Editor's note: This episode was released on November 18. Its transcript was provided by Jeremiah B. Leonard, to whom the SFRB is grateful.
The 'regressive left' is gaining steam among American progressives, which Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago who blogs often about politics and religion, believes is bad for genuinely liberal causes. What is going on here and why is it so important for the future of politics in this country? Coyne explains on this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried.' Coyne's blog: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.... SEE more interviews HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
COTTO: The regressive left. What is it, and why is it a problem? Jerry Coyne explains on this week’s episode of Cotto/Gottfried. Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, is a biologist by trade but he writes a great deal about politics and his writings have attracted no shortage of attention. He believes that many people on the left, of which he is a part, often betray legitimately-progressive principles in order to make a point with certain groups that they believe will vote for them because of generally-speaking identity concerns. This matter opens up a can of worms that’s a bit too complicated to get into here, but you’ll hear a lot about it momentarily. I’m your cohost Joseph Ford Cotto, editor in chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. My cohost is Paul Gottfried, head of our editorial board.
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COTTO: When people talk about the regressive left perhaps a few different things come to mind. But Jerry, what do you think is the central theme of regressive leftism, at least today?
COYNE: Well, another word — I’ve taken this from my computer keyboard — the Ctrl Left, which might be better than regressive. Another word is authoritarian left. They all mean the same thing. They mean the brand of leftism that is intolerant, is fractious, wants to dictate to other leftists what the correct position is, the left form that creates this sort of hierarchy of oppression and which if you’re higher up in the rungs, that is more oppressed, then you’re able to dictate to other people what they’re able to think, and people below you aren’t able to contradict you or even say anything sometimes. So, it’s a sort of fractious left in which the authoritarianism is manifested as some people dictating to others what is right thought and what isn’t.
GOTTFRIED: I’d like to ask Jerry, could he give me an example of a non-regressive left; the kind of left that presumably he would like to see take the place of the regressive one?
COYNE: It would probably be the left that I had grown up with in the sixties. I mean, I’m an old guy now but I came of age in college, and between 1967 and ‘71 I was a leftist. I went to DC and participated in all the antiwar rallies and anti-racism rallies. I got arrested for sticking letters on the door of the South African embassy. I was a draft counselor — that kind of left. I remember the left then as being not divisive so much. People might have had their differences in opinion like the difference between Martin Luther King on the one hand and the SNCC — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the other where one of them was in favor of civil disobedience and peaceful protest, that was Martin Luther King, SNCC was more violent, but those differences were hedged out in private and there wasn’t this sort of desire to dictate to other people about what the rest of everybody’s views should be. So, like King for example, I would consider him as an example of a non-regressive left. He was a guy that wanted social progress, but he didn’t spend his time calling out people for wrong-think. He did stuff. Another characteristic of the regressive left I should add is that they spend most of their time on the Internet telling other people what to do, what to think, how to behave, and they really don’t enact any form of behavior that creates social progress. So, they’re called keyboard warriors for example. Well King was the antithesis of that, I think. So, there were many like that, like him I think.
GOTTFRIED: The problem I have with this distinction — as somebody who has been writing on political theory for over forty years — is that I’m not sure that I can think of a left which does not become regressive once it takes power. The left, out of power, may be tolerant and may favor a free speech movement. Once it takes power anywhere at anytime — and here, I can think of very few exceptions — it will then proceed to impose its will of those who disagree, and usually is interested in carrying out some kind of vast social project which could only be achieved through coercive means. So, what you’re describing is the left before it achieves success.
COYNE: Yeah, except the right has achieved success now. And they’re not — well, I guess you could say they’re using coercive means — but I don’t see the sort of splintering of the right, even though they’re in power, the way the left is splintered now when they’re out of power. So, what I see now — as somebody who’s on the left — is that the fractiousness of the party that’s out of power is preventing us from getting any power. So, I would much rather have a fractious left in power than a fractions left like we have now who can’t even get power because we’re derided by the right because we look foolish to many people because the vast majority of Americans don’t like political correctness.
