Who are the real liberals today?

What The New Republic's Osita Nwanevu misses about the new boundaries of debate

A protester.
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This is a revolutionary moment in American culture.

On one side, activists and employees are demanding fundamental change to overturn structural racism deeply embedded within institutions of journalism, education, and business. On the other, critics accuse the would-be revolutionaries of engaging in acts of illiberalism, including the silencing and firing of people who resist the proposed changes or even show insufficient zeal in enacting them.

So far, the fight between the two sides has generated far more heat than light. That's what makes Osita Nwanevu's essay in The New Republic, "The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism," such a welcome intervention.

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In defending the activist side of the dispute, Nwanevu's tone is high-minded, his reasoning clear and thoughtful. While critics of the activists frequently call the latter a "mob" or describe it in explicitly religious terms, Nwanevu makes a careful, deliberate, complex argument designed to show that it's actually the critics who are acting and speaking impulsively, reacting to events without deep thinking, intentionally refusing to see the reality going on around them.

As one of those critics (unnamed in Nwanevu's essay), I disagree. But it's important to clarify exactly why — to ensure that both sides keep the conversation going instead of merely talking past each other, with each side doing little more than bucking up allies and seeking to discredit opponents. In my view, Nwanevu is quite wrong to describe social justice activists as "expanding" the bounds of liberalism, since the aim of their reforms is a deliberate constriction of debate. It would therefore be more honest for him and his ideological allies to admit this and accept its illiberal implications.

I've been pointing to the illiberalism of the social-justice left since at least 2013. I backed off somewhat during the first couple years of the Trump administration, since it seemed a little peevish and an offense against proportionality to write frequently about the topic with the White House occupied by a man who regularly expresses contempt for civil liberties. But there have been events worth addressing over the past year or so. Roughly since the publication of the "1619 Project" in The New York Times last August, but especially since the newsroom rebellions began early last month, I've found myself led once again to call out the illiberalism of the activist left.

Yet as far as Nwanevu is concerned, those who hold my views are the ones guilty of illiberalism.

Part of the problem may be that Nwanevu is responding to weaker arguments made by some on my own side. He's right to note, for example, that the core issue has nothing much to do with "free speech" in constitutional terms, since no one is raising a threat of government censorship. But neither does it concern, as Nwanevu asserts, "freedom of association," including the freedom of a community — civil society, a newspaper, a corporate workplace — to establish its own standards, since no one is denying the legitimacy of that freedom.

As I've argued on other occasions, every community makes decisions about what ideas and attitudes to rule out of bounds — to treat some ideas as worthy of debate and others as unacceptable and warranting cancellation. What's distinctive about the present moment is that groups of activists are demanding to be given the power to make this all-important decision within certain institutions — and they are using this newfound power to shift (and often constrict) the lines of acceptable thought and discussion, ruling certain arguments (and the people who make them) out of bounds.

Why do I oppose this effort? It has nothing to do with public policy. I'm all for vigorous debate and personally support efforts to ensure that Black Americans and other minority groups receive equal treatment under the law and that police reforms address and rectify manifest injustices in law enforcement. But that's only a small (and peripheral) part of what Nwanevu discusses in his essay and what his activist allies are aiming for. What he and they are really concerned with is defending the view that American society is comprised of "intelligible, if often hidden, systems" of racial oppression, and rejecting the views of "reactionary liberal[s]" like myself, who see the country as "a jumble of bits and pieces — a muddle that defies both systemic understanding and collective action."

That really is the nub of the issue, though I think this is a tendentious way to describe the difference between the two camps. My criticism of the "1619 Project," for example, was focused less on the details of the various contributions and more on the framing of the project as an effort to tell the definitive, "true" story of America, with the history of slavery and its legacy sitting at its very core, decisively shaping everything else.

This was an activist move — an act of deliberate exaggeration, a flattening out of the complexity that Nwanevu dismisses as a "muddle" and a "jumble," a decision to focus monomaniacally on one (important) facet of the multifaceted American experience and warp everything else around it. It certainly wasn't an example of seeking to achieve what Nwanevu calls "parity" among various groups. It was an effort to make Black history the defining feature of the country.

The best one can say for the effort is that it's an act of intentional overcorrection: American history has for too long been told as a story focused on white people, so now we should tell it as a story focused on Black people. But that's not a way to achieve a more accurate understanding of the past. It's an act of replacing one form of distortion with another.

And this brings us back to the second-order issue — to the question of whether the activists fighting for control of decisions in the workplace believe this kind of criticism is acceptable, and hence worth publishing, at all. From his essay, it's genuinely hard to tell where Nwanevu comes down on the question. During an especially perplexing passage, he mocks New York Times columnist David Brooks for "surreal … condescension" in wondering, in the midst of an essay about Ta-Nehisi Coates's much-lauded memoir Between the World and Me, whether, as a white person, he had "standing to respond" critically to Coates' "experience."

When Brooks' column appeared, five years ago, it was possible to wave away such concerns. Today, after a series of forced resignations and firings at a series of media organizations, they cannot be. Yet Nwanevu dismisses them anyway — before quickly pivoting to expressions of admiration for two more recent columns from Brooks in which the columnist shows that his reading in Black history has "worked" on him, leading to a "conversion" to support for reparations for slavery and an acknowledgement that "moderates" have "failed Black America."

Brooks has learned. He won't be canceled.

But what if his reading hadn't "worked"? What if Brooks stood by or deepened his respectful criticisms of Coates? What if he continued to argue, as he did in that five-year-old column, that "this country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame" and that although "violence is embedded in America … it is not close to the totality of America"? What if instead of joining Coates in calling for reparations, he argued, as I have, that it's a proposal doomed to failure? Would he be allowed to make those arguments in The New York Times today? Or would he be risking his job in doing so — not because he would be severely criticized, which is assumed and expected, but because he would provoke a rebellion on staff and calls for his dismissal for refusing to adequately listen, learn, and adjust his views?

I want a public world in which Ta-Nehisi Coates is free to make his arguments with as much potency as he possibly can. But I also want a public world in which his critics can do the same without fear of crossing lines newly drawn. One argument. Then the next. And so on, down through the years. That's how we truly learn and grow as a culture — not by taking control of the boundaries of debate, narrowing them to verify our tidy certainties, protecting our sacred texts, and punishing those who dare to profane them.

I don't know if Osita Nwanevu shares this vision of a free, liberal society. I do know that many of the people on his side of the debate appear not to. And that he nonetheless believes that those who think the way I do are the ones guilty of illiberalism. Maybe one day, if the argument continues, I'll be able to persuade him otherwise.

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