Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

When an author of a book like Kindly Inquisitors comes out with a sequel, expectations are high. The argument of Kindly Inquisitors was (is) unassailable but also prophetic insofar as what it forecast. Is a sequel bound to repeat the old argument with newer examples?

Be assured that The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth is no mere rehash. It addresses a major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts from both the right and left. Kindly Inquisitors, in a ’90s context, aimed primarily (though not exclusively) at the left. The Constitution of Knowledge has both the populist right and elitist left in its sights, and we have the latter to thank for the former. As Rauch says, political correctness and cancel culture was a godsend to the far right. It helped raise the likes of Trump and Breitbart News to new heights of influence. “The silenced may go mute in public, but resentment builds up in their hearts and homes, then bursts forth in the voting booth when activated by a demagogue.” If the major reason Trump won in 2016 was the failure of Obama administration to address the plight of the middle class, left-wing cancel culture was a close second.

In response to the double assault on facts and knowledge, Rauch wrote this book to explain and defend the “Constitution of Knowledge”, as he calls it — liberal’s epistemic operating system, which is basically our proper (classical liberal) rules for turning disagreement into knowledge. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings.

The chief tenet of both our political and scientific constitutions is that coercion is off-limits and people need to negotiate in order to reach agreement about laws or knowledge. They distribute decision-making across a system of checks and balances. They provide strong guarantees of individual rights — not least freedom of speech and expression — and in return require participants to meet challenging standards of behavior if they want to be legitimated and taken seriously (whether legally or scientifically). But in place of rational persuasion, (right-wing) troll culture employs chaos and confusion, while (left-wing) cancel culture uses conformity and coercion. The result is the same: politicized tribalism with scant regard for truth.

The evolution of reason

Rauch starts by explaining that as human beings, we’re biologically and socially predisposed to believe what we want, irrespective of evidence. From an evolutionary point of view that makes perfect sense. It also makes sense that we evolved to supply reasons and arguments for what we do and believe. The snag, says Rauch, is that while evolution selects the ability to reason, it’s not necessarily in a way that leads to truth, but in a way that persuades. “The gift of persuasion has lower costs and higher returns. With it, we can persuade others to follow where we wish to go, to do what we prefer to do, to ally with us and protect us, and to provide us with aid and resources.” Those who can persuade can prosper.

Furthermore, says Rauch, intelligence isn’t necessarily a safeguard to false beliefs, because intelligence can just make us better at rationalizing. Smart people are more skilled than others in justifying their points of view. But when they are asked to find arguments on the opposite side of a question, they are no better than anyone else. “Brainpower makes people better press secretaries, but not necessarily better at open-minded, self-critical thinking.”

Which isn’t to say that reason rarely gets at the truth, only that it doesn’t reliably do so. We humans are still a tribal lot, and it was a long and painful road for us to establish institutions of expertise that discipline our tribal urges — through rigorous practices like peer review and fact checking. We worked hard to achieve these institutions, and many people take them for granted. The problem is that these institutions don’t defend themselves. Certainly the First Amendment doesn’t defend itself. All it takes are five Supreme Court justices to decide that free speech isn’t a right anymore, and then, poof, it’s gone. Nor do our systems of knowledge defend themselves. All it takes are enough academics willing to be browbeaten into unscientific conformity for sake of “emotional safety”, and, on the other side among the masses, people who are willing to follow them in turn, or lose themselves in the digital landscape of social nihilism.

Internet nihilism: “Flooding the zone with shit”

Rauch argues that the populist right undermines our constitution of knowledge primarily through social media. And it’s true: the internet uses metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to the truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the populist right a voice everywhere.

Thus the title of chapter 6: “Troll Epistemology: Flood the Zone with Shit”. Of course, conservative activists have been trolling before the internet. As early as 1980, for example, the Dartmouth Review famously baited campus liberals and doxed gay students. But just as leftist political correctness would later explode into the mainstream, so now troll culture. Around 2014 internet researchers were noticing patterns. Anti-vaccine activists were strongly organized, and employing every ounce of resource into disinformation campaigns. Well before Covid in 2020, these activists were using techniques — repetitive messaging, emotional appeal, endorsements by celebrities, and junk science — with remarkable efficiency.

Hoaxes and purely fake news likewise had an unprecedented audience, thanks to platforms like Facebook and Youtube. And in this way, argues Rauch, troll epistemology could achieve something like censorship, only easier:

“Old-style censorship is expensive, inefficient, and leaky, especially in an open society like modern America. Suppose instead of banning ideas, you swamp and swarm them? Traditional censorship assumed  that information and access to audiences were scarce and could be blockaded or bottlenecked. In the digital era, however, information (good and bad) is abundant; attention is what is scarce. So instead of blockading information, why not blockade attention? If you flood the zone with distractions and deceptions and just plain garbage, people’s attention would be diverted and exhausted and overwhelmed.”

The point is not that everyone is gullible and always falls for spoofing, trolling, and disinformation, only that by polluting the information environment, trolling has made it a hell of a lot more difficult for many people to distinguish fact from fiction.

Emotional safetyism: “Purism instead of pluralism”

Rauch then argues that the elitist left also undermines our constitution of knowledge, primarily through cancel culture rooted in “emotional safetyism”. Such safetyism construes arguments that you disagree with as threats that need policing. Building on arguments in Kindly Inquisitors, in chapter 7 he shows how emotional safetyism turns a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship.

In a snapshot, here’s his dirty-dozen list of ways that emotional safetyism poisons us.

1. It silences. If an idea makes you feel unsafe, you can hardly be expected to have a conversation about it.

2. It makes you neurotic. If you constantly scour the environment for offense, you’ll keep finding or manufacturing it. (No exaggeration: see here, here, and here.)

3. It causes conflict. If you encourage people to find things offensive, then you foster feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness.

4. It rewards overreacting. A safety-based community rewards emotional demonstrations which put challengers on the defensive. (A reality-based community, on the other hand, rewards reasoned claims that can be defended when challenged.)

5. It ignores consequences. Censorship and suppression do not make unwanted thoughts go away. They often do the opposite, and make martyrs of those who promote toxic ideas.

6. It is politicized. Because emotional safetyism has no limiting principle, it can politicize literally anything.

7. It catastrophizes everyday interactions. The concept of microaggressions turns life’s everyday misunderstandings into rights violations and traumas, reinterpreting ordinary interactions as assaults and encompassing almost anything and everything — including statements like “Where are you from?” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

8. It trivializes physical violence. If words are as violent as bullets (as many of our esteemed academics and law professors claim), then we lose the vocabulary to distinguish between having an unpleasant conversation and heaving our head broken. Violence is real and very different from being marginalized by being misgendered or referred to by a pronoun you don’t care for.

9. It excuses real violence. If words are violence, then using physical violence to silence a speaker is justifiable self-defense. That’s exactly how protestors have justified using violence — such as the ones who threw Molotov cocktails, smashed windows, and hurled rocks at police when the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos appeared to speak at Berkeley. The protestors said that “violence helped ensure the safety of students.”

10. It patronizes minorities. It assumes that everyone wants to feel safe from words; that people will wilt in the heat of an argument, and that minorities need to be handled with kid gloves. (That’s certainly not how I ever wanted to be treated as an LGBT person.)

11. It distracts from the real problem. Harmful words are not the problem. Harmful ideas are the problem. Fighting ignorance and hate by chasing “words that wound” is like fighting global warming by breaking all the thermometers.

12. It undermines pluralism. Physical safety is a civil right, but a right to feel safe from words is a right to criminalize giving offense. It creates an obligation to rid the world of emotional danger — and of so much intellectual diversity. It makes academics into purists rather than pluralists.

And how do we know if we’re being criticized or cancelled? Rauch has a seven-fold litmus test:

1. Punitiveness. The Constitution of Knowledge punishes the idea, not the person. Cancel culture punishes the person, not the idea.

2. Deplatforming. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on diversity of expression. Cancel culture prevents it.

3. Grandstanding. The Constitution of Knowledge rewards careful, rational argumentation. Cancel culture prevents it.

4. Reductionism. The Constitution of Knowledge builds reputational credibility over decades. Cancel culture demolishes it overnight.

5. Orchestration. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent observers. Cancel culture relies on mob action.

6. Secondary boycotts. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent judgment. Cancel culture relies on bullying.

7. Inaccuracy. The Constitution of Knowledge puts accuracy ahead of politics.  Cancel culture puts politics ahead of accuracy.

