Before resuming our current project, the book Cynical Theories (2020), I’d like to clarify that this is not an opinion blog. Anyone reacting to its contents with The Dude’s – “that’s just like, your opinion, man” should beware, it’s not. And even if it is ‘opinion’ – it’s not mine; it’s that of much smarter, eminently more aware minds than mine, both historical and living – like Tyler Cowen, Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker. Here’s a great article:
The following from it informs these Twitter mob, woke, cancel culture, crazy times:
The correct response to the cancellers is not simply to say that they should respect free speech. Rather, one must say to them that you are attacking people for stating things which are true, while you are stating things which are false.
While certain fields and disciplines continue to seek truth, it is simply time we accepted that many do not, and are committed first and foremost to a false view of the world. Instead of engaging with such people, what those in the press and outside the academy should do is focus on marginalizing the unhealthy parts of the academy that have been conquered by [bullshit].
Large swaths of the academy may deserve to be ignored or even mocked, but in other fields, in think tanks and newspapers, and on blogs…. real debate and the search for truth continue.
And, so, here we are.
Mainstream media and so many in our universities suffer from false, agenda driven worldviews without realizing the logical errors and biases afflicting their thinking.
Blogger Mark Manson recently elaborated on obstacles to a thinker/writer’s quest for truth:
Pluckrose and Lindsay have done humanity a great service. They located, isolated and thoroughly analyzed a virus that has infected human thinking. Chapter 2 of Cynical Theories (2020) is Applied Postmodernism. They write that postmodern ideas are:
…a kind of fast-evolving virus. Its original and purest form was unsustainable: it tore its hosts apart and destroyed itself. It could not spread from the academy to the general population because it was so difficult to grasp and so seemingly removed from social realities. In its evolved form, it spread, leaping the “species” gap from academics to activists to everyday people, as it became increasingly graspable and actionable and therefore more contagious.
Postmodernism took an applied turn for the worse, undergoing a moral mutation, twisting beliefs about the rights and wrongs of power and privilege. This new, virulent infection of mind and morality is called Social Justice or just “Theory”. It mutated descriptive knowledge into something highly prescriptive, an abrupt shift from is to ought – and a forcible, destructive ought at that. Social Justice scholarship tries to make teaching a political act, and only one type of politics is acceptable – identity politics.
The authors are not speculating. They cite plenty of evidence that these surprising and worrying changes are not the result of a hidden agenda. The agenda is open and explicit and always has been. For example, they point to an academic paper that likens women’s studies to HIV, advocating that it spread its version of feminism like an immune-suppressing virus, using students-turned-activists as carriers.
These developments are confusing and alarming but fortunately most people are not “radical cultural constructivists, with postmodern conceptions of society and a commitment to intersectional understanding of Social Justice.” Many are, however, susceptible to this nasty mind virus because it seems to offer the appearance of deep explanations to complicated problems. Theory has morphed from obscure academic ideas into what many falsely believe to be general “wisdom” about how the world works.
This illiberal, anti-reason virus can only be combated with honest discourse, which is not permitted by Theory. Questioning or denying Social Justice precepts is not allowed. As a recent reviewer of their book notes:
the sheer impertinence of challenging any newly discovered manifestation of systemic racism or heteronormativity would just be an attempt to re-assert the white heteronormative power trip inherent in the use of appeals to fact, evidence, or logic.
Pluckrose and Lindsay’s suggested approach is akin to preaching to the choir: people who understand and appreciate freedom of speech and the societal and legal pre-requisites for human rights already get it. Those assimilated into Theory will not.
Theory was born in the postmodern tradition in which there was no truth but has long since mutated into the central idea that the only truth is the existence of power imbalance in society and language and the victimization that results from that imbalance. That truth may not be questioned. Theory has no methodology to test or correct itself. By definition, it cannot care about reality external to language and socially constructed knowledge. It mimics the familiar language of human rights and justice but necessarily rejects the notion of our common humanity or the existence of an individual in whom those rights inhere. Only identities are real because that is how power interacts with us.
You cannot argue with or convince a Social Justice activist infected with this mind virus that they are wrong. You can only pity their false understanding of the world and defend against the forcible imposition of their bad ideas. Next week, we begin a plunge into 5 strains of the virus – specific applied Theories, one by one over the next 5 weeks.
This is a sculpture in Italy by the same leftist artist who duct taped a banana to a wall, took a picture of it and then sold it as a masterpiece for $120,000. It’s what you get when try reasoning with a postmodernist. Postmodern nonsense infected art before it seeped into philosophy. Here’s what happened to human thinking:
Chapter 1 of Cynical Theories (2020) traces the 1960s roots of this pathological development in human thought that has infested art, philosophy, literature and politics. Postmodernism is difficult to define (on purpose) because it is intentionally deceptive and designed to be disruptive. Defining it is hard, not because the ideas are complex or difficult to understand, rather, it’s slimy and slippery because proponents twist and mutate central tenants in attempts to “change the world” (i.e. destroy classic Western Civilization and seize power for themselves).
There is no authoritative definition of postmodernism but the authors start with this:
Postmodernism is a movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintain political and economic power.
