The Tolling Bell
A plea from an exhausted majority
Enough is enough. Across the political spectrum, we Americans are losing the ability to see one another in our full complex humanity. In a national orgy of intellectual incuriosity and uncritical thinking, we’re reducing each other to inhuman caricatures. This anti-humanism both creates and is sustained by the perception that we’re living in a state of emergency, confronted by political opponents—nay, enemies—intent on ending the American experiment. Curiosity about one’s adversaries—about how they think or see the world—has come to seem sinful. The academic humanities, which more than any other institution might have come to our aid with a full-throated defense of humanism and rigorous civic scholarship, have instead accelerated this descent into anti-humanism. The moral disrepute into which these virtues have fallen is driving Americans further and further toward the extremes—less because the one extreme attracts than because the other extreme repels.
How do we extract ourselves from this predicament? We are awash in critiques of the Left from the Right, and of the Right from the Left, but critiques from within an ideology or political movement are harder to find. Absent a greater willingness to challenge one’s own side, Americans will continue to move to the extremes, for lack of a more honest option in the middle. Rebuilding the center requires a positive commitment to liberal-democratic, humanistic, scholarly principles, in alliance with all who defend them, whatever their politics.
For me, the two texts that best define this vital center are John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The former in particular may seem an odd choice for an atheist like myself, ending as it does with the statement that God “is our only security.” But we secular humanists can learn from Christian humanists, too. When Donne writes “God,” I read Truth, Beauty, and Justice in their absolute form; when he speaks of the library of the afterlife, “where every book shall lie open to one another,” I hear the humanistic ideal in this one.
Donne’s essay is the most humane work I know, for its uncompromising insistence on our interconnectedness: “No man is an island, entire of himself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This interconnectedness anchors the most famous line in the essay: when a bell tolls for a dying man, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Donne offers no conditions or exceptions to these statements. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. Though another may not hear the bell tolling for him, it benefits me, “if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation.” No one’s death is an occasion for rejoicing or gloating; everyone’s death is an occasion not to search others for sin, but to search for it in oneself.
King adapts Donne’s humanism to the world of practical politics in a liberal democracy. He grounds his ethics on the same human interconnectedness as Donne: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” This shared humanity supplies the logic for perhaps his most famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King also departs from Donne in important respects. Donne’s sense of the divine absolute flattens our own human sins into relative sameness. To judge our sins against others’ is to risk the sin of pride, because we aren’t listening to the tolling bell. King understands this danger, but he nevertheless regards judgment to be necessary for social advance. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” he declares. “It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.”
Throughout his letter, King distinguishes between more and less sinful actions, more and less just actions. He is trying to find a moral center, he explains to the white clergymen who had criticized him as an “extremist.” “I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community,” he tells them. “One is a force of complacency,” and “[t]he other force is one of bitterness and hatred.”
Fortunately, there exists between these two opposing forces a centrist alternative: “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” King’s is a positive moderation, indistinguishable from an “extremism for love.” He contrasts this extremism with a type of negative moderation. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner,” he writes, “but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Shrinking from a final judgment about the white moderate (note the “almost”), King nevertheless commits to the necessity, even in our fallen state, of doing our best to judge between morally better and morally worse courses of action. In a liberal democracy, he concludes, nonviolence, premised on the shared humanity of oppressed and oppressor, offers a better way to act on moral judgments.
Donne’s gorgeous humanism and King’s loving centrism offer the cure to what ails the United States. The disease, to be clear, isn’t tribalism. A sense of tribal belonging is a fundamental human urge. The disease, rather, is dehumanizing polarization: the severing of often loving, even life-sustaining tribal bonds that cross the political center and aren’t based on politics—marriages, friendships, brotherhoods forged in combat—and the formation of new tribes at the political poles, which are based on politics and regard confederation with other tribes as morally polluting. Determined to preserve a sense of their moral superiority, these tribes at the poles misinterpret attempts at self-scrutiny as arguments for moral equivalence with their opponents. They are not only driving themselves into moral disaster but pulling the country apart in the process. The principles that Donne and King espoused light the path away from the political tribes at the poles and toward the tribal confederation of the political center: the exhausted majority.
A Borrowing of Misery
I’m a lifelong Democrat who has always felt most at home on the political left. From the beginnings of Trump’s candidacy, I have viscerally loathed and feared him for many reasons, but two are especially important. One is that Trump shows no sign of a capacity for empathy, for seeing the world through others’ eyes. The other is that Trump plays with dark and dangerous forces of dehumanization that are deeply rooted in our nation’s history, especially ones related to race. Trumpism isn’t only dehumanization, but the dehumanization of an imagined other is its vanishing point, just as every brushstroke on a broad and complex canvas pulls the eyes toward a single focal point. Thus, however much the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters brandishing symbols of white supremacy may have shocked—shocked!—his enablers on the right, it came as no surprise. It was a logical consequence of Trumpism.
Democrats have rightly heaped scorn on the Republican Party for failing to stand up to Trump, but, perhaps sensing political opportunity, they have shown somewhat less eagerness to consider whether they might be committing the same sins. They should. The attack on the physical heart of our democracy was a fire bell in the night. What might the Left find if it listens to the tolling bell and examines its own conscience?