If everyone were to seek out points of view that made them uncomfortable — and thinkers who might seem strange, unorthodox, or unsafe — we’d be a lot better off. As Rauch says, this doesn’t mean that every Jew should seek out Holocaust deniers (or that “anything goes”), but it does mean that when we encounter unwelcome or even repugnant ideas, our first line of defense should be, “What can I learn from this?” instead of “How can I get rid of this or shut it down?”

In that vein, I absolutely, 100%, agree with Rauch’s personal statement that he makes as a gay man:

“Cancel campaigns may be legal under the U.S. Constitution, but they violate the Constitution of Knowledge. That they occur in the name of protecting vulnerable minorities is an especially ironic twist. Social justice activists’ confidence that they can be trusted to decide what others can say and hear is a sad display of ignorance and hubris. Even more heartbreaking is that so many activists, in responding to what they claim is oppressive or unsafe expression, deploy exactly the same socially coercive tactics which were used so devastatingly against homosexuals and other minorities. We gay people are very well acquainted with canceling. Coercive conformity was weaponized, deployed, and perfected against us. We were denounced for our non-conformism, which was ‘unsafe’ for the country and children and ourselves. We were shamed, and made ashamed, for who we loved and what we thought. We were made unemployable and socially untouchable. We were browbeaten to keep silent and stay in the closet. Oh, yes, we know something about canceling. We did not spend the last half century and more fighting against it so that we could turn the tables and make pariahs of others.

“Coerced conformity has no place in a movement for liberty and equality. My activist friends should be fighting for the speech rights of those who maintain that homosexuality is wrong. They should be defending intellectual diversity  even (actually, especially) when it offends them.”

As an LGBT guy myself, I say, thank you, Mr. Rauch.

In sum, The Constitution of Knowledge is a wonderful defense of truth, just as its title promises. Highly recommended.

Kindly Inquisitors: A Prophetic View from the Early 90s

If there was ever a prophet about the fate of speech in America, it’s Jonathan Rauch. Almost 30 years ago he wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993), and there’s been an expanded edition available for eight years. I don’t know how I ever missed it. The text in all six chapters remains unaltered, for, as the author says in his new afterword, fresher examples would simply prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He’s being modest. He needs no fresher supplements for any reason; his argument is unassailable.

Rauch knew exactly where the left was headed. In ’93 he stood at a crossroads and saw the coming of 2014. Let’s look back, and look forward with him.

In the beginning was pornography

It’s almost eerie the way Rauch starts with an example that was the start of it all for me. The first time I realized something was rotten in leftist-ville was in the late ’80s. I was a college undergrad and was learning, to my shock, that feminists were decrying pornography and advocating its censorship. That made no sense to me, and when I told my feminist librarian supervisor about it over summer break, she didn’t believe it. (These were the days you couldn’t just get on the internet and google something for clarity.) I had to work hard to persuade her that my undergrad colleagues weren’t necessarily fringe wackos; that there was indeed a burgeoning movement in feminism that was pro-censorship.

The striking claim made by both fundies and feminists was that pornography hurt people. (It doesn’t seem as striking today, since the wokes have run wild with this idea: that words and images are as harmful as physical violence.) The fundies claimed that pornography was hurtful because it eroded morality and was detrimental to society. The feminists claimed that pornography was hurtful because it degraded women, aided in their repression and denied them their rights.

Obviously pornography doesn’t do these things. Women are raped and battered by criminals, not by porno-mags or porno-flicks, and no respectable study has ever shown a causal link between pornography and violence. Just the opposite: in countries where pornography is legalized there is (as the intelligent person might suspect) a decrease in rape and sex crimes. But even if there were a link between pornography and violence, says Rauch, since when do we advocate the banning of books or films which “cretins find exciting, thereby letting the very lowest among us determine what we can read and watch”? Do we ban Mein Kampf because someone read it and killed a Jew? Do we ban the Bible because its prescription to kill sodomites inspired a hate crime against gays?

Of course not, which is why feminists quickly switched gears in the ’90s, and broadened their attack, claiming that pornography does more than hurt women as individuals who suffer criminal assault. Pornography also hurts women as a class, as a group of people, whether or not any of them suffer a criminal attack. Pornography, the argument now went, institutionalizes gender inequality and male supremacy. It fuses the erotization of male dominance and female submission.

Plenty of feminist strippers and showgirls rightly scoffed at this claim, and as Rauch says, if you ask for evidence of it, don’t expect to find it. The argument is much more sly: that the oppressive nature of pornography is so woven into the social fabric of society that it is invisible harm — save to those who are offended by it:

“In the world constructed by pornography, people who are not radical feminists can no more see the harm of pornography than a fish can see water. How, then, do we know if pornography is really doing the harm that feminists allege? Because it must be. By its very nature — by the images it expresses and the psychological climate it creates, pornography is oppressive.” (p 17)

Writing in ’93, Rauch was essentially describing the religiosity of the post-2014 wokes. Only radical feminists (those who have “awokened”, in today’s lingo) can see how transparently harmful pornography is, while others remain blind. Dogma takes the place of evidence-based science.

The defining moment

I’ll look at another example and then turn to the heart of Rauch’s analysis. In February 1989 came what he calls the defining moment: when Islamic jihadists called famously for the death of Salman Rushdie for disrespecting Islam in his novel. As Rauch notes, what was striking was that Khomeini appealed to humanitarian principles in defending his (most non-humanitarian) death sentence on Salman Rushdie. And he was no dummy; his strategy was very effective:

“You have hurt us with your evil words, your impious words, disrespectfully and needlessly written in utter disregard for Muslim sensibilities. You have caused pain and offense to many people. And this you have no right to do.”

Hurt, pain, offense. Typical fundie accusations. But now, alarmingly, winning a sympathetic ear.

Here, for the first time, liberals began to pander to those who called for the silencing of others. Up until now, the left could be relied on to come back full swing against such religious intolerance — especially death threats — by retorting, yes, of course Rushdie’s words caused fury and pain (like any of thousands of other novels do), and that is perfectly 100% all right. Now liberalism was losing its mind, in the name of a perverted “multiculturalism” which says all cultures have their valid ways of believing and that western people should be “be nice” above all. They allowed, of course, that the Ayatollah shouldn’t have ordered Rushdie’s death, but you know, Rushdie really shouldn’t have said those things that provoked Muslims. Seriously.

This was more than a decade before 9/11, and since that second watershed moment — and in its wake the slaying of cartoonists who draw pictures of Muhammad — the unwitting alliance between Muslim jihadists and western liberals has grown stronger. The Islamist argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the western liberal says that it is morally wrong but should be followed. Both positions yield the identical outcome: silence, for sake of not giving offense. It’s impossible to exaggerate the moral confusion on the side of the left, when they’re blaming cartoonists more than (or instead of) the jihadists who killed them.

What the left has given up (and which Rauch predicted) is the most important cornerstone of liberalism: that the defense of free expression and universal human rights is not a provocation — far less a “phobia” or bigotry — but a moral obligation. Let’s turn to Rauch’s taxonomy for knowledge-building and truth-seeking.

The five ways to truth

It’s rare to find a good analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions, instead of just focusing on where we stand. Rauch outlines five such processes that people take to find or argue for the truth:

(1) The Fundamentalist Approach: Those who know the truth should decide who is right. Unassailable authority figures have been enlightened with the truth and they disseminate it. Arguments might ensue but they are irrelevant if they come from non-authority figures. Examples of this approach include Plato’s Republic and Khomeni’s Iran.

(2) The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held beliefs have equal claims to respect. If I sincerely believe that I am a woman, despite my male biological appendage, then who are you to doubt me?

(3) The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Like approach (2), but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration. In today’s world, Critical Race Theory is the king of this approach.

(4) The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with approaches (1), (2), or (3), but adds that you must not cause harm with your words or expression. It is the recipient of your words who determines how harmful your words are. On this approach, words are understood as literal violence. Examples of this include the two examples I started with: pornography and Rushdie’s novel.

(5) The Liberal Science Approach: Public criticism is the only way to determine who is right. In any argument, no one gets final say and no one is accorded special status, whether for fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian reasons. You can only be right on the merit of your arguments. Arguments should ideally be conducted with collegiality and respect, but they do not have to be in order to arrive at the truth.

In the end, Rauch says that the fifth approach of liberal science is the only one that can work. That is, a social system that allows and even sometimes encourages offense, is ultimately the only genuinely humane system. A truly humane society is a critical society that stimulates curiosity by rewarding people, not punishing them, for finding mistakes and correcting deficient ideas, no matter how cherished those deficient ideas appear.

Of the first four approaches, it’s actually the humanitarian that is the most dangerous, says Rauch, for this approach takes aim not just at free speech but at liberal science itself (p 27). It leads to the doctrine that people should be punished for holding hurtful beliefs which are thus construed to be false and dangerous. “It leads, in other words, toward an inquisition.”

