PC Revivalism

Originally published in the 7 December 2015 issue of National Review.

The progressive resurgence that began sometime between Brendan Eich’s resignation from Mozilla and the burning down of the Ferguson QuikTrip has turned into something more than just another turn around the culture-war maypole. When the Confederate flag came down over the state capitol in Columbia — South Carolina! — that was a portent. When TV Land pulled The Dukes of Hazzard from its broadcast lineup over the roof decal on the General Lee, that was another. A cable channel that shows four hours a day of Gunsmoke reruns is not the Berkeley sociology department. Then the Memphis city council crossed the crucial messing-with-corpses threshold, voting in July to exhume from a public park, and relocate, the remains of a Confederate general and his wife. Two weeks later, protesters calling themselves the Commission on Religion and Racism attacked the grave with shovels because the contaminating couple had not been removed fast enough. Next time, said the ringleader, “we are going to bring the backhoe.”

College students were on summer vacation while these stories were unfolding, but obviously the campus Left was not about to yield its place in the vanguard of political correctness to the likes of the Memphis city council. The first campus to erupt once midterms were over was Yale, where, in default of more serious grievances, activists had fixated on making sure no one’s Halloween costume featured a culturally insensitive sombrero, kimono, or feathered headdress. On November 5, about a hundred students were gathered on the main quad chalking slogans (“Our culture is not a costume”) on the sidewalk when the dean passed by. He stopped to listen and ended up staying for three hours. “Please know that I have heard your stories and I’ll leave here changed,” he assured them. Flushed with this success, a group of students returning to one dorm tried the same gambit on their house master, who, like the dean, just happened to be walking by. But Master Nicholas Christakis refused to be cowed. His display of spine sent one girl into a meltdown, and camera-phone video of her rant found its way onto YouTube and from there into the New York Times.

After the scare comes the shakedown. The following Thursday, a coalition of student groups handed Yale’s president a list of demands ranging from the rococo to the baldly mercenary. In addition to things such as an ethnic-studies course requirement and the abolition of “master” as an administrative title, they asked for each cultural center on campus to get a $2 million top-up. That same day, a sit-in surrounded the Georgetown president’s office and pledged not to disband until, among other things, the university funded an endowment to recruit more “black identifying” professors. On other campuses, apologies were a popular request. Amherst Uprising, which posted its demands online, specified that President Biddy Martin must submit her apology for the racist nature of the school’s mascot “by Friday, November 13th, 2015 by 5:00pm” — no extensions! The ConcernedStudent1950 group at the University of Missouri specified that President Tim Wolfe’s apology should be handwritten. In the event, they got more than that — Wolfe resigned, as did Mizzou chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Dean Mary Spellman of Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after writing in an e-mail, by way of underlining her eagerness to meet with a Latina student who had sent her an op-ed about racism on campus, that “we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those thatdon’t fit our CMC mold” (emphasis added).

These convulsions have put some in mind of the campus unrest of the 1960s. In fact, they fit a much older pattern.

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Not since environmentalism has the prevailing variety of leftism more closely resembled a religion. John McWhorter calls it Antiracism — “it seriously merits capitalization at this point” — and notes that it has its own clergy in such men as Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates (friendly vicar and hellfire preacher, respectively). Casting his net more widely to include all talk of “privilege,” from male to cisgender, essayist Joseph Bottum has observed that the concept is functionally equivalent to original sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body that I have to choose every day to do anti-racist work and think in an anti-racist way,” said a graduate student whom Bottum was able to locate, sounding for all the world like a Calvinist explaining the T in TULIP. No wonder the guest lectureship that Yale offered #BlackLivesMatter quad-botherer DeRay Mckesson was in the divinity school.

Leftism has become a religion, and what we are seeing now is a revival. The revivalists testify from behind megaphones instead of pulpits and in “safe spaces” instead of country churches, but they stand squarely within the American tradition of converts who spread their gospel by bearing their witness. The way they keep bursting into tears is a clue. The Yale chalkers cried when they confronted the dean, the ranting girl cried when she confronted Christakis, audience members cried during a perfectly ordinary Yale Political Union debate on affirmative action. Ferguson was the same way. “There were a lot of people who were angry, a lot of people crying,” one protester recalled of Michael Brown’s funeral week. “There were a lot of people with backpacks and books saying the revolution is starting.” (That final dash of millennialism is entirely appropriate.) This is not a sign of fragility; this is part of the attraction.

