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The Takeover of the American Mind

• By Eric Kaufmann

Today's censorious victim culture is a product of the long identitarian march through the institutions.

Is today's leftish identity politics new? Actually, no. Its contemporary symptoms are just the latest spasm of a dominant ideology in Western high culture I term 'left-modernism', lashing out from the institutions where it is most deeply entrenched.

It isn't hard to find commentary pointing to the novelty of today's social-justice-warrior phenomenon. 'Although political correctness has enjoyed a much longer sway over academia', remarks Michael Rectenwald in Springtime for Snowflakes (2018), 'social justice as such debuted in higher education in the fall of 2016 – when it emerged in full regalia and occupied campuses to avenge its monster-mother's [postmodernism's] death and wreak havoc upon its enemies'.

Some even contrast contemporary 'snowflakes' with the more free-speech-oriented 1960s. This is the argument of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff's Coddling of the American Mind (2018), which, while acknowledging earlier phases of political correctness, emphasises the importance of a fragile 'i-generation', which considers words to be a form of violence and wants adults to keep them safe from uncomfortable ideas.

It's undeniable that a new lexicon – 'snowflake', 'trigger warning', 'bias response team', 'safe space' – has emerged since 2014. The epidemic of No Platforming of right-wing speakers has also taken off fairly recently. Diversity bureaucracies have expanded and become more proactive on American campuses, abetted by vague non-discrimination legislation like Title IX, which empowers left activists and administrators who wish to circumvent the procedural liberties of 'privileged' groups such as white men, or ideological opponents such as trans-exclusionary feminists.  

Yet, as one who first encountered political correctness in Canadian universities in the late 1980s, and vividly recalls the release of Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind in 1987, I am inclined to take a longer view. The therapeutic ethos noted by Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart (1985) and Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism(1979) informed what Nick Haslam characterises as 'concept creep'. That is, the broadening of the meaning of social psychology terms like bullying and prejudice, whose remit continually expanded to encompass progressively less serious behaviours. This was not conceived in an ideological vacuum, but drew strength – in part – from a progressive mission to achieve a 'kinder, gentler' society for the disadvantaged. There was also a non-ideological component, tied to the longstanding and commendable desire of affluent societies to reduce discomfort of all kinds and mitigate risks to children. This more materialist 'coddling' took place in households of all ideological stripes, be they evangelical Christian or liberal secular, whether in Japan or America.

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