Authoritarianism used to be the providence of the religious and political right in America, but Rauch saw it starting to flourish among the secular and political left in the ’90s, and warned:

“There is no social principle in the world more foolish or dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence (or torture, or harassment) and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it.” (p 28)

The “new sensitivity”, in other words, was just the old authoritarianism in disguise, and look where the hell we are today.

The Obligation of Governments and Universities

The liberal science approach charges two institutions in particular to not punish people for anything they say or believe, no matter how offensive: governments and universities:

“Governments because their monopoly on force gives them enormous repressive powers, and universities, because their moral charter is first and foremost to advance human knowledge by practicing and teaching criticism. If governments stifle criticism, then they impoverish and oppress their citizenry. If universities do so, then they have no reason to exist.” (p 86)

While it’s true that private universities aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment (and shouldn’t be, by virtue of being private), they would do well to act as if they are bound by it in the same way that public universities are. Assuming they want to be taken seriously as an academic institution.

I would add the caveat however, that in college/university settings we need to distinguish between (a) the professional zone and (b) the larger free speech zone. The former protects the expression of ideas but not absolutely; it imposes an obligation of responsible discourse in the classroom. Even in a public university, you can’t just say literally whatever you want in class. The professor has the right to enforce scholarly standards as he or she sees fit, and hopefully does a fair job of it. (Not all of them do.) The free-speech zone exists outside of the scholarly setting. Guest speaker lectures and other campus activities are in this zone (for public universities) or at least should be treated as if they are in a free speech zone (for private ones).

Rauch gets at the same thing when he distinguishes between belief and knowledge. Liberal science doesn’t restrict belief, but in the academic environment it does restrict knowledge. “There is positively no right to have one’s opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge.” (p 116) Believe all you want and express that belief, but don’t expect your beliefs to be taught or entertained in a classroom setting. If you want to believe the earth is 6000 years old, go ahead. If you want to believe that sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum, feel free. If you say that vaccines are dangerous and should be opposed, that’s your absolute right. If you insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that too is your prerogative. But none of those claims deserves to taught in schools (even though some of them are). The way to set a curriculum, says Rauch, is to insist that it teach knowledge which consists of thoroughly tested claims, checked and back-checked over again empirically.

The problem today is that while right-wing fantasies are usually treated with the contempt they deserve at universities, left-wing fantasies often get a pass. We have the egalitarian/humanitarian approaches to thank for that.

The greater danger: right or left?

Rauch was suggesting in ’93 what some classical liberals today are now saying: that the greater authoritarian threats come not from fundamentalists (approach 1), or at least not anymore; in the ’80s it was different. Since the ’90s, “the greater threat lies in letting down our guard against ourselves: in high-mindedly embracing authoritarianism in the name of fairness and compassion (approaches 2, 3, and 4)” (p 112). Rauch was all but promising a woke movement.

But… isn’t science supposed to be egalitarian?

Only in the sense that the rules apply to everyone. Liberal science is, as Rauch says, an equal-opportunity knowledge maker. The fact that women and minorities didn’t always have access to the scientific field wasn’t the failure of liberal science. It was the failure to fully embrace it. We didn’t renounce democracy just because women and African Americans and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in certain periods. No, we embraced democracy more fully, just as we did with liberal science. The nature of liberal science (like democracy) carries within itself the seeds of its egalitarian improvements.

But, as Rauch goes on to clarify, science is not egalitarian in its results. “An equal-opportunity knowledge maker is very different from being an equal-results knowledge maker” (p 113), and unfortunately, hordes of voices on the left demand equal results. So leftists insist that all religions carry the same potential for peace and violence (which isn’t true), just like the right-wingers would prefer that creationism is taught in schools alongside evolution, to present “both sides fairly”.

Bottom line: no one has a claim to knowledge because their tribe or group or class of people or sect has been marginalized or historically left out. One has a claim to knowledge only to the extent that “one’s opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing” (p 118).

Science’s key to success: rewarding those who prove it wrong

Rauch makes the point that an enlightened intellectual regime allows all sorts of prejudices to bloom, including hateful ones. This is because attempting to stamp out prejudice simply makes everyone share the same prejudice, and thus kills science (p 68). One person’s hate speech is another person’s well-founded criticism, and another person’s stride for social justice. Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One of the greatest human rights activists and yet she was uninvited from speaking at Brandeis University for her (supposed) hate speech.

Science has a failsafe against error in any case: when it makes mistakes — whether by prejudice or not — it rewards those who find them. Science, unlike the other four approaches, is always looking for disconfirmation, not affirmation, of its theories. That’s why it’s the truly humane and progressive approach.

Rauch puts it this way:

“The difference between a scientific society and a mythmaking group is not that one relies on imagination while the other does not; it is that the skeptical and empirical rules set up a tension which makes imagination its own watchman. For if you play the game well, you must be imaginative in two ways at once: in dreaming up statements about the external world, and in dreaming up ways to debunk them.” (p 69)

Liberal science is successful, in other words, because it’s a problem finder as much as a problem attacker, and uses its resources well. It can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the other four approaches.

Once and for all

Thus should Rauch’s statement of knowledge be embraced for what it is: good liberal common sense.

“Let us be frank, once and for all: creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test our ideas, we get angry, hurt, embarrassed… The fact is that even the most scientific criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so… I am certainly not saying that we should all go out and be offensive or inflammatory just for the sake of it. But I am also only too well aware that in the pursuit of knowledge many people will be hurt. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.” (pp 125-126)

Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting (it’s not bigoted or “Islamophobic”). Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum is hurtful to many transgendered people, but it’s truth (not “transphobic”). Hearing that obesity is unhealthy is upsetting to heavy people, but that’s a public service of health (not mean-spirited bullying or “body-shaming”). And on and on.

If you’re a college professor, and a student insists in the classroom that the Holocaust never happened, feel free to silence him, but do it for the right reason. Not because he’s offending Jews. (No one has the right to be not offended in an academic environment, nor to feel secure in an “intellectual safe space”.) Not because he’s “inciting violence”. (Crackpot theories don’t incite violence; the very idea is absurd.) Silence him, in the classroom, because he is trying to pass off as knowledge something that has been thoroughly debunked, and is not worth wasting the time of his fellow students — or their tuition money for that matter. He’s free to speak his crackpot theories on campus outside the classroom.

And above all — I would add before signing off — if you’re going to insist that racial or homophobic slurs “are not speech, but bullets” (saith a University of Michigan law professor), or that offensive speech “wounds” and “injures” (saith another), then you erase, as Rauch says, the distinction between discussion and bloodshed, which carries logical consequences. If offensive speech is so violent, then it requires authorities and thought police to weed out anything perceived as hurtful and wounding. It requires, in other words, an inquisition.

That may have sounded alarmist in 1993, but thirty years later we have the woke-scolds and their cancel culture. And many smart, good-willed people who find it difficult, if not impossible, to have open and honest discussions. Society can’t progress that way. Time for us to shape up and accept results that speak for themselves: offensive speech has proven itself to be a precious commodity.


See also the author’s sequel, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

A new religion in the guise of world progress is not an advance; it is a detour. It is not altruism; it is self-help. It is not sunlight; it is fungus. It’s time it became ordinary to call it for what it is and stop cowering before it.

The wokes will dismiss John McWhorter as an Uncle Tom, which means that he’s right and his book overdue. Let’s start with his appeal to the reader who is understandably confused about the third-wave battle against racism:

You get First Wave Antiracism and think of segregation as an ancient barbarity.

You’re right.

You get Second Wave Antiracism and think we should all work to truly see black people as equal to whites and deserving of all that whites get.

You’re right.

You see Third Wave Antiracism telling you that you are morally bound to conceive of ordinary statements that were once thought of as progressive, like ‘I don’t see color’, as racist. That if you are white you are tainted permanently by ‘white privilege’ in everything you do. That you must accept claims of racism from black people that make no real sense, or, if you are black, must pretend that such claims are sacrosanct because the essence of your life is oppression. Whatever color you are, in the name of acknowledging ‘power’, you are to divide people into racial classes, in exactly the way that First and Second Wave antiracism taught you not to.

You don’t get it. You are right again.

That’s a pretty good snapshot: The first wave battled slavery in the 19th century (good) and replaced it with segregationist and Jim Crow structures (bad). The second wave battled racist attitudes from the late 60s through the 80s, and taught us that being racist period is a moral flaw (good). The third wave became mainstreamed in the 2010s, and turned a positive trajectory to cancer. Wokeism teaches that racism is so baked into the structure of society that all whites are complicit in racism; and that for black people, grappling with this omnipresent racism is the totality of their experience, requiring hyper-sensitivity towards them, including a suspension of standards of achievement and conduct. It’s become such a farce that segregation itself has been resurrected in the name of diversity — residential segregation, segregation in classrooms — now advocated by “antiracists” instead of racists. The Orwellian vision has never been so real.

