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The ‘Debate Is Over’ Syndrome



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In the Orange County Register, Joel Kotkin links Michael Mann’s recent litigiousness to the Brendan Eich case, to the president’s routine insistence that his progressivism is non-negotiable, and to the lack of diversity on campus. Together, Kotkin suggests, these tendencies translate into an ugly authoritarian impulse that has no place in a republic:

The ongoing trial involving journalist Mark Steyn – accused of defaming climate change theorist Michael Mann – reflects an increasingly dangerous tendency among our intellectual classes to embrace homogeneity of viewpoint. Steyn, whose column has appeared for years on these pages, may be alternatingly entertaining or over-the-top obnoxious, but the slander lawsuit against him marks a milestone in what has become a dangerously authoritarian worldview being adopted in academia, the media and large sections of the government bureaucracy.

Let’s call it “the debate is over” syndrome, referring to a term used most often in relationship with climate change but also by President Barack Obama last week in reference to what remains his contentious, and theoretically reformable, health care plan. Ironically, this shift to certainty now comes increasingly from what passes for the Left in America.

Once upon a time, the Left was pretty good on free speech issues. As Kotkin correctly notes:

This shift has been building for decades and follows the increasingly uniform capture of key institutions – universities, the mass media and the bureaucracy – by people holding a set of “acceptable” viewpoints. Ironically, the shift toward a uniform worldview started in the 1960s, in part as a reaction to the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the oppressive conformity of the 1950s.

In other words, free speech, skepticism, diversity of ideas, and respect for the minority view were useful tools for the Left when it was out of power, but, now that it holds the reins, they are deemed to be dispensable. Kotkin’s McCarthyism link is a reasonable one, I think. The argument for targeting communists was that their revolutionary views were such threat to the republic that, in order to protect liberty, one had to limit it. Ultimately, the arguments for declaring the climate change and gay marriage debates to be over take essentially the same form: thus do we see Mozilla’s PR mavens declaring that in order for their company to remain open and tolerant, it must purge those who don’t agree with its staff’s definition of openness and tolerance; and we see putatively liberal writers calling for the imprisonment of so-called climate deniers in the name of public safety. It is also why, closer to home, we see scientists suing journalists for criticizing them and their theories, and attempting to resolve in the courtroom questions that free societies and free people leave to the cut and thrust of civil society.

The tendency that Kotkin describes is not new, of course. Far from it: it has been the MO of those who would short-circuit debate since the beginning of time. The difference this time around is that those who would shut up their opponents have the gall to call themselves “liberals.”



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