The Spread of 'Debate is Over' Syndrome

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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.

These are the same people who historically have identified themselves with open-mindedness and the defense of free speech, while conservatives, with some justification, were associated more often with such traits as criminalizing unpopular views – as seen in the 1950s McCarthy era – and embracing canonical bans on all sorts of personal behavior, a tendency still more evident than necessary among some socially minded conservatives.

But when it comes to authoritarian expression of “true” beliefs, it’s the progressive Left that increasingly seeks to impose orthodoxy. In this rising intellectual order, those who dissent on everything from climate change, the causes of poverty and the definition of marriage, to opposition to abortion are increasingly marginalized and, in some cases, as in the Steyn trial, legally attacked.

A few days ago, Brendan Eich, CEO of the web browser company Mozilla, resigned under pressure from gay rights groups. Why? Because it was revealed he donated $1,000 to the campaign to pass Proposition 8, California’s since-overturned ballot measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

In many cases, I might agree with some leftist views, say, on gay marriage or the critical nature of income inequality, but liberals should find these intolerant tendencies terrifying and dangerous in a democracy dependent on the free interchange of ideas.

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.

But what started as liberation and openness has now engendered an ever-more powerful clerisy – an educated class – that seeks to impose particular viewpoints while marginalizing and, in the most-extreme cases, criminalizing, divergent views.

Today’s clerisy in some ways resembles the clerical First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, which, in the words of the historian Georges Lefebvre, “possessed a control over thought in the interests of the Church and king.” With today’s clerisy, notes essayist Joseph Bottum, “social and political ideas [are] elevated to the status of strange divinities ... born of the ancient religious hunger to perceive more in the world than just the give and take of ordinary human beings, but adapted to an age that piously congratulates itself on its escape from many of the strictures of ancient religion.”

To be sure, there remains a still-potent camp of conservative ideologues, many associated with think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, and a host of publications, most notably the media empire controlled by the Murdoch family. But, for the most part, today’s clerisy in media and academia tilts in one basic direction, embracing a fairly uniform set of secular “truths” on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender, to the environment.

Those who dissent from the “accepted” point of view may not suffer excommunication, burning at the stake or other public rituals of penance, but can expect their work to be vilified or simply ignored. In some bastions of the new clerisy, such as San Francisco, an actress with unsuitable views can be pilloried, and a campaign launched to remove her from a production for supporting a Tea Party candidate.

Nowhere is this shift more evident than in academia, as evidenced in Mann’s civil action against Steyn. The climate change issue, one of great import and worthy of serious consideration, is now being buried by the seemingly unscientific notion that everyone needs to follow orthodoxy on an issue that – like the nature of God in the Middle Ages – is considered “settled,” and those who do not agree deserve to be pilloried.

But climate change is just one manifestation of the new authoritarian view in academia. On many college campuses, “speech codes” have become an increasingly popular way to control thought at many campuses. Like medieval dons, our academic worthies concentrate their fire on those whose views – say on social issues – offend the new canon. No surprise, then, as civil libertarian Nat Hentoff notes, that a 2010 survey of 24,000 college students found that barely a third of them thought it “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”

This is not terribly surprising, given the lack of intellectual diversity on many campuses. Various studies of political orientation of academics have found liberals outnumber conservatives, from 8-to-1 to 14-to-1. Whether this is a reflection of simply natural preferences of the well-educated or partially blatant discrimination remains arguable,but some research suggests that roughly two of five professors would be less inclined to hire an evangelical or conservative colleague than one more conventionally liberal.

Political uniformity is certainly in vogue. A remarkable 96 percent of presidential campaign donations from the nation’s Ivy League faculty and staff in 2012 went to Obama, a margin more reminiscent of Soviet Russia than a properly functioning pluralistic academy.

This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.



