COTTO: I think that the left of your youth when it was out of power from what I can tell, it matched up with the qualities you’ve mentioned. But now, even with the left out of power it’s not at all like what you’ve mentioned. So, there definitely has been a shift in what constitutes I suppose mainstream behavior among people on the American left. Jerry, what do you think caused this more than anything else? It doesn’t seem to me like it was one thing at one time. Maybe more like a certain process that took place and metastasized into what we see today.
COYNE: Yeah, well I can only speculate on that. And again, I’m just a poor country biologist. Not a sociologist or political expert. I defer to people like John Haidt. He’s written books on this and with Greg Lukianoff trying to analyze the problem. I see the problem most acutely at the college level because that’s where I work and that’s where I spend my days. But I think it’s a microcosm of what’s happening amongst the left in America as a whole, Haidt and Lukianoff’s view is that the children of the people in college now have been brought up — and I don’t know why this is the case — have been brought up by the helicopter parents.
When I was a kid and I came home from school, even at the age of like seven or eight I would just get on my bicycle and ride out. Go meet my friends I walked everywhere. Nowadays you can be taken to court for letting your kids do that. It’s pretty widely agreed I think that parental care now is a lot more hovering, it’s a lot closer to kids, a lot more attentive than it used to be. And maybe that’s good to some extent. Except that I think that children — the statistics show that kids are less threatened now than they used to be, like kidnapping’s down — well, maybe that’s a result of this. But if you’re brought up with the view that you’re always being monitored, that you’re special — when I was a kid, and you were at the science fair and you won, you got a blue ribbon, but the other kids didn’t get blue ribbons. Now everyone gets a blue ribbon, everybody’s told they’re special. You can’t help, I don’t think, but internalize that kind of ethos until when you get to college kids are entitled. I’ve seen this in my three decades teaching here — that the students have become far more entitled. They feel more entitled to get A’s than they used to. Sometimes they’ll bring their parents with them when they want to ask you for grades which I find coercive and offensive actually. And this change has definitely happened, and I think it’s one of the reasons why the left has become regressive. And I think the media organs of the left have become regressive because these college kids move up to places in the New York Times … stuff like that That’s just one speculation and it’s not mine really, it’s John Haidt’s.
GOTTFRIED: You did raise a point that I find of personal interest. I’ve written on the post Marxist left in Europe. I wrote a book on fascism. I’ve written several books on the American conservative movement. And I think you’re right. The right has not splintered the same way that the left has. And there’s a very good reason for it, which I discuss in my books on the conservative movement, that is because the right is run on the basis of Stalinist principals. It has been purging dissenters since the 1950s. That’s how the conservative movement stays together. I was one of the purge victims. I was on the right, and in the 1980s I criticized the neoconservatives, and I thought of that on foreign-policy they sounded insane. As a result, I lost my place in the conservative movement. I was not allowed to write for National Review or other conservative magazines again. And was even pursued professionally. I Had people like Norman Podhoretz calling up The Catholic University of America when I was being considered for a graduate professorship in classics. In the end he said such things about me I was kept out of the job. But this is the way the conservative movement has operated. The left does not have this kind of internal discipline. The communist model has been taken over by the conservative movement — this is what I argue. But the left is more fractious, but also quite coercive. If they take power, they want to have transgendered bathrooms, in every public building they go ahead and they do this. And then the media comes out for this and so forth. So, I think coercion is simply part of the modus operandi of the left when they take power.
COYNE: But it’s also the modus operandus when they don’t have power. If you look at the college campuses now — I’ll just be brief, because I interrupted you and I’m sorry — if you look at the disinvitation database which is run by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, or, F.I.R.E., they keep a record of every speaker at every college in America that’s been disinvited or deplatformed. It’s pretty amazing. If you start in the 1980s and you work your way to today, you’ll see that in the last seven years it’s gone from an almost even split of people on the right and the left making people deplatformed — it’s almost exclusively the left making people deplatformed. So, that’s a form of coercion as well.
