The term “illiberal left” is one of the useful contributions of this book. Liberals, as Kirsten Powers grew up believing, are committed to tolerance, pluralism, and reasoned debate. Freedom of speech is, to them, a cherished principle. By contrast, she insists, “authoritarian demands for intellectual conformity and the relentless demonizing of people who don’t support [one’s point of view] are inherently illiberal and wrong.”
A career in political commentary taught Powers, a columnist for USA Today, that just such demonization and aggressive policing of conformity are now common, and they are practiced overwhelmingly by the illiberal left. Her book is a compendium of meticulously sourced examples of this nasty phenomenon.
Many are familiar. Shrill, fact-free feminism and outlandish incivility on college campuses cannot surprise, and we’re already accustomed to the take-no-prisoners zeal of the LGBT jihad. Even so, this book contains eye-openers. Chief among them is Powers’s dossier on the White House’s attempt to delegitimize Fox News, echoed and amplified by leftist websites. We may associate government moves to discredit dissident media with Putin’s Russia or Chavista Venezuela. But it did happen here, in the first year of the Obama administration, and Powers cites chapter and verse.
The opening government broadside against Fox News came from Barack Obama himself in the summer of 2009. “I’ve got one television station that is entirely devoted to attacking my administration,” he told John Harwood of CNBC. “You’d be hard-pressed if you watched the entire day to find a positive story about me on that front.” Apart from being untrue—Powers cites studies to that effect by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard—this gripe came from the beneficiary of “the most laudatory press coverage of any senatorial or presidential candidate in recent history.” Having the overwhelming majority of journalists and all but one of the broadcast and cable channels in Obama’s corner obviously wasn’t good enough.
Administration officials who publicly joined the campaign against Fox include White House communications director Anita Dunn (“Let’s not pretend they’re a news network”), her deputy, Dan Pfeiffer (“We simply decided to stop abiding by the fiction, which is aided and abetted by the mainstream press, that Fox is a traditional news organization”), senior adviser to the president David Axelrod (Fox is “not really a news station”), and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (Fox is not “a legitimate news organization”). Interestingly, when the administration tried to exclude Fox from briefings, the White House press corps balked, insisting that the Fox correspondent be treated like any other member. That didn’t stop administration spokesmen from lying to reporters about their attempt to exclude Fox from a briefing by pay czar Kenneth Feinberg in October 2009. Nearly two years later, internal emails obtained by Judicial Watch showed that the White House had told Treasury, “We’d prefer if you skip Fox please.”
As a liberal commentator for Fox News, Powers had a ringside seat for this abuse of power. She knew her employer and colleagues were being slandered. Similarly, as an adult convert to Christianity, she knows whereof she speaks when she asserts that “the illiberal left reserves a special strain of strident wrath for manifestations or protections of Christian belief.”
Note that not all conservative religious belief is targeted: Islam, though hostile to same-sex marriage, is strangely exempt from the opprobrium reserved for orthodox Christians, whether Roman Catholic or evangelical. Note, too, that the animus against Christians is already having real-world effects. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, present on college campuses for over 70 years, was thrown off 19 of the 23 campuses of the University of California last year. Its offense? Requiring that its officers be orthodox Christians—that is, that the organization’s leaders believe in its mission. Last month this absurd policy was reversed, but the fight is not over. Catholic Charities has been forced out of adoption and foster care work in several states because (in accordance with Catholic teaching on the family) it does not place children with same-sex couples. We used to call that the free exercise of religion.