Many Americans are concerned about the splintering of America into identity groups and are bewildered by critical race theory, queer studies, the proliferation of genders, cancel culture, the claim that reason and logic are constructs of white culture, and the corresponding shift from classical liberalism to identity-based authoritarianism.
Other Americans believe that these are passing fads that will dissipate like former fads if they are ignored, or humored, or accommodated until they run out of steam.
The scholarly book below can inform the first group and disabuse the second group.
Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, Pitchstone Publishing, Durham, North Carolina, 2020, 351 pages.
The book is a very important treatise on how the new thinking came about, why it is not going away on its own, and why it is destroying the bonds that hold society together.
The authors are pedigreed liberals and scholars with inside knowledge of the academy. They rightly see the new thinking as a threat to classical liberalism, which they define as “political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.”
In this, the authors have a lot of common cause with conservatives, libertarians, and anyone of any party who still values such political principles.
The problem is that the book is a difficult read, not because it is badly written, but because, by necessity, it has to delve into academic jargon and philosophical abstractions and concepts. Understandably, with the stresses of living in these troubled times, most people don’t have the time or interest to read a book that is about as relaxing as studying for a final exam.
As such, given the importance of the book’s message, this paper is less of a traditional book review and more of a formal exposition based on the book’s key points, for the benefit of those who won’t be reading the book. Personal thoughts are included based on my career experience at the vanguard of equal opportunity, affirmative action, diversity, and racial sensitivity training.
The paper is divided into the following sections:
Postmodernism Roots of New Thinking
The Mutation of Postmodernism
Social Justice’s Version of Scholarship
Critical Race Theory
The New Feminism
The New View of the Disabled and the Obese
Social Justice Closemindedness
The Rapidly Spreading Dogma
Due to the complexity of the foregoing topics, and due to the new illiberal thinking having its tentacles deep inside America’s major institution, this paper is necessarily long at nearly 6,900 words. I believe it is one of my most important writings, more important than my published book, my seven years of authoring a newspaper column, and my many articles in leading newspapers and publications. That shows how much I see the new thinking as a serious threat.
Postmodernism Roots of New Thinking
The roots of today’s voguish theories go back to the postmodernism of the late 1960s. There’s not a universally-accepted definition of “postmodernism,” but a common one is “a belief that there is no objective knowledge or truth.”
Postmodernism rejected the reason and scientific method of the Enlightenment, embraced moral and cultural relativism, and saw power, cultural biases, and the language of political discourse as the guiding forces of society.
Because postmodernism deconstructed all large social and political systems into meaninglessness, it resulted in cynicism and nihilism and tore itself apart in the process. But one aspect of postmodernism survives today: a rejection of both individuality and common humanity. In their place, postmodernism saw small groups as the only legitimate sources of knowledge, values and discourses—groups that have the same experiences, perspectives and values, due to being of the same race, sex, or class.
The Mutation of Postmodernism
Originally, postmodernism was kind of an intellectual game without a political or social agenda. Its modern mutation is the opposite. It has morphed into what the book calls New Theories, which have the goal of reordering society, righting wrongs, achieving equal results instead of equality under the law, pursuing social justice for those groups seen as being treated unjustly, taking power from white men, stereotyping all whites as having conscious and unconscious biases, rejecting white ideas about reason and merit, replacing white literature and words with the literature and words of marginalized groups, and dismantling the white institutions and social norms that are seen as being built on colonialism, slavery, discrimination, and other injustices.
The book’s authors don’t say this, but revenge is one of the driving forces behind the New Theories; that is, the unspoken motive is to get even with white men and Western culture for demeaning and supplanting non-Western cultures and powerless minorities. Of course, the vast majority of those who embrace the New Theories have been born and raised under Western values, are the progeny of generations of Americans who have lived under Western values, and only have an imagined or exaggerated sense of another cultural heritage.
Not only that, but many of the theorists are whiter than this Mediterranean. One wonders if they realize what they have unleashed on their progeny and society.
Acolytes of the New Theories fail to acknowledge the self-correcting nature of classical liberalism and democracy, and they seem blind to the tremendous progress made in extending rights, political power, and economic progress to non-whites, women, gays, and the disabled. Nor do they seem to realize that the reason they have not been sent to the gulag or reeducation camp for their revolutionary ideas is because they are citizens of a pluralistic, liberal democracy and a constitutional republic with a Bill of Rights.