It would find, in effect, a Trumpism of the left which feeds the Trumpism of the right: a dehumanization of large swaths of Americans who feel impelled to vote for right-wing candidates not because the Right pulls them but because the Left pushes them.
Trumpism on the right, to be sure, also feeds the Trumpism of the left. As a friend of mine likes to say, Trump has no character, but he’s very good at getting others to reveal theirs. Like something out of the Book of Job, Trump tests people’s faith and commitment to principles. He is so morally repellent that he tempts others to make exceptions to their moral codes to resist him—just this once, we tell ourselves, because this is an emergency. But the emergency lasts, and “just this once” becomes all the time, until we’ve fallen so far that we can no longer recognize ourselves.
Democrats have worked hard to avoid understanding the reasons for this fall. After a brief flirtation with self-scrutiny in the wake of the 2016 election, they instead adopted two conscience-cleansing narratives. One was to say that they had been right all along: lots of Americans really are racist, sexist, homophobic, and too stupid to understand their own economic self-interest. The other narrative was that Russian interference delivered the election to Trump. These two narratives were almost perfectly primed to absolve the Left of any responsibility for Trump’s rise and to eliminate any need for the hard work of self-examination.
In fact, the Left’s betrayal of its stated values did a great deal to enable Trumpism on the right. One aspect of this betrayal, not infrequently discussed on the left, is the Democrats’ investment of too much energy into cultural issues at the expense of material issues. But an even more consequential betrayal, much more commonly noted on the right, is that Democrats have dehumanized their opponents and broken faith with the democratic process.
Right-wingers are correct to point to the old identity politics and the new wokeness as the principal drivers of this dehumanization, though they typically ignore important shades of historical and moral complexity. Identity politics on the left began as a way to expose and critique the unacknowledged identity politics of the right. That is, the Left sought to show that being white, male, and heterosexual was not the default human identity that the Right treated it as, and that being non-white, non-male, and non-heterosexual were equally valid. Naturally, left-wing activists challenged the injustice of right-wing identity politics by seeking to redefine other identities as normal and good.
Tactically, it’s hard to imagine how they could have succeeded at emancipation without doing so. But the problem with these tactics—and here is where the right-wing critique comes in—is that they have taken on a life of their own and betrayed their original humanistic intentions. A dangerous tendency to essentialize categories of humanity, present in any form of identity politics, has become dominant. The woke Left now keeps pace with the Right in tokenizing minorities and imposing on them the burden of representation. In effect, it’s adopted the same reductionist categories of humanity from which identity politics originally sought emancipation. In so doing, the woke Left has swung the pendulum much too far away from the unum and toward the pluribus, threatening to fragment us into atoms and destroy our molecular bonds. The self-defeating logic of modern wokeness is what gives it its essentially performative quality. There is such a thing as substantive wokeness, but it’s an older tradition called liberalism.
At the same time as they’ve dehumanized those they seek to help, the woke Left has also dehumanized those they seek to oppose, with devastating political consequences. Woke Democrats terribly flatten the complexity of Trump supporters. Many seem to think that their own coalition is more sprawling and more diverse than the Right’s, but the right-wing coalition is every bit as sprawling and diverse as the Left’s. Trump’s supporters range from neo-Nazis to Chamber of Commerce conservatives to steelworkers to Asian-Americans to Cuban refugees and beyond. They grow our food, serve in our armed forces, fight our fires, rescue our animals, and save the lives of our children. Though the label certainly fits some, to call all these Trump supporters “white supremacists” robs the appellation of any real meaning.
Where a competent political tactician would see and exploit the world of difference between a Ku Klux Klan member and a suburban soccer mom who isn’t sure systemic racism is a thing, the woke Left sees a white supremacist and a white supremacist-in-waiting. Instead of trying to see in three dimensions, or even two, the woke Left has collapsed the Trumpist canvas into its vanishing point. Its inability to see the full, complex humanity of its opponents is both cause and effect of its inability to see the full, complex humanity of those it wants most to help.
In addition to the Left’s betrayal of humanism, Republicans also rightly point to its impatience with the democratic process. All too often, Democrats try to dispense with the hard work of persuading the masses by turning to the courts or to technocrats. It’s only natural for the masses to infer that the Democrats find them revolting.
Since the Left’s turn to the courts has been ably covered elsewhere, I’ll focus on its preference for technocrats. The way the Democrats talk about climate change offers a good example of their reliance on expert shortcuts to the democratic process. As Democrats insist, the questions of whether the climate is changing and whether human beings are causing the change are properly scientific questions. That’s why I accept the scientific consensus that the answer to both questions is yes. But the question of what to do about human-induced climate change is not a scientific question; it’s a political one, because whatever response we choose will have implications for resource distribution, which is the very essence of politics. To modify a famous line by the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, it might be said that switching to renewable energy is the continuation of policy by other means.
When it comes to political questions in a democracy, the people are sovereign, not the experts. Democrats’ inability to distinguish between scientific and political questions casts doubt on their understanding of democracy. To be clear, I’m not advocating the abandonment of the concept of expertise or suggesting that we shouldn’t listen to experts, any more than I’d argue we should ignore generals and admirals when we make decisions about war. But our democracy has a tradition of civilian supremacy over the military for a reason, which is that war is a continuation of policy by other means. Indeed, our nation’s framework for civil-military relations offers a framework for civil-expert relations more broadly, but it’s not the framework that Democrats use.
