety of their social status as protests and calls for systemic upheaval and justice echo across the land.

As Moira Weigel wrote in her review of Haidt and Lukianoff’s book, their arguments are obsessed with balancing acts that do little other than “signal the distance between the authors and the partisans of identity who are too emotional to think clearly.” They profess to be concerned with an ideological climate that stifles free expression, but in practice express concern over little other than the rules of the discourse. They want an atmosphere in which ideas can be freely debated; if anyone takes an idea seriously, though, it is held as evidence that no such atmosphere exists. The argument is an endlessly recursive argument about what it means to argue, the cri de coeur of a message-board user endlessly crying out for moderators to enforce the First Amendment written across the pages of America’s best-paying and most influential publications.

Take Sullivan’s comparison of doxxing to the Cultural Revolution; the same comparison is made by Lukianoff and Haidt, who compared “witch-hunts” on college campuses to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but are more honest about their argument. “As historical events, the two movements are radically different,” they wrote, “most notably in that the Red Guards were responding to the call of a totalitarian dictator, who encouraged them to use violence, while the American college students have been self-organised and almost entirely nonviolent.” And yet they shared some similarities, the author maintain, in that “both were movements initiated by idealistic young college students.” What does this mean, ultimately? Nothing!

This whiny preening—ironically, it’s exactly what “the campus” is accused of—characterizes the overall line of argument. Sullivan is a prominent member of a group of scientific racists who regularly bemoan the natural social consequences of airing racist drivel publicly. Weiss’s warnings were publicly revealed to be fabricated by numerous colleagues who disputed her narrative, calling it “brazenly careerist and self-serving” and a “willful misrepresentation” of largely unified internal opposition to publishing Cotton’s op-ed. There is reportedly a “Bret Stephens” policy at the New York Times, a double standard which allows Stephens to drone about the virtues of free speech (and join Sullivan in advancing race science nonsense) but while constantly whining or complaining to higher-ups about any writer or editor that voices criticism of his ideas.

When Stephens, another campus culture hand-wringer, failed to get a professor at George Washington University fired for insulting him, he wrote an embarassing column trying to paint the joke as anti-Semitic. When the professor invited Stephens to a debate at GWU, Stephens canceled because the debate wouldn’t be closed to the public. All of this looks much more like “safetyism” than reading critical theory books or fighting an authoritarian police force.

In a convincing case as to why “safetyism” doesn’t even exist, Inside Higher Ed‘s John Warner wrote that “if you examine those who wield the charge of safetyism against others, they are always in positions of superior power accusing those without power of disrupting some important principle, a principle that protects the status quo.” His critique also lines up with Weigel’s, which points out that these people enjoy “the luxury of living free from discrimination and domination” and “insist that the crises moving young people to action are all in their heads.”

It’s hard to take seriously powerful, privileged people who insist that the marketplace of ideas can solve racism and sexism. It’s even harder to do so when they insist that participants in the marketplace of ideas who follow the power of ideas they find convincing are behaving illegitimately. It’s still harder when those whose entire project is pushing the idea that debate—endless, endless debate—is the way to improve the country rule out protests and uprisings as effective forms of debate. That protests inspired by and enacting ideas and ideals have been successful now and in the past (e.g. the 1960s protests and riots) does not hinder these people from making their arguments. Instead, thought leaders like Jonathan Chait use phrases like “politics is a matter of life and death” to make the case that nobody is entirely right, and that nothing should be done.

These thinkers are correctly labeled by Weigel as “right liberals” who, from “their safe space of TED talks and thinktanks and thinkpieces” create cultures and belief systems where the safety of valuing ideas you disagree with becomes a sacred value in theory, and where in practice disagreement is taken as a sort of violence, undermining the entire project of disagreement and debate which is held to be so sacred. Their position is exactly what they accuse their critics of, and as a result, their hysteria is founded in something real: They actually are being left behind by a society and by generations that are taking seriously the ideas they pay lip service to.

“The campus,” as envisioned by the reactionary mind doesn’t exist. But the protests do. The uprisings do. The CHAZ in Seattle does. As right liberals and conservatives are forced to watch more protests and occupations grow and succeed, they’ll slink back into their safe spaces. They’ll insist that their opinions be respected. They’ll demand that we engage in balancing acts to “save liberalism”—acts calibrated to preserve power, privilege, bigotry, and ignorance, and even liberalism itself.

We should see this for what it is: the coddling of the American pundit. And we should reject it.