Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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I'm using the term in the cosmological sense of so massive a phenomenon that it collapses upon itself.  The motivation for this post is two recent books, Derek Hunter's Outrage, Inc.: How the Liberal Mob Ruined Science, Journalism, and Hollywood; and Robby Soave's Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, which I shall combine as Book Reviews No. 5 and No. 6.

The pairing might strike observers as flawed, in that Mr Hunter is an older polemicist with previous experience at Daily Caller and Heritage, while Mr Soave is a younger Reason columnist whose tone is sometimes more in sadness than in anger at the work of his co-cohorts.

Taken together, though, the two books provide a response to the trendy thinking of many young people and leftist radicals of various stripes, and this review will take the form of a mini-dissertation attempting to provide the intellectual foundations of a more rigorous rebuttal to the trendy thinking.  I'm going to take the ideas out of the order in which they appear in either book, but when we're done, we might see that fifty or sixty or a hundred years of bad ideas have culminated in what traffics in the rubric of intersectionality.

We'll start with Mr Soave's attempt, at page 207, to justify the term "cultural Marxism."  He doesn't do so explicitly, but in "Despite its name, critical theory isn't a theory at all -- it's a methodology, an approach, or a lens for evaluating social phenomena.  The point was to offer a critique of society as it was organized, rather than a simple explanation for how it came to be so."  At best, that is a vulgar form of Marxism, that is, it's an assertion that the institutions of a capitalist society skew outcomes in the favor of capitalists.

Mr Hunter found a passage from a UCLA School of Public Affairs document that elaborates.

[Critical Race Theory] recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that [it] uses in examining existing power structures. [It] identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. [It] also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, [it] challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  [It] also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

Yes, path dependence matters, and yet the argument risks throwing out the possibility that the conventions of liberalism and meritocracy are roads to success.  It's not helpful for the vulgar critical theorist to dismiss the successful students of Madison as sell-outs who have "code shifted" into the culture of privilege and supremacy.

It probably feels better, too, and perhaps there's nothing in the original Marx to get people checking their premises.  I dipped back into Capital recently, and failed to see much if anything about the role of, oh, lending at interest, and futures contracts, and institutions for dividing and sharing risk, although there's a lot about the creation of private farms in place of the old estates, with the serfs driven off the land into cities, and there's no discussion about the internal contradictions of feudalism by which the market order emerged.  Nor does the political economy primer Understanding Capitalism help: at page 114 of the second edition we read, "Earlier economic systems (such as feudalism or slavery) tended to promote consumption of the surplus product by an economic elite; although capitalism has also created an elite with lavish consumption levels, it tends to promote investment of a large part of the surplus product."  Yes, because to fail to invest with the purpose of offering better products on better terms to a larger market is the quickest route out of the economic elite.  (I'm probably being mean to note that the book is now in a fourth edition, with four authors, and being offered at collegiate, meaning put it on your student loan, prices.)

Perhaps, though, I misinterpret so-called critical theory as a basis for intellectual inquiry.  It might make more sense viewed as a faith tradition, if an interesting one in which there is neither an end of sin nor the possibility of redemption.  Here's Mr Soave, on the singularity, at page 195.  "Intersectionality provides no basis for adjudicating claims of marginalization that might be in tension with one another." No, as this statement by a University of Denver student, that might not even be relevant.  Being aware (and guilty?) of one's privilege is more important.  "For me, this was pivotal in placing my white, cis, woman positionality in the context of privilege and oppression, which I believe has allowed me to think more critically and converse openly in other courses."  She's probably a lot of fun on a date, but I digress.

As a faith tradition, though, the Church of Intersectionality is probably a recondite bordering on incoherent dead end.  Contrast the stacking of oppressions with the logic of Christianity, for instance.  Redemption is offered to all who believe in Crucifixion and Redemption.  Redemption is necessary, because all have sinned; condemning the sinners to eternal damnation is probably less effective as doctrine than acknowledging sin, and being quick to forgive and quicker to ask forgiveness.

Contrast that with the language of Intersectionality, in which, as Mr Soave notes, the sinned against can assert, with all serious, it is not their task to educate the Unenlightened.  From there it is not far to the language of "deplorable" or "irredeemable."  That's probably not the best way to win elections or change minds.

The next element of the intersectional singularity comes late in Mr Soave's book, where he attempts to come to grips with the so-called "alt right" and perhaps with school shooters.  In his discussion of "safety culture" (one of the influences he perceives on Generation Snowflakes) he notes that the likely master-mind of the Columbine school shooting, Eric Harris, was (page 235) "a sociopath bent on doing something truly evil."  He might have had a "messianic-grade superiority complex."  As far as we know, he didn't keep a Historic Diary.  And yet, a passage I read in a book written some thirty years after the murder of President Kennedy about Lee Oswald being the prototype for all sorts of mentally disordered glory hounds comes to mind.

But we've spend the last fifty years or so closing the insane asylums and being more sensitive about mental disorders.  That might on balance be a good thing, but when a great deal of Panic Attack and more than a little of Outrage are about the faction fights in the sexual underground, I wish the people who used to study abnormal psychology would take a stand.  We know not to treat eating disorders with diet pills and liposuction; we don't give someone who identifies as Napoleon a battery of twelve-pounders and a map of Russia; but the young person who claims to be crossing might genuinely be confused, or that might be the latest form of teen rebellion.  See Panic Attack, pages 183-188.  As a consequence, we might have the B in opposition to the T, and some members of the G or the L at odds with the T (and sometimes the B.)  It might make great theater for the Normals, but it's going to consume the Critical Theory types and the Student Affairs diversicrats to the detriment of higher education.  "Once upon a time, universities were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization. Today, most are dedicated to the destruction of those values. It is past time to call them to account." People in academic posts who look upon barbecuing and country music and pickup trucks as manifestations of toxic masculinity or some kind of privilege aren't helping.

Meanwhile, we're in an inverse-Casablanca world in which the problems of a few people suffice to turn everything upside down, without any thought to what comes next.  Come to think of it, that's the problem of the original Marxism as well, isn't it: misguided critique followed by chaos.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: cultural studies, current events, non-fiction, politics

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