Compounding the political effects of the Democrats’ reliance on expertise is the fact that the experts themselves frequently undermine their own claims to expertise and are disproportionately insulated from the adverse effects of their policy advice. When experts fail to recognize the limits of their own expertise—for instance by confusing questions that fall within their expert competence with those that don’t, as climate scientists often do—they corrode Americans’ faith in expertise more broadly. At the same time, experts demand a level of economic security that is unavailable to most of the Americans whom their advice affects. When epidemiologists recommended lockdowns to slow the spread of covid-19, they were risking other people’s jobs, not their own. It’s a variant of NIMBYism—no risk in my back yard. Their lack of skin in the game puts them in the moral position of trying to lead from the rear—just as American elites, with their avoidance of military service, have been trying to do since Vietnam. Why should Americans be willing to run risks that experts don’t run themselves?
Another major driver of right-wing Trumpism is the Left’s inability to offer Americans an empirically accurate and politically emancipatory version of U.S. history. There are versions of this critique on the Left as well as the Right. Mine runs like this: The Left is ideologically committed to an all-oppression, all-the-time interpretation of the American past, largely for fear of re-inscribing earlier oppression. (The New York Times’ 1619 Project is a good example of this commitment.) According to the prevailing left-wing interpretation, America was founded as a racist, sexist, homophobic nation, and it has always remained so.
This interpretation is empirically inaccurate because it ignores evidence of change over time and flattens the diversity of the American past. Change over time has cut both ways. For instance, ownership of productive property is more concentrated now than it was before the Civil War, but the legal enslavement of black people is rather less common. It’s certainly true that white supremacy and paternalism existed at the Founding. But it’s also true that opposition to white supremacy and paternalism was present at the Founding. All of these different currents are as American as apple pie.
Furthermore, the prevailing left-wing interpretation isn’t just inaccurate; it’s also politically self-defeating. I’m not the first to note that the “anti-racist” interpretation of the American Founding has a great deal in common with the white supremacist interpretation: neo-Nazis are just as eager as woke activists to claim that the United States was founded as a white man’s nation, albeit for ideologically opposite reasons. The all-oppression, all-the-time interpretation of U.S. history provides no grounding for radical politics, because it provides no hope that this time will be any different.
As critics on the right and increasingly on the left have pointed out, it’s difficult to imagine how the Left’s combination of woke identity politics, aversion to the political process, and warped understanding of U.S. history could hold a democratic nation together. If we engage with the world primarily through our race, gender, and sexuality, how can we engage with it as fully human Americans? If we turn to experts to solve our bitterest disagreements, how are we a democracy? If our history is all oppression, all the time, why do we want to be American, and why should we hope for a better future? The Democrats’ inability to offer compelling answers to these questions—which reflects the Trumpism of the left—represents their signature contribution to the growth of the Trumpism of the right.
While the Democrats’ self-defeating betrayal of core principles predates Trump, it has accelerated under him.
We can see this first, and perhaps most plainly, in what Trump supporters regard as the original sin of the Resistance: the Russia investigation. In the course of their all-out effort to nail Trump, the Democrats decried the politicization of the FBI when it hurt their side, while welcoming it when it benefited them. And they proclaimed the sanctity of the rule of law while looking away when it was violated. The treatment of Carter Page, a Trump campaign aide, presents an excellent example.
Shortly after initiating its probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, the FBI opened a case against Page. A week later, the CIA informed the FBI that Page had worked as a source for the agency by reporting on his conversations with Russian officials. When the FBI submitted its first FISA warrant application, however, it omitted any mention of Page’s exculpatory CIA connection. Worse, in a subsequent warrant application, an FBI lawyer altered an email from a CIA official, making it seem as though Page had not worked for the agency. The FBI also used the since-discredited Steele dossier to support its surveillance applications on Page. Even more questionable was the FBI’s tautological invocation of news reports based on information from Steele as evidence of the dossier’s reliability. In effect, the FBI suppressed and misused evidence to go after Page.
The Page investigation was only one part, it’s true, of a much broader set of investigations into the collusion accusation conducted by the FBI and Robert Mueller. But the facts of the Page investigation are clear enough on their face, and they’re outrageous. The Democrats would have howled if the FBI had done these things to a Clinton campaign aide. Indeed they howled about a pro-Trump conspiracy at the Post Office on the basis of far more ambiguous evidence.
The Brett Kavanaugh episode presents another example of Democratic hypocrisy. The Democrats had denounced Mitch McConnell’s cynical blocking of Merrick Garland’s nomination and hypocritical fast-tracking of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. They were right to do so. To engage in what McConnell himself, in a different context, called “a scramble for power at any cost” is to threaten to throw our democracy into a “death spiral.” That’s why the Democrats’ conduct over Kavanaugh outraged and terrified me. Democrats claim to stand more fully than Republicans for foundational principles like due process and the presumption of innocence, but they trampled on those principles in the Kavanaugh hearings in a scramble for power.
Christine Blasey Ford had nothing more than allegations—no independent corroborating proof. I found her testimony believable, in the sense that she behaved like someone who was sexually assaulted long ago might behave. But I also found Kavanaugh believable, in the sense that he behaved like someone falsely accused of a heinous crime might behave. My inability to form a judgment on the basis of their behavior is exactly why our justice system values objective proof more highly than subjective judgments about believability or mere allegations.
