America's rising "progressive clerisy," and the march toward McCarthyism

Is there anything more intolerant than the Tolerance Brigade? At the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin agrees with Bloomberg’s Stephen Carter on the rise of a new McCarthyism, this time imposing penalties for dissent from progressive orthodoxy rather than tolerating debate on a broad range of issues. Both use attempts to silence argument in academia as the flash point that exposes this thought-police mentality. Carter recently wrote about the attempts to intimidate Douglas Laycock, an opponent of same-sex marriage [see update], and explicitly invokes McCarthyism as the dynamic in play:


A law student and a recent graduate, spurred on by the advocacy group GetEqual, have filed freedom-of-information requests for his telephone and travel records, in what they describe as an effort at dialogue about what they consider the harmful effects of his views.

This description is implausible. If they wanted to talk to him, they could knock on his door. The effort is aimed at intimidation. They want him to shut up.

Laycock’s wrong is to have taken the position that there may be cases in which individual religious freedom should trump compliance with law — a view that, during Bill Clinton’s administration, was considered the liberal position in our politics. In particular, he has filed a brief in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., in the case challenging the federal government’s rule that employers with religious objections must nevertheless comply with the mandate to pay for birth control, and he wrote a blog post in the Washington Post defending, in part, the controversial Arizona legislation, vetoed by the governor of the state, that would have expanded somewhat the protection of the state’s religious freedom laws. (News reports insisted that the changes would have meant that a caterer, for example, could refuse to work the wedding of a same-sex couple; Laycock wrote that this wasn’t what the law said.)

Laycock’s approach to the constitutional issue may be right or wrong, but it’s well within the mainstream conversation of legal scholarship. The late Ronald Dworkin, often tagged as the greatest defender of liberal theory in the legal academy, argued last year in his final bookthat Catholic adoption agencies with religious objections to adoption by same-sex couples should have a constitutional right to disobey laws requiring them to violate their convictions.

But even when a professor holds opinions off at the far margin, to target him or her for intimidation is an affront to the freedom that makes the academy worth cherishing.


Kotkin blames this on a rising “progressive clerisy” that has formed at the highest levels of government bureaucracy, the entertainment industry, and academia:

In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.

An alliance of upper level bureaucrats and cultural elites, the Clerisy, for for all their concerns about inequality, have thrived, unlike most Americans, in recent years. They also enjoy strong relations with the power structure in Washington, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street. …

Today’s Clerisy attempts to distill today’s distinctly secular “truths”—on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender to the environment—and decide what is acceptable and that which is not. Those who dissent from the accepted point of view can expect their work to be simply ignored, or in some cases vilified. In the Clerical bastion of San Francisco, an actress with heretical views, in this case supporting a Tea Party candidate, who was pilloried, and lost work for her offense.

The pattern of intolerance has been particularly notable in the area of climate change, where serious debate would seem prudent not only on the root causes and effects, but also what may present the best solutions. Climate scientists who diverge from the warming party line, even in a matter of degree, are routinely excoriated by the Clerisy as “deniers” of “settled” science even in the face of 15 years of relatively stable temperatures. The media also participates in this defense of orthodoxy. The Los Angeles Times as well as the website Reddit have chosen to exclude contributions from skeptics.

The stifling orthodoxy from the technocrats and media elite is benign compared to the inquisitional behavior can be seen in institutions of higher education. It is nothing short of tragic, notes civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, that a 2010 survey of 24,000 college students found that barely a third thought it “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”


In an interview Friday with Sheila Liaugminas, I pointed this same dynamic out on the issue of same-sex marriage. What had been the consensus view of the definition of marriage for thousands of years up to less than a decade ago has now become not just a minority view, but according to the “Clerisy” prima facie evidence of pure bigotry itself. The traditional view of marriage is not merely wrong, according to those who support same-sex marriage, but entirely illegitimate. Debate on government policy gets squelched by threatening those who dare to dissent with either character assassination or career suicide merely for having a difference of opinion, and even when that difference of opinion does not threaten the current cultural consensus.

This is not tolerance, and it is not the impulse of people who value freedom and open debate. It’s the Robespierre impulse, not the Jeffersonian impulse. It’s the eventual end point of moral relativism, where consensus in and of itself is the ultimate and sole validation for a point of view, and enforced by those in power for their own ends. Orwell noted that in 1984 when the government kept changing the enemy: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia,” and “Oceania has never been at war with Eastasia.”

If we want to see where this model leads, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner gives us a sneak peek, via Fausta:

Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner has created a new post: secretary for strategic co-ordination of national thought.


Opposition leaders immediately derided the initiative, with some bristling over what they see as the post’s fascist overtones. …

“It’s pathetic and deplorable to designate a strategic secretary for national thought, as if those who aren’t Kichneristas are not national,” said Federico Pinedo, head of a conservative bloc in the lower house. “That’s old-style fascism.”

Even the idea of “national thought,” let alone a government ministry of it, steps down the well-traveled road of fascism and tyranny. This is what happens when dissent is punished and silenced because of its heterodoxy from “the consensus,” regardless of what context in which it takes place.

Update: Greg Scott of Alliance Defending Freedom points out to me via e-mail that Laycock is actually a supporter of same-sex marriage, which makes his persecution even more inexplicable — and makes the point even more strongly that any dissent from the Clerisy’s agenda will be suppressed.

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David Strom 4:30 PM | May 28, 2024