Robert P. George is an Ivy League academic who self-identifies as conservative, and is revered among right-wing partisans as a defender of intellectual liberty. In a recent address at the Western Conservative Summit, George spoke on what he perceives to be a cultural crisis of his time. As reported by National Review:
“Courage for conservatives today means refusing to be bullied or intimidated into acquiescing to, or silently going along with, the dogmas that the progressive movement, via the exercise of its extraordinary cultural power, is attempting to force on us,” George tells National Review. “Courage means boldly speaking truth to cultural (and economic) power — out loud and in public.”
Conservatives’ reluctance to assert themselves has allowed leftists to define the boundaries of acceptable thought. “Courage means standing boldly in solidarity,” George says, “with those whose rights of conscience are trampled by cultural elites deploying the coercive power of government to force them to conform to progressive ideological orthodoxy.”
It also means defending those who have been unjustly criticized and smeared with false accusations. “I agree that many Republican leaders have failed to defend people who have been smeared, and that certainly created an appetite for a leader who would push back and fight hard,” George says. “I’m certainly in favor of speaking out — forcefully, loudly — in defense of people who have been smeared with false charges of bigotry, ‘animus,’ etc. That’s central to my message.”
Perhaps George’s message resonates, I am sure, for the few professional academics who identify as conservative yet move regularly in standard academic circles. The academy and the arts lean left, after all – and usually have. Yes, there are occasionally outliers, such as those intellectuals who allowed themselves to be courted and used by the Nazi regime, rather than coming under attack and being silenced, as were most of the intelligentsia at the time. There are the occasional artists who promoted fascism while still, somehow, being good artists (Ezra Pound, I’m looking at you). And what passes for “the left” in US circles is neither notably left nor especially homogeneous – while the people who identify as conservative in the US political arena are not in fact conservative at all; they are right-wing populists, libertarians, and ethno-nationalists.
But for the moment, let us pretend that the grid laid out on the western ideological scene by George and his allies is correct. Let us accept the “conservatives versus the left” paradigm they espouse when discussing their culture war. Even if we do so, there is a problem.
The view from the Ivory Tower
George’s alarmist rhetoric could only seem relevant to a right-winger ensconced in an ivory tower of economic, geographic, and academic privilege. Within these narrow purlieus, it is true that right-wingers – the demographic that has provided a safe space to creationists, geocentrists, climate science deniers, homophobes, MRAs, and overt white nationalists – are an endangered species. But only there.
If George or those who follow him were to step out of their bastions of privilege and interact with people in ordinary working-class America they would find a very different challenge. True, they might be mocked here for their bow-ties or looked at askance because of their fancy cars. They might find a species of gritty “masculinity” of the type they love to extol in essays but would probably find frightening and confusing in daily life. I am an oddity: a feminist scholar in a working class community, dealing with these masculinities on a daily basis, but I can not really imagine the sheltered academic conservatives fairing well out here. But this is not a world in which progressive ideologies are being pushed, either – or in which “conservative” voices are being silenced.
On the borders, immigrant families are being torn apart. Children are being abused, some even dying. ICE is raiding homes, imprisoning citizens, and deporting people to countries where they have never lived.
A radically libertarian capitalist agenda is being pushed through in the world of economics. Protections for the environment are being lifted. People are working longer hours for less pay. A living wage is an impossible dream, for many in the working class. If we try to promote sane centrist programs that would give us the kind of ordinary, decent quality of life enjoyed in nations regularly rated as happiest, we are called radical leftist communists. Education and arts are losing funding.
Sexism still flourishes in the tech world, in religious circles, in sports, and in pop culture. When I drive out of my world of coal mines and cow pastures into nearby urban areas, I am not automatically stepping into a culture of progressive bias in which I am guaranteed never to hear a racist or homophobic slur. It is a mistake to assume that racism is a problem only for these “backwards” rural types; it flourishes quite well in respectable middle class families in the suburbs and cities.
The president of the United States, regularly uses sexist, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric in his tweets and speeches, and his followers eat it up.
The Right Wing is Dominant
While we have made tremendous strides forward in the areas of racial justice and gender equality, in recent decades, we still had far to go, even before this tremendous pushback began, and in other areas – economics and environment – we had already lost ground. Overall this is not a culture in which the radical left, or even a moderate left, has won. In the universities, in the arts, and in some branches of politics, a centrist left is pushing back against a far-right movement that bears too many similarities with other far-right movements that have caused such horror in our recent past. Those of us who oppose this movement, even from a conservative or moderate perspective, are being labeled radicals.
If you want to find true courage among conservatives, the tweed-clad tenured prof who uses his privilege to denigrate trans students or advance ethno-nationalist ideology under the guise of “the classics” is not the hero we need – is not the hero anyone needs. Courage means standing boldly in solidarity, George states. And this is true. But to be courageous right now, especially as a conservative, is to stand boldly in solidarity with those who truly are victims, not with the powerful who are alarmed because they’re seeing some of their privileges eroding in rarefied scholarly spaces.
Step outside the academy, right-wing academics. You’ll find that the biases you are afraid to express among the “elite” are only the more Latinate echoes of the slurs and jokes bandied about here every day among the masses.
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