In other words, third-wave antiracism isn’t antiracist, but racist, and thus the book’s title. It’s the bigotry of incredibly low expectations. A show of elite moral superiority. A policing of speech and enforcement of theory having no basis in fact. And not only is it racist; it’s a religion.

Wokeism: The Religion of the Elect

Not “like” a religion, says McWhorter, but an actual religion. The fact that it lacks the window dressing of supernatural elements is meaningless. We should get past seeing the wokes as “crazy” (something I admit I’m guilty of) and understand that they follow a religion — not to revel in derision but to genuinely understand what they are.

Wokes don’t necessarily rely on beliefs in the supernatural, but they’re just as superstitious, and unable to back up their dogmas with real evidence or science. They’re supported by a “clergy” of pseudo-academics who preach more than teach. They maintain a secular doctrine of “original sin”: white privilege. They’re evangelical. And they believe in “banning the heretic” — not speaking out against them or debating or discussing differences with them, but isolating them and cancelling them for their “blasphemies” without reasoned argument. There are even ritualistic prayer sessions and genuflections. Most of all, there is the moral arrogance that is so typical of religion devotees, that masquerades as humility and meekness.

The central tenets of this religion can be listed in what McWhorter calls a “Catechism of Contradictions”. According to this catechism, we should embrace multiculturalism but should not culturally appropriate. Silence is violence, but shut up and defer to the voices of the oppressed. Black students should be admitted to top schools with adjusted test scores and grade standards, but don’t dare be so racist to point out that students are actually admitted on this kind of basis.

McWhorter also reminds us that most of the wokes aren’t zealots or hotheads. The abusive woke-ideologues who make the loudest noise — who rip into people in person, or who may restrict their nastiness to social media — are zealots, but the majority of wokes aren’t fire-breathers. The challenge of the wokes is precisely that most of them are no more pushy or socially unschooled than anyone else, and harder to deal with as a whole because of it. “They are, in all their diversity, sucking all the air out of the room.”

To avoid being mean, McWhorter avoids calling them “social justice warriors”, or “the woke mob”, or “inquisitors”. Because many are not zealots and are friendly enough, he follows the label used by Joseph Bottum: the Elect. “They think of themselves as bearers of a wisdom, granted them for any number of reasons… as having been chosen, as it were, as understanding [having been ‘awokened’ to] something that most do not. ‘The Elect’ also implies a certain smugness, which, sadly, is an accurate description.” I prefer sticking to the term “wokes”, but I can see why McWhorter uses “the Elect” in the context of the movement’s religiosity.

I agree that wokeism has all the meaningful elements of a religion. The wokes hold to beliefs that are grounded in irrational assumptions and cling fiercely to these beliefs — for ulterior transcendent reasons — despite their otherwise empirical leanings. That’s religion if there ever was. There are, however, other political ideologies that might qualify as religions depending on how fast and loose we play, and there’s a danger there. When McWhorter says that wokes “have no business being the final arbiters on our school curricula or on what subjects people choose to study”, I personally agree but wonder if that’s a decision best left to local school boards. If wokeism were legally classified as a religion, it would mean that separation of church and state applies, and that federal or state governments could intervene and overrule school boards — and then what comes next?

The supernatural may be an artificial part of religion, but that artificial distinction tightly restricts the government on what ideologies it can ban from public schools. I’m not wild about loosening those restrictions, unless we have very clear criteria in place for defining religion.

Burning Down the Monuments

The only point at which the author abandons his tactful standard and descends to calling the wokes just plain dumb and stupid — and quite rightly — is when they go after historical figures like George Washington and demand tearing down the statues and monuments of such men:

“We are not to celebrate that America got past slavery, but to reach backward in time and slap at the people who had yet to, in order to show how goodly we are now. The Elect [the wokes] require that we pretend that figures of the past are walking around with us, as if time does not pass… It is willful dummity.”

Indeed, this is dumb-assness of the highest order, though to be fair, there are some legendary figures who I believe can be judged racist by the standards of their day. Andrew Jackson is one of them. He didn’t just go along with slavery as an accepted institution of the day; he was the first active pro-slavery president. Woodrow Wilson is another. Besides being the worst president of all time for every reason, he was a virulent white supremacist who torpedoed the social progress of his Republican predecessors. He was so bad that he fueled the birth of the second KKK. I have no problems with tearing down monuments to these men, depending on the context of the monument.

McWhorter agrees mostly about Wilson, stating that he is “quite comfortable seeing Wilson’s name removed from buildings”, as well as someone like Robert E. Lee’s. I would also add Teddy Roosevelt to the authentic hall of shame. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be on Mount Rushmore. Not only did Teddy believe that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, he showed his contempt for those “inferiors” by requiring black soldiers to prove their innocence to avoid dishonorable discharges from the military. The evidence pointed to the black soldiers being framed, but Roosevelt — in contradiction to the American tradition of innocent-until-proven-guilty — said that if none of the African American soldiers admitted to shooting up the town, they would all be assumed to be guilty and all of them discharged. Teddy is also legendary for saying that “the most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian”, and that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are; and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.” Contrast all of this with many of Teddy’s executive predecessors from the 19th century, who at least went to bat for African and Native Americans.

The problem is that wokes don’t stop at legitimate offenders like Jackson, Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Confederate leaders in the Civil War. They want to efface and erase practically everyone — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, to name a few — and this is as stupid as stupid gets, as McWhorter says, especially since these men objected to, if not despised, slavery.

The Solution?

Racism is still a problem, no question, but as McWhorter shows, the third-wave paradigm of wokeism (Electism) isn’t the answer. Under this paradigm, those who disagree in the slightest — those who point out how self-contradictory and anti-scientific it is, how childish it is — must be condemned and ostracized, leaving reasonable and progressive people branded as bigots. Wokeism is toxic, costing innocent people their jobs, derailing academic inquiry, and “forcing people to endure the kind of phony double-talk that any ten-year old can see through.”

The third-wave writers offer no real solutions anyway. McWhorter calls Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility the second worst book he has ever read. The bestseller argues that whites need to confront their complicity in an inherently racist society, and understand that they’re being subtly racist in just about anything they do or say. What they’re supposed to do from that point isn’t clear, and DiAngelo even says that to be hastily thinking about solutions to racism is wrong. Whites should simply do the work of identifying the racism within them. White Fragility, in other words, advocates a scheme of religious navel-gazing that does nothing whatsoever to help black people.

In contrast to a racist DiAngelo-like scheme of non-solutions, McWhorter devotes a chapter to actions we might take to dramatically reduce racism. He proposes three planks:

1. Fight to end the war on drugs. Without a black market for drugs, many more black men would get legal jobs, and not be at risk for getting killed or going to prison for long stretches of time that make them less employable and unable to parent their kids. With no war on drugs, encounters between black men and the cops will be much rarer

2. Make sure that kids are taught to read with phonics. The whole-word method isn’t the way. Proven time and time again. School districts that switch to phonics raise the test scores of black kids vastly, but not enough people get the memo.

3. Advocate vocational training for poor people and battle the idea that “real” people go to college. In the 21st century we need to seriously revise the idea that attending a four-year college is the only road to success. It’s a different world from the 60s and 70s: college is an expensive proposition for poor (and even many middle-class) Americans, and the leftist refrain that those who don’t get a college education are mired without opportunity doesn’t help. Two years training at a vocational institution open up many avenues for those who want to better themselves.

Practical strategies that would actually accomplish something.

The real problem: wokes or the right-wing zealots?

There are some who say — and I know people personally who say this — that the real problem is the right-wing, racist zealots who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, not the wokes. I am happy to see McWhorter refute this claim as I have to a couple of my friends. There was never any coup. Those protestors at the Capitol were dealt with swiftly, by the Trump administration itself, and they have certainly not taken over institutions with their views. It’s that simple. There are no institutions bowing down to the Capitol rioters’ behavior. It needs watching, but it’s an incident unlikely to happen again, whether Trump gets re-elected or not.

But it’s undeniable that woke ideology has a stranglehold on institutions that barely even knew what wokeism was before 2014. Wokes are changing America. The Capitol mob changed nothing. “Seeing the mob’s awfulness up close felt like a change,” says McWhorter, “but that was in us, not them.” That they tried to threaten democracy is less important than their attempt inevitably failed. The wokes by contrast are a toxic success, and — as I have been saying for years now — they are the future of our legislators and justices. As a government employee myself (public librarian) I have already seen the alarming intrusion of wokeness where it has no place.

