The discussion of pressing social problems that we confront today is in crisis. Deepening this crisis is the fact that the principles that have guided the progressive movement over the years are today in disarray. In large part, in many quarters, they are in shambles. Two recent books, Cynical Theories (Pluckrose & Lindsay, 2020) and The Elect (McWhorter, forthcoming), have provided us with a roadmap for rebuilding the movement, mainly a roadmap for beginning the discussion again. (1)
From Postmodernism to Critical Theories
The first book, by Pluckrose & Lindsay, starts with the problem of: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender and identity (its subtitle). This theme outlines for us a long and complex convergence, spanning many years, between:
- totalitarian ideologies that originated in the European authoritarian regimes of the 20th century (from the end of the second decade of the 20th century, 1918 to be precise, to the fall of the Berlin Wall), and
- postmodern (2) speculation about reality and radical skepticism about the methods of reason to better understand it (in regard to its popularity, 1960s to about the turn of the century).
The first was a reaction against democracy, the second a reaction against science and rational inquiry. Simplifying, the convergence consists of an application of postmodern methods (by themselves abstract and speculative) to activist oriented Critical Theories. These, now cynically actionable theories, are what made everything about one or another kind of identity politics. (3)
The authoritarian ideologies barely survived the shock of the collapse of the Communist Party regimes during the period of the collapse of colonialism and white supremacy/legal discrimination. The world democratic order (for lack of a better term) was making its most important advances in favor of open systems, economic productivity (reduction of absolute misery, hunger and disease) and progress in human rights. The forerunners to the Critical Theories of today managed to survive the shock and disorientation, stubbornly insisting on their rejection of the progress of democratic systems. As the progressive change of modern democracy has always been insufficient (indeed genuine reform is always plagued by defect, false starts and frustration with its pace), its persistent problems and crises are the fodder for factions who imagine that they can subvert and overthrow it. They can nevertheless grow to enjoy a mass following of significant influence in society, as they have done in recent years. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a bitter pill to swallow, but the authoritarian/totalitarian forces (they self-identify today as “left”) have recovered.
In parallel, at first largely not aligned with the authoritarian ideologies, the writings from a tendency of philosophers gave rise to a method of studying knowledge of such extreme relativism and skepticism — postmodernism — that progressives and virtually all other people working on problems of the material world paid little attention. When physicist Alan Sokal, in 1996, (4) reduced it to laughingstock, we thought it was all over. The entity that eventually devolved from the New Age circus, though, wasn’t funny. What Pluckrose & Lindsay do for us in the Introduction and Chapters 1 & 2 is to explain the paradox, appearing at first as a true puzzle: how could the convergence possibly succeed?
A philosophy that deconstructed everything, where knowledge never advances and is always relative, would be useless for subverting or overthrowing anything. Consistent postmodernism must of course deconstruct itself, and that’s where, in its pure form, it eventually found its irrelevance, where bizarre can be a verb.
The solution for the activist-minded authoritarian was to apply postmodern rejectionism selectively, to the modern democratic system (pp. 45–58). Critical Theory appropriated radical skepticism and cultural relativism, directing it arbitrarily, outward against the progress of the democratic system. Masking its own ideology with appealing labels such as “Social Justice,” the radical skepticism and relativity would not apply to itself. The former can be vilified because it belongs to the “dominant discourse,” and the latter insulated from questioning by the now familiar slanders of bigot and white supremacist. More charitably, questioning the authoritarian ideology is ascribed to “white-privilege.” The postmodern rejection of the difference between what is objectively true and what is subjectively experienced is applied by Critical Theory, conveniently, in only one direction (pp. 24–30).
The chapters by Pluckrose and Lindsay on “Post-colonial Theory” and “Critical Race Theory” (3 and 5) should be read together with McWhorter’s installments. Both trace the crisis in academia and media culture back about four or five years to when it appeared to hit bottom. Consider the cowardly silence on the part of the vast majority of academics and media commentators to the race-baiting hysteria at Evergreen College in 2017. The identity politics-inspired 1619 Project published and promoted by the New York Times in 2019 deepened the corruption of scholarship and reporting. Installment 5 of The Elect asks how a Pulitzer Prize could have been awarded for a historical claim that is patently false.
