The truth goons and the closing of the American mind: A case study

Civil discourse has given way to the inflammatory howls of smug certitude.

The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York (photo credit: REUTERS)
The headquarters of the New York Times is pictured on 8th Avenue in New York
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In late April, Bret Stephens, a former editor of this paper, Pulitzer prize winner for commentary and 20-year alumnus of The Wall Street Journal, wrote his debut column in his new editorial home, The New York Times.
A frisson ensued.
Stephens – and his comments on climate change, which are both quite measured and thoughtful – were lacerated by the truth goons. You know, the self-anointed gatekeepers of THE TRUTH. The ones who so overcome with a progressive impulse that they cannot abide the utterance of any other viewpoint. The ones who fail to see the hypocrisy and dangerousness of their intellectual tyranny.
So. What did Stephens do to poke the progressive bear? He wrote about climate change, espousing the view that public discussion on this topic tends to sclerotic hysteria. Stephens recommended a calmer, less absolutist tone of debate, allowing for an opportunity to have a more reasoned discussion of the various aspects of this complex and contentious issue. Extremism, he suggested, does not encourage the honest and robust discussion such an important topic merits.
This was all too much for those who posture as the saviors of the planet. They brayed about his inaccurate didactic metaphors and downright shoddy deployment of scientific data.
In a New York nanosecond, Stephens was tarred, feathered, impaled, and, for good measure, drawn and quartered, having been convicted as a climate change denying Neanderthal. His presence in the pages of the Times was denounced as an assault on all that is decent and pure. Multiple platform rants ensued – demanding he be fired and, in the meantime, that all Times subscribers cancel.
A pox on free speech, whatever that is.
This latest collective panic attack eventually ran out of oxygen. But that does not in any way diminish its importance.
Stephens wrote another column. And another. The Times’s editorial leadership stood by their man, admirably explaining the merits of supporting an honorable marketplace of ideas.
Most disturbing about this episode is that it is symptomatic of a deeply troubling pattern. We, in the progressive West, seem to have embraced a culture of thuggish intellectual tyranny, consider it enlightenment. Civil discourse has given way to the inflammatory howls of smug certitude.
So-called “white privilege” is the essence of all that is bad, with Jews at the apex of this oppressive pyramid.
As a society, Western countries have been adrift, allowing this slow erosion of standards and principle to reach crisis levels. When someone of Stephens’s intellect and integrity, who is among the finest polemicists writing in the English language, is baselessly demonized as an evil ideologue determined to hasten the demise of the planet and all life on it, well, then, we have a problem.
Allan Bloom warned 30 years ago in his prescient book The Closing of the American Mind that higher education in the US was disconnecting from reality and bulwarking in arrogance.
In July 2016, the distinguished businessman, philanthropist, MIT graduate and intellectual Charles Koch elegantly summarized and updated the doom effect articulated by Bloom: “Education in America, and particularly higher education, has become increasingly hostile to the free exchange of ideas. On many campuses, a climate of intellectual conformity has replaced open debate and inquiry, stifling discussion... Dissenters are demonized, ostracized or otherwise treated with scorn and derision. This disrupts the process of discovery and challenge that is at the root of human progress.”
Today, we live with the outcome of that unchecked trend, which has spread beyond elitist campuses to much of the media and public policy community. “Progressive liberals” are prone to shutting down the discussion of ideas with which they disagree. They intimidate and shame with false smears and epithets. Put simply, the new progressives caricature anyone who disagrees with their jingoistic platitudes as oppressive ideologues and racists. It’s a package thing.
Even before he had walked through the door and penned his maiden column in the Times, Stephens was challenged, on Twitter, by one of his new “colleagues,” for supposedly espousing racist views in a past column. Completely unfounded, this gratuitous attack demonstrated that the accuser – a senior Times scribe – was unprofessional, unmannered and either disingenuous or simply did not understand the column he purported to impugn.
Extremism sells. Simplification sells. Nasty sells and captures 15 seconds of online glory. The intellectual universe of 140-character thought spasms prevails.
@newnasties. U behave more like fascists in #1938 or #1984 than enlightened Libs u claim 2 b. just sayin....
The author, former Canadian ambassador to Israel, is a senior fellow at the Jewish People and Policy Institute. She resides in Tel Aviv.