The New Neo-Conservatives
Bari Weiss sketches out the principles of a new political movement that that spreads disinformation in the name of free speech and truth
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Yesterday, Substack pundit Bari Weiss published a talk she gave to the inaugural class of students assembled at the University of Austin (UATX). This private, unaccredited startup was founded and is staffed by contrarian intellectuals plucked from across the intellectual and journalism worlds. Under the title “The New Founders America,” Weiss calls for a cultural counter-revolution. This movement, she argues, is designed to displace “illiberal ideologies” forged on the left that dominate legacy institutions. Admittedly, this gambit is a bit of a switcheroo: words like “illiberal” usually refer to right-wing populists like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orbán.
The solution to this “illiberalism”? Be a “founder”: leave the old institutions and found new ones, like a Substack or a new university in a state where women’s reproductive rights are on life support.
But being a “founder” also means subscribing to a set of principles that Weiss lays out very clearly: it’s hard to summarize them here, but it is worth reading. It is a manifesto of sorts, one that, like the Cold War liberals who became neo-conservatives in the late 1960s, advocates for centrist and liberal intellectuals embracing traditional values. She means everything from standardized testing to the binary gender system.
“Thus the efforts to do away with the SAT, or the admissions test for elite public schools like Stuyvesant and Lowell,” Weiss writes,
for decades, the engines of opportunity that allowed children of poor and working-class families to advance on their merit, regardless of race. Or the argument made by The New York Times’ classical music critic to do away with blind auditions for orchestras.
In fact, any feature of human existence that creates disparity of outcomes must be eradicated: The nuclear family, politeness, even rationality itself can be defined as inherently racist or evidence of white supremacy. The KIPP charter schools recently eliminated the phrase “work hard” from its famous motto “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Why? Because the idea of working hard “supports the illusion of meritocracy.”
In this revolution, skeptics are recast as heretics. Those who do not abide by every single aspect of its creed are tarnished as bigots, subjected to boycotts and their work to political litmus tests. The enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism.
What we call “cancel culture” is really the justice system of this revolution. And the goal of the cancellations is not merely to punish the person being canceled. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next.
I want to make it clear that the only reason I know about Weiss’s manifesto, and you don’t, is that I subscribe to and pay for her newsletter, despite the fact that she rarely writes it anymore.
Instead, Weiss uses her prestige to platform contrarians, often obscure ones, who are flouncing away from elite research institutions and private schools. Why? Because, as they charge, what used to be institutions of learning and culture are now engulfed in what they call “wokism,” which means excessive, almost parodic, concerns about social inequality and discrimination that don’t really exist. These opinion pieces make largely unvetted claims that the writer has suffered harm from gender warriors, critical race theorists, and Title IX officers. There is a standard narrative: “This thing happened to me ——> the culture is collapsing and the world turning to $hit.”
Let me be clear: I have no time to hate-read anything, and I support Bari Weiss with my hard-earned dollars because she is part of a movement whose members believe that social change itself, and people who criticize them for their views, are threats to their free speech.
And because I, too, care about free speech, this movement worries me, not because it doesn’t have legitimate concerns, but because it runs on rumors, conspiracism, and purposely unresolved issues generated on both sides. So, for example, was tenured Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz fired because he had a consensual affair with an undergraduate, discouraged her from seeking counseling because he feared the affair would be uncovered, and then maybe lied in the investigation? Or was he fired, as his attorney Samantha Harris (who I know and would say is an honorable woman) because, in this 2020 article for Quillette, printed in the middle of the George Floyd protests, Katz wrote this:
The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.
The answer to this question matters, and Princeton ought to have done a better job of resolving it. Why? Because if Katz manipulated a student he claimed to care about and then lied during the investigation, this is legitimate grounds for dismissal. If he was fired for writing and publishing something, that punishment violates free speech and is worthy of our concern. Instead, Katz’s wife, Solveig Gold—also a recent Princeton graduate—has taken over the narrative, most recently in the New York Times, as the pair say goodbye to Tigerland and hello to the American Enterprise Institute.
These issues are very tangled, and the more so, frankly, because they involve something I care about—free speech—that has been highjacked by people I find culturally snobbish and massively self-centered. Weiss and her fellow founders are also ignorant and closed-minded about many things they wish to have authority over—like the sex-gender system, what constitutes a good education, or the nature of American racism.
But what clears up the confusion is that if you care about free speech, you should care about it universally, and they don’t. For example, before Weiss’s awakening, she reflected,
I watched from the sidelines as women like Abigail Shrier and J.K. Rowling said wild things like: Hey, biological men and biological women probably shouldn’t share a prison cell. Or maybe a 15-year-old is too young to decide on her own sterilization. These women weren’t thrown on a pyre but they were humiliated. They were threatened and slandered.