At the same time, they don’t say what political and economic system they see as a replacement, they don’t admit the failings of other systems and cultures, and, for sure, they can’t imagine that things might get worse if they were to rise to power. In their sanctimonious minds, they don’t have human foibles and are therefore incapable of governing out of self-interest and being corrupted by power. In that sense, they are reminiscent of idealistic Bolsheviks in 1917.
As will be seen below, their methods reveal the opposite about them.
Social Justice’s Version of Scholarship
There used to be a barrier between scholarship and activism in academia, just as there used to be a barrier between the news and editorial pages of newspapers. The barrier has been breached. As the authors of Critical Theories write, “Teaching is now supposed to be a political act, and only one type of politics is acceptable—identity politics…”
In turn, identity politics has led to the concept of “research justice,” which demands that scholars maximize citations of women and minorities and minimize citations of white Western men, because empirical research rooted in evidence and reasoned argument is an unfair and privileged cultural construct of white Westerners. Therefore, according to the authors, research justice establishes a moral obligation for scholars to include other forms of research, such as “superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions and beliefs, identity-based experiences, and emotional responses.”
The authors go on to say that this agenda is not hidden. It has been open and explicit for many years. No doubt, it was not open and explicit to parents who footed the college expenses for their kids.
The authors quote a postmodernist scholar on his theories about the role that language plays in constructing knowledge. In a case of ironic comedy, the scholar’s writing was so incomprehensible that he won second place in a bad writing contest for this sentence:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
Much of the writing in the New Theories is just as incomprehensible, and even when it is comprehensible, it is often incoherent, inconsistent, illogical, and contradictory. That’s certainly the case with queer theory.
Queer theory is mostly about sex, gender and sexuality but can be applied to other subjects. It is a belief that language causes oppression when it is used to establish and reinforce what society considers normal, especially in regards to the binary categories of male and female, masculine and feminine, straight and gay, and so on. The goal of queer theory is to subvert or reject anything considered normal and to replace it with the queer.
Once again, the driving force is the belief that normative categories are social constructs developed intentionally or unintentionally by the dominant culture to discriminate against outliers. Therefore, it’s self-defeating for minorities and the disadvantaged to judge themselves by the standards and mores of the dominant group.
As with a lot of the New Theories, an ounce of truth can be found in a gallon of hogwash.
Science does show that gender dysphoria is real, and for sure, humans have always engaged in sexual practices outside of what society at a given point in history has considered normal. But it is not enough under queer theory to employ classical liberalism to extend equal rights to so-called queers. It’s necessary to go beyond that to make queers the new normal, to change the language accordingly, and to even put them on a pedestal as a brave new victim group deserving of accolades. A personal anecdote illustrates the difference in treatment.
Circa 1988, I was an executive with an old-line manufacturing and mining company dominated by macho, good ole boys. A male clerk in one of my departments began wearing female clothes as part of a gender transition. I quickly stopped the snickering by his male and female coworkers by asking them to imagine how uncomfortable it was from his perspective to be so different, irrespective of whether the difference was due to hormones, genes, or a psychological problem. Deciding what restroom he could use was a non-event, and the transitioning employee quickly returned to being treated as just another coworker. (In some countries, he would have been fired or maybe even stoned to death.)
Treating transgendered people this way is far different from putting a transgender on a company’s board of directors as a token to appease queer activists and to demonstrate to employees who have a warped view of social justice that the company is hip. It’s also far different from the radical idea that the majority should submerge its values or risk being called intolerant—and that children should be encouraged in public schools to be trendy and adopt a different gender identity or to change their identity at the first sign of normal gender confusion.
A similar shift to radicalism can be seen in critical race theory.
Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory is primarily about African Americans, who are also known as Blacks, with the “B” capitalized. It isn’t really about other so-called “people of color.” CRT began with the undeniable fact that whites (with the “w” not capitalized) engaged in the slave trade. Actually, it was some white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as well as some Portuguese and Spaniards (aka Hispanics) who engaged in the slave trade.
Another undeniable fact is that many other whites benefited economically from slavery and that racism continued through Jim Crow and continues today, albeit at a much reduced level. Still another is that Blacks continue to suffer socioeconomically as a group in spite of the Great Society, War on Poverty, voting rights legislation, equal opportunity laws, affirmative action, scores of welfare programs, and dramatically increased political power.
