Nearly one hundred years ago now, the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini rounded up his country’s Communists under an emergency statute, and had as many as possible imprisoned for as long was permissible. Among those Mussolini put away was Antonio Gramsci, about whom the prosecutor at his trial famously said, “For 20 years, we must stop this brain from functioning.”
Prison did not, of course, stop Gramsci’s prolific and supple brain from functioning and, indeed, may have made it function more effectively, more deviously, more dangerously. In fact, he spent much of his time there pondering why the proletariat revolution that Marx had forecast had never occurred. He concluded that the prevailing culture had infected the working class with the belief that its happiness and prosperity were linked directly to the well-being of the bourgeoisie. He rightly concluded that Marx and Lenin had never considered the possibility that the workers of the world would become comfortable in a capitalist society. Instead, the two great Communist thinkers erroneously believed that the only thing that kept the masses from full-scale revolt was physical force and economic coercion.
Gramsci described the process by which the proletariat was actually kept in check as “cultural hegemony.” His solution to the problem was to abandon the effort to inform the proletariat about the wrongs they were suffering at the hands of capitalism and to focus on tearing down the Judeo-Christian culture that had blinded them to their “unjust” burden. To achieve this end, he proposed taking control of the institutions of the culture, which included the mass media and the educational establishment. Hence the phrase, “the long march through the institutions.”
The Left, unfortunately, took Gramsci’s advice to heart and began its long and merciless march through the institutions of the West and especially the institutions of the United States, where the Marxist ethos and the related emphasis on subjective moral interpretation slowly but surely entered, and then overran, the institutions of cultural transmission. Richard Rorty, perhaps the most famous and most consequential 20th century American philosopher and the man responsible for putting a happy face on the sullen, choleric face of postmodern Marxist rationalization, once described the success of the Gramscian enterprise as follows:
The power base of the Left in America is now in the universities, since the trade unions have largely been killed off. The universities have done a lot of good work by setting up, for example, African-American studies programs, Women’s Studies programs, and Gay and Lesbian Studies programs. They have created power bases for these movements.
In Gramsci’s and Rorty’s world, you see, academic institutions were, like everything else, means to an end, the loci of power manipulation and revolution. By controlling the education establishment, the Left could control the transmission of language, which would allow control the transmission of thoughts, sentiments and power relationships. In short, control of education would allow control of the culture and permit the reversal of the bourgeoisie cultural hegemony.
Academia was not, of course, the only institution through which the Gramscian Left marched. The media, the entertainment industry, religious institutions and even business were targets of the “long march.” Today, virtually all of the institutions of cultural transmission in this country – with the notable exceptions of talk radio, cable news, and the handful of traditionalist churches – are dominated by the cultural Left.
It is, we think, important to remember this as you read the news, listen to the commentary, and indulge the arguments of the press, of business, and of the political and educational establishments with respect to the recent – and only recently controversial – proliferation of religious freedom statutes. Whether one agrees with or disagrees with the notion that religious freedom is under attack and needs protection; whether one is sympathetic to the cause of same-sex marriage or opposed to it on traditionalist grounds; whether one thinks Indiana Governor Mike Pence is a noble patriot or a hateful bigot, there can be little doubt that the terms of the debate on this subject have been dictated by the cultural Left, which has dominated the discussion of religious freedom in the country, very often to the detriment of objective truth.
From the very start of the public discussion of Indiana’s now-infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act, coverage of the law by the media, business, entertainment and political figures has been almost diabolically dishonest. There is no question that some people who pushed this law did so in the interest of giving conscientious objectors the opportunity, under law, to argue their case for not participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies. There is also no question that the law, its effects, its broad purposes and its similarity both to federal laws and to laws and judicial interpretations in other states have been radically misconstrued by almost everyone in the media – and beyond – who has covered the issue. Consider, for example, the following, written by Tim Cook, the CEO of the biggest company in the world, and published by the Washington Post, one of the two or three most influential newspapers in the country:
There’s something very dangerous happening in states across the country.
A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors. Some, such as the bill enacted in Indiana last week that drew a national outcry and one passed in Arkansas, say individuals can cite their personal religious beliefs to refuse service to a customer or resist a state nondiscrimination law. . . .
These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear. They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.
The days of segregation and discrimination marked by “Whites Only” signs on shop doors, water fountains and restrooms must remain deep in our past. We must never return to any semblance of that time. America must be a land of opportunity for everyone.
Nearly every word of the above passage is untrue, misleading or a deeply and unfairly subjective interpretation of what is happening. The “wave” Cook so fears largely took place 20 years ago and to date, there are no separate but equal accommodations for gays and non-gays anywhere in the country. Moreover, as the inimitable Ramesh Ponnuru points out, Indiana “lacks any state nondiscrimination law on sexual orientation for people to resist,” which is to say that the worry that the new religious freedom law will lead to widespread discrimination is not merely flatly untrue, but deeply paranoid.
Sadly, as misleading and self-serving as Cook’s essay may be, it is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the media coverage of Indiana’s religious freedom law. Far worse than Cook’s deception was the trap sprung on the unsuspecting owners of a pizza place in Walkerton, Indiana. The O’Connors, who had never publicly commented on gay issues and who said, plainly, that they have served and would continue to serve gay customers, where nevertheless berated, slandered and threatened by countless internet activists, all because a news producer from nearby South Bend (i.e. home of Notre Dame University) told a reporter to find a story. Said reporter asked young Crystal O’Connor what she would do if approached by a gay couple wanting the restaurant to cater their wedding. O’Connor naively replied, “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no. . . . We are a Christian establishment.” The pizza parlor has since been closed because of the threats directed at its owners, even from the O’Connors’ own state senator, a nasty wannabe totalitarian named Jim Arnold, who declared that this “kind of thinking has no place in this town.” Bad thoughts, undoubtedly a sign of cultural resistance, must be banned.
In Connecticut, Governor Dan Malloy used his bully pulpit to attack the state of Indiana, to declare (falsely) that rampant discrimination would soon ensure, and to ban the use of Connecticut state funds in Indiana as long as the heinous religious freedom act remained on the books. What Malloy either didn’t know or hoped no one else would point out is the fact that Connecticut has had its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the books for more than 20 years now, and Connecticut’s law is actually substantively “harsher” than Indiana’s law, in that it requires only that a defendant prove that he was “burdened” by government action, rather than “substantially burdened” as the Indiana law (and the federal statute) require. Nevertheless, Malloy has made his point – whatever it may be – rallied support, and helped muddy the waters surrounding both the issue of religious freedom and the Indiana law.
Sadly, this ridiculous reaction, stoked by the institutions of our culture pushing their own vested interests, was all too predictable. Again, whether one supports religious freedom laws or thinks they’re a bad idea; whether one supports same-sex marriage or thinks it’s an infringement on traditional institutions; whether one is a Democrat, Republican, independent, or other, there really can be little argument about the horrific misinformation campaign carried out by American cultural institutions over the last week. Unfortunately, though the campaign may have been horrific, it was largely intentional as well. The old hegemony must be broken. The new hegemony rises in its place. Antonio Gramsci would feel vindicated. And quite proud, we’re sure.