Editors’ note: The following is adapted from Roger Kimball’s acceptance remarks at the Bradley Prize ceremony in Washington, D.C., on May 7, 2019.

Looking around the cultural landscape today, I conclude that we are in the midst of a sort of negative religious revival: let’s call it America’s First Great Awokening.

Evidence of our society’s wokeness—a false awakening sparked by political grievance—is all around. I’d like to begin with what the philosopher Nicholas of Cusa called the “coincidence of opposites.” Unpacking exactly what Cusa meant by that arresting phrase would take us into the thickets of metaphysical speculation. But we see pedestrian examples of that strange coincidence everywhere. Indeed, one of the great tests of our wokeness is the extent to which many things have mutated into their opposites—not awake but awoke. Inversion is a dominant principle of our social life.

Consider, to take just one example, the fate of our colleges and universities. Once upon a time, and it was not so long ago, they were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization. Today, most are dedicated to the repudiation of truth and the subversion of those values. In short, they are laboratories for the cultivation of wokeness. This is especially true, with only a handful of exceptions, of the most prestigious institutions. The tonier and more expensive the college, the more woke it is likely to be.

There are two central tenets of the woke philosophy. The first is feigned fragility. The second is angry intolerance. The union of fragility and intolerance has given us that curious and malevolent hybrid, the crybully, a delicate yet venomous species that thrives chiefly in lush, pampered environments.

The eighteenth-century German aphorist G. C. Lichtenberg observed, “Nowadays we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance.” Doubtless Lichtenberg thought he was being clever. How astonished he would have been to discover that he was a prophet, not a satirist.

Surely many of you have heard about the Twitter sensation Titania McGrath [about whom we had more to say in these pages in our April and May 2019 issues]. She is the author of many extravagant woke pronouncements. Item: “If you don’t think exactly the same way as me, then you’ve clearly got a lot to learn about diversity.” Satire? Or bulletin from the front?

The world recently learned that Titania’s real name is Andrew and that all those woke observations were in jest. A certain amount of hilarity ensued. But the serious point is this: McGrath’s sly tweets are indistinguishable from what is actually, seriously being propagated today in academia—and not only in academia. The mantra is “Diversity.” The reality is strictly enforced conformity about any ideas that might disturb the heavy moral slumber of wokeness.

And here’s an irony: when the free speech movement started at Berkeley’s Sproul Hall in 1964, it was a left-wing movement that demanded tolerance and challenged conventional behavior and mores. Today the Left espouses the opposite—not tolerance and free speech but conformity and censorship.

A couple of years ago at Encounter Books, I was proud to publish The Demon in Democracy by the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko. A prominent theme in that book is the persistence of totalitarian impulses in putatively liberal societies. Just a few weeks ago, as if to illustrate that thesis, Middlebury College suddenly rescinded an invitation to Mr. Legutko to speak. Why? Because a handful of student snowflakes decided that Mr. Legutko’s ideas were not in perfect harmony with their own.

Middlebury, of course, is the institution that covered itself in shame two years ago when protestors there loudly and violently prevented the social scientist Charles Murray from speaking and then, in the resulting melee, sent a female faculty member to the hospital. And here’s the kicker: Middlebury is not some wacko exception. On the contrary, its malignant embrace of woke identity politics is the rule in the American educational establishment, and, increasingly, in the American workplace.

The suppression of free speech by the wardens of wokeness has prompted many conservatives to champion free speech as an all-purpose antidote. I sympathize with that endeavor. But tonight I’d like to put the debate over free speech into a larger context.

The fact that the Left celebrated free speech in 1964 and now abominates it as a token of white supremacist ideology suggests the issue is not really, or not only, free speech. Like all freedoms, free speech is defined by the responsibilities it embraces and the culture in which it thrives. Some advocates of free speech maintain that, when it comes to the free expression of ideas, anything goes. No ideas, they say, should be off limits. They say that. But I do not think that they really believe it, since one can easily produce a long list of ideas that they would be horrified to see circulating.

The whole debate over free speech needs to be seen in the context of its larger purpose: its role in the metabolism of education, first of all, but also the place of education in the social-political dispensation of our country.

But that in turn suggests that the whole debate over free speech needs to be seen in the context of its larger purpose: its role in the metabolism of education, first of all, but also the place of education in the social-political dispensation of our country.

For assistance in making this point, I’d like to introduce you to a once potent, now largely forgotten political thinker named Willmoore Kendall. Kendall was an important mentor of William F. Buckley at Yale in the late 1940s. He was a founding editor of National Review. Leo Strauss said he was the most important political theorist of his generation.

Among other things, Kendall saw deeply into the dialectic of disagreement and free speech. It is understandable that conservatives should react to woke intolerance by celebrating free speech. The criminalization of policy differences that underwrites woke culture is an alarming development. But I think that Kendall was right when he contended that “by no means are all questions open questions.”

To explain this, Kendall points out that all societies are founded on a “consensus,” what he calls “a hard core of shared beliefs.” This is especially true, he notes, for the United States, whose founding principles are of recent vintage and are clearly and deliberately set forth. Freedom of thought and expression are important, Kendall acknowledges, but only “within limits set by the basic consensus.” Should that consensus be challenged by something “with genuine civil war potential,” the proper response is not debate but interdiction. Edmund Burke made a similar point in his Reflections on the French Revolution, as did James Madison when he spoke of “that veneration” for tradition—what he called “the prejudices of the community”—which even the wisest societies abandon at their peril. Abraham Lincoln, in his stalwart prosecution of the Civil War, demonstrated his agreement with Kendall’s insight.

When it comes to free speech, Jackson said, the choice “is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

Kendall was writing at a moment when international Communism posed an existential threat to the United States. With that in mind, he argued, “Some questions involve matters so basic to the consensus” that, in declaring them open, a society would in effect “abolish itself [and] commit suicide.” Accordingly, Kendall outlined two views of free speech. The first, dedicated to the proposition that “no truth in particular is true,” holds that all questions are open and that no one position is to be preferred to another. The second view, his view, turns on two words: “We” and “truth,” as in the phrase “We hold these truths” from the Declaration of Independence. The identity of that “We” and the substance of those truths mark the limits of interrogation.

Legal historians will note the similarity between what Kendall says and Justice Robert Jackson’s famous observation, in his dissent in Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949), that the Bill of Rights is not “a suicide pact.” When it comes to free speech, Jackson said, the choice “is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

When it comes to free speech, Jackson said, the choice “is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either.”

Conservatives have rightly lamented the assault on free speech that is such a conspicuous and disfiguring reality of life in America today. But that loss only achieves its true significance in the context of a more fundamental erosion: the erosion of that shared political consensus, that community of sentiment, which gives life to the first-person plural, that “We, the People,” which made us who we are. Should we lose that, we shall have lost everything.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 10, on page 1
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