Verdict: Get McWhorter’s book and read it. It’s a suitable companion to Cynical Theories. Not as comprehensive, but packed with plenty of good stuff. Whether wokeism is best understood as a religion or an extreme political ideology will be debated as people read this book, and as I said above, I applaud the reclassification in theory more than practice. At the very least, McWhorter has shown that wokeism is substantively a religion, and its adherents are as superstitious, anti-scientific, and heresy-punishing as the most devout religionists.

See also: McWhorter interviewed on Bill Maher’s Real Time and Sam Harris’ Making Sense.

Code 21 Conference: Sam Harris Interview

Sam Harris was invited to speak at the 2021 Code Conference and you can watch the full lecture here. I reproduce some of it below. Harris said a lot of what I’ve been saying for a while now: that while the far right and far left are both dangerous, in many ways the left poses the greater threat in terms of cultural influence. Wokeism is becoming mainstreamed in a way that the sins of the far right are not, and the wokes are our future leaders, law makers, and justices.

“There’s derangement on both sides [of the right-left divide], but an asymmetry that’s very real. The far right is still the fringe, even with Trump. In terms of cultural influence, the Nazis don’t have real cultural influence; the white supremacists don’t have real cultural influence. The people on the far left, who are bending our conversation — who if you just did a keyword search for place in what they say, everything they say sounds like a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet. They have immense cultural influence. Every school in the country — certainly every private school, and many public schools — everything is being filtered through this woke outrage machine. It’s not that there’s no truth in it, it’s not that there’s nothing to worry about with respect to racism… But now we have new forms of segregation; we have areas of schools where whites shouldn’t enter… or you’re guilty of multicultural desecration. The proper goal of a society is to get to a point where we care less about the superficial differences between people (like race), not more. People who are living in a post-racial society — people who never cared about the color of anyone’s skin, or for that matter anyone’s sexual preference or gender identity — these people were living ethical lives, having broken out of what was truly a toxic past with respect to those forms of bigotry. But they’re now being told by the woke corner that it’s too soon (and that it will always be too soon) to say that you’re post-racial or truly blind with respect to these differences among people. Chelsea Handler just said it from this chair: ‘You as a white person have no standing, to say anything about race’. That’s madness; absolute madness. And the goal has to be where we arrive at a time where we simply don’t care about these things, anymore than we care about the color of someone’s hair…

We see people getting cancelled for using a term, even just to talk about the term. Not as a slur, but in an intellectual context, for example in English class to talk about Huck Finn. Or using it in a context where the only purpose of using it is to say, ‘This is how this word has to be avoided.’ These words are being treated as being magically destructive. Literally, like the term Voldemort. It’s a word that automatically demands punishment, even though everyone knows that you are not a racist. There are examples of people who have had their careers destroyed where everyone who was calling for their cancellation knew that they were being used as a scapegoat, to show allegiance to this doctrine. It’s a very childish relationship to language, among the many other sins intellectually that we might cite here. It’s a relationship to language that’s just not adult. We have to find the adults in the room, somehow, and get them to guide the conversation. And the problem is that our institutions have been so captured that they’re just not showing a willingness to do that.”

From the Q&A:

[Questioner #1] “I’m one of those women who was born without a uterus. So I’m curious. Help me understand why it is that in order to deal with these massive issues — climate change, the virus, etc. — why do we simultaneously have to dehumanize and de-legitimize transgender and non-binary folks who are speaking their truth about their identity. I don’t understand why those two things are in conflict.”

[Sam] “I would disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think there’s anything dehumanizing about using terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to make a specific point. They’re not intrinsically dehumanizing. It’s certainly not denying the reality of transgenderism or the ethical commitment to the total political equality of those people. Wokeism is policing the language in a highly unrealistic way and making scapegoats of people who are actually on your side — people who actually want total political equality for people regardless of gender identity. And I’m not saying that language never evolves. We do learn to use new terms –”

[Questioner #1] “But it has real-world consequences. In many states trans-youth are not getting access to health care, they’re not being able to use the restroom, because of the actions and the words. These laws are coming out of the actions and words of the people you’re defending.”

[Sam] “Some of it is coming from a backlash, and we’ve got two extremes amplifying hysteria on both sides. And there’s this violent pendulum swing, even in the course of any given day, between the two. And what we need is a reasonable middle that is committed to political equality and has compassion as its moral ballast. Perversely, as you go farther to the left, you get really stark examples of moral confusion. There are people who would castigate me for what I just said to you, but are actually kind of agnostic about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Like, ‘Who am I to say that putting women in cloth bags is bad? That’s another culture, they’ve just decided that on their own. It would be my own colonialism and bigotry to judge that.’ No, you can’t have it both ways. There’s a lot of moral confusion proximate to your side of this debate, and that has to be sorted out. What I’m really arguing for is that the moral emergency parameter that we’ve put over it has to be relaxed. What we have now is a trigger warning standing in front of our entire civilization, from the point of view of the left. And I’ll grant you that you’re getting a reaction from the right that is of valid concern — it’s hostile, and it’s overreaching, and it’s amplified by real authoritarianism, and in some cases theocracy.”

[Questioner #1] “But that starts with you saying that I’m not a woman.”

[Sam] “No. You’re situation only makes sense by first acknowledging the reality of biology. The only way to discover that you are trans is to discover that you don’t feel compatible with the biology that was on your birth certificate. But now we have people who are literally saying that you shouldn’t put ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ on a birth certificate, because it’s so toxic for society to have made that decision. But again, what I’m arguing for is a conversation in which the temperature is turned down. Unless you’re someone like J.K. Rowling, your career can be destroyed for saying the things that I’ve just said about the term ‘woman’.”

[Questioner #2] “You talked about the left having a lot of cultural power and influence. But how does that connect when you compare it with the right, when they have more power in terms of the way the government operates?”

[Sam] “Well, I don’t think the right has the power in the U.S. at the moment. Look who’s president; look at Congress. It arguably did have the power under Trump, but the truth is that Trumpism is its own phenomenon. When you look at the level of policy commitment, it’s not even far right in most respect. Trump himself is a moral lunatic, don’t get me wrong. He and his personality cult pose an existential threat to our democracy. I think he’s the most dangerous cult leader on earth at the moment. But he’s not synonymous with the far right, and white supremacy, and all of that, even though he’s probably himself a racist of some sort, and he gratified the far right; but it’s not the same phenomenon. If you’re going to talk about the real far right, it simply has not captured our culture and doesn’t have the levers of power. But I’ll grant you it’s potentially scary and capable of violence, and it’s something we should be paying attention to.”

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.


Critical Race Theory Debate on Real Time

On Real Time last weekend, Bill Maher invited Ben Shapiro and Malcolm Nance to debate Critical Race Theory. Frankly I think Nance made an ass of himself. Shapiro was engaging the issue, and Nance did little more than evade the points being raised and insult Shapiro.

The discussion began with Maher asking each of the two guests to define Critical Race Theory. This is how Shapiro defined it:

“Critical Race Theory essentially argues that racism is baked into all the systems in American society, and that any sort of neutral system is in fact a guise for racial power. And so the argument is made by Derrick Bell, for example, that Brown v. Board of Education was actually a way for the white community to leverage its own power; it wasn’t an attempt to end segregation in public schools. Even things that are purportedly good in terms of race, so long as they uphold these broader systems — like capitalism, or the meritocracy — these good things are actually just guises for power. What that boils down to in practical terms is that all disparity equals discrimination. If you can see any stat where black people are under-performing white people, that means the system is set up for the benefit of white people, and that white people have a duty to tear down these systems in order to alleviate the racism that’s implicit in those systems. When it comes to schools, what this tends to come down to is that kids who are white experience privilege because the system was built for white people, and we have to change the standards.”

It’s a good summary, and even Nance (who obviously doesn’t like Shapiro) agreed. When asked by Maher to give his own definition of CRT, Nance said: “Oh, I agree with everything that he [Shapiro] just said.” Having then agreed on a definition, Nance endorses Critical Race Theory where Shapiro rejects it. I’m not a fan of Ben Shapiro, but I mostly agree with that he says here.

Basically, according to Critical Race Theory, racism is defined as “prejudice + power”. Prejudice alone isn’t racism; only people in power are racist. So when you watch the All in the Family classics, for example, and see Archie Bunker and George Jefferson being equally nasty and bigoted to each other, only Archie is the actual racist, according to CRT theorists (Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, etc.). George doesn’t qualify as a racist — his sneers about “honkey houses” and such not withstanding — because he’s a black minority. It all boils down to power and power structures and power discourses, even when you can’t pinpoint who in particular is wielding all of this pernicious power.