In order to portray the American movement for independence as race-based, the founding idea of the United States was moved back to the British colonial slave-trade: the arrival of the first African slaves to the colonies. The essay ignored that the overthrowing of colonial rule set into motion a world-wide movement for social progress that included the demolishing of slaveholding systems everywhere. The Democratic Revolution, putting into practice the inheritance of Enlightenment ideas, was sparked in the Americas in 1776 and carried forward in Europe soon after, then to spread worldwide. In the 20th century, the Chinese Revolution of October 1911 and the Russian Revolution of February 1917 attempted to take up the tasks of democratization by overthrowing their monarchical systems. But their compromised and indecisive leaderships could not lead their peoples and withstand the counter-revolution of totalitarian dictatorship that defeated them (respectively, 38 years and 11 months later). But the spark of 1776 spread across the globe to every continent, such that democracy is no longer “Western.” In fact its most robust bulwarks today can be found in East Asia. In the United States, Americans can be proud, and should be, of the legacy of 1776. Most people are revolted by the mindless defacing of monuments that commemorate the true accomplishments of the American Revolution and its democratic promise of republican governance.
In its attempt to propagate a racialized version of American history the NYT resorted to outright falsification; that the true founding principles and overriding motivations of the War of Independence were racist. To the contrary, the revolution prepared the way for more than two centuries of expansion of democracy and human rights. The progressive forces at the time too weak to prevail during the final decades of 18th Century, immediately took up the struggle for the abolition of slavery, forging a movement that would continue to grow during the years leading up to the second much more violent and sweeping chapter of the American Democratic Revolution. With all of the defects at origin in the Constitution of 1787 and the inability to complete all of the unfinished tasks of revolution during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the sacrifice of the Union regiments, white and black (360,000 perishing in battle), marked a milestone for historically unprecedented social advances to come, nationally and internationally. In comparison to 1776 and 1865 taken together, few revolutions in history have not only been as sweeping and comprehensive, but also historically transformative in terms of social progress. The complete dismantling of the slavocracy was the inevitable consequence of the unique unleashing of the progressive social movements of the new nation that began during the previous century.
Apparently incapable of an objective analysis of the material forces of history, the NYT chose to foist upon students and educators a denial of our common heritage in favor of a racially motivated attempt to divide and segregate, based on superficial impression, identity politics innuendo, conjured image and emotion, appealing to the affective vulnerabilities of gullible sympathizers. In a widely reported remark of its principal author, the effective strategy has been to: “…[make] a moral argument; my method is guilt.” To play on feelings, it was necessary to deny historical progress and the objective assessment of the gains of hard fought struggle. The leading abolitionists of the time clearly distinguished between the vestiges of backward thinking in the political class that in the end, nevertheless, led the national mobilization to uproot the slave system. The leaders of the movement understood the objectively progressive role that the leading forces of the Republican Party were compelled to play. (5) The origins of slavery extend back to ancient times, its widespread practice evidenced in the cultures of all inhabited continents. It was the Democratic Revolution, in the United States and across the world, that destroyed the institution of slavery.
Today we see the same ideologically motivated dismissal of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with the same objective in mind: to falsely portray society as thoroughly, deeply (embedded in the unconscious thoughts of the mass of white people) and irremediably racist.
While the 1619 Project may not make explicit reference to it, the method adopted by the NYT was largely taken from so-called Post-Colonial Theory. Taking the understanding of colonialism, that no one today denies, that it systematically denied the humanity of colonized peoples, a new, unscientific, method is applied to this understanding for the purpose of distorting it. The new postmodernist inspired method of “decolonization” begins with the assumption that systems of power and privilege determine what can be known (P&L, Chapter 3). The “dominant discourses” that these systems wield, for example the traditional materialist, historical and objective approaches of trained researchers, associated with so-called “Western” or “white” science, inflict “epistemic violence.” As another way of knowing, Post-Colonial Theory promotes the idea of a “diversity of knowledges,” and “ways of deciding what is true,” a popular notion being that the “lived experience of different identity groups” is an alternative way of deciding what is true (pp. 77–78). Here what is meant by “alternative” is that it is capable of disconfirming or disqualifying the scientific methods of studying history. Thus we can see how an anti-materialist and ahistorical approach such as that applied by the 1619 Project aligns with the applied postmodern model of “decolonization,” where the expectations of rigorous scholarship do not apply. (6)
Chapter 5 explains how Critical Race Theory (CRT) diverged in important ways from its sister Critical Theories, less tethered to understandings of reality. Queer Theory, astoundingly, has been able to draw some sectors of feminism and many liberal-minded readers of Twitter into its alternate universe of blurred categories where, for example, reference to mother, as on the day reserved on calendar in May for recognizing her, now triggers (acceptable term: “birthing person”). (7) As Pluckrose & Lindsay suggest, the more unreformed postmodernist intersections, less concerned with real-world political application, are likely to remain in the counter-culture fringe. In contrast, CRT is able to promote its radical program with the critique of “dominant [so-called Western, white] discourses,” making contact with established, historical, currents of anti-imperialist and nationalist ideology, much more tethered to reality. For example, these currents, that arose during the international post-World War II anti-colonial struggle, we look back to today as being largely on the right side of history.
