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A Pathology of Institutional Decay
You all know O’Sullivan’s Law, from my friend John O’Sullivan? “All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.”
E.g., the Audubon Society, which is hopping mad at your favorite correspondent!
Goodness! You’d think someone representing the Audubon Society would know a canard, if nothing else, when he sees one. Part of my thesis is that the environmental movement is less about measurable real-world environmental outcomes and more about rituals of tribal affiliation and Kulturkampf politics.
So, Exhibit A, right there.
The Audubon Society wasn’t always a platform for feckless and rage-addled left-wingery. It once was an organization that welcomed environmentally interested people of different political persuasions and social outlooks. It pretends to be that still. (It even has a former Republican congressman on its board.) The Audubon Society’s path has followed that of far too many other important 20th-century institutions. The NAACP, founded a few years after the Audubon Society (now there’s a statement of American social priorities) once counted many conservatives among its members and leaders, Barry Goldwater prominent among them. But that was back when the NAACP was focused on its stated mission, advancing the interests of African Americans, rather than acting as an all-purpose Democratic machine component, which is what it does now. Back when Amnesty International was focused on the situation of political prisoners, William F. Buckley Jr. was on the board of its New York chapter, something that would be unthinkable in our time. The Southern Poverty Law Center has always attracted a hard-left element, but it was not always the irredeemably nasty nest of kookery and crankery that it is today. The Anti-Defamation League (which once sent me a sniffy letter for approvingly quoting a rabbi who didn’t share its executives’ cultural politics) has not always been the debased thing it is now. The American Civil Liberties Union wasn’t always full of baloney. Etc.
What causes institutions to fulfill O’Sullivan’s Law? That happens mostly through personnel decisions. Institutional drift isn’t usually random — it is pushed in one direction or another by the sort of people who are drawn to an organization or the sort of people and personalities an organization selects. Personnel trends end up being self-reinforcing, because jobs are filled mostly by social processes rather than by HR philosopher-kings looking at CVs and dispassionately checking off boxes. Institutional drift is non-random for the same reason the errors in the CBS News’s reporting about firearms policy are non-random: Bias is not a plot among conscious malefactors but an intellectual disability at the organizational level.
The desire to enforce social and political homogeneity within an organization through personnel action — the desire to intentionally institutionalize bias — is the basis of what we call “cancel culture.” It is neither surprising nor coincidental that the most important and high-profile cancel-culture episodes have been in-house headhunts (as at the New York Times and Yale) rather than the result of external pressure. Cancel culture is in no small part a result of organizational capture, the situation in which the people who are supposed to serve an institution use the institution to serve themselves, pursuing their own interests (financial, cultural, political, sexual) rather than the mission of the institution. This is a widespread and reasonably well-understood problem, but outside of publicly traded corporations (which take considerable pains to align management’s interests with those of shareholders and impose a reasonable degree of transparency and accountability on corporate management), very few institutions of any real social significance address such problems in a robust way. In many industries, including media and technology, management pursues precisely the opposite course of action, entrenching its own cultural and political interests with whatever tools are in hand. Apple just got rid of an employee who wrote a book that some other Apple employees didn’t like, arguing — this is by now tediously familiar — that its commitment to diversity requires it to exclude people who . . . think different.
Corporate human-resources departments are full of prim and donkey-souled enforcers of petty orthodoxies for the same reason mortuaries employ a relatively large number of necrophiliacs. People end up going where they already were inclined to go. I’ve never met a prison guard and been surprised to find out he is a prison guard.
The people who are attracted to nonprofits are a lot like the people who are attracted to journalism. (By “journalism” I mean print journalism and its digital equivalent — journalism in writing. TV people are a different breed entirely, failed actors and jumped-up sports announcers rather than failed novelists and aspiring politicians.) They are crusaders, even if they mostly are milquetoast crusaders, and the desire to be a crusader precedes and supersedes the commitment to any particular crusade. A few years ago, I was speaking with some students about working in journalism, and I asked one what she wanted to do after graduation. She said she hoped to work in a nonprofit. “That’s great,” I said. “A nonprofit doing what?” She hadn’t thought about that. “So, you don’t care what the organization does, as long as it doesn’t make a profit doing it?” She didn’t want to put it exactly that way, but, yes, that was it. That’s one expression of a particular, strange, but not at all uncommon cast of mind, which sees profit as evidence of exploitation rather than as evidence of social value created. From her point of view, “nonprofit” meant “virtuous.” And who wouldn’t prefer to do virtuous work?