GOTTFRIED: No, you’re definitely right. You’re definitely right. But the thing I find interesting is — as a scholar or research scholar writing on political movements is you don’t have Marxists or socialists anymore, contrary to what you hear on Fox News. The left, as I’ve argued in my books, is a post-Marxist left. It’s a cultural-Marxist left. It’s interested in identity politics and victimology and so forth. It is not a genuinely socialist left, which the left was at one point in the — it was for most of its history. But I think in the last thirty to forty years there’s been a transformation. It’s into cultural reconstruction, and it has become quite coercive in cultural matters. Whereas before the left was generally tolerant in intellectual — as long as they were out of power, they were quite tolerance. Even in power they weren’t that intolerant. But they favored economic transformation. Now it’s cultural. It’s cultural coercion you’re getting.
COYNE: The reason for that, I mean you know one reason but I’m not at all sure that’s the reason, it’s a fascinating phenomenon that people need to analyze. I just remember a different feeling when I was in college from when I — on campus now. In the sixties we were wrong but we really thought we were going to change the world. We were going to make a just, better world. That was the feeling. And we would go to these demonstrations there would be everybody — blacks, whites, poor, rich people. And we’d all feel like we were brothers and sisters. And you just don’t have that anymore. You have people sniping at each other. You have different groups wanting their own safe spaces, their own dormitories. It’s almost back to segregation. I just discovered the other day there’s like five or six well-known American colleges where they have ethically-segregating dormitories, which is exactly what Martin Luther King was fighting against.
GOTTFRIED: No no, you’re absolutely right. I am old enough — I’m already seventy six— I remember and I was on the right back then, but I never disliked the people on the left. I thought they were idealistic. Many of the leftists at universities where I taught were serious students. They came, they studied, they read, they studied foreign languages. Now the leftists — or the people claiming to be leftists where I’m teaching— were not particularly scholarly, they were not particularly interested in books. They’ve become more intolerant, and far less intellectual than they used to be.
COYNE: Yeah, I agree. Although the right of course is notably intolerant as well. What we have are two groups that aren’t interested in discourse anymore. That was visible at the Kavenaugh hearings when each side was trying to score points. They weren’t really interested in getting to the truth or reaching across the aisle. I don’t even know if reaching across the aisle is possible anymore. It’s kind of sad.
COTTO: It seems that the left of your youth was aspirational whereas the left of today is confrontational. It’s more defined by what it stands against, and that’s how it finds unity, as opposed to standing for something that brings people together behind a common cause that they think will really be productive.
COYNE: I think that’s a pretty astute statement. Confrontational instead of aspirational, that’s a good meme as you might say. But yeah, I think you’re right. And I just despise this fractiousness. I spend a lot of time on my website criticizing my own side, the left. And the reason I do that is not because I’m a right winger, but because everybody knows that Trump is the worst president we’ve had in living memory if not ever. And the newspapers and media spend the time criticizing Trump, well I don’t need to join that chorus. There’s nothing to be gained by it. But there is room for people to criticize the left. I don’t get much traction because people don’t listen. But I just figure people need to point out when this kind of mishigaas goes on.
COTTO: Do you think that people on the left in time will continue down the path they’re on, or do you think that they will reverse course? Where do you see things going?
COYNE: Well, that’s a prognostication I can’t really make. I just read this study the other day on political correctness and how Americans feel about it. And I was a bit heartened by that because eighty percent of Americans feel that political correctness is a serious problem. That’s a huge chunk of America. And with that view and of course political correctness is largely a phenomenon of the left. I don’t think there is a political correctness on the right, even though as you say they enforce a kind of unanimity of opinion. So, I forgot, what were we talking about?
COTTO: Political correctness on the left as opposed to it not being on the right.
COYNE: Yeah, so I read this study the other day where they surveyed Americans where they thought political correctness was a problem or not. And eighty percent of them thought it was. That’s a huge swath of the American public. And as I said political correctness is a phenomenon I think mostly of the left. When you think of what’s PC it’s what leftists are trying to enforce. So, with that many people feeling uncomfortable about it, I think that there’s a possibility of a swing towards the middle.
GOTTFRIED: I really wonder whether we’re not reading too much into that eighty percent. Because people will say, “gee, I’m against political correctness,” but the people who say they’re against it very often have a very specific kind of political correctness in mind, but don’t mind the rest of it. And if you say, “well, the right does have political correctness,” they have the same political correctness now has the left, they’re just not as intense about it, and they usually have other things on their agenda like military spending or something like that. But I think this political correctness it really sort of pervades the political spectrum by now. And it’s the same kind it’s just more intense on the left. What you get is people on the right who virtue signal constantly towards the left, then attacking the left for political correctness. I think or people on the left attacking other people on the left hypocritically for political correctness. So, I’m not sure we necessarily have seen the last of this unfortunate phenomenon.
COYNE: All I can say is I hope it changes because I’m still a democrat and a liberal. The right is leveraging all this stuff to their advantage. Anytime somebody does something — even Elizabeth Warren making such a big deal out of her lone Native American, it’s New World ancestor. The right got leverage out of that. It made Warren look kind of silly. And more unelectable than she would have been before. So, I wish all this backbiting and sniping would stop and we could get behind some kind of program. That’s not to say that identity politics isn’t worth while. We still have racial and gender bias and minority issues that need to be dealt with, I just wish that it could be done in a way that wasn’t so divisive.
COTTO: It seems to me that one of the biggest problems if not the biggest problem fueling the regressive left is keyboard warriors. Obviously, different things tie into what we’re talking about, empower them to do what they’re doing — drive them to do it — but the keyboard warriors who hide behind their computer monitors or iPhones typing whatever on Twitter or Facebook, these people really do create a highly negative atmosphere that I think breeds an even more negative one, and for as long as this trend persists we’ll see more and more troubles coming down the pike.
COYNE: Yeah, that’s the problem with social media. If social media could be somehow divorced from politics, I’d be so happy. I went to some — there was a panel of three social media experts on Ken Presents, including a guy who is one of the founders of Facebook, all three of them said, “I’m sick of it; we need to stop it somehow.” I think social media’s good for learning real news quickly. It’s good for sending your friends pictures of cats and making friends and keeping in touch with people. But it has this effect of making echo chambers. Because my Facebook page is an echo chamber of the left. I made a post on my Facebook page a couple weeks ago that said something like, “A- I don’t like Donald Trump; B- I don’t like the Republicans; and C- this is the last post I’m going to make on this for six months because everybody else is saying this and you know where I stand now, now can we get on to other things?”
And there’s also the anonymity involved. Like I run a website that has a lot of viewers and most people can comment anonymously, they just get really nasty. So, social media has taken away the personal responsibility that used to bear for your own words from people. And that just — I don’t know what it does to people, but I’ve just seen people go completely bonkers. Every day I get emails that are so unspeakably rude; making fun of my Jewish background, and all kinds of stuff like this. Nobody would ever dare say to me if they were facing me in my living room.
GOTTFRIED: How is somebody named Coyne Jewish?
COYNE: Well, it’s a corruption of Cohen I think.
GOTTFRIED: Oh my god! You have an Irish name!
COYNE: Well, it is actually, and I started to trace this out. And actually my ancestors go back to Galway in the eighteenth century. So, but there is — it’s all a mess. All I know is that somebody name Joseph Coyne married a woman named Pauline Zaful in 1874 in Brooklyn. And the headline was, “Jewish wedding.” And I’ve had my DNA done, it’s Eastern European Jew largely, so. I think the Coyne is just a corrupted Cohan or Cohane or Cohen.
GOTTFRIED: You and Joseph Cotto who’s on the phone both have names derived from Coen because he has an Italian Jewish name.
COTTO: It means cooked in Italian as a verb. But as a surname it goes back to the Roman Jewish ghetto in the 1550s.
COYNE: Wow, that’s interesting. I had no idea.
COTTO: The paths history can take you down are something else.
COTTO: So getting back I suppose away from history toward something more unpleasant, the present, I think that the reason a lot of people like hiding behind a user name — not even, it’s not email, it’s really just a user name on social media or Disqus, that discussion app that a lot of websites use for their comments board — they like it because it frees them, as you mentioned, from responsibility, and I think that anytime anyone’s free from responsibility for their actions they regress, and then they create an environment where other people regress and that sort of produces a sewer, like what we have today that passes for discourse. It’s a very sad situation.
COYNE: Yeah, I tried an experiment on my website once where I said, “look, I want everybody to use their real names.” And nobody would buy it. Some people do do that, but I couldn’t enforce it because there were so many people that refused. And they all had a good reason, right — “this is largely an atheist site, and if my boss saw me posted on there I’d get in trouble.” So, I tried to enforce anonymity, not enforce it, I tried to enforce — what do you call it when somebody uses their real name? I don’t know if there’s a real word for it.
COTTO: Honesty. Why not.
COYNE: Honesty! I tried to get pseudonymity and anonymity, and it just wouldn’t fly. I would have lost half the people that read my website or comment on it. I always use my real name no matter where I comment. If I’m either reviewing a restaurant on Yelp, or writing a comment on Huffington Post, which I’m doing more frequently lately because of the regressive left. Yeah, because I need to stand behind my words, and if I’m going to try to stand for that principle I have to try to live by it too.
But it does keep you civil!
COTTO: I think that we’re suffering from a very serious lack of integrity in society, and it’s reached a level of cultural significance.
COYNE: I don’t know what you mean by lack of integrity.
COTTO: A lack of people being held accountable for their actions and a lack of honesty as a result of that. People feel that they can just say whatever they want in one situation, say something different another situation, and it creates a very negative climate.
COYNE: Yeah, I’m not sure when somebody’s like going after me for being a big-nosed Jew that they don’t mean it. I think they do mean it. It gets rid of those kinds of social instincts keeps society from degenerating into a bunch of rabid savages tearing each other apart. We have a certain veneer of civility where we tolerate — where we have to pretend to some extent to like each other, at least treat each other decently, which I think is necessary. And that’s violated too. So, I would add to your list of sins civility because we just don’t have that anymore, and it’s very important. I mean look at what happens when Mitch McConnell or somebody like that dines out in a restaurant in public. I mean I have no love for Mitch McConnell. I think he’s second only to Trump in being a dangerous figure in American life, but the man deserves to have a meal with his family in public without being attacked. People have no, there’s no filter anymore between you and anybody else that you hate. You just feel entitled to just go after them anywhere. I think this is a byproduct of social media.
GOTTFRIED: Do you think it’s also the result of the war against social etiquette that feminists and others have been fighting for a very long time? Genders project traditional roles. Then women complain they’re no longer treated like ladies. They want to be ladies, but they also want to be like men, and so forth. The same thing also works for students. Students want to be treated as adults. They don’t want to be treated just as kids anymore, whatever they were treated as before. But this creates certain problems particularly when they’re not adults. But they insist on treated like adults.
COYNE: I can’t speak for the feminist thing, because I don’t know where they stand on politeness and civility. But certainly with students they are entitled. They’re acting like adults but they haven’t yet received the kind of education — this is what my president Bob Zimmer talked about the Cleveland club. Students come to college without ever having received a lesson in how to learn, and how to examine their own opinions, and how to deal with opposing opinions. So they come here and they don’t know how to do that, and the result is they don’t listen. They have received wisdom in the form of tribalistic wisdom. We were going to have Steve Bannon here last year speaking. I’m a big free-speech guy. I hate Bannon — well, I can’t say I hate him, I don’t know him, I dislike him intensely. But I wrote an editorial in the Tribune saying don’t ban Bannon. Of course, my university won’t because we are the paradigm of free speech, but a hundred and sixty professors signed a petition to get rid of the guy. So, it’s not just the students, but these are the role models that the students learn from. I should add that among those hundred and sixty professors — because I went through them all — they’re only five that could even be tendentiously be regarded as scientists. And only one of them was a real scientist. It’s all in the humanities, this kind of behavior, and I think it springs from postmodernism, which hasn’t infected science.
GOTTFRIED: I really wonder whether it’s postmodernism. I have been debating this for a number of years with people. It’s not so much postmodernism as the kind of personalities you find in the humanities. They’re people who lack the discipline and the rationality of scientists. And they very often bring personal problems and all kinds of emotional baggage with them. I say this as somebody who had an endowed chair in the humanities for a number of years. But they really are not as rational and clearheaded as scientists.
COYNE: Part of that’s because of postmodernism, maybe, maybe. I’m willing to accept that. And their dictum that truth is malleable as an instrument of social power, so there is no truth. I think that’s one reason why scientists — they don’t want to get involved in this banned speech stuff. The ethos of science is to let anybody say what they want, and if you’re wrong you’re going to be called wrong.
GOTTFRIED: You also have standards by which you can judge truth. Whereas in the humanities you don’t. With or without postmodernism you have that problem.
COYNE: I think we’re going through the C.P. Snow, Two Cultures phenomenon all over again. I wish someone would write about that, but the venues that would — like the New Yorker — unfortunately are authoritarian leftists. They don’t like … either I should say.
COTTO: For the last question, what do you think attracts a lot of young people beyond what we’ve discussed, to a more authoritarian brand of leftism? Why do you think essentially, they feel like being the victims more often than past generations? Is it really just helicopter parenting or maybe has something changed in our culture which allows this to happen?
COYNE: Well, I think — this is just, again, a shot in the dark. Well, it gives you a group, a social group. If you’re a member of an ethnic minority for example, so you have an automatic group of people to belong with, an automatic group of opinions that you can share. That’s a form of tribalism. So, I think that’s one thing. Another thing which I’ve seen with a lot of students is that it makes them feel special to call themselves oppressed. So, we had an article by two Muslim students in the student newspaper last week where they claimed that they were marginalized, that they were tokens that were excepted to the University of Chicago so that my university could use them as marketing tools. But that’s not at all true. It’s just not true. We don’t do that. Our students are treated with respect, and I have seen no instances of this kind of bigotry on campus, and yet they will cry it — bigotry — because it makes them special. It gives them a special voice and a special tribe to belong to. Otherwise, if you don’t wear your hijab you’re — and there are hijabies on campus and they’re always calling attention to that — if you take your hijab off you’re not special anymore. You’re just an ordinary student. But if you have it on then you can say stuff and one of the students at least, we have stories I believe that their hijab has been snatched off of them. I mean, this happens regularly but it usually happens to be the student himself. So, you have this sign of specialness that you wear, and if it’s removed you lose your specialness. So, a lot of this has to do with solipsism, I think. But that’s just my guess.
GOTTFRIED: I think Jerry’s guess is extremely good. In fact although I’ve written on this subject extensively, I didn’t think about it quite the way he did. If you wear a Muslim dress this gives you specialness, and it also allows you to claim victimhood because you say because of the specialness I’ve been persecuted. And then sort of, if you can make some claim to being a lesbian or a homosexual or you’re transitioning to transgenderism and so forth, all of these identities, assumed or invented identities gives you a certain specialness, and then if your grades are not very good, if you don’t do well academically or scholastically, you could always claim that you’re receiving a low grade because the teacher is prejudiced against your, and rejects you because of your specialness.
COYNE: I don’t want to claim that everybody who says this of course is doing it to gain some kind of special status. There are people who experience real bigotry and prejudice. I just think it’s a factor in this whole mix that people haven’t paid enough attention to. Because it gives you a way to stand out from the crowd, and everybody wants to stand out from the crowd. And this is one of the easiest ways to stand out from the crowd, is to claim victimhood. And a lot of the people who claim victimhood aren’t, by no stretch of the imagination could they be construed as victims. The prime example of that is Sarah Jeong, The New York Times tech writer who emitted a number of racist tweets and anti-male tweets and was called out for it, and The New York Times said “well this is just her reaction to being oppressed as an Asian American female.” Well, Asian American females don’t happen to be oppressed. Now they’ve got a lawsuit at Harvard where they claim there being discriminated against because they’re too good. You can’t be both oppressed and somebody who is discriminated against because you’re too good at the same time. That’s the case where I can pretty well point at someone who’s privileged who is trying to pretend they’re not. Some people who are oppressed really are oppressed. So, we have to take a case by case.
COTTO: That was really a great discussion. Thank you for joining us Jerry, and thank you for tuning in everyone. See you next week.