As these “dominant discourses” are linked to the democratic systems, result of social conquests originating in the Democratic Revolution, CRT seeks to undermine their very foundations. The Theory is centered on identity politics analysis of discourse in the promotion of safe-space (segregation) and whiteness studies, the preoccupation with microaggression and so-called hate-speech. In addition, the assessment of learning and knowledge are taken as idiosyncratic and subjective, tied to identity, in this case, race (pp. 117–122). The overriding idea that white-supremacy and other forms of racism are omnipresent, endemic and permanent among whites, is reflected in the methods of white-privilege indoctrination/struggle-session type workshops exposed in recent years by participants (e.g. staff workers at Smith College, parents of elementary school children). Typically segregated by race, the combination group therapy/cult training style re-education takes as an assumption either that no progress has been achieved since the years of institutional discrimination (that it is illusory) or that it has been inconsequential. Participants either remain silent or come to recognize, even publicly, their white-supremacist thinking, conceivably in exchange for implicit or explicit absolution. The sensation of guilt perhaps facilitates expression of agreement with or material support for a particular ideology or political program that presents itself as opposed to white-supremacy and white-privilege. Questioning the wisdom of CRT doctrine, and the peculiar manner in which re-education is carried out, by definition is linked to one’s persisting identification with supremacy and privilege, not yet sufficiently self-criticized.
The interests that are served vary according to the target population of obligatory participation. This is an important area of future investigative reporting so we can better understand the connection. In the case of employer organized sessions a transparently obvious goal (among others perhaps) is the sowing of distrust and insecurity and the undermining of solidarity among the workers, most effective if they are not unionized. Distracted with the prejudice that might be lurking deep in the mind of your co-worker, you are less likely to think about who is profiting from the distraction. The objective in the case of young school children is not well understood, cause for much more serious concern than in the case of adults.
The passages devoted to “intersectionality” (123–134) describe this especially complex motor of identity politics. As just mentioned, some of it runs parallel to the fringe variants of Queer-Theory-postmodernism, as such not a pressing practical concern for the present, and less likely so in the future. (8)
Returning to McWhorter regarding the real-life consequences of CRT: we would be having one discussion if its posture of intransigence and radicalism might result in some measure of social advance; but as is pointed out throughout the installments of The Elect, just the opposite is unfolding as the slogans of division and separatism attract more attention. The result is actual harm to communities. The struggle against discrimination is not being served — just the opposite, progress on this front, in material terms, is being diverted.
- The call for the dismantling or downgrading of the police is an irresponsible proposal that truly amounts to empty posturing — Departments need new recruits and better training. The effect of defunding would be to subject inner city communities to increased danger. In cities where the anti-police campaign succeeds the death toll from gang violence will rise. The slogan offers no solution to the deepening crisis of urban America. Serious confusion results from the false claim that police shootings, today, are characterized by the racial bias of officers. In fact, crime statistics show the claim to be simply wrong.
- The denial of objective standards and consensus understanding of modern science will result in the further decline of public education— To suggest that knowledge and methods of learning, the achievement of hundreds of years of progress, are in some way not suited for some ethnic groups, as in the absurd notion of “white empiricism,” (9) cripples the educational future of young people. To maintain the double standard, apologize for, and promote the lower standard for any disfavored population is the new bigotry. It is the new discrimination, not “reverse” or “enlightened,” but the same old one, directed against the same vulnerable population of young people as before, today dressed up in academic-sounding Critical Theory pseudo-scholarship. To suggest that the ability to solve a mathematical problem correctly is a prejudice of “whiteness” is the shameful culmination of years of separate-but-equal and double standard. These incoherent ideas borrowed from postmodernism hold back the attainment of school literacy and mathematics of inner city youth. By the way, it does the same in rural areas for many Native American youth trapped in Critical Theory-inspired educational programs. Tolerance of anti-social conduct in school, because disciplinary measures are allegedly applied in a discriminatory manner by a racist system, disrupts students’ learning. And to ascribe across the board differential outcome to biased assessment robs learners of the opportunity to monitor their progress and improve. If district-wide testing is abolished, cancelling the messenger, we will never know how serious the achievement problem is.