CRT’s basic premise is that race was a social construct designed to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. A corollary is that racial stereotypes and racism have become so ingrained in the dominant white culture that all whites, regardless of their ethnicity and class, have economic, social, educational, and political advantages over Blacks—advantages that are reinforced by white concepts of reason, science and merit. Moreover, even the most enlightened and open-minded whites harbor unconscious prejudices.
Given that there is little genetic variation between different peoples, race is indeed mostly a social construct; but it is a construct that also applies to whites and other “races,” not just to Blacks. Also, of course, all people, regardless of pigment, harbor conscious and unconscious stereotypes and prejudices about people who are different from them. However, what’s unique about whites, according to CRT, is that they hold political, social and economic power over Blacks and other non-whites.
The solution, therefore, is twofold: first, to take political, social and economic power away from whites; second, to get whites to admit their advantages and to confront their unconscious prejudices.
Efforts to achieve the first goal include diversity and inclusion initiatives that prioritize Blacks over whites in hiring and promotions, as well as the elimination of quantifiable admissions criteria for colleges and certain professions. Efforts to achieve the second goal include CRT training programs in corporations and government, in which whites are confronted with their privileges and unconscious racism, similar to how people accused of being capitalists during the Chinese Cultural Revolution were humiliated and forced to confess. Much to the consternation of parents, CRT training has been adopted by many school districts.
CRT has established a Catch-22 to protect itself from counter-opinions and scholarly debate, namely that denials of racism and power by whites are proof of their racism and power. Such denials can result in whites being cancelled, or seeing their career ruined, or, in academia, being denied tenure and grants.
On a personal note, if I mention my work on behalf of equal rights, I’m ipso facto a racist who uses that work as an excuse not to give up power and money. Likewise, it is seen as totally irrelevant if I relate my experience as a teen and the only “white” on an otherwise all-Black janitorial and kitchen crew at an exclusive country club in St. Louis that denied membership to Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Catholics. The fact that I would wash and wax the big Buick of the Black clubhouse manager, Bill Williams, for extra money, and the fact that my dad was a non-union tile setter and the son of a coal miner, does not keep me from being branded as coming from privilege.
Because I’m considered white and privileged by whomever decides such matters, my opinions are discounted by CRT. It’s unclear how this is good for whites, Blacks, and society at large.
In the same vein, in a glaring double standard, it’s not okay to negatively stereotype Blacks but is okay to negatively stereotype whites. And in an awful and unmentioned development, white elites are now more paternalistic, more condescending, and more pandering towards Blacks than ever. An example is the proliferation of TV commercials featuring Blacks, who, except for skin color, resemble the idealized WASPs in the fantastical TV shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver”—shows that had little resemblance to my Italian family or the families of scores of other ethnic immigrant groups. No doubt, the commercials are produced by ad agencies staffed by wealthy graduates of the Ivy League, on behalf of corporate clients who are wealthy graduates of the Ivy League.
To a large extent, the relationship between whites and Blacks remains parent-to-child instead of adult-to-adult. The former relationship results in dependency and child-like behavior. The latter, in independence and self-confidence. At least Malcolm X and the Black Panthers didn’t want to depend on whites for anything.
The relationship can be seen in the reticence of whites to level with Blacks to the same degree that they level with fellow whites. In discussing and debating current events, political philosophy, economics, racism, or whatever, they hold back for fear of triggering an emotional reaction and being seen as overbearing and insensitive. In other words, they tiptoe around certain subjects with Blacks.
The authors make an excellent point that the hallmark of critical race theory is a “paranoid mind-set, which assumes racism is everywhere, always, just waiting to be found,” and which is “extremely unlikely to be helpful or healthy for those who adopt it.” They go on to say:
In addition, interpreting everything as racist and saying so almost constantly in unlikely to produce the desired results in white people (or for minorities). It could even undermine antiracist activism by creating skepticism and indignation and thus producing a reluctance to cooperate with worthwhile initiatives to overcome racism…It is bad psychology to tell people who do not believe that they are racist—who may even actively despise racism—that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from being racist…Worst of all is to set up double-binds, like telling them that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race, it’s because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race, which is racist.
The same problems exist with a branch of critical race theory known at intersectionality.