Andrew Sullivan recognizes a “revolutionary moment” when he sees one as he points out in his latest piece for New York Magazine, as well as its attendant excesses. After noting the iconoclasm (as I point out), “confessions of iniquity”, and social policing, features shared by every radical revolution, e.g. the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, he turns to language:
Revolutionaries also create new forms of language to dismantle the existing order. Under Mao, “linguistic engineering” was integral to identifying counterrevolutionaries, and so it is today. The use of the term “white supremacy” to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word “women,” J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by “people who menstruate.” The word “oppression” now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word “racist,” which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called “structural racism,” which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.
And there is no escaping this. The woke shift their language all the time, so that words that were one day fine are now utterly reprehensible. You can’t keep up — which is the point. (A good resource for understanding this new constantly changing language of ideology is “Translations From the Wokish.”) The result is an exercise of cultural power through linguistic distortion.
So, yes, this is an Orwellian moment. It’s not a moment of reform but of a revolutionary break, sustained in part by much of the liberal Establishment. Even good and important causes, like exposing and stopping police brutality, can morph very easily from an exercise in overdue reform into a revolutionary spasm. There has been much good done by the demonstrations forcing us all to understand better how our fellow citizens are mistreated by the agents of the state or worn down by the residue of past and present inequality. But the zeal and certainty of its more revolutionary features threaten to undo a great deal of that goodwill.
The movement’s destruction of even abolitionist statues, its vandalism of monuments to even George Washington, its crude demonization of figures like Jefferson, its coerced public confessions, its pitiless wreckage of people’s lives and livelihoods, its crude ideological Manichaeanism, its struggle sessions and mandated anti-racism courses, its purging of cultural institutions of dissidents, its abandonment of objective tests in higher education (replacing them with quotas and a commitment to ideology), and its desire to upend a country’s sustained meaning and practices are deeply reminiscent of some very ugly predecessors.
But the erasure of the past means a tyranny of the present. In the words of Orwell, a truly successful ideological revolution means that “every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” We are not there yet. But unless we recognize the illiberal malignancy of some of what we face, and stand up to it with courage and candor, we soon will be.
As with prior radical revolutions no good will come of this one. The French who beheaded a king in 1793 accepted an emperor ten years later, setting the stage for a century and half of revolutions and wars in which they were repeatedly humiliated by the Germans.
Today’s would-be revolutionaries, like most of their antecedents, have little sense of irony. They don’t recognize the irony, for example, of a handful of blacks telling all other blacks what they should want or, worse, a handful of whites telling blacks what they should want. That irony was not lost on BET founder Robert Johnson who pointed out how meaningless removing statues of Confederate generals is to black people living in America today.