A Grand Social Conspiracy

Some critics have claimed that postmodern theories like CRT amount to a grand social conspiracy, or, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have put it, a “conspiracy theory without conspirators”. A theory, that is, in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular (power-based) understanding of the world. Communicating with people who espouse Critical Race Theory can thus be extremely difficult, because they’re so obsessed with knowledge, power, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work (quite literally) everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The conspirators are ultimately white people in general, whether they are either inherently racist, de facto racist, or unwittingly racist (even when having good intentions), because they are part of an all-pervasive racist machine that’s simply inescapable until the system is demolished. “One could easily be forgiven – if critical race theory didn’t consider it racist to forgive this – for thinking that Critical Race Theory sounds rather racist itself, in ascribing profound failures of morals and character to white people.” (Pluckrose/Lindsay, p 121)

And unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, CRT opposes the liberal order. Meaning, it opposes (yes) equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law. All of this is deemed an unacceptable framework for addressing America’s racial problems, since all the elements of this framework were constructed by whites with agendas of power. Science itself is opposed insofar as it serves the interests of the powerful people who established that science (white western men) while setting up barriers against the participation of others.

To be Colorblind or not

Then there’s this. According to Critical Race Theory, to be colorblind is in fact to be racist, because it amounts to an attempt to ignore the all-pervasive racism that fuels white privilege. But that’s nonsense. To be colorblind is to treat everyone with equivalent human dignity regardless of their ethnicity or skin color — to be effectively “blind” to ethnicity and skin color in that sense. It does not mean to be blind to the problems minorities have faced, and continue to face.

Not only are the Critical Race Theorists wrong in claiming that colorblindness is racist, they are endorsing, from a practical point of view, atrocious psychology. Telling people who aren’t racist that they are, or implying that they are — and that even their good intentions are proof of latent racism — is a sure way to alienate everyone and not be taken seriously. As Pluckrose and Lindsay put it:

“Worst of all is to set up double-blinds, by telling people that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it is because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race. By focusing so intently on race and objecting to color-blindness – the refusal to attach social significance to race – critical race theory threatens to undo the social taboo against evaluating people by their race.” (Cynical Theories, p 134)

Yet another reason why CRT theorists are frustrating to communicate with. Heads they win, tails you lose.

Ironies, Hypocrisies

Most ironic is that race is far more of a social construct than sex and gender, and yet the CRT-minded wokes will blast a white guy who identifies as black, while celebrating him if he identifies as a woman. Biological sex has real, obvious, physical consequences – menstruation, pregnancy, birth, genitals, muscle mass, hormonal levels, etc. A man will never get pregnant no matter how strongly he identifies as a woman. A lesbian or gay couple will never have biological children who share both their genes (though it’s possible for one or the other of the pair to produce a biological child thanks to sperm/egg donors and invitro fertilization).

Race, on the other hand, is far less easily delineated. Most biologists these days don’t even talk of races, but rather of populations, which can be identified through genetic markers as having had slightly different evolutionary heritage. The concept of race – from a biological point of view – is almost useless in practice. It also appears to be a relatively recent obsession. In the Bible, the Mediterranean region had whites, blacks, and browns, and yet skin color is almost never mentioned in it; it just doesn’t seem to have been significant. Racism, as we understand the term, seems to have emerged during the 16th century, during which time prejudice on grounds of religious difference gave way to beliefs about the superiority of some races over others.

The fact is that no matter what our “race”, we can all seamlessly interbreed with each other, resulting in offspring who are not so clearly categorized into one particular race. You could very honestly say, in fact, that race is a spectrum (of various physical characteristics), unlike sex. But while the Critical Race Theorist agrees – or pays lip service to – the idea that race is a social construct, you’d best take care how you construct that for yourself, lest you fall under the woke ire.

CRT vs. Classical Liberalism

To be clear, racism remains a serious problem in society and needs to be addressed. But Critical Race Theory doesn’t provide sound tools for addressing them, and critical race theorists shouldn’t be surprised when they are derided and caricatured by those on the populist right, or when they are not taken seriously by classical liberals, who are much better equipped for the task. The swiftest progress made against racism (and sexism for that matter) occurred in the 60s and 70s, before postmodernism became influential, and long before the emergence of the applied postmodernism of the wokes. Racism is best dealt with by being honest about race experiences, while still working towards a common vision: that the principle of not discriminating by race – whether one is a minority or in a position of power – should be universally upheld.

In other words, to cite Pluckrose and Lindsay (pp 266-67), we should:

Affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.

Deny that Critical Race Theory provides a useful tool to do so. Racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.

Contend that racism is best defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be successfully addressed as such.

Deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systematic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.

Contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, and acknowledge that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer [thanks mostly to liberal Enlightenment values that wokes and CRT theorists decry].


Kudos to Bill Maher for hosting the debate.


Social Justice Theories: Original, Applied, and Reified Postmodernism

I read Cynical Theories (2020) on the advice of a friend whose advice seldom fails. It’s a helpful examination of certain theories and their relationship to postmodernism, which was bonkers in the first place but has mutated into the social justice agendas of the hard left.

The authors are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are hardly two peas in a pod. They had a considerable difference in opinion over the last election, with Lindsay deciding in the fall of 2020 to support Trump. I deeply admire Pluckrose, and whatever made Lindsay align himself on the other side of the electorate, that doesn’t undo his sound contributions in this book. In fact, his co-authorship tests the reader. Anyone who dismisses the book in advance because “Lindsay became a Trumpian” is subscribing to identity politics – judging a book not on the basis of its arguments, but who wrote it – which is what Cynical Theories is about.

Postmodernism’s Three Stages

Postmodernism has been hard to define, and the authors outline the core principles and corollaries shared in all three phases of the movement (pp 59-61).

The core principles —

A. The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.

B. The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.

And their corollaries —

1. The blurring of boundaries. Most evident in postcolonial and queer theories, which are centered on ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, indefinability, and hybridity – all of which blur or even demolish the boundaries between categories. The common concern is over “disruptive binaries”. This theme is less evident in critical race theory (which actually can be very black-and-white).

2. The power of language. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous – and can be just as harmful as physical violence – has become so widespread now to amount a near criminalization of the English language and making people (especially comedians) fear to speak at all. Concerns about verbal violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and politically-correct terminology all testify to the endurance of postmodernism in its applied and (especially) reified forms.

3. Cultural relativism. Most evident in postcolonial theory, but also more broadly in the context of social-justice scholarship. Put simply, western nations are the pinnacle of oppressive power, and the sins of cultural arrogance and western imperialism are as great as – if not greater than – customs like honor-killings and clitoridectomies.

4. The loss of the individual and the universal. As opposed to classical liberalism, which focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities (for all races, genders, and identities), so as to allow each individual to fulfill his or her potential, applied and reified postmodern activism is deeply skeptical of these values, if not openly hostile to them. Applied/reified postmodern scholarship regards classical liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities.

The original postmodernists (of the late 60s to the mid 80s) were a bit aimless, using irony and playfulness to reverse hierarchies and disrupt what they saw as unjust knowledge and power structures. The players are well known – Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard – and their treatises were mostly descriptive, of what has been and is (as they believed).

The applied postmodernists (of the 90s and the 00s) and the reified postmodernists (of the 10s to the present) have focused on dismantling hierarchies and making moral claims about language and oppression – thereby becoming an activist force, preaching about the evils of power and privilege. They have used postmodernist ideas for reconstructive purposes, in a prescriptive way – putting an “ought” ahead of what “is”. Applied and reified postmodernism have actively undermined public trust in the academy, and become more like a church, asserting what people ought to think and believe, irrespective of science and evidence which are seen as integral to power structures.

Put another way, the original postmodernists observed and lamented. The applied and reified postmodernists have sought to reorder society – and in the last decade, the reified incarnation has become a mighty effective force, and an authoritarian one.

The Social Justice Gospel of Reified Postmodernism

Social justice warriors frequently take umbrage at requests for evidence, because, as the authors explain, the scientific method is part of the discourse system and knowledge production that was built by powerful people who valued these approaches and designed them (it is said) to exclude alternative means of communicating and producing ‘knowledge’. Science, in other words, has been organized in a way to serve the interests of the powerful people who established it – white western men – while setting up barriers against the participation of others. To remedy this, applied/reified postmodernism has demanded “epistemic justice” and “research justice” in place of reason and evidence. Meaning that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural and/or religious traditions of minority groups, and consider them “knowledges” to be privileged alongside – or even over – reason and evidence-based knowledge.

