by Roger Kimball
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about “purity spirals.” That’s what the journalist Gavin Haynes calls the familiar “moral feeding frenzy” that occurs whenever ideology triumphs over truth. The French Revolution provides vivid historical examples, as did Mao’s cultural revolution in the 1960s. Those caught in a purity spiral, I observed, invariably find themselves embarked on an endless search for enemies, “a concerted effort to divide the world between the tiny coterie of the blessed and the madding crowd of the damned. The game, Haynes notes, ‘is always one of purer-than-thou.’”
It is also, not incidentally, a contest to subordinate truth to the accumulation of power.
In the course of that piece, I quoted the columnist Andrew Sullivan, who expatiated on the role that language – and the effort to police language – plays in the economy of coercion.
“Revolutionaries,” he wrote, “also create new forms of language to dismantle the existing order.” And how.
Sullivan was writing in New York magazine, a reliably trendy, i.e., left-wing, redoubt that had been his home for the past several years. I employ the pluperfect in the preceding, because Sullivan has just been defenestrated from that increasingly woke organ.
“A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me,” he wrote in a decorous but devastating farewell column.
They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media.
I submit that when New York magazine loses Andrew Sullivan, it finds itself sucked deep into the rancid purity spiral disrupting our culture. For although you can still find some outlets that describe him as “conservative,” it is a decidedly odd variety of conservatism – or, not to put too fine a point on it, it is rather the opposite of what most people mean by “conservative.”
“[I]n my case,” Sullivan notes drily, it “means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.”
That is quite a list. And it might – absent, perhaps, the bit about endorsing a “realist foreign policy” – incline you to think that Sullivan would be welcome with open arms at a magazine like New York. But no. For Sullivan remains obdurately unwoke when it comes to the smorgasbord of linguistic perversion sweeping through the ranks of our public discourse. In that earlier column, he noted, with simmering incredulity, some highlights of the process:
The use of the term “white supremacy” to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word “women,” J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by “people who menstruate.” The word “oppression” now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word “racist,” which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called “structural racism” which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.
That way lies madness, which is part of Sullivan’s point.
Calling things by their real names is a prerequisite of freedom, which is precisely why political correctness is addicted to euphemism, on the one hand, and linguistic hypertrophy, on the other. By subordinating truth to the requirements of an ideological agenda (what lit-crit types call “discourse” or “narrative”), political correctness – of which the embrace of “wokeness” is an aggravated allotrope – is at the same time an assault on freedom of thought and, beyond that, an assault on political freedom. Hence the vertiginous irony that behind leftist calls to “speak truth to power” is the corrosive assumption that truth is always and everywhere relative to power (except, of course, in the categorical assertion that “truth is relative to power”). It’s nice work if you can get it.
In essence, the subordination of truth to “narrative” rests upon a contradiction as old as Protagoras and Thrasymachus. Nor is it any more cogent for being updated in the forbidding argot of Foucault and his heirs in the critical race theory brotherhood.
Early on in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book’s unhappy hero Winston Smith writes that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted all else follows.” But it is exactly that freedom – the freedom of the independent operation of reason – that Big Brother interdicts. Like Lenin years earlier, Big Brother is everywhere. There is no detail of life too small to escape his scrutiny and control. All of one’s behavior, even one’s thoughts, belong to him. Thus it is that at the end of the novel, his spirit broken, Winston sits in a café tracing the equation “two plus two equals five.” That is the ultimate woke calculation: 2 + 2 = 5.
As Orwell noted, the chief instrument for the enforcement of conformity – at the end of the day, it is even more potent than the constant threat of terror – is language, the perfection and dissemination of “Newspeak,” that insidious pseudo-language that aims to curtail rather than liberate thought and feeling.
“The purpose of Newspeak,” Orwell writes, “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism, i.e., the existing regime], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.” Such is the ambition of the woke commissars who increasingly direct the expression of opinion in the media, the academy, and elsewhere. “It was intended,” Orwell wrote, “that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all . . . a heretical thought . . . should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. . . . Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. . . . [I]n Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible.
Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning, an admonition. Our woke social justice warriors, supposing they are even aware of Orwell’s work, would seem to regard it as a plan of action, a how-to manual. I’d like to put in a word for the t-shirt I have seen advertised lately: “Make Orwell fiction again.” Good advice.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).