Elizabeth Warren provided another example of Democratic hypocrisy during the primary race. At a town hall, an audience member asked her what she would say to someone whose religion teaches that marriage should be between a man and a woman. She replied: “Just marry one woman … assuming you can find one.” Jokes like Warren’s—casual expressions of contempt, common on the left, for millions of Americans’ beliefs—are a form of in-kind donation to the Trump campaign. When a leading Democrat speaks to you like this, you don’t vote for Trump because you’re too stupid to understand your own economic self-interest. You vote for Trump—or rather against Warren’s party—because you’re smart enough to understand that you’ve just been insulted, cruelly, and because you value your sense of your own dignity. A belief that marriage is heterosexual might reflect virulent homophobia. Or it might reflect a lack of exposure to other types of marriages growing up and a lack of energy to examine one’s thoughts on human sexuality while working three jobs to feed one’s family. The reason that so many culturally conservative members of the working class feel they’re being gaslighted when Democrats claim to respect them is that they are being gaslighted.
Another fine example of double standards on the left came courtesy of scientists during the covid-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists denounced lockdown protestors for risking the spread of the virus by gathering in public, yet more than a thousand epidemiologists released a statement supporting those gathering in public to protest George Floyd’s death in police custody. When I read it, I was relieved to learn that covid-19 was one of those ideologically discerning viruses that chooses whom to infect based on their politics. Spare me the paper-thin rationalization that racism is a public-health challenge; that’s like McConnell’s “that was then, this is now” justification for confirming Barrett in haste before the election while blocking Garland in similar circumstances. In any case, the job losses and depression caused by the lockdowns are public-health challenges, too. Now, whenever I hear the phrase “follow the science,” my first thought is “where?” and my second is “will the scientists be coming with us?”
Last but certainly not least was the Democrats’ about-face on law and order in the wake of the Capitol attack after their excuse-making for the mob violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Both included rioting and attacks on police officers. But only after the Capitol attack did Democrats discover that mobs are bad. Only then did they deliver the harshest of condemnation for attacking police officers, without any asterisks. Only then, when the rioters carried Confederate flags, did they remember that they stand up for minorities against mobs, though they displayed precious little concern for the many minority-owned small businesses looted over the summer. The message is that blue lives matter and black lives matter—when convenient. To be fair, the feebleness of Democratic denunciations of left-wing violence has displayed a certain consistency. Their silence in the face of an attack by antifa activists on Democratic Party offices in Portland recalls an old headline in The Onion: “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.”
These examples of misconduct and hypocrisy on the left aren’t isolated. They’re part of a pattern.
If you’re on the left, perhaps this list makes you want to say that what the Right does is so much worse. “But Trump insults so many more people than Warren! But the 1776 Commission was just red meat for Trump’s base! But the Right has its own bevy of democracy-subverting experts! But climate change is so important! But the Proud Boys are terrible! But the police commit acts of brutality! But whatabout …!” All true. But if you react that way, then I have three questions. First, how do you think this list looks to someone on the right rather than on the left? Second, which is more troubling: the fact that you can supply right-wing counterexamples to everything on this list, or the fact that the list is so long and far from exhaustive? Third, and most importantly: How do you think Republicans justify their behavior to themselves?
When I began seeking out right-wing media in 2016 in an effort to understand why Trump won, it was an absolute revelation to me that they were just as scared of my side as mine was of theirs. Reading the comments sections in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal is like reading the same Mad Libs script, only with Republicans/Democrats and right/left reversed when filling in the blank: “Typical _____. They have no principles; all they care about is power, so that they can destroy America.” It shocked me that people on the right saw the Left as a well oiled machine—because that was exactly how I saw the other side, and precisely the opposite of how I saw mine. I thought Republicans played ruthless hardball; I honestly had no idea that they thought we did. Nor was evidence of their views hard to find. My failure to understand how the Right saw the Left clearly represented a significant cognitive breakdown.
I have some sense of how unpersuasive my arguments may seem to those on the left, because I used to bristle with fury when people made them to me. It seemed so blindingly obvious that criticisms of the left were exercises in false equivalence or whataboutism. I no longer feel that way, because I have come to believe that my reaction, multiplied millions of times over on left and right alike, is the road to national and moral ruin. What other ending is there to the story of universal unwillingness to examine one’s own conscience, coupled with dehumanization of the other side, besides political violence, authoritarianism, and civil war? Perhaps if I could believe that the Right has a near-monopoly on bad behavior, I’d think that ending was worth it. But I don’t: too many right-wing critiques of left-wing anti-humanism have too much evidentiary support. Perhaps if I thought there were problems in America that could be better addressed outside the processes of liberal democracy—for instance, through street violence—I’d think a civil war was worth it. But I don’t; liberal democracy offers by far the most promising and least inhumane way to solve our problems. So I want to start writing a story that ends differently than the one we’re currently playing out.
Of course, the Democratic Party, just like the Republican Party, remains a messy canvas. Not all Democrats are woke socialists, just as not all Republicans are Trump-worshipping members of the fundamentalist Christian Right. But the narrow-minded intolerance of wokeness reminds me of the narrow-minded intolerance of fundamentalist Christians, whose power in the Republican Party did much to make me become a Democrat in the first place. Moreover, the reluctance of the Democratic leadership to alienate the noisy, woke part of the Democratic base by empowering Never-Woke Democrats reminds me of the reluctance of the Republican leadership to alienate Trump’s base by empowering Never-Trump Republicans. In short, dehumanization isn’t just the vanishing point of the Republican Party; it’s become the vanishing point of the Democratic Party as well.