If the applied postmodernism of the 90s and 00s remained confined mostly to academic fields and activist circles, the reified postmodernism of the last ten years has been aggressively mainstreamed. Say the authors:

“The reification of the postmodern principles means that the original postmodern radical skepticism that any knowledge can be reliable has been gradually transformed into a complete conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power, which is rooted in identity, and that this can be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. Therefore, in Social Justice scholarship, we continually read that patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and fatphobia are literally structuring society and infecting everything. They exist in a state of immanence – present always and everywhere, just beneath a nicer-seeming surface that can’t quite contain them.” (p 182)

And so it’s common now to hear that all white people are complicit in racism (if not racist), because of their automatic participation in the system of power and privilege described by critical race theory; that all men are likewise complicit in sexism (if not sexist); that sex is not biological, and it exists on a spectrum; that denial of gender identity is killing people; that the desire to cure disabilities and to remedy obesity is hateful; that criticism of the Islamic religion (describing it as a religion of violence) is hateful; and that language can be literal violence.

If that all sounds insane, or paranoid, or anti-factual, it is, and the authors compare the postmodernist view to a vast social conspiracy theory. A theory in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. Communicating with the applied/reified postmodernists (i.e. the wokes and social justice warriors) can be extremely difficult in this sense, say the authors, because they are so obsessed with knowledge, power, boundaries, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The past decade has brought this all home, as social justice scholarship treats these postmodernist principles as dogma, tolerates little dissent, and “cancels” those who disagree with it. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book thus comes as a welcoming corrective, and it’s especially useful for pulling together the core principles and corollaries of postmodernism that are sometimes elusive.

From Start to End

The book proceeds as a chronicle of the three stages. In chapter 1 the authors describe the tree trunk of original postmodernism, and its deconstructive project of despair and nihilism. In chapters 2-7 they outline the tree branches of applied postmodernism – postcolonial theory (which is exposed as often factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing, not to mention negligent and dangerous), queer theory (which often tries to modify or unmake the concepts of gender and sex in anti-scientific ways, so as to render itself baffling and irrelevant), critical race theory (in which racism is construed to be not merely prejudice, but “prejudice + power”), feminisms and gender studies (in which the classical liberal roots of feminism are seen to be replaced with the postmodern blurring of categories and an obsessive focus on language), and disability & fat studies (which advocate that disabled and obese people have a responsibility to celebrate their disabilities or fathood to subvert social norms, and even to refuse attempts at treatment or cure). In chapters 8-9 they paint the leaves of reified postmodernism, which is now an effective movement that has come to full fruition, taking the applied theories and cramming them down everyone’s throat.

And in that end game, a curious irony emerges – the “contradiction that lies at the heart of reified postmodernism: how can intelligent people profess both radical skepticism and radical relativism – which is the postmodern knowledge principle (1, above) – and at the same time assert the Truth According to Social Justice Theory with absolute certainty?” The authors offer the following explanation:

“The answer seems to be that the skepticism and relativism of the postmodern knowledge principle are now interpreted in a more restrictive fashion: that it is impossible for humans to obtain reliable knowledge by employing evidence and reason, but, it is now claimed, reliable knowledge can be obtained by listening to the ‘lived experiences’ of members of marginalized groups… The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice way of ‘knowing’ is, however, the same as that with all gnostic ‘epistemologies’ that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience. What should we do when peoples’ subjective experiences conflict? The overarching (classical) liberal principle of conflict resolution – to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible – is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.” (pp 209-210)

It’s thus no exaggeration, as the authors conclude, to say that the reified postmodernists – the social justice theorists – have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of almost any kind.

And it’s no accident that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this crazed reified PoMo. In the middle of the 2010s, the time was ripe for someone like him. Granted this happened for many reasons (not least the Democrats’ neglect of the middle-class), a big reason was this regressive-left authoritarianism. When social justice warriors portray themselves as the sole champions of the marginalized, advancing their cause – astonishingly – by rejecting classical liberalism as a form of oppression, and then on top of that by doing so in increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian means, it wasn’t surprising to see a Donald Trump emerge. Wokeism called him forth.

The Endurance of Classical Liberalism

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s alternative to social justice theories comes in the final tenth chapter, where they explain why classical liberalism has stood the test of time as the best political option, and how classical liberalism and reified postmodernism are not just in tension, they are almost 100% at odds with each other:

  • Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about objectively, with enough discipline; postmodernism sees knowledge as created by human beings – stories we tell ourselves to validate privilege and power.
  • Liberalism embraces categorizations and clarity of understanding; postmodernism blurs boundaries and erases categories, reveling in manufactured ambiguity.
  • Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; postmodernism rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics.
  • Liberals champion the underdog, but they center on human dignity across the board; SJWs and wokes focus on victimhood.
  • Liberals encourage disagreement and debate as a means of getting at the truth; postmodernism rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives – claiming that we can’t get to “the” truth but only “our” truths rooted in our values – and furthermore insists that most truth is just a language game.
  • Liberals believe in progress; postmodernists are skeptical of progress.
  • Most importantly, classical liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is thus self-correcting; reified postmodernism cannot be criticized. Which means that classical liberalism is inherently constructive because of the evolutionary process it engenders; SJW/woke postmodernism is inherently corrosive because of its cynicism and attachment to methods that torpedo the evolutionary process.

Pluckrose & Lindsay’s book reinforces my classical liberal position. Liberalism holds to the values of individual liberty, democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, freedom of speech and expression and debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion – and these values have produced the freest societies over the past five centuries, with the least amounts of oppression. This is because liberalism is “intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and – despite what postmodernists think – genuinely progressive.” (p 243)

To those who insist that progress is a myth, I can only roll my eyes. Progress has always occurred the fastest (despite setbacks) under liberalism, not least in the 60s and 70s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal, homosexuality was decriminalized, and women gained access to contraception. This all happened during the time postmodernism was revving up and, incredibly, insisting that it was time to stop believing in progress, science, and reason. Maybe the postmodernists just genuinely didn’t know what progress was. Or perhaps PoMo thinkers never stop to reflect that without the “oppressive tools of the white male patriarchy”, they’d likely be dead or living in primitive squalor without the benefits provided by math and science over the past centuries.

Can anything be salvaged from postmodernism?

Very little. The authors acknowledge kernels of truth to the core principles of postmodernism and the four corollaries, but it amounts to damning the PoMo project with faint praise. There is literally nothing postmodernism can do, that liberalism cannot do better. The authors consider each (see pp 252-258):

A. The postmodern knowledge principle. The principle assumes that knowledge is a socially constructed cultural artifact, which is only true in a banal sense. The principle does tell us to do a better job of listening and considering alternative ideas. Fair enough. But it certainly doesn’t obligate us to “listen and believe” or to “shut up and listen”.

B. The postmodern political principle. The principle assumes that the world is a zero-sum power game and a conspiracy theory without individual conspirators. It can’t accept that progress is incremental and fallible, and practically resents scientists’ lack of omniscience. It is correct, however, that harmful discourses can gain tyrannical power and harm people. And guess what? Reified postmodernism is one such discourse. It’s good that liberalism fights back against it and its social justice theories, as this book does.

  • The blurring of boundaries. Granted it is wise to be skeptical of rigid boundaries. They should be tested always. But categories themselves are not inherently oppressive. If you want to argue that men and women don’t fit neatly into boxes, use science to show that, not your wishes.
  • The power of language. Language can indeed be dangerous, but regulating language, censoring speech, or manufacturing offense in language is even more dangerous. Liberalism advocates a marketplace of ideas; the idea that social justice is served by restricting what is said or banning some ideas or terminologies is unsupported by history or reason.
  • Cultural relativism. There are indeed profound differences across cultures. As a former Peace Corps volunteer I’m aware of that more than many. But it’s just as dangerous and ridiculous to pretend that we cannot make judgments about the practices of a culture other than our own. Despite our variances across culture, we are first and foremost human beings with a universal nature.
  • The loss of the individual and the universal. There is some truth to the idea that individualism and universalism is limited, but there is more truth in the idea that everyone of is is an individual and share a common human nature. Identity politics is simply a lousy way to empowerment. Imagine, say the authors, if Martin Luther King Jr. had asked white Americans to “be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant” (like Robin DiAngelo asks in White Fragility). The fact that King, liberal feminists, and gay pride activists of the 60s and 70s grounded their social-justice protests in appeals to liberal, individual, and universal dreams is what made them successful. Making common cause with others is the enlightened approach to social justice.

Principled Oppositions

The authors conclude with a set of “principled oppositions” which illustrate their approach to social justice (the classical liberal one) compared to the postmodern approach to Social Justice (with a capital S and J). I’ll cite the third one, for sexual identity:

We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires addressing.

