Progressives and social justice warriors today are in the business of moralizing, which isn’t the same thing as being moral.
Dean Acheson, who orchestrated the Marshall Plan and helped create the North Atlantic Treaty Organizaation, had no use for moralizing in foreign policy. He once said that listening to pious Canadians discuss foreign affairs was like listening to the “stern daughter of the voice of God.”
His point was that there’s a big difference between being moral and moralizing. Being moral is about changing the way you act and actually helping others. It requires humility and tolerance because it arises from an awareness of one’s own moral failings.
Moralizing, by contrast, is about changing the way other people act—by force if necessary. Moralizing breeds intolerance and even tyranny because it springs from a belief that, like the pious Canadians, not only do you know the truth but you also have a solemn duty to impose it on others.
In America today, being moral is out and moralizing is in. Just witness the nonstop spectacle of moralizing everywhere you turn—from The New Yorker’s panicked denunciation of Chick-fil-A’s “infiltration” of New York, to gun control activist David Hogg’s boycotts, to the protestor with a megaphone shouting in a Starbucks clerk’s face.
The Apu Affair
Not even “The Simpsons,” which has been around for 30 years, is immune to the moralizers of our day. We’re told now that Apu, the beloved Indian-American owner of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart, is a hateful racist stereotype of Indian-Americans and should be removed from the show, preferably with a simpering public apology from the show’s creators. Comedian Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American, made an entire documentary about how he’s offended by Apu.
A recent episode of “The Simpsons” responded to Kondabolu with a scene of Marge reading Lisa a politically correct—and boring—bedtime story. At one point, Lisa faces the camera and says, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The camera then pans to a framed picture of Apu with the line, “Don’t have a cow!” written on it.
Kondabolu and other critics proceeded to have a cow, accusing the show of trivializing their problems with Apu and the supposed racism and negative stereotyping his character foments.
Nevermind that Apu, as Tunku Varadarajan recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, “represents the American trajectory of immigrant success and assimilation,” or that he’s been a beloved character on “The Simpsons” for three decades without provoking widespread outrage. The real problem with Kondabolu’s critique is that its entire purpose is to control what others do. He wants “The Simpsons” to purge Apu from the show, apologize for causing offense, and submit to his pop cultural prerogatives.
The moral response to such moralizing is to say that if Kondabolu and others are offended by Apu’s character, they should go create their own comedy show and leave “The Simpsons” alone. In that sense, the show’s muted response demonstrates one effective way to respond to petty moralizers: not with an apology, but with disdain.
How To Deal With Moralizing Student Protestors
For those of us who don’t run a beloved animated TV series, law professor Josh Blackman recently demonstrated perhaps a more effective way to deal with aggressive moralizers: engage them in debate and don’t back down, no matter what. That’s what he did when a bunch of law school students at CUNY tried to shout him down during a lecture about free speech on campus, of all things.
As Blackman explained on his blog, he walked past a gauntlet of homemade signs denouncing him as a white supremacist and racist. Once at the podium, he proceeded to engage “the one legal argument” the protesting law students had actually made: that legal objectivity is a myth. As Blackman expounded on that point, he writes (obscenity warning),
A student shouted out ‘Fuck the law.’ This comment stunned me. I replied, ‘Fuck the law? That’s a very odd thing. You are all in law school. And it is a bizarre thing to say fuck the law when you are in law school.’ They all started to yell and shout over me.
One student yelled at me, ‘You chose CUNY didn’t you. You knew what would happen.’ At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance of her question. The students apparently believed I picked CUNY because I wanted to be protested. This was the meaning of the ‘Don’t take the bait’ comment. To the contrary! I had never been protested before. I was shocked that a lecture about free speech would occasion such a protest. Yet, once I found out they were going to protest me, I was not going to back down and withdraw. The hecklers at this public institution would not veto my speech. I would stand there as long as needed to make my point.
That’s exactly what he did. Refusing to be silenced by the heckler’s veto, Blackman simply outlasted the students: “I started to make a comment about DACA, when the student standing immediately to my right said, ‘I don’t want to hear this.’ Then they started to exit. I said, ‘You want to go? Please leave, by all means.’ They began to exit.”
Most of the students in question had never heard of Blackman or his work. All they knew about him was that he supported, on legal grounds, President Trump’s decision to rescind President Obama’s executive order suspending the law for younger illegal immigrants. They likely had no idea he’s a brilliant legal scholar who has testified before Congress, written op-eds for every major newspaper in the country, and authored an acclaimed book on the constitutional challenges to Obamacare. Many of them were surprised to discover that while Blackman supports rescinding the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals order, he also supports the DREAM Act, a position he took the time to explain for them, despite the interruptions.
If CUNY were worth its salt, school administrators would have expelled every one of them for such a display. Instead, the dean of the law school defended the actions of student protestors, calling the protest “a reasonable exercise of protected free speech” that “did not violate any university policy.”
We see this now on campuses all over the country. Administrators, afraid of being the targets of such protests themselves, routinely coddle outraged, moralizing students and thus invite more of their bullying behavior.
Progressivism Is At Heart a Savior Complex
In the most recent edition of National Review I have a review of a new biography of Woodrow Wilson by Patricia O’Toole. The book — aptly titled “The Moralist” — is a withering chronicle of Wilson’s moralizing, from his days as a college professor to his ignominious departure from the White House.
Throughout his academic and political career, Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister and the father of American progressivism, was incessantly preaching at people. Once he wielded real power, he was willing to use it to silence his opponents and detractors, as he did during World War One. His belligerent sanctimoniousness was a direct consequence of an unshakable belief that he was right and if you didn’t see things his way you were either a fool or traitor.
After the war, at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson’s arrogance and moralizing became untethered from reality. O’Toole recounts one instance when Wilson “startled Lloyd George by observing that organized religion had yet to devise practical solutions to the problems of the world. Christ had articulated the ideal, he said, but He had offered no instruction on how to attain it. ‘That is the reason why I am proposing a practical scheme to carry out His aims,’ he told his fellow statesmen.”
George later wrote that, “Clemenceau slowly opened his dark eyes to their widest dimensions and swept them round the assembly to see how the Christians gathered round the table enjoyed this exposure of the futility of their master.” Imagine being so possessed of your own self-righteousness that you think you should propose “a practical scheme” to carry out the aims of Jesus Christ.
That, in a nutshell, is progressivism. It is hubris and conceit mixed with a tyrannical impulse, and it is one of the reasons we have so much moralizing in America today, yet so little morality.