Reading Nicholas Kristof’s latest column this morning, “Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause,” I was reminded of several things. Such as, for instance, Bret Stephens’ column after the Democratic debates last week, “A Wretched Start for Democrats:”
In this week’s Democratic debates, it wasn’t just individual candidates who presented themselves to the public. It was also the party itself. What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?
Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country….
For liberals out there who want to dismiss whatever Stephens says because he’s a conservative, allow me to tell you why you’re wrong (I’m in that kind of mood): You should listen to Bret Stephens because he is the kind of person who will decide whether Donald Trump is re-elected. Stephens voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to try to stop Trump. (Several months later, he left The Wall Street Journal, where he was deputy editorial page editor, for The New York Times.)
Stephens has been begging Democrats to nominate someone he — and other conservatives, and independents — can vote for next year. Which is why his column before the one referenced above defended Joe Biden from the criticism he was getting over having worked with segregationists. Joe is a candidate, if not the candidate, non-Democrats can embrace. (The other candidates fell over each other trying to demonstrate that in the debates last week.) Which is an essential prerequisite to turning Donald Trump out of office.
But the association with the Stephens piece was based just on Kristof’s headline. As I got into the piece, I realize it had far more in common with a column written by David Brooks — another of the NYT’s in-house conservatives — two months ago. It was headlined “Understanding Student Mobbists.” I wanted to write about that one at the time, but it was hard to explain without quoting practically the whole thing, and I don’t want the NYT’s lawyers coming down on me for copyright infringement.
So before you read what I have to say about it, I urge you to go read the whole thing.
Then, I urge to go read all of Kristof’s latest piece.
Done? OK, then you probably see what I mean about them having a lot in common.
They’re both about how very, very differently “woke” young people in 2019 think about practically everything, but especially social justice issues. And when I say “think differently,” I don’t just mean holding different opinions, arriving at different conclusions. I’m saying the way they think is different — their brains operate in an entirely different fashion. The little cogs and gears turn in different directions, or whatever metaphor you prefer.
Both Brooks and Kristof bent over backwards to give the kids’ thought processes great deference (something the kinds of people they’re writing about would almost certainly not do with regard to the way these elders think), but neither quite succeeds in hiding how appalled he is.
That’s because the youthful phenomenon they’re discussing is a rejection, by the most fashionable current “progressives,” of fundamental principles of liberalism, principles upon which all the progress that Western civilization has yet achieved depend.
Some key excerpts from the Brooks piece:
I would begin my stab at understanding by acknowledging that I grew up in one era and they grew up in another. I came of age in the 1980s. In that time, there was an assumption that though the roots of human society were deep in tribalism, over the past 3,000 years we have developed a system of liberal democracy that gloriously transcended it, that put reason, compassion and compromise atop violence and brute force….
But certain things happened to cause the young to reject that worldview. The first was a reshaping of the way we talk about race. Then:
The second thing that happened was that reason, apparently, ceased to matter. Today’s young people were raised within an educational ideology that taught them that individual reason and emotion were less important than perspectivism — what perspective you bring as a white man, a black woman, a transgender Mexican, or whatever.
These students were raised with the idea that individual reason is downstream from group identity….
If you were born after 1990, it’s not totally shocking that you would see public life as an inevitable war of tribe versus tribe…
A war being fought not within the moderating institutions of a liberal democracy, but in a Hobbesian state of nature, one assumes.
Anyway, let’s turn to the Kristof piece…
No, wait. First, I want to refer you to a podcast I heard not long after the Brooks piece ran, which provides a nice bridge. It was an episode of “Invisibilia” called, “The End Of Empathy.”
The role of Brooks and Kristof is played in this podcast by co-host Hannah Rosin. Again, if you have time (like, 52 minutes of time), you might want to listen to the whole thing. But to try to encapsulate it for you… A young contributor researched and presented a story for the podcast about a member of the “incel” movement who presents himself as having outgrown that, and is trying to move forward as something other than a woman-hater. But in the end, she — the contributor — can’t bring herself to see things his way and accept his version of himself.
“And why?” she asks. “Like, why should we see ourselves in him?”
Rosen’s partial response (the podcast goes on and on):
Why? Where did I get this idea that my job is to get you to empathize with a guy like Jack Peterson? When I was growing up, empathy was a kind of unquestioned thing. Like, of course, it was good. It was like puppies or sunshine….
I never thought of empathy as an ideology or creed, but I’ve since learned it was. Empathy was this obscure, psychobabble-y term up until the ’60s and ’70s. Social scientists and psychologists started to push it into the culture, basically, out of fear. Their idea was we were either headed for World War III or empathy. We were all going to kill each other or we were going to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes….
That’s what I learned about how you make the world better. Encounter a person you’re unfamiliar with or afraid of or even repulsed by. Don’t duck. Move closer. Figure out what they’re all about….
Starting 10 or 15 years ago, students just stopped buying the automatic logic of empathy. Like, why should they put themselves in the shoes of someone who is not them, much less someone they thought was harmful?
There’ve been surveys given to cross sections of high school and college students starting in the late ’60s….
And starting around 2000, the line starts to dip for all dimensions of empathy – either just understanding someone’s position, which is called perspective taking, and empathic concern, the one about tender feelings. More students start saying it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective….
Because if you do lose your conviction, you might not have the energy to march in the streets or get better laws to protect women from dangerous exes.
So the new rule is reserve it – not for your, quote, unquote, “enemies” but for the people you believe are hurt or you have decided need it the most – for the victims, for your own damn team. That’s how you make things better….
“Your own damn’ team.” That puts it pretty starkly. Lot of that going around… Now to the Kristof column. He writes of an argument that he had with his daughter while they were tossing around a football (I include that detail for those of you who thing we don’t have enough sports on this blog):
We were discussing a Harvard law professor, Ronald Sullivan. He had been pushed out of his secondary job as head of Harvard College’s Winthrop House after he helped give Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual assault, the legal representation every defendant is entitled to.
To me, as a progressive baby boomer, this was a violation of hard-won liberal values, a troubling example of a university monoculture nurturing liberal intolerance. Of course no professor should be penalized for accepting an unpopular client.
To my daughter, of course a house dean should not defend a notorious alleged rapist. As she saw it, any professor is welcome to represent any felon, but not while caring for undergraduates: How can a house leader support students traumatized by sexual assault when he is also defending someone accused of rape?…
Progressives of my era often revere the adage misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” For young progressives, the priority is more about standing up to perceived racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and bigotry….
As we head toward elections with monumental consequences, polarization will increase and mutual fear will surge. The challenge will be to stand up for our values — without betraying them.
I’ll do like Brooks and Kristof (who at least tried not to judge the young folks) to the extent of saying, of course you defend sexual assault victims, with all your might. But in doing so, you don’t throw out such liberal values as the right of the accused to counsel, or making the effort to see another person’s perspective, or trying to find common ground that you can build on.
If you reject those liberal values, and call yourself “progressive,” your brain isn’t working right. Which is why, in the end, I have to conclude that you’re wrong…