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This can be seen in the

This can be seen in the elite’s indifference to the less affluent and educated Democratic base as demonstrated by their emphasis on the virtues of dense urban.192.168.0.1

I agree with some of what

I agree with some of what you say but not all of it. I agree on the Brendan Eich affair.

But things like climate change and evolution are decided issues by the people who actually understand them. There is no debate among climate scientists that climate change is happening, and a broad consensus on why. If I have 99% of climate scientists on the one hand, and Sean Hannity on the other, that is not a debate, and we shouldn't pretend like it is.

Everyone who actually understands the science says that climate change is greatly exacerbated by human activities, if not caused by it. On the other hand are a bunch of political ideologues and energy industry insiders who see a personal advantage in pretending that it is still an "open question." That is not a genuine debate. One side is legitimate and the other is not.

Is this tongue in cheek?

Snats

If you are being intentionally funny, then the humor is appreciated. But if not, you are unintentionally demonstrating EXCATLY what Joel Kotkin is calling out.

"there is no debate among climate scientists"-SIMPLY NOT TRUE

"99% of climate scientists on the one hand and, Sean Hannity on the other"-NOBODY is talking about that. In fact Sean Heannity is the right sided version of what Joel is talking about, an ideologue who is unwilling to truly debate.

"Everyone who actually understands the science"- DELIGITAMIZE THE OPPOSITE SIDE IN THE DEABTE. You disagree with me so you don't understand science.

"One side is legitimate and the other is not."- IS THIS HOW SCIENTIFIC DEBATE IS REALLY DONE THESE DAYS?

"IS THIS HOW SCIENTIFIC

"IS THIS HOW SCIENTIFIC DEBATE IS REALLY DONE THESE DAYS?"

Yes. You are mistaking scientific questions for policy debates. They work differently. Scientific "debates" are carried out by scientists using the scientific method to test hypotheses. Scientific questions are not settled by non-professionals having "open debate". They are settled by scientists.

If climate change deniers or rationalizers wish to participate in answering scientific questions, they need to become actual scientists. That entails getting PhDs in the proper field and working as scientists who study the subject in question. Then they can come up with competing hypothesis to the prevailing opinion and then test it to see if there is any proof to support that hypothesis.

There is nothing at all wrong the the scientific establishment, made up of actual scientists, looking at right wing politicians and pundits and saying:

"You simply don't understand what you are talking about on this scientific question. The science does not say what you claim, and no matter how many times you repeat it to your constituents or audience, that won't make it any more true. The only thing that would make it true is if you can present scientific proof, proven through the scientific method and peer reviewed by other scientists that backs up what you are saying. That is science."

There is no debate. On a scientific question, you are putting non-professional ideologues with an axe to grind, on the same playing field as professional scientists, and that is a fallacy.

Citing Allan Bloom would provide some perspective as well

He said in "The Closing of the American Mind," from 1987:

The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. ... The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. ... Openness--and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings--is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

...

It pays no attention to natural rights or the historical origins of our regime, which are now thought to have been essentially flawed and regressive. It is progressive and forward-looking. It does not demand fundamental agreement or the abandonment of old or new beliefs in favor of the natural ones. It is open to all kinds of men, all kinds of life-styles, all ideologies. There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.

...

Actually openness results in American conformism--out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here we can create all the life-styles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing. No longer is there hope that there are great wise men in other places and times who can reveal the truth about life--except for the few remaining young people who look for a quick fix from a guru.

...

If openness means to "go with the flow," it is necessarily an accommodation to the present. That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it. True openness [not what is touted as "openness"] means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present.

...

Selfishness thus becomes indignation and then transforms itself into morality. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture. And then comes the longing for the classless, prejudice-free, conflictless, universal society that necessarily results from liberated consciousness--"We Are The World," a pubescent version of Alle Menschen werden Bruder (All Men are Brothers), the fulfillment of which has been inhibited by the political equivalents of Mom and Dad. These are the three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love. Such polluted sources issue in a muddy stream where only monsters can swim.