The Coalition for Cultural Freedom

Column: Kanye West, Jordan Peterson, and the revolt against political correctness

Kanye and co
Images via Getty, Wikimedia Commons
May 11, 2018

On May 15, 1939, philosopher John Dewey issued a statement to the press announcing the formation of the Committee for Cultural Freedom. Attached were the committee's declaration of principles and the names of 96 signatories. The following day, at a meeting inside Columbia University's Low Library, the committee adopted its official manifesto. "Never before in modern times," the document began, "has the integrity of the writer, the artists, the scientist, and the scholar been threatened so seriously."

The committee's members included anthropologists, philosophers, journalists, dramatists, attorneys, educators, and historians. Politically, they ran the gamut from democratic socialists to New Deal liberals to nineteenth-century liberals who embraced the market without serious qualification. What unified them was their commitment "to propagate courageously the ideal of untrammeled intellectual activity." The "fundamental criteria for evaluating all social philosophies today," their manifesto read, are "whether it permits the thinker and the artist to function independently of political, religious, or racial dogmas." The basis for this alliance between such disparate persons, they continued, was "the least common denominator of a civilized culture—the defense of creative and intellectual freedom."

It was the existence of Popular Front groups who toed the Stalinist line in science, literature, social thought, and the arts that moved the committee's chief organizer, Sidney Hook, to action. "It seemed to me that it was necessary to challenge this massive phenomenon that was corrupting the springs of liberal opinion and indeed making a mockery of common sense," Hook wrote in his autobiography, Out of Step (1987). "I decided to launch a new movement, based on general principles whose validity would be independent of geographical or national boundaries and racial or class membership."

Hook's committee was the precursor of the international Congress for Cultural Freedom, convened in Berlin in June 1950, and the affiliated American Committee for Cultural Freedom organized in 1951. At that first meeting in Berlin, Arthur Koestler read from the dais the "Manifesto of Freedom," which held "as self-evident" that "intellectual freedom is one of the inalienable rights of man," and that such freedom "is defined first and foremost by his right to hold and express his own opinions, and particularly opinions which differ from those of his rulers. Deprived of his right to say 'no,' man becomes a slave."

The America of 2018, needless to say, is a much different place than the America of 1939 and 1951. Nazi Germany is long gone, extinguished in a war that killed 60 million souls. The Soviet Union disappeared 27 years ago, after a Cold War that lasted some five decades. Print media have collapsed and been replaced by digital and social media that limit the power of gatekeepers and extend the reach of minority viewpoints. If the late 1930s and early 1950s are the baseline, the world of 2018 is much more free.

But threats remain. Totalitarian systems in Russia, China, and their former Marxist-Leninist satellites have transformed, with the exception of North Korea, into systems of authoritarian control that permit some economic liberty while maintaining state sovereignty over politics, society, and culture. The authoritarians use "sharp power" to interfere in democratic elections, bully and exploit Western corporations and universities, and influence public discourse through information warfare. A renascent Marxism competes with, and to a large extent has been subsumed by, the ideology of multiculturalism and its attendant identity politics.

It is this ideology and politics that have captured America's most prestigious intellectual, cultural, and media institutions. The university, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and increasingly formerly "neutral" and "objective" platforms such as the New York Times and the Atlantic have come under the sway of racial and sexual dogmas and attitudes that brook no disagreement. Membership in these institutions, which play a crucial role in elite opinion-formation, and the social networks in which they are embedded, is contingent on agreement with or silence about certain ideas of "white privilege," patriarchal "oppression," "Islamophobia," and "gender fluidity." To dissent from these ideas—to exercise one's right to say no—invites not only anathematization from polite society but also the loss of one's job and, in some cases, physical threats.

Just as happened in the twentieth century, an unlikely group of compatriots has emerged to resist the contemporary domestic challenge to cultural freedom. Reading Bari Weiss's recent article on the "intellectual dark web," one cannot help being struck by the diversity of opinion and partisan allegiance among the renegade thinkers challenging political correctness and its stigmatization of arguments that violate its axioms of group identity, racial strife, and transgenderism. A stultifying intellectual atmosphere, in which the subjective emotional responses of designated victim groups take precedent over style, argument, and empirical evidence, makes for unexpected alliances. Who would have thought that Kanye West would become, in the space of a few Tweets, the most famous and recognized champion of individual free thought in the world today? Who could have anticipated that New Atheist Sam Harris would find himself in a united front with Jordan Peterson, who instructs his millions of acolytes in the continued relevance of biblical story?

The new advocates for cultural freedom are different from their forebears. They are more ethnically and sexually diverse. Practically all of them operate outside the academy. They are not self-consciously organized as a movement. To some extent, of course, this lack of institutionalization is related to present historical conditions. The mid-twentieth century was an era of bigness, of vast bureaus, of hierarchical corporations where political life, especially on the left, was divided and subdivided into party, committee, and cell. The early twenty-first century is too fractured, disaggregated, and anarchic for such precise construction and coordination. This is a time of weak relationships, of loose affiliations. People drop in and out of movements at the press of a "like," "Tweet," or "send" button. And because our media are unbundled, and the multiple means of personal expression so accessible, no one authority has monopoly power to distinguish reasonable dissenters from cranks. This creates an opportunity for the enforcers of political correctness, who are quick to associate the enemies they unfairly deride as racists with genuine ones.

What has come into being is not a committee or congress but a Coalition for Cultural Freedom. This wide-ranging assembly of critics opposed to the consensus that dominates the commanding heights of culture, entertainment, and media is neither centrally directed nor unified, not precisely delineated or philosophically consistent. But they do all believe in what Gaetano Mosca called "juridical defense," pluralism in opinion and institutions to guard against conformity and repression. And the fact that Kanye's heresy and Weiss's reporting were greeted with contumely, derision, outrage, and agony is evidence for the strength of such conformity, the desire for such repression.

Political correctness reigns in San Francisco, Hollywood, and Berkeley, it is making inroads into New York and the permanent bureaucratic government in Washington, D.C., but its position is insecure, unstable. The ferocity with which challenges to the ideology are met signifies not power but weakness. All it takes to end the hegemony of political correctness is to combat or ignore its will to intimidation. And that is happening. The simple truth is that people do not like being reduced to their skin color, and they hate being called racists. So they tend to abandon the figures and organizations that see them as nothing but biased, sexist, bigoted dullards who belong in a basket of deplorables. They may not voice their opinion to a pollster for fear of social ostracism. But they reveal their preferences through action.

Hillary Clinton can tell you as much. So can ESPN, and the NFL, and the Hollywood studios whose social justice masterworks are rewarded at the Oscars but not at the box office. Google and Facebook have also felt the backlash from censoring non-woke voices. Conversely, the success of American Sniper, Donald Trump, Jordan Peterson, and Roseanne has revealed the size of the audience willing to abandon the poses of political correctness for authenticity and disruption.

"The defense of intellectual liberty today imposes a positive obligation: to offer new and constructive answers to the problems of our time," wrote the authors of the Freedom Manifesto. "We address this manifesto to all men who are determined to regain those liberties which they have lost and to preserve and extend those which they enjoy." Those ranks included Sidney Hook and Arthur Koestler. Today they have been joined by Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, and, yes, Kanye West.