In order correctly to understand the modern Left, it’s important to recognize it as a secularized religion. Tracing the development of this religion, from its origins in Protestantism, then Puritanism, then through its many transmutations in America — from sixteenth-century Massachusetts, through its northern and western Protestant expansion, through the “Awakenings” of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, through the secularizing influence of Univeralism and Unitarianism, through the sequential attachments of its “mission into the wilderness” to various sacred causes such as abolition, Prohibition, women’s suffrage, global government, desegregation, feminism, environmentalism, Blank-Slate biological universalism, open borders, LBGT-etc. activism, and global warming, to name some salient examples — has been a major project of the dissident and reactionary Right over the past couple of decades. I’ve written about it often.
The leftmost edge of the Left has accelerated sharply leftward in recent years. This has exerted tidal stresses on what was never a monolithic cultural bloc to begin with, and the laminae are starting to pull apart — with the result that many old-fashioned and relatively moderate liberals are beginning to see for themselves the unmistakable features of a fundamentalist and authoritarian religion beneath the contours of what they had previously imagined to be nothing more than a compassionate and humanistic political attitude. Given that many of these sorts pride themselves on their atheism, to see that they have been associated with a religion is immediately to declare apostasy.
Such a man is the essayist William Deresciewicz, who describes himself as “an atheist, a democratic socialist, a native northeasterner, a person who believes that colleges should not have sports teams in the first place—and … a card-carrying member of the liberal elite.” He is, however, appalled to detect a religion taking control of our academic institutions, and has written a good essay at The American Scholar to say so. You should read the whole thing, but I will offer a few excerpts.
Here’s the point, simply stated:
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
Some of us would say that he could be more specific — that in fact we are looking at a warped and camouflaged form of Calvinism here — but to see that this is very clearly and unmistakably a religion at all is the most important insight, and Mr. Deresciewicz has made it.
He continues (my emphasis):
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Precisely correct. And where there is religion, there is heresy:
Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship.
… “The religion of humanity,” as David Bromwich recently wrote, “may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions.”
Mr. Deresciewicz also notes the tip, at least, of the anti-white iceberg:
It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group.
He also looks at the relative powerlessness of university faculties:
In the inevitable power struggle between students and teachers, the former have gained the whip hand. The large majority of instructors today are adjuncts working term to term for a few thousand dollars a course, or contract employees with no long-term job security, or untenured professors whose careers can still be derailed. With the expansion of Title IX in 2011—the law is now being used, among other things, to police classroom content—even tenured faculty are sitting with a sword above their heads. Thanks not only to the shift to contingent employment but also to the chronic oversupply of PhDs (the academic reserve army, to adapt a phrase from Marx), academic labor is cheap and academic workers are vulnerable and frightened. In a conflict between a student and a faculty member, almost nothing is at stake for the student beyond the possibility of receiving a low grade (which, in the current environment, means something like a B+). But the teacher could be fired. That is why so many faculty members, like that adjunct instructor at Scripps, are teaching with their tails between their legs. They, too, are being silenced. Whether they know it or not, student activists (and students in general) are exploiting the insecurity of an increasingly immiserated workforce. So much for social justice.
The author’s apostasy from this cryptoreligion is incomplete: while its promise of Heaven may be false, he still fears its Hell. For example, there’s this:
Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income).
“The” reason? That there is a far more obvious one, grounded in simple and evident facts of human difference and heredity, makes this a museum-quality sample of cult-Marx Blank-Slatism. But I quibble: that a self-described “card-carrying member of the liberal elite” should write an essay like this at all is impressive, and heartening.
It is, also, just maybe, encouraging as well. Here’s why:
I (and others) have argued that because of the radical skepsis at the heart of the modern Left — the legacy of the Enlightenment, in which nothing is exempt from the most withering and critical scrutiny — that there is no limiting principle, no bedrock, upon which this implacably descending ideological movement can ultimately come to rest.
(Two years ago I likened this to the collapse of massive stars. We might also borrow a different astronomical metaphor: it’s as if the Left, as it approaches its own singularity, is now crossing its Roche limit, where tidal forces begin to tear it to pieces.)
If, as the process accelerates, the Left continues to delaminate and disintegrate, perhaps only a smaller and smaller core will tumble into the abyss — as others, such as Mr. Deresciewicz, find bedrock, at last, below which they cannot descend.