A Begging of Misery
While the bell tolls for Democrats as well as Republicans in the age of Trumpism, it tolls especially loudly for academia. Left-wing pathologies exist in their most concentrated form in academia and have emanated from academia, which thus bears a special responsibility for the rise of Trumpism. When I indict academia in this way, I do so as King indicted the church for its lack of support for the civil rights movement. He did not make his critique “as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church.” He made it “as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.” I love academia as King loved the church and criticized it to help it remain true to its values.
Healthy societies require healthy universities, devoted to freedom of inquiry for its own sake. They especially require healthy humanistic disciplines. I’m a history professor, and I love what academia is supposed to be: a gift that society gives to itself, a space with an unusual degree of insulation from market forces and pressures for immediate results, which in return is supposed to generate the knowledge and provide the education that a vital society wants and needs. The particular role of the humanities is to understand and explain what it means to be human. The particular role of the historical discipline is to try to understand and explain the past—the biggest database of human behavior that we have—as much as possible in its own terms, thereby protecting it from being used as a political football or abolished altogether.
When the diseases of dehumanization, intellectual incuriosity, and lazy thinking afflict society, academics are supposed to be experts at treating them. Instead, in our day, the academy has helped to spread the illness. In so doing, we’ve damaged the country, not least by convincing Americans to rescind the gift they’ve given to themselves.
All of the condescension, intolerance, hypocrisy, and dehumanization that exist on the left are supercharged in academia, where they ought not to exist at all. At every opportunity, academics proclaim their moral superiority over the people who pay their salaries. Collegiality has been redefined to mean not rocking the boat, rather than as upholding our fiduciary responsibility as trustees for scholarly and pedagogical standards on behalf of the public. Though we tenured faculty enjoy a degree of economic security of which the vast majority of Americans can only dream, we fancy ourselves populists and congratulate ourselves on our solidarity with the masses. From our position of safety, we are amazed by our own courage in speaking truth to power. We decry assaults on expertise as anti-intellectual while lecturing the hoi polloi on matters far beyond our scholarly expertise; then we complain that our credentials aren’t respected. Our bad behavior has corrupted the thin ivory line as it has the thin blue line, and it has driven the widespread impulse to defund the academy. That would be a cure worse than the disease, but we’ve sacrificed too much of the moral high ground to credibly say so.
Wokeness in academia bears a special responsibility for incubating the dehumanizing and self-defeating wokeness of the Left more broadly. Wokeness developed its characteristic blend of intellectual unseriousness and moral disaster inside the ivory tower. Woke academics insist on an inalienable right to self-representation, while using jargon that no one else understands and employing labels that many members of oppressed minorities don’t use to represent themselves.
Woke academics insist that historians can leap continents and centuries in a single bound; yet race, gender, and sexuality pose insuperable barriers. They suggest that members of historically privileged groups should be “allies” to those of historically oppressed groups, and also that when we observe someone across the great divide of race, gender, or sexuality being oppressed, we should stand by rather than attempt to speak on their behalf, for fear of misrepresenting them. These messages are incoherent.
The essential anti-humanism of the messages sent by woke academia is also dangerous for the country, in at least two respects. First, as the historian Christopher Browning wrote in Ordinary Men (1992), a deeply humane study of a German police unit that systematically massacred Jews during World War II:
Another possible objection to this kind of study concerns the degree of empathy for the perpetrators that is inherent in trying to understand them. Clearly the writing of such a history requires the rejection of demonization. The policemen in the battalion who carried out the massacres and deportations, like the much smaller number who refused or evaded, were human beings. I must recognize that in the same situation, I could have been either a killer or an evader—both were human—if I want to understand and explain the behavior of both as best I can. This recognition does indeed mean an attempt to empathize. What I do not accept, however, are the old clichés that to explain is to excuse, to understand is to forgive. Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving. Not trying to understand the perpetrators in human terms would make impossible not only this study but any history of Holocaust perpetrators that sought to go beyond one-dimensional caricature.
Put differently, it’s morally wrong and dangerous to let our species off the hook by saying that the worst among us aren’t of us. It’s equally wrong and dangerous not to learn as much as we can from the best among us. Representation and self-representation are inseparable; together they build our knowledge of what it means to be human, thereby enlarging our humanity. If scholars in the humanistic disciplines aren’t committed to these propositions, America has a problem.
Second, the anti-humanism of woke academics hamstrings their own ability, and that of the Left more broadly, to devise effective political tactics. This is a loss for the country, which needs a principled and politically competent Left. Strategizing is hard to do when you have no interest in understanding your opponents, whether because you loathe them or because, like Michel Foucault, you don’t believe there is such a thing as “human subjects” to understand. Here is how absurd the situation is: the U.S. military—an organization that exists literally to kill human beings if necessary—has about as strong an institutional commitment to humanism as do the humanities. While dehumanization of the enemy is an important part of military training, the armed forces work hard to empathize with and to represent their potential enemies, as in Red vs. Blue war games; the Marine Corps speaks of “turning the map around.”