We deny that this problem can be solved by queer theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.

We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.

We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.

We contend that sexual minorities are also normal and represent a natural occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.

They also do sets like this for racism, sexism, and social justice in general. Affirmations, denials, and contentions that I agree with entirely.


Alongside Cynical Theories, I recommend another book that I never got around to reviewing: The Coddling of the American Mind (2019), by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book describes the alarming decrease in people’s ability to cope with debate, challenges to precious ideas, and hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s hardly the students’ fault, and Cynical Theories helps us see why: the culture of reified postmodernism is so suffocating and omnipresent these days, that it’s simply how students are conditioned: they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn’t have to be threatened by challenging or difficult or different ideas – especially not those that go against social justice dogmas.

Watch your language

And on another related note, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the second corollary of postmodernism, regarding the power of language, and how people are so willing to let language unnerve and upset them to debilitating degrees. I speak as a minority on the subject. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and know first-hand the power of derisive speech. It’s human nature to be bothered by hostile language or hate speech – and tempting for many to want to censor or deplatform it altogether. But we have to be better than that, and refuse to allow language to get the better of us. The reified postmodern idea that language is literally violent is only true if the listener allows it to be true. Decrying politically incorrect speech at every turn grants language way too much power over us. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have empathy as speakers; simply that we need more resilience as listeners.

Malebolge: A Revised Circle 8 for the Modern Age

Part 1 of my Inferno tour consists of eleven cantos covering Circles 1-7. Part 2 will also span eleven cantos, but covering Circle 8 alone. Circle 8 will be over 40% of the entire tour, and it’s worth reflecting over why Dante devoted so much breakdown to the sin of fraud.

Circle 8 is called Malebolge, which means “evil ditches”, and there are ten of them. (Click on the right image for full view.) According to Dorothy Sayers:

“Malebolge is the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence — all the media of the community’s exchange are perverted and falsified, till nothing remains but the descent into the final abyss where faith and trust are wholly and forever extinguished.” (Inferno, p 185)

That’s about as accurate a description of Circle 8 as any. However, I am revising Ditches 3 and 5. In Dante’s scheme, Ditch 3 punishes the ecclesiastical crime of simony, which is archaic in today’s age. It was part of the feudal structure by which clergy members (like priests and bishops) became the hand-picked pawns of secular lords and emperors. I can’t come up with an example of a modern simoniac. Ditch 5 punishes barratry (the secular equivalent of simony) and also grafters who use their political office to take bribes. Grafters can easily be grouped with the thieves and extortionists on Ditch 7.

In place of simony and grafting/barratry, I’m substituting categories that Dante would have surely added if he had lived in today’s world. He never knew woke-left propaganda, alt-right conspiracy theories, yellow journalism, and fake news like we have it today. My new Ditch 3 punishes snowflakes — woke college professors, public speakers, or commentators who have a large platform. They are fraudulent because they subordinate facts to feelings. My new Ditch 5 punishes cranks — crackpot scholars and conspiracy theorists.

This revision also carries the benefit of freeing up Ditch 10 to be reserved for the falsifiers of something concrete: forgers, counterfeiters, and identity thieves. Dante had constructed Ditch 10 as a “catch-all” punishing ground for any falsifier, including liars in general (“falsifiers of words”), but liars and deceivers are spread out across many Ditches, in some form or another, including, now, on my new Ditches 3 and 5.

So this, tentatively, is what Circle 8 will look like, and the souls I plan to see there.

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Sinners I encounter in this Ditch
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers Jeffrey Epstein (P), Gerald Sandusky (S)
Ditch 2
Flatterers Giulio Alberoni, Joseph Goebbels, Mike Pence
Ditch 3
Snowflakes Linda Sarsour, Reza Aslan, Laurie Charles
Ditch 4
False Prophets Charles Taze Russell, Ophira and Tali Edut, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, Brian David Mitchell
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists Oliver Stone, Michael Baigent, Alex Jones, Maajid Nawaz, Steven Brandenburg
Ditch 6
Hypocrites Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Michael Landon, James Buchanan
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Launderers) Carl Gugasian, Darnell Riley, Francisco Correa Sanchez, Abdulla Yameen
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud Bernie Madoff, Martin Shkreli, L. Ron Hubbard, Mariam Al-Sohel
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion Daniel Shays, Donald Trump
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Matvei Golovinski, Charles Dawson, Konrad Kujau, Walter Fritz, Morton Smith, Wesley Weber, Frank William Abagnale

And here are the punishments I came up with for Ditches 3 and 5:

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Contrapasso: Punishment Fitting the Sin
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers They are whipped by devils while marching. The devils apparently gain sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on those who were either pimps or obtained sexual pleasure by abuse of trust.
Ditch 2
Flatterers They live in the shit they spoke in life — plunged into a lake of excrement.
Ditch 3
Snowflakes They have their lips sown shut, forced to march on a narrow line to a specific drumbeat. As they subordinated truth to their personal feelings, and policed the speech (or even tried to ban speech) of those who spoke truth, so now in death they have their lips sown shut, unable to ever speak again. And because they manufactured offenses, castigating people for trivial causes, they are now flailed with a spiked ball for even slightly stepping out of line or missing a single beat.
Ditch 4
False Prophets They walk with heads twisted backwards, destined to look only behind through eyes blinded by tears.
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists They sit against the walls of the ditch with their eyes torn out, continually screaming in fear. As they feared every phantom menace they couldn’t see any real evidence for, so now they can’t see anything at all, and suffer extreme paranoia.
Ditch 6
Hypocrites They walk in gilded cloaks lined with lead. As in life, they shine on the outside but are lifeless on the inside.
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Grafters) They have their hands tied behind their backs by snakes and suffer a horrible metamorphosis, stealing each others identity, unable to distinguish what’s “mine” and what’s “yours” after all the transitions.
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud They used their eloquence to mislead people and rip them off, and so are wrapped in tongues of fire which conceal them, just as in life their speech concealed their fraudulent thoughts.
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion They divided people in life, so now in death they are hacked and divided into a dismembered state, forced to drag their mutilated bodies around the ditch. Their wounds heal as they march the circuit, and then the devil cuts them open again.
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Forgers are afflicted with leprosy, counterfeiters with dehydration, and identity thieves are driven insane. Their physical rottenness mirrors the rottenness of their souls that caused them to falsify things.


Ellen/Elliot Page and the Declining Numbers of Lesbians

Yesterday the buzz was that Ellen Page is now Elliot Page. Page had come out lesbian in a moving speech on Valentine’s Day in 2014, and yesterday came out as transgender. What’s interesting is that only a few days before there were online discussions about the fading of lesbianism. It does make me wonder if Page’s second coming out has something to do with this trendiness or any social contagion factor.

Katie Herzog and Andrew Sullivan’s article (from four days ago), “Where Have All the Lesbians Gone?”, covers how the term “lesbian” is rapidly disappearing and wonders if “gay” will be next to go. That may sound crazy (because it is crazy), but in the minds of the ultra-woke, the term “homosexual” assumes a binary view of sex and can thus be construed as a bigoted term:

After Portland’s last lesbian bar closed in 2010, as Ellena Rosenthal explored in the Willamette Week, there were attempts to start lesbian-specific nights at various venues, but most avoided the L-word to appear inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. One event, called Temporary Lesbian Bar, apologized after being accused of condoning “trans women exterminationism” for using the labrys — a double-headed ax that symbolizes female strength and has long been a part of lesbian iconography — in their logo. That event still exists, but the organizers make sure to advertise that, despite the name, it’s “open, inclusive, and welcoming to all people.” The flight from “lesbian” has accelerated since. An academic in the Southeast, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she’s a lesbian, the colleague “reacted like I’d confessed to being a Confederate Lost-Causer. She told me that the term is outdated and problematic, and I shouldn’t use it.” So the lesbian keeps quiet about her identity: “It’s like living in a second closet.” Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer.

The discussion was then picked up the following day on Jerry Coyne’s ““Why Evolution is True” blog, where Coyne discussed the increased social contagion factor that makes it cooler these days to be trans than lesbian.

Readers know that I was a fan of Page’s acting performances in his early career. These days he’s okay but not quite as on fire (I tried watching The Umbrella Academy but couldn’t get into it). I wish him the best and hope that this second coming out is authentic and not born of any discomfort with identifying as lesbian. Biological sex may not be binary, but it’s certainly bimodal (with very rare exceptions due to genetic/physical disorders), and not on a “spectrum” as many of the woke crowd insist. And it’s pathetically sad — though not in the least bit surprising — when some lesbians have to fear the left as much as the right when identifying as lesbian.