Whatever you do or do not think of these issues, however, they are a distraction. What Bari Weiss is not telling you, before taking a cruel, unnecessary (and largely unfactual) position about who is and is not a woman, is that J.K. Rowling had already been censored for some time by activists on the right, not progressives. Before the recent rash of book bans, and long before she started opining about trans women, Rowling’s Harry Potter series was at the top of the list of books banned from schools and public libraries in the United States.
Why? Because, in the words of one Catholic priest in Tennessee who consulted with an exorcism expert before he made this decision for his own parish school, “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
This episode was in 2019: three years later, there is a full-on assault on libraries and librarians about which Weiss has nothing to say. Politicians have purged hundreds of volumes from library shelves on the spurious grounds that books on race teach white children to hate themselves, and books about sexuality and gender make the young vulnerable to the sexual advances of adults. Who are these adults? According to Republican activists and the states of Florida and Texas, they are LGBT teachers and librarians who use these books to “groom” their victims.
Again, Weiss, an out lesbian, has nothing to say about this immense challenge to free speech and freedom of thought. Nor does she seem to care that librarians who stick defend the right of young people to read books on these topics are being personally threatened and fired. According to a recent article in The New York Times, librarians “have been labeled pedophiles on social media, called out by local politicians and reported to law enforcement officials. Some librarians have quit after being harassed online. Others have been fired for refusing to remove books from circulation.”
You won’t hear about these things in Bari Weiss’s Substack or at UATX—but you will read about private school math teachers who believed that teaching was a sacred occupation before administrators told them to take an annual antiracism training. Nor have I noticed an invitation of employment from UATX extended to Lora D. Burnett, fired from Collin College in 2021 for tweets that a Republican member of the state legislature didn’t care for. One tweet described Vice President Mike Pence as having a “demon mouth.” Others criticized the college for forcing faculty back into the classroom early in the Covid-19 pandemic, even though professors were getting sick, and one died of the disease. So much for free speech.
Weiss also seems uninterested in a Florida law that went into effect on July 1, similar to others across the nation, banning speech about race, gender, and sexuality in K-12 public schools and taxpayer-funded universities. University of Central Florida associate professor Robert Cassanello, who teaches African-American history, has filed a lawsuit stating the obvious: the law makes it impossible to mount courses in the subjects he was trained in and hired to teach without actively lying to students about the nation’s past. Should he try to do his job honestly, he may lose his job. According to the Washington Post, “the board of governors for Florida’s public university system took initial steps Thursday to approve regulations for enforcing the law, with potential penalties including discipline and termination for employees who do not comply.”
Here is my point: a movement that cares about free speech for me and not for thee is neither a free speech movement nor a campaign to promote truth, as Weiss maintains.
Weiss’s UATX talk should be an alarm bell about what is at stake here, not just for free speech but for spreading disinformation into the higher education and intellectual ecosystem. Neo-conservatives had their own institutions, but they did not seek to blow up the existing ones. The Founders, if that is what they are planning to call themselves, represent a political movement that is positioning itself to take over education in the wake of state and local governments dismantling public education as it has existed for generations.
Promises, promises: as Elizabeth Bruenig points out at The Atlantic, actually supporting childbirth and children might address the economic reasons many people seek abortions, but the “pro-life” movement has only become more narrowly focused on regulating the procedure itself. Although “American pro-life activists have had decades and plenty of encouragement to tackle the privations—poverty, poor housing options, and limited access to child care,” Bruenig writes, “that seem to precipitate many abortions, their attention has instead remained obdurately trained on regulating the practice of abortion itself, through legislation codifying (inter alia) term limits, specific clinic conditions, and burial requirements for fetal remains.” (July 9, 2022)
Talk about unintended consequences: according to Jhair Romero of the Houston Chronicle, urologists in that city are seeing a 50% uptick in vasectomies as Texas adapts to a post-Roe world. One clinic, Houston Metro Urology, was “already working on opening a vasectomy-only clinic on Saturdays before the Supreme Court’s ruling, but talks have accelerated, and [it] will likely open in the next few months because [the chief operating officer] expects the trend to keep up through the end of the year.” The procedure takes about ten minutes and can be done on an outpatient basis, in case you are wondering. (July 8, 2022)
How do we parse the calls for pro-abortion protesters to leave Brett Kavanaugh alone? Conservatives bellow that the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (who lied in several ways to get there, but no matter—the Founding Fathers lied too!) has a right to his privacy, whether in his home or at a fancy DC restaurant. This principle is, ironically, what Kavanaugh helped to eviscerate in the Dobbs decision for Americans seeking abortions and potentially those seeking birth control and marriage to a same-sex partner. But if we are looking for irony, Jill Filipovic notes, we are ignoring the history of privacy itself. “What ties all these issues together, though, isn’t just the fact that the cases securing them are bound by the same legal theory (although that’s also true),” Filipovic writes at her eponymous Substack. “It’s that each of these rights represents an important step away from the enforcement of male authority in the home, and male dominance outside of it.” (July 8, 2022)
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