Of course, this type of humanism is instrumental, whereas the humanities’ commitment to humanism must be principled. But the pursuit of humanism for its own sake generates collateral instrumental benefits that the Left desperately needs. It ought to intrigue activist woke academics that Foucault read Clausewitz. It ought to worry them that Clausewitz’s profound humanism failed to dent Foucault’s basic anti-humanism, which the latter concisely expressed in the phrase “Power is war, a war continued by other means”—a deliberate inversion of the former’s famous dictum.
The anti-humanist currents on the academic left are also anti-scholarly, and they threaten America by threatening the core values of academia and the humanities, just as the Right charges. What makes an intellectual space safe is a shared commitment to the proposition that no idea has a right to avoid scrutiny. Those belonging to historically privileged groups don’t get an exemption from having their ideas scrutinized, nor do those belonging to historically oppressed groups, partly because an exemption infantilizes everyone involved, partly because it precludes opportunities for mutual learning, and partly because no one, however oppressed, is not also an oppressor.
At the same time, treating broad swaths of ideas held by many Americans as so offensive to be unworthy of discussion discourages them from airing ideas for mutual examination, which might convince them their ideas are wrong. It would be difficult to overstate the chilling effect on freedom of speech and even freedom of thought caused by the pervasive threat of being labeled racist, sexist, homophobic, or—the special reward of those who belong to an oppressed group but question the tender mercies of wokeness—self-hating.
In the religion of scholarship, universities, especially their classrooms, are sacred spaces. Their openness is vital to social health, but rather than fighting to keep them open, academics are closing them down. When humanities professors brag on social media about not having read the latest columns by Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens, how can we be surprised at Americans’ collective unwillingness to engage in shared intellectual exploration with people they disagree with—or for that matter to read?
In particular, these currents on the academic left have weakened the scholarly standards that ensure historians’ ability to perform our proper social function. This effect is perhaps most evident in comparisons, which the academic Left has championed, of Trump to Hitler and the United States to Nazi Germany. Derived principally from an ideological desire to avoid being complicit in a new Nazism, rather than from a scholarly desire to understand the past as accurately and precisely as possible, this historical analogy threatens to produce exactly the outcome in the present that it most seeks to avoid. By encouraging Americans to believe they live in a state of emergency when they may well not, the comparison between Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s United States incites them to rationalize resistance by hating their opponents and violating liberal-democratic norms—and in so doing to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In fact, the United States is not, and has never been, a totalitarian or fascist police state. Probably the closest analogy in U.S. history, for sheer murderous impact on a population, was the annihilation of Native American tribes from the 16th through 19th centuries, which Hitler regarded as a blueprint for Aryan German expansion eastward in order to recreate the economic geography of the United States. But even this analogy has limits. Hitler relied on a top-down state capacity for murder created only in the 20th century. White settlers’ annihilation of Native Americans was a grassroots affair, facilitated but not initiated from the top. Moreover, despite a shared commitment to white supremacy, the ideological frameworks for these campaigns of mass murder were not the same. In the United States, the land greed of white settlers was inseparable from their commitment to a then-radically democratic political order for white men. Hitler loathed democracy, even for Aryan men.
As for the rest of U.S. history, there have always been—even during slavery, even during Jim Crow—too many competing power centers for the consolidation of power at the federal level on the scale required by police states, however much the power centers that existed, like slave plantations, resembled police states internally. It’s a fact that Nazi racial-purity laws drew inspiration from Jim Crow laws. It’s also a fact that the Jim Crow South did not systematically attempt to murder its entire black population. None of this is to render relative or indeed any moral judgment; historians’ job is to understand and explain.
Furthermore, the United States has always had too powerful a commitment to values antithetical to police states, such as freedom and democracy. That commitment, married to foundational constitutional freedoms, has enabled those oppressed by the United States to critique it in ways that those oppressed by fascist or totalitarian societies can’t. As King understood, correctly identifying whether a society is fascist or not is critical to the formulation of effective political tactics. “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest,” King said at the dawn of the Montgomery bus boycott. “If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a communistic nation—we couldn’t do this. If we were trapped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime—we couldn’t do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” King was correct, and if he could reach this conclusion in the America of J. Edgar Hoover and Bull Connor, the bar for reaching a different conclusion in today’s America should be high indeed.
The ultimate tragedy of succumbing to the essentially emotional, rather than scholarly, seductiveness of the analogy between Nazi Germany and today’s United States is that it threatens to produce exactly the outcome it seeks to avoid. From a scholarly perspective, another potential analogy from German history is the Weimar Republic. This analogy, too, is flawed; America hasn’t just come out of World War I, for instance, and its constitutional republic has been around for more than 240 years instead of fewer than 15. But as I look around and see Americans withdrawing into ideologically congenial bubbles and the ivory tower pulling up the drawbridge, this passage about Weimar political culture from Richard Evans’ 2003 magisterial history of the Third Reich haunts me:
The political milieux out of which these various [Weimar] parties had emerged had been in existence since the early days of the Bismarckian Empire. These milieux, with their party newspapers, clubs and societies, were unusually rigid and homogenous. Already before 1914 this had resulted in a politicization of whole areas of life that in other societies were much freer from ideological identifications. Thus, if an ordinary German wanted to join a male voice choir, for instance, he had to choose in some areas between a Catholic and a Protestant choir, in others between a socialist and a nationalist choir; the same went for gymnastics clubs, cycling clubs, football clubs and the rest. A member of the Social Democratic Party before the war could have virtually his entire life encompassed by the party and its organizations: he could read a Social Democratic newspaper, go to a Social Democratic pub or bar, belong to a Social Democratic trade union, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, go to Social Democratic festivals and plays, marry a woman who belonged to the same Social Democratic women’s organization, enroll his children in the Social Democratic youth movement and be buried with the aid of a Social Democratic burial fund.… [The] generation of political activists [who had grown up in these milieux] were too closely tied to their particular political ideology to find compromise and co-operation with other politicians and their parties very easy.… As in a number of other respects, therefore, the political instability of the 1920s and early 1930s owed more to structural continuities with the politics of the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine eras than to the novel provisions of the Weimar constitution.