- Safe-space segregation cultivates weakness — Protecting young people from “bad ideas,” instilling in them fear of so-called microaggression, and accepting the condescending virtue signal of people who present themselves as allies, is demeaning. The name for imposing this double (lower) standard, as in the previous example, is paternalism.
CRT as a race theory is inherently reactionary, despite its outward trappings. Its objective of division and segregation is anti-democratic in the same way as all other previous race theories and racist ideologies have been shown to be.
How do we move forward?
All three of our authors are emphatic in their critique of the Critical Theories: to move forward out of the crisis in which we find ourselves will require a cold and objective reassessment. To conclude this review, we can select one of the challenges facing the nation as representative: the remaining unresolved consequences of historical discrimination to which African-Americans have been subject. If some readers might judge the idea of “systemic racism” as having been over-extended, this would be an error. The 100 years of official segregation and deep discrimination following the end of slavery was only redressed in part in recent times with the gains of the Civil Rights Movement codified in the legislation of 1964, 1965 and 1968. Progress since has been significant but not sufficient to erase the enduring legacy of Jim Crow and post-1960s de facto segregation and inferior education; in that sense the widespread inequality in the nation’s opportunity structure is systemic. There is no period in recent history that we can point to and say that the struggle against discrimination has achieved its objective. No reasonable person denies this. What the authors point out is that the false solutions of Critical Race Theory offer no way forward. CRT represents a betrayal of the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, in the end leading to corruption and frustration in service to the corporate elites who cynically promote the farcical programs of re-education and division. The false promises pale in comparison to the scale of social investment that will be required, responsibility of the nation as a whole, to rebuild the inner cities and their governing institutions, starting with the school system, from the desperate breakdown into which they have descended. For this task and many others the progressive movement will be rebuilt.
1. Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why this Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (Pitchstone Publishing, 2020), The Elect: The Threat to a Progressive America from Anti-Black Antiracists by John McWhorter will be published by Portfolio in October 2021 under a new title: Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America; installments 1–6 can be previewed on Substack.
2. It’s important not to confound what is known as postmodernism as it is applied to the analysis of society and politics, history, culture, “identity,” learning and understanding, scientific research, etc. –and — what are called postmodern trends in artistic creation: the actual creative work of artists in postmodern music, postmodern visual art, etc. The two should be kept separate, especially in the debate about the future of the progressive movement, as two different things.
3. Readers can trace the beginnings of this discussion to earlier attempts to understand the challenges before us, when its full implications were not yet clear to me: in a two-part series published on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, on the occasion of the Evergreen College debacle that same year, and on the 500th year commemoration of the beginning of the European conquest of the American mainland, a first approximation toward a critique of the 1619 project.
4. Sokal, A. (1996) Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity, Social Text 46/47: 217–252.
5. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (ed. Phillip Foner), Chicago Review Press (1999).
6. The play on words in regard to the concept of “decolonization” is indeed agile. Appropriated from its traditional meaning (and positive connotation), as actual colonies today are few in number, post-modern activists can now find them everywhere (e.g. in your mind), as Critical Race Theory can find racism everywhere: https://democracyjournal.org/arguments/blackout/. Four years later, as of this writing, the remarkable article is still online. In case one day it is taken down, write to me for a pdf copy.
7. Newsweek, May 8, 2021: https://www.newsweek.com/birthing-peoples-day-cori-bush-debate-rages-mothers-day-weekend-1589846
8. Chapter 4 explains how Queer Theory has preserved the alternative reality approach of postmodernism most faithfully. This review will skip over it, as its mystifying theories and extravagant claims will be the first to wither and fall away by their own weight. Readers, however, should not skip over, as some of Queer Theory’s practical proposals are veritably frightening. See: Irreversible Damage (2020) by Abigail Shrier, study that, shockingly, leading spokespersons of the ACLU have supported the banning of.
9. Prescod-Weinstein, C. (2020). Making black women scientists under white empiricism: The racialization of epistemology in physics. Signs, Winter: 421–447.