The Right That Is Left

In November 2021, New York Times columnist and leftist critic of the left Bari Weiss launched, together with similarly minded intellectuals, the University of Austin, a nonaccredited, self-described academic institution that was intended to be a response to cancel culture. According to Weiss, the U.S. needed a meeting place for presumably serious thinkers who would battle back against the woke left. These fearless warriors for truth and democracy would also try to influence the rising generation and provide American youth with a stimulating alternative to the politically correct miseducation that was being drummed into them. The faculty would naturally include conservative establishment figures—like Compact magazine editor Sohrab Ahmari, British political commentator Douglas Murray, and Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson—but also an editor for The Atlantic and three liberal Democrats: social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, President Emeritus of Harvard University Larry Summers, and Canadian-American experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, all of whom have expressed concern about cancel culture.

A perceptive commentator, Lauren Chen, has observed at Russia Today that these would-be champions of intellectual freedom have left the conventional leftist echo chamber to create their own version of it. I would have to agree. Weiss may be an even less credible champion of the cause she claims to be championing than is U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland a strictly impartial upholder of constitutional law. Weiss has made a name by smearing her opponents as anti-Semites; she featured on her Substack an attack on Chronicles’ own Pedro Gonzalez, written by her University of Austin collaborator and fellow gay activist Douglas Murray, attempting to associate our senior writer with Nazi-like bigotry. Absolutely nothing credible was cited to substantiate the smear, but it may illustrate how Weiss, Murray, and possibly others at the University of Austin understand their educational mission. It may well be that their “anti-cancel” undertaking is little more than a variation of what is now thriving on the woke left.

Clearly, no voice of the Old Right (i.e. paleoconservatives or traditionalist conservatives) was invited to participate in Weiss’s project; and those who were brought on board ranged from figures of the present conservative establishment to academic celebrities without even minimally right-of-center credentials. It seems Weiss, Murray, and their confrères have their own alternative to the cancel culture, and it doesn’t lean very heavily toward the right.

Their endeavor has a certain déjà vu about it. On a podcast last week with Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute, while discussing The U of Austin’s advertised alternative to wokeness, it dawned on me that I had encountered something like this before. The Weiss would-be center of anti-woke learning reminded me of the “Second Thought” conferences that an older generation of neoconservatives held in the 1970s and 1980s, under the auspices of Commentary, to legitimize their claim to be the cultural left’s official opposition. With the possible exception of sociologist Robert Nisbet, who was briefly on good terms with neoconservatives, no one who had been part of the traditional right was invited to these conferences. The invitees consisted mostly of those who had broken with the left and then found their way to the neoconservative communion. Much of their discussion centered on the reasons why the dissenters had broken from what became the New Left.

This transformed left was leaning more and more toward the Palestinians rather than the Israelis, and the neighborhoods in which the Second Thought neocon participants lived were becoming unsafe because of predominantly black crime. To make matters even worse, Jewish and Italian teachers in the NYC public school system were being passed over for appointments and promotions in favor of blacks. Occasionally, Second Thought conferees were upset about the failure of one of their pals to obtain tenure at a prestigious university, a situation that was blamed on the unfriendly character of American campuses in the wake of the antiwar movements.

The most famous of these gatherings, which took place under different auspices in 1987, managed to address a significant historical issue, which was the sympathy that some of the participants had long shown for Soviet Communism. But these “second thoughts” were expressed at a time when the Soviet empire was already in a state of collapse. Moreover, those who made the presentations were not as far to the right as the former Communists James Burnham and Frank Meyer, who were among the founders of National Review.

What struck me about all such gatherings, and the reports of what went on therein was their insularity. They were structured around the concerns of New York Jewish journalists and academics living within a radius of a few miles of Midtown Manhattan; for some reason, the rest of humanity was expected to resonate with their pet peeves or applaud them for having abjured Communism.

These meetings also took place in the same year that neoconservatives intervened in full force to keep me from obtaining a professorship, supposedly because I was “unreliable on Israel.” Since I was not a member of “our crowd” and had positioned myself on the traditional right, I was professionally expendable in their eyes.

Bari Weiss’s attempt to resurrect a neoconservative cultural presence with the help of England’s leading neoconservative spokesman, Douglas Murray, seems a fitting continuation of the Second Thought festivities of the 1980s. Such worthy projects should not be allowed to go unimitated; and Doug and Bari have paid fitting tribute to their neocon predecessors by bringing back the gatherings of yesteryears in a more up-to-date setting. Also like its precursor, this bogus university seems as much interested in redefining the right in a leftward direction as it is in criticizing those who have moved too far toward the left. It represents an attempt to create a safe space for a renamed left that has rebaptized itself as the moderate right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.