Sound familiar? This passage suggests a reading of Germany’s interwar period—and of its potential implications for today’s United States—that differs from the one that currently predominates (not without critics) on the academic Left. Self-segregation by parties across the political spectrum, including the center-left Social Democrats, made it more difficult for the Weimar Republic to build a liberal-democratic political culture that transcended its Bismarckian and Wilhelmine roots. Street violence by the hard Left (the Communists—Weimar’s antifa activists) repelled many Germans, for whom the Nazis lay in wait on the extreme right. When Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, he moved decisively against the short-term threat posed by other political parties before the existential but longer term threat posed by the Jews. He reserved special viciousness for the parties of the left, making little distinction between Communists who had broken faith with liberal democracy and Social Democrats who had not. Dachau, the first concentration camp, was built for Communists and Social Democrats, not Jews.
This analogy suggests that the academic Left is reading interwar German history almost backwards: the “politicization of whole areas of life,” such as the academy, in response to a perceived threat of tyranny promises the end of the American experiment—and of the Left—not, as so many Americans seem to believe, its salvation.
The point here isn’t that the analogy to Weimar Germany is necessarily better than the one to Nazi Germany. The point is that the fear produced by the latter shuts down cognitive functioning and encourages analytical elision where precision is most needed, not only by scholars but also by all Americans. Its destructive effects may be glimpsed in many Americans’ tendency to regard their ideological opponents as Communists and Nazis. This would be all to the good if today’s United States had swarms of actual Communists and Nazis roaming around, but it doesn’t. What it has instead are Americans being encouraged—not just by politicians, but by academics—to see each other in the most fearful and simplistic possible terms. These are terrible habits of mind to be teaching. Low standards of academic scholarship encourage low standards of civic scholarship. Perhaps we might help Americans aspire to something better than a political culture stamped so deeply by the Second Reich; perhaps our failure to do so makes the Third Reich more rather than less likely.
In his Inaugural Address as Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, the late, great Sir Michael Howard, who earned the Military Cross leading an assault from the front against actual Nazis at Monte Cassino, explained the importance of rigorous scholarship in the fulfillment of the humanities’ vital social function. “‘Socially useful’ or ‘relevant’ history, whether consciously or unconsciously selected or tailored to meet contemporary social or political needs,” he maintained, “has no place in a university or anywhere else.” Nevertheless, “all this work must have some object, some aspiration in view,” he insisted.
If we as historians demand considerable sums of public money and battle for our quota of students it is not to enable us solipsistically to cultivate and refine our own perceptions and sensibilities. It is because we can, and should, claim to serve a more fundamental social purpose; and if we do not fulfil it things can go very wrong with our society indeed.
In his view, historians’ most fundamental social purpose was to communicate “the most sombre ‘lesson’ that the study of history has to impart; and that is, how vulnerable may be the social framework which permits the historian to ply his trade at all.” He closed with these words:
The freedom of historians to teach, study and publish as their scholarly instincts dictate … is itself the result of historical circumstances which historians themselves should understand very well; they should understand how fragile and fortuitous these circumstances can be. And this is a matter of which no historian can afford to be simply a dispassionate chronicler and analyst. However great his intellectual and moral detachment, in the last resort he is committed to the values, and to the society, that enables him to remain so detached. He is a member of the polis, and cannot watch its destruction without being himself destroyed.
Political activism is thus an obligation of scholarship, but it is activism of a particular type: commitment to scholarly standards. For scholars, these are not obstacles to political activism but rather the ideological guarantors of its most urgent form. Their replacement by alternative commitments—such as a desire to produce “socially relevant history” that prevents Nazism in America—makes scholars less likely, not more, to sustain the polis on which they depend.
In sum, the right-wing critique of academia gets one big thing correct: there is a deep moral rot within, even as threats gather from without. This moral rot, like the moral rot in the Democratic Party more broadly, is its own form of Trumpism. Indeed, I wonder if it isn’t the most dangerous form of all. If we in the humanities are so ill that we know not that the bell tolls for us, how can we help others to hear it?
An Excusable Covetousness
Mutual dehumanization is the path to human desolation on a scale that goes well beyond the unhappiness of our current moment. Democracies cannot survive when neither side is prepared to lose, and when the perception of an emergency makes both sides willing to sacrifice their principles but unwilling to compromise. Professed emergencies have a way of becoming real ones. Democrats and Republicans are fools if they think their parties can win or survive in a real emergency. Political violence destroys institutions, or it allows them to survive only in a morally debased form.
