By Jonathon Van Maren
Last year while working on a review of her latest book, I chatted via Zoom with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I was in Ontario; she was at the ranch she shares with her husband Niall Ferguson and their children in Montana. We were discussing the subject of the ongoing fragmentation of Western civilization and the woke forces determined to tear it apart. Hirsi Ali disagreed with me on one point. Don’t give up on the classical liberals just yet, she told me. There are still many who are willing to fight for fundamental freedoms and refuse to cave to the demands of the radical progressive Left.
Hirsi Ali’s hopefulness is not shared by many on the Right these days. Yoram Hazony’s Edmund Burke Foundation has launched a series of National Conservatism conferences to begin building the intellectual infrastructure of a post-liberal order (Hirsi Ali spoke at the most recent event in Florida). Writers and intellectuals such as Sohrab Ahmari (author of The Unbroken Thread), Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed), Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule (Common Good Constitutionalism), and Chad Pecknold recently launched the fascinating Substack The Post-Liberal Order to begin exploring a new way forward.
In a conversation several years back, Anthony Esolen told me that liberals are simply unreliable allies—they’ve accepted (and championed) too much to hold the line.
I tend to agree with Esolen and the post-liberals. Hirsi Ali may still be a classical liberal, but she’s become increasingly conservative over the past several years—and liberals like herself have become persona non grata on the Left. Ironically, liberals who speak out against the woke takeover of the Democratic Party and other once-liberal institutions are damned as hopeless reactionaries, despite the fact that they are a collection of gays, dissidents, abortion supporters, and intellectuals who have supported almost every major cultural shift—including the mainstreaming of same-sex marriage—of the past five decades. These men and women simply possessed too much common sense to stay on the progressive train as it hurtled towards Crazytown and got off at earlier stops.
There is, for example, Andrew Sullivan, a gay writer who did more to make the concept of same-sex “marriage” acceptable and mainstream than perhaps any other American intellectual. Because he is concerned about gender ideology, critical race theory, and identity politics, he is now in the political wilderness. He cannot be considered a conservative by any definition that is older than a decade or two, but because he supports religious freedom and rejects the radical, biology-defying version of autonomy promoted by the LGBT movement he did so much to build, he is considered a traitor to the cause.
So too with Bari Weiss, a bi-sexual columnist who famously left the New York Times to start the Substack Common Sense, where she platforms writers from every corner of the political spectrum and calls for a return to sanity. Her friend Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic, one of the best essayists writing today, is similarly out of step with the times, despite her reluctant advocacy of legal abortion and her commitment to many aspects of the sexual revolution. To call Weiss or Flanagan conservative is to denude the term of any meaning whatsoever—and yet, both spill gallons of ink fighting the progressive Left. It is their brand of liberalism that today seems to be vanishing, as the besieged Right and the progressive Left both embark on different paths. If only liberals would have courage, Weiss begged in a recent column, the stultifying plague of wokeness could get be stopped.
Bill Maher, the famously atheist host of HBO’s late-night show, has also turned into a favorite target for the Left. His monologues have turned into a long-running series of increasingly desperate appeals to his former comrades to abandon gender insanity; to stop demonizing those they disagree with; to reject the politicization of everything, all the time. Almost every week, he makes the same point: I didn’t change. You changed. So long as the Left talks about pregnant men and attacks every semblance of civilization as we knew it just yesterday and insists on dividing everyone by race and sexual preference, progressives are screwed. Maher frequently begs the Democrats to become liberal again. The Democrats, with aging former liberal Joe Biden at the helm, appear disinterested in his advice. It is why Bill Maher now has more in common with Jordan Peterson than with most Democrats.
This is a common story now. Germaine Greer. J.K. Rowling. Joe Rogan, the 2020 Bernie Sanders supporter now dubbed a dangerous right-wing reactionary. Brett and Eric Weinstein. Sam Harris. Richard Dawkins. None of these people are conservative. Most of them spent years actively fighting conservatives on everything from theism to abortion to the redefinition of marriage. All have discovered that the fundamental freedom of speech that gave them the ability to publicly advocate for and defend the ideas that transformed the West over the past decades is now under threat by the same movements that they were in so many cases defending. LGBT activists don’t care how supportive you were of the redefinition of marriage—that was only the opening battle. You must support everything, all the time—or be excommunicated, smeared, and cancelled.
It is hard for many people to tell who is a conservative and who is a liberal these days, since everyone with a thought in their head that contravenes the ever-evolving dogmas of the moment is now contemptuously called “conservative.” Many of the old-guard liberals are discovering that considering how fast the Overton Window is moving, there are many freedoms they want to conserve—from those they considered their ideological fellow travelers just moments ago. Many liberals have discovered, to their dismay, that the only people willing to defend their rights and freedoms are the despised conservatives they viewed—or view—with such contempt. The progressive mantra is simple: No friends to the Right of me, no enemies to the Left of me. And that line has moved miles.
Liberals like Ayaan Hirsi Ali want a coalition of the sane—classical liberals, conservatives, and common-sense citizens to stand up together and push back. She says we conservatives shouldn’t give up on the liberals so fast. And I’ll admit it—I have. But this pushback—what looks to me very much like classical liberalism’s last stand, led by a group of scrappy gays, genuine dissidents, and men and women of courage—is quite something to watch. I just don’t think there are enough of them. The revolution they were a part of has begun to eat its own, and the malleable ideals of liberalism are not strong enough to stop the fierce new faith of the woke warriors and their purges.
And we can’t forget that it was their revolution that began all this. I recently completed my soon-to-be published biography of the great Canadian conservative icon Ted Byfield, and this reminded me of a 1995 column he wrote, calling out a liberal columnist for her shock at the sex crimes of Paul Bernardo:
Alas, neither Margaret [Wente] or nor her contemporaries understood the reason that prior generations surrounded sex with rules, taboos, and formulae; the reason they sought to inhibit sexual behaviour, to foster guilt and manacle our natural proclivities. They knew this instinct could go terribly, fiendishly wrong. What would begin as a playful peccadillo could end as the eucharist of hell. The rule therefore was: do not tinker with taboos. They’re there for a reason.
Well, we of the emancipated twentieth century have tinkered with them and wildly. And there will be far worse than Paul Bernardo before the consequences are over. So don’t turn off the television, Margaret. Enjoy the show. You’re not just a spectator. You helped produce it.
He’s right. Much of the woke insanity we’re seeing now is the direct result of what liberals helped—often eagerly—to usher in. Sexual violence itself has become mainstream, as an undercurrent of vile pornography runs just below the surface of our entire society and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy sells a hundred million copies. The liberals may not have meant for it to come to this, but there were those like Ted Byfield who prophesied that it would—and they were demonized.
One of the greatest ironies? Margaret Wente was one of those liberals who didn’t go insane, and got cancelled. She penned a long essay for Quillette titled, “It Wasn’t My Cancelation That Bothered Me. It Was the Cowardice of Those Who Let It Happen.” Indeed.
We will need stronger stuff to fend them off the woke. The woke are, fundamentally, a religious tribe. We will need a faith rooted in something much stronger than liberalism to win these wars. The first thing we will need to recognize is that the woke play by no rules, but follow the strategy laid out by Frank Herbert: “When I am weaker than you, I ask for freedom because that is according to your principles. When I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”