People who take a different view of profit don’t often end up in journalism or nonprofits and, when they do, they frequently end up in explicitly conservative publications and institutions — O’Sullivan’s Law, again. The Philadelphia Inquirer does not bill itself as a left-wing or Democratic outlet, but its editors investigated my politics aggressively when I interviewed for a job there a million years ago — not as a columnist but as a copy editor.
The Audubon Society does not advertise itself as a Democratic front group — in fact, it advertises itself as the opposite. But, of course, it is run by Democratic hacks who are veterans of Senator Ben Cardin’s office, apparatchiks from non-environmental left-wing groups, former Democrat-leaning media people, former Gates Foundation people, and the like. The political contributions of the people associated with it (a useful but by no means perfect indicator) most recently ran 99.72 percent Democrat, according to OpenSecrets.Org. It’s woke, but, of course, never woke enough. (No one ever is — that’s the point of woke hysteria and the source of woke power.) Its magazine has taken on a more overtly political character, and its environmental activism has mutated into an all-fronts left-wing posture.
Becoming another left-wing cell among thousands of others more or less like it makes the Audubon Society less effective at its notional mission rather than more effective. But, of course, its stated mission is not its operative mission — its operative mission is to provide incomes and influence to its executives and staff, who typically lean more energetically left than do its board members as a whole or its supporters. That’s a typical pattern, too, notably in universities — even the university boards that are left-leaning to the point of actual goofiness seldom are as left-wing as the English department or the women’s-studies department. Such institutions end up being hotbeds of mediocrity because intellectual homogeneity and enforced conformism practically guarantee it. The unchallenged mind grows flabby from disuse at the institutional level as readily as the individual level.
An illustrative example of this mediocrity can be found in the case of David K. Johnson, “mixologist, professor” (his words) in the nation’s 127th-most-prestigious history program. (Don’t blame me, University of South Florida — you brought this on yourselves.) A few weeks ago, I gave a talk for the Benson Center at the University of Colorado, which has been hosting a series of discussions on cancel culture. I argued, as I have before, that this phenomenon is not particularly new, but that while many of my friends on the right denounce cancel culture as “neo-McCarthyism,” the scare it most closely resembles is not the red one but the lavender one — the anti-gay hysteria that convulsed the U.S. government, Hollywood, much of corporate America, and the service industry at the same time as the Red Scare and for related reasons. The effects of the Lavender Scare were much greater than the actual number of job losses and criminal prosecutions by themselves would have accounted for on their own, and this was by design. The point of the Lavender Scare was not to lock millions of people up on sodomy charges — punishment was only the easiest means to the end of terrorization. Terror was the point, not incarceration. It was a means of enforcing social homogeneity. Likewise, the point of bullying the New York Times into firing writers with nonconforming views isn’t to “silence” Bari Weiss — it is to terrorize other people with nonconforming views into never voicing them in the first place. It is a matter of making an example.
Professor Johnson publicly charged me with making a “misuse of history” in that argument. Because he is the author of a well-regarded book about the subject, I took his criticism seriously and wrote to him asking him to expand. Taking his criticism seriously turned out to be a mistake, which I suppose I should have foreseen. You will not be surprised to learn that he hadn’t seen the talk or read a transcript of it, that he is unfamiliar with my views and work, or that he based his judgment on — and this I could not make up — a blog post on a site run by “the co-author of UrbanMushrooms.com, which is an online guide to mushroom hunting in cities.”
University of South Florida meets urban-mushrooms guy: That’s about as low-rent an echo-chamber as you could come up with. But the Audubon Society is much the same thing with some legacy prestige.