The only way to get off the path we’re on is centrism. This is a dirty word in American politics—and for political machines, a scary one. Tellingly, both sides speak with contempt for centrists, as though marauding bands of moderates are what threaten the American experiment.
It’s true that there is a negative form of centrism, defined by relative distance from the poles, that offers no succor. There’s also a form of moderation, like that lacerated by King, which is really moral cowardice. But I’m talking about a positive centrism, defined by commitment to bedrock principles of liberal democracy, even and especially when they don’t immediately produce the outcome we want. The bedrock principles of liberal democracy happen to be the same as the bedrock principles of humanistic scholarship, which are process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented.
By this definition of centrism, King, who defended extremism for love, was a moderate for sticking to his nonviolent principles, even though they promised only suffering in the short term. He not only sought to hold a center between opposing forces in the African-American community; he also identified and held the vital center of the whole American nation. This vital center can accommodate widely divergent policy preferences; King himself (contra his admirers on the right and critics on the left) had a radical political-economic vision. The key is that everyone agrees to play by the procedural ground rules of liberal democracy.
A prerequisite for getting off our current path is to understand that we chose to get on it in the first place. So much of what ails us is self-inflicted. We feel ourselves to be in the grip of macro-forces beyond our control, but they derive their power from millions of micro-choices we made. Jack Dorsey didn’t personally hold a gun to the head of everyone who signed up for Twitter, and Citizens United didn’t make you forward that glib political meme. Godless socialists don’t force conservatives to say “cry more, lib,” and neoliberalism didn’t force Elizabeth Warren to tell her “joke.” The dopamine hit that comes from the thrill of group viciousness is just more appealing than the hard work of trying to understand each other in all our complexity. The consequences ultimately result from our own human frailty.
I often suspect that I have much in common with many Trump voters. Most people, including me, just want a quiet life, I think. We are content to live and die, in Thomas Gray’s exquisite words, either “some mute inglorious Milton” or “some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.” Of course people have different ideas about what constitutes a quiet life, and those differences can produce great disquiet, especially when those who seek an unquiet life exploit them. Moreover, the desire for quietude tips all too easily into the acquiescence of King’s white moderate.
But it’s a vanishingly small number of human beings who wake up in the morning and go, “How can I be evil today?” (perhaps as few as those who wake up and ask themselves how they can serve the greater good). Most of us are just trying to survive, ideally with at least some ability to think well of ourselves. The human need to see our choices as good, even when what they really are is easy, drives our enormous capacity for rationalization, as well as our less enormous capacity to stop rationalizing.
I have no doubt that many Trump voters cast their votes on the mirror image of the rationalization that impels mine. I vote for the Democratic Party not because it attracts me but because the Republican Party repels me marginally more. My votes in 2016 and 2020 were not for Clinton or for Biden but against Trump. Trump simply could not have won election without people who are my political inverse, those who voted against Clinton rather than for Trump. He had to win the votes of people who are, say, 55/45 Republican, just as Clinton won my vote because I’m 55/45 Democratic. Ten points separate me from those people; 45 points separate me from those who are 100/0 Democratic. Naturally, the notion of a third party has a distinct allure, though whether it’s remotely viable or even desirable are fair questions—a third party, like abolishing the Electoral College, could well have unintended negative consequences. All I know is that when I look at the far Right and the far Left, I think, I don’t want to be governed by any of these people.
What I want in leaders is moral and intellectual seriousness. Their positions on discrete issues, even those of great importance to me, have become less of a concern as the realization has dawned that lasting victories on those issues are impossible without a nation to enjoy them in. By all means, our leaders should be interested in the grown-up questions of how and why we got where we are as a nation. But their squabbles over the childish questions of who is most to blame truly could not be less interesting—or more dangerous. They should be able to articulate a vision of America that acknowledges our history of dehumanization, but also our history of humanization; that recognizes the shared Americanness of urban and rural residents, conservatives and liberals, or Republicans and Democrats; and that appeals to the better angels of our nature. They should understand that all Americans are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of national destiny. They should be willing to stand up to their political base when they believe bedrock principles are at stake, and they should be prepared to lovingly accept the consequences. They should treat voters like grown-ups, which means representation when possible but the courtesy of dissent when necessary, rather than pandering. Of course, it would be helpful to have a populace that can tell the difference.
A hallmark of maturity, in both a person and a nation, is the willingness to live with moral complexity. When we build walls among ourselves for fear of moral contamination, should we be surprised that we elect a president whose signature issue is a wall? Our ability to accept moral complexity in others is tied to our ability to accept it in ourselves. An inability to accept it in ourselves is tied to an inability to accept it in others.
The borders between ourselves and others, like the border between human and God created by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, are necessary to have knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of others. That knowledge, like the border that creates it, can be destroyed either by hardening into certainty or by dissolving into nihilism. Its existence is at once the result of original sin and the only hope of redemption. The search for a middle ground between walls and open borders confronts Americans with our most morally and politically urgent task, as it does all humanity.
The bell cannot toll for Trumpism a moment too soon. But it will not until we all hear it tolling for ourselves.
Katherine C. Epstein is associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden. She received the ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Her research focuses on government secrecy, defense contracting, intellectual property, and the political economy of power projection.
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