Like the First and Second Great Awakenings, this revival spreads like a contagion on the strength of remarkable stories. In the days of Jonathan Edwards, a preacher could set the Connecticut River valley aflame by telling of mass conversions up in Northampton or a miraculous healing in Plainfield or a notorious free-thinker who had suddenly arrived at salvation over in Braintree. Edwards himself got a lot of mileage out of the incredible conversion story of his youngest congregant, Phebe Bartlet, age four. Some of these stories omitted certain deflating details (the mass conversions had been prompted by an outbreak of disease, say), and some are hard to credit. But there is not a single story in the annals of either Great Awakening, not a blind man restored to sight or a cripple made to dance the Highland jig, that strains credulity as much as the idea that on October 24, 2015, the Ku Klux Klan snuck into the third-floor bathroom of a Mizzou dormitory in order to paint a poop swastika on the wall.

The enthusiasm for personal denunciation that sets the present eruption apart from the usual PC background noise is a trademark of American revivals, too. When colonial congregations invited George Whitefield to preach for them, they quickly learned to ask in advance that he not sow dissension by denouncing local worthies by name. No one bothered asking Charles Grandison Finney to stick to generalities. One reason Finney was the most popular revivalist of the Second Great Awakening was that his audiences derived a certain frisson from knowing he would call out by name any deacon he’d heard was an adulterer and any shopkeeper he’d heard saying “dammit” in the street. An ordinary preacher who noticed an overdressed woman in the pews might pointedly take the day’s reading from Proverbs 31 and leave it at that. Finney glared at the unfortunate woman and asked her, in front of everyone, “Did you come in here to divide the worship of God’s house, to make people worship you?” Recounting the story in his memoir, he notes, “This made her writhe.”

Finney acted as if it were some great methodological breakthrough that he “said ‘you’ instead of preaching about sin and sinners and saying ‘they.’” He was more proud of it than of his more famous innovation, the “anxious bench.” But it’s not as if other preachers didn’t know that they could call down the 19th-century equivalent of a Twitterstorm on any parishioner they wanted. They just didn’t think it would be tactful. Tact, that pillar of decency, is not a principle so much as a truce. To break it, a person needs only to believe that he and his ideas are more important than other people. We all do this sometimes in the flush of passion — and sometimes we do it legitimately. When entire nations do it simultaneously — when bakers and tech CEOs and private conversations between NBA team owners and their mistresses are all placed outside the protection of civilized norms of live and let live — it is a sign that the flush has become a fever.

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What is behind all this? The same factors that gave us the late-’90s campus tantrum are partly to blame, since most have continued unchanged or gotten worse. Nothing paves the way for PC like ignorance, and the farther removed we get from the last generation to receive a proper education, the more ignorant college students become. Millennials have no idea that the rule of law and the presumption of innocence are older and more important concepts than intersectionality and white privilege. To them, they’re all just phrases that somebody made up, sometime before yesterday. They glibly refer to Amherst’s “legacy of oppression” and Yale’s “history of institutionalized racism,” but they cannot explain what they mean by those phrases. As far as I can tell, they just mean an institution existed prior to 1980. They are also more ignorant than ever of life outside the upper middle class, thanks to the increasing self-segregation of the classes that Charles Murray has identified in Coming Apart, and this ignorance leaves them ready to believe the most outlandish things about the marginalized groups they claim to champion. Sometimes when your cousin tells you he was literally minding his own business when the cop started hassling him you let it pass to spare his dignity, but these Belmont kids omit the grain of salt.

One new development is how easily administrators are caving. Why did the Yale girl’s expletive-filled tirade result in an apology from Christakis (“I’m genuinely sorry to have disappointed you. I’ve disappointed myself”) and not her immediate rustication? The rising college price tag surely has something to do with it: Students paying $50,000 a year feel entitled to throw their weight around. But the activists have also benefited from the same loophole that has protected every revival in American history: They can’t condemn you for getting serious about beliefs that everyone else is supposed to share.

There is not a single item on the Yale demand list that would be shocking to read in the alumni bulletin. Increased funding for mental-health services, naming the new residential hall after a person of color — did radicals write this or did the development office? A Georgetown professor spoke for more than just Catholics when he said of the sit-in, “This is what I teach.” People who are abnormally intense about their beliefs tend to make their co-religionists feel ashamed, but there is a world of difference between being a fanatic they are ashamed of and a purist they are shamed by. The latter is a sweet spot occupied by saints, prophets, holy fools — and now, social-justice warriors.