(Personally, I have met more interesting mushrooms.)
We need institutions to do what the Audubon Society is supposed to be doing. We need institutions to do what the NAACP and the ACLU and Amnesty International are supposed to be doing. We even need institutions to do what the University of South Florida, in its stately C-minus fashion, is supposed to be doing. But we do not have them.
Whose interests are served by that? Meditate on the question and much will become clear and clearer.
Seemingly independent phenomena such as cancel culture, media bias, and campus madness would be better understood as manifestations of the same phenomenon: institutional failure following institutional capture.
Words About Words
A secondary irritation related to Professor Johnson of the nation’s 127th-most-prestigious history program: He calls himself @gayhistoryprof on Twitter. There is much that might be mined from the identity weirdness of that, but I’m here for the language trouble. Unpunctuated, “gay history prof[essor]” could refer to several different kinds of people: It could describe a heterosexual professor whose area of expertise is the Stonewall Riots, it could describe a gay professor whose scholarship focuses on Gettysburg and Bull Run, or a gay professor whose interest is in the histories of gay people.
Wondrous things, hyphens.
Stopped cold by an Andrew C. McCarthy sentence, a reader asks: What’s up with viz., and why not just use the more familiar i.e.?
From McCarthy: “And the stated objective — viz., to prevent Congress from acknowledging the states’ certification of their electoral votes — was a blatant violation of constitutional principles of federalism that conservatives revere.”
You’ll get conflicting accounts of these from Fowler’s and the OED, among others. Some will say there is functionally no difference between the two, others insist that there is a useful subtlety there. My experience is that the people who write viz. are mostly lawyers, because the abbreviation — from the Latin videlicet, “it may be seen” — is conventionally used in judicial writing.
I.e., from the Latin id est, “it is,” is much more common, and commonly misused where e.g. — exempli gratia, “for the sake of example” — is called for.
So, viz. is lawyerly. In general, you don’t want to write like a lawyer who is not Andy McCarthy, because other lawyers are generally ghastly writers. About half of the American lawyers who can produce a really good paragraph already write for National Review, and most of the other half eventually will, too.
I.e. is best used as a simple restatement of what comes before, where you might otherwise write, “which is to say.” I relied on my only means of transportation, i.e., my trusty Schwinn. Viz. more often is used to introduce a more expansive or comprehensive restatement, where you might write “namely,” especially if there is a sequence or list involved. His itinerary took him through four capitals, viz. Paris, London, Bern, and Brussels. Or: He was in error on three points, viz., the logical question, the historical question, and the arithmetic.
Many guides advise avoiding both i.e. and, especially, the uncommon viz., on the grounds that readers will find them jarring. I think it depends on the kind of writing you are doing: If I were giving detailed instructions to a deliveryman about how to find an out-of-the-way location, I probably wouldn’t use either. But if I’m writing something intended to be read for pleasure, I might use either one as appropriate, for the same reason I sometimes use uncommon words — that’s part of the fun, and it is not burdensome for contemporary readers to look things up, one of the few compensations for the displacement of printed material by the digital.
For similar reasons, I like that the New Yorker uses diaereses in words such as coöperation, and I would very much like to bring back the two-words-and-a-period-and-italics version of “7 per cent. solution.”
Also, starting next week, this newsletter will be produced with hand-set type and sent out by messengers mounted on ponies.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
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By way of further introduction, I will now quote a remark made to me by the who-shall-remain-nameless then-president of the American Historical Association, when I met him at a symposium back in my student days just after the Second World War: “Ah,” he said, limply pressing my hand, “Blum, did you say? A Jewish historian?”
Though the man surely intended this remark to wound me, it merely succeeded in bringing delight, and even now I find I can smile at the description. I appreciate its accidental imprecision, and the way the double entendre can function as a type of psychological test: “‘A Jewish historian’ — when you hear that, what do you think? What image springs to mind?” The point is, the epithet as applied is both correct and incorrect. I am a Jewish historian, but I am not an historian of the Jews — or I’ve never been one, professionally.
Instead, I’m an American historian — or I was.
Help wanted. Badly.