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It’s time to stop fighting about imaginary ‘isms’

What better time than Christmas for a cautionary message about those heated, divisive, consensus-destroying arguments over things that don't exist? As any seasonal family gathering will teach you, there is nothing as fractious as a clash over the completely imaginary.

This year, I have watched too many otherwise reasonable people devote their time and energy to non-existent threats. This is especially tragic at a historic moment overflowing with very genuine and material threats.

Let me speak out against the two most prominent fictitious concepts of our time. And let me urge you to resolve, in the cleansing light of the new year, never to utter these terms again.

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Neoliberalism

During a year when ancient forms of extremism reawakened from their burial grounds and spread their dark stains, a surprising number of people took aim instead at a nefarious movement known as "neoliberalism."

It was central to an awful war of words this week in which the Harvard scholar Cornel West publicly denounced the essayist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates as "the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle." Both men have devoted their careers to the racial intolerance of U.S. society, but in the view of Mr. West, his younger colleague had failed to condemn capitalism, market economies and individualism – or Barack Obama for similar crimes of neoliberalism. Mr. Coates tried to defend himself, but after the white-supremacist figurehead Richard Spencer endorsed Mr. West's claim, Mr. Coates deleted his popular social-media account.

The term was also used frequently by Steve Bannon, the extreme-right onetime aide to U.S. President Donald Trump, to denounce mainstream economic policy, and by Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party Leader, for the same purpose. The plot, it seems, is widespread.

The problem is that there has never been a politician or thinker or party leader who has declared him or herself "neoliberal" – not one. The idea exists only in the minds of people opposed to it.

There was once an actual thing called neoliberalism. It existed for a few years, mainly in the 1980s, within the world of international development. Neoliberal development theory, known for the slogan "trade not aid," tried to help once-authoritarian countries restore functioning markets. It was often heavy-handed, and was abandoned after it inflamed and hurt those at the receiving end.

Years later, this specialized term was expanded into a more generalized name for – well, anything one sees as excessively market-oriented, or insufficiently progressive. Countless books and articles have tried to define it; they tend to be vague and all-encompassing shopping lists. It is sometimes used, by people on the very far-left, as a euphemism for "capitalist" – but far more often, and by a far wider group, as a simple name for "things I don't like."

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Cultural Marxism

We may all find ourselves in the same boat, and it may be taking in water at an alarming pace, but over on the starboard side, they've spent the year yelling about "cultural Marxism."

Why, you may ask, were you forced to read endless columns and stories this year about obscure feuds and petty acts of oversensitivity on university campuses? Because some people think they're part of a plot to impose "cultural Marxism."

The cultural-Marxist plot, it seems, is everywhere. The Chaplain to the Queen, Gavin Ashenden, resigned from the Church of England after denouncing his church's consecration of female bishops as imposing "the values of cultural Marxism."

Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump received a memo from a National Security Council staffer, Rich Higgins, arguing that "opposition to President Trump manifests itself through political warfare memes centered on cultural Marxist narratives" being pushed by covert Jewish and Islamic groups "including 'deep state' actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans."

Mr. Higgins was fired, but the idea lives on.

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The problem is that there is no politician or thinker who has declared him or herself a "cultural Marxist" – not one. The idea exists only in the minds of people opposed to it.

There once, extremely briefly, was an actual thing called cultural Marxism. The scholars of the Frankfurt School believed there was a path to revolution by influencing culture and scholarship. They certainly didn't favour political correctness and identity politics, though – they, like Marxists today, were ardently opposed to such things.

And their opaque ideas had no influence whatsoever on mainstream politics of any stripe. Politicians and administrators do not favour same-sex marriage or the right of people to choose their pronouns because they're hoping for a second October, 1917. They do so for the usual pragmatic or ethical reasons.

And they are not part of any wider movement or larger ideology – except the one hanging, along with neoliberalism, in the word-cloud ether of angry and disconnected minds.

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