That is why there is a limit to how much can be gleaned from listening to what these activists say. Their slogans are drawn from the ideological air supply. They seize on whatever grievances are closest to hand simply for the sake of having a grievance. If it weren’t one damn thing, it’d be another — as can be seen from the way the latest contagion has jumped from campus to campus regardless of local conditions. The driving compulsion to complain is the phenomenon here, not the complaints.

This is also typical of revivals. By definition, a revival has no obvious cause. New enthusiasm for an old message seems to come out of nowhere, unconnected to anything like a war or a national crisis — people just get religion all of a sudden. Christian historians who have examined the underlying causes of revivals have been obliged to admit that, in a sense, their proximate cause is the Holy Spirit. In the same way, sympathizers claim that campus radicalism is fully explained by the reality of structural racism. But something makes revivals occur at one time and not another. Let us grant that the Holy Spirit (or the spirit of social justice, in this case) lights the flame. Something else piles up the tinder.

When emotions run this high, there is usually fear in back of it. Today’s college students have been raised to believe that they must navigate the world without assuming any shared values or bonds of community with anyone they meet, and that is enough to scare anyone. Attempts to quantify the Millennial mindset have uncovered a generation that is isolated (single people outnumbered married ones for the first time in 2014, and an increasing share of personal interactions are conducted online instead of face-to-face) and untrusting (Gallup and Harvard polls show rock-bottom trust in churches, Congress, the professions, and every other established authority in America). In her memoir, Lena Dunham quotes a friend complaining of a no-good ex, “How could someone who cares so much about social justice care so little about my feelings?” What I hear in that quote is a girl who is desperate for something, anything, that can serve as a reliable guide to who is a good person. Not an unreasonable thing to want in a world where you feel that no one’s good faith can be taken for granted.

Certifying that someone is a trustworthy person is precisely the role that evangelical religion served in the Second Great Awakening. It is no coincidence that the “burned-over district,” where Finney and his fellow revivalists had their greatest successes, was in upstate New York after the advent of the Erie Canal. The explosion of trade meant that people moved around a lot more. Towns such as Rochester started seeing population turnover of 80 percent in six years, and diaries of the period are full of complaints that you just don’t know whom it’s safe to do business with anymore. At the same time, cottage industry was being replaced by the factory model, which meant that instead of living in their masters’ houses as boarders, employees now lived in their own houses and their own neighborhoods. These two changes left the average upstate New Yorker’s social world suddenly denuded of people he felt confident he could trust.

The other common thread linking the various American revivals is the sudden disappearance of a longstanding mark of adulthood. The First Great Awakening started among the first generation of young New Englanders to be told that there was not enough land available for them to be given their own plots when they came of age. The Second Great Awakening coincided with a bigger upheaval than a land shortage: the final demise of the Jeffersonian dream. It used to be that even an unambitious worker expected to end his life on a homestead of his own.

Something similar is happening in our present culture. A college degree used to certify that a person had “made it,” but it no longer does. The result is status anxiety — which helps fuel the revival.

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If this latest spasm really is a kind of revival, is that a bad thing? To judge by their after-effects, revivals seem at first glance to be highly salutary. The First Great Awakening gave us the American Revolution, inasmuch as it was the first truly national event in the country that would become the United States, and the sense of common identity it forged would later flower into patriotism. As for the Second Great Awakening, it ended slavery. Abolitionism was in many ways merely a sequel to Finneyite revivalism, having taken from revivalism its personnel, its institutions (such as Oberlin), and its methods. The emotional excitement that the revivals inspired also whetted the northern public’s appetite for other forms of avocational righteousness that could provide the same moral thrill.

If each bout of national soul-searching translated into one chit labeled “resolve,” good for the elimination of one national evil, that would be a mark in revivalism’s favor. But really it was just a lucky fluke that the radicals of the 1830s had such a monumental evil to turn their sights on. If slavery had been abolished earlier, there just would have been that many more campaigners against Sunday mail, that many more members of the Oneida commune.

In his History of American Revivals (1904), Frank G. Beardsley calls the awakening that took place in the 1850s “a Providential Preparation for the Civil War.” “As the Great Awakening enabled the feeble colonies to pass through the baptismal fires of the American Revolution,” he explained, “so the Great Revival of 1857–58 served to prepare the people and sustain them in the fearful cataclysm.” In making a comparison to the revivals of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, Beardsley ignored the biggest difference between the two, a difference that makes any resemblance between our current moment and a religious revival cause for worry instead of hope. The First Great Awakening knitted a country together. The Second tore one apart.