A quote apocryphally attributed to Winston Churchill, Oscar II of Sweden, or the 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli goes something like this: If you’re not a socialist (or democrat, or liberal…) when you’re 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conversative at 40, you have no brain.
The point is to capture a common trajectory in many people’s political leanings. Most passionate, left-leaning youngsters grow out of their passion – correlated, roughly, to when the government takes money out of their pocket instead of putting it there. Their socialist/democrat/American-liberal ideals grow out of them, and with age they start appreciating the values of markets, small(er) government, of community, and upstanding morals. In short, they grow up.
In a podcast with Jordan Peterson last year, the New York Times outcast Bari Weiss explained this process. What happened on university campuses in the ‘60s or ‘70s stayed on university campuses. You graduate, go to work at McKinsey, and leave those silly ideas behind.
So when the woke revolution really got started in the 2010s, with the Yale Halloween protests surrounding Erika and Nicholas Christakis, most real-world people shook their heads in disbelief. Here were the most elite of young America, the most prosperous and promising generation ever to arrive at the hallowed halls of academia, mysteriously fearing for their lives. Emotionally distraught students were yelling incomprehensibly at a more-than-patient professor whose error was very hard to decipher.
When Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote the immensely popular ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ in The Atlantic (and later expanded the argument in book form), most learned people worried about the new silencing trend on campuses, but didn’t think too much about it. They’d grow up, most people reasoned; they’ll get a job, settle down, and calm down, like every other radical social movement of young people had.
Fast forward to the last few weeks, and the popular podcaster and MMA commentator Joe Rogan has found himself in a witch hunt. During his decade in the public eye, he’s been known for speaking liberally, taking on guests with controversial opinions, and has been happy to investigate even very fringe ideas. It’s part of the appeal to hear some really strange people lay out their worldview in long-form podcasts – in addition to the many extraordinarily learned and clever people he also has spoken to over almost 2,000 episodes.
What’s so fascinating about Joe Rogan’s conversations isn’t just that they’re honest, as Jordan Peterson says in a recent 4-hour show that contributed to the sh*tstorm, but that they’re so long. In a time with 10-second attention spans and great difficulty in engaging the minds of anyone for longer than a funky TikTok dance – or God forbid, a full book – people sit down to listen to high-level conversations for hours on end. That’s quite something.
And then, the magic spell broke.
Over the last few months, peaking with his media poodles and Spotify’s harsh shakeup of its star podcaster, Rogan poked the wrong people. Last year, he repeatedly spoke to guests who had denounced the Covid regime, had questioned the efficacy and use of the vaccines, and defied the medical rules we’ve lived under for almost two years. Neil Young was angry, and many others with him pulled their music from Spotify. In the last few days, the Twitterati kept digging up dirt on Rogan. On his own accord, or pressured by Spotify or the pitchfork-wielding mobs, over a hundred pre-Covid episodes have been taken down for reasons that elude everybody.
He got too big to be tolerated, too much of a thorn in the (medically) woke rulers’ side.
If we take a step back, we could have foreseen events like this from that cloudy November day in New Haven in 2015. The coddled kids of the 1990s, whose overprotective parents overthrew the traditions of letting kids play and investigate the world, saw horror and terror and harm everywhere they went. Protect kids from all harm, ran the mantra, even the harm of unorganized play or having your dreams and feelings hurt. Those kids, coddled to a T, imbued with an extraordinarily self-centered worldview and lavished with participation prizes, went to universities in unheard-of-quantities. They learned that reality was wrong, that their feelings, no matter what they were, mattered more than said reality. That everything and everyone who came before them was corrupt and oppressive, racist and evil. They, the brave warriors of the (un)enlightened bunch, had the opportunity to overthrow what caused them such pain.
These bright, credentialed, and coddled kids graduated, but they never grew up. They went into McKinsey, to the tech giants, and into every other Fortune 500 company around. They pushed their way around at Google and at Evergreen State College, making massive news stories and examples out of both. They took up positions in government, academia, and journalism. And in 2020, in the name of justice, they rioted in the streets of American cities, while credulous and complacent journalists called it “mostly peaceful protests.” We heard the warnings, but nobody heeded them. As Michael Lind explained for Tablet magazine last year:
As university graduates go into business and finance and media, they bring the technocratic progressive values they learned in college. This explains in part the phenomenon of ‘woke capitalism’ driven by the younger generation in the private sector.
The fervor with which publicly listed companies focus on seemingly irrelevant aspects of their business – environmental, social, and governance mandates, or gender and diversity quotas – makes much more sense. The mad scramble for every institution, even central banks, to do something – anything! – related to climate is no longer odd. The uproar among staff at the publisher Penguin when Jordan Peterson walked through the office before the release of his Beyond Order becomes more comprehensible. Even though book sales from megatitles like his literally pay their salaries, they want none of it.
These things were not accidents or isolated events, even though they seem unconnected. Those of us who had the misfortune to be at university campuses in the 2010s saw the coddled kids in action. We saw how their feeble minds and their hurt feelings bullied their way into positions of authority, professionally among staff and socially among peers. If you weren’t woke, you were behind the times – or worse, evil and complicit in crimes against humanity. If it didn’t make sense to us then, it does now. Our classmates and fellow students were playing a different game, and we didn’t see the bigger picture.
Early in the pandemic, the same Nicholas Christakis, whose much-too-sanguine book about the pandemic probably won’t age well, said in an interview for The Atlantic: “clamping down on people who are speaking [out] is a kind of idiocy of the highest order.”
Over the next two years, the woke political establishment – always attracted to idiocy – took that challenge to heart. Last year, and so far into this year, have been times of clamping down hard. Anybody who speaks words unacceptable by the authorities must be “fact-checked,” soft-censored by algorithms, and subject to a “devastating published takedown,” as Francis Collins taught us. Anybody who thinks, speaks, or listens to words that others find offensive or wrong, must be spreading “dangerous misinformation” (or “malinformation” that Homeland Security so horrifically Orwellian has put it). Everyone in a position to stop them has the moral obligation to do so. Anybody who doesn’t toe the woke party line will get canceled.
And what a witch hunt it has been. Undereducated journalists have “fact checked” things they’re not qualified to understand, “misinformation” now seems to mean “words by anybody who disagrees with me.” With the Joe Rogan debacle, it all falls into place.
The coddled kids didn’t grow up, and now they’re in positions of authority everywhere. The madness of crowds had long been simmering at the doors of American institutions – then its halls, and then its board rooms.
Now they run the show, and it’s not clear how we get out of it.