I took the title from ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ a literary work recently adapted into a Netflix that you may or may not know. Not because of the book but because I can find no better way to title what I will discuss. The United States has suffered the confluence of a series of unfortunate events that have placed us all on the brink of a totalitarian abyss of material and moral misery, just when humanity could leave behind, once and for all, the secular poverty that has been the sad fate of most of our species, since the beginning of time.
It is a tragic paradox. At worst, we are living through the beginning of the end of Western civilization. And if so, we will soon witness the rise of barbarism and totalitarianism. And we got here, not because of a conspiracy of dark forces. They do exist, and are diverse and powerful, and they do indeed conspire when they must conspire to advance their agendas, but they are not capable of planning and executing such a thing.
Why? Because they lack the omniscience that a successful conspiracy would require over an unpredictable spontaneous order. And because they are varied, they confront each other, they influence each other, they attack each other at times, and others cooperate with each other. They are not a single centrally directed dark force.
There have been many unfortunate events. And they accidentally converge in a deeply unfortunate scenario for the cause of freedom. But I will limit myself to a couple of those that have brought us this far. For in the United States, two events occurred – and I say event in a vast sense – that might better be called processes – medium and long term – that by themselves would have caused harm, but far less than their accidental confluence caused.
The fatal accident was that they fed back on each other, magnifying negative effects in what I refuse to call -as good as it sounds- a perfect storm. It is anything but perfect. Precisely because it is far from perfect, there is hope. It is possible to resist evil. And to regain the path of freedom and prosperity – before us still open – on a scale until recently unimaginable.
The first unfortunate event was American academia’s takeover by neo-Marxists. It began in the middle of the last century. In the midst of the cold war between the USA and the USSR. A hostile but fertile environment for the astute neo-Marxists, with their exotic synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis, with touches of existentialism and orientation to the deconstruction of language itself, before anything else. But how and why a small group of exotic radicals with strange theories, despised by orthodox Soviet Marxism and the liberal academia -in the American sense of the term, were already radically different from the European or Latin American one.
How it came to develop and impose a whole new profoundly anti-American political culture in the best universities of the United States? Well, because they used the tactics of another totalitarian political culture, that of Soviet orthodoxy, to advance a strategy that orthodox Marxists saw as a ridiculously misguided “leftist” deviation. But with potential to weaken the political culture of the United States to which they disputed global hegemony. And they would support anything that could weaken the enemy from within.
The old progressive liberals were sympathetic to the efforts of academic ultra-left efforts to exclude conservatives from the University. And through tactics, practices, and theories of the philosophers of neo-Marxism emerged, little by little, the political culture of cancellation if the old-style liberals had not been -not only tolerant but complacent- with the advance of totalitarianism in the academy.
If they had not added to their ideological sympathy for the far-left and for them, the fascinating neo-Marxist verbiage of Frankfurt- the unconfessable motives of advancement for their own careers that the exclusion of conservatives granted them in more than one sense. Had they not felt invulnerable to the intolerable practices of the rising cancellation. It wouldn’t have happened. But it did happen.
And the few who remain liberal in the manner of traditional American progressivism, with lights and shadows, ranging from civil rights to racist eugenics -always poorly disguised and today more powerful than ever- suffer the cancellation as if they were conservatives. The rest – the overwhelming majority – long ago abandoned their old progressive political culture and adopted the new political culture of cancellation.
Their path began with Dewey, continued through Rorty, and finally reached Marcuse. Rorty, as Professor Eric C. Graf has reminded me, glorified the figure of the “activist academic” making way for Frankfurt, although at the end of his life “he was trying to change his tune and saw what was coming our way, he has to take some of the blame.”
But he would not have made it this far without a perfect target audience for his message, which was not the university activists of the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Those were not able to internalize the “liberating tolerance” that Marcuse proposed to them since 1965 -the cancellation begins with his essay “Repressive Tolerance”- but the generation of eternal infants, offended by reality itself, in a permanent and violent tantrum. Incapable of debating and refusing to listen.
And that generation came out of other unfortunate events—two in particular. For the upper and middle classes, the fad of overprotection and fear of traumatizing discipline made worse in the middle classes by being a generation raised in daycare centers. And in the lower classes, especially African Americans, the destruction of the nuclear family through perverse welfare incentives and the clientelism to which it gave way. A society comprised of spoiled children incapable of processing the slightest adversity, demanding from universities, companies, and government, the home they never had. Today, they are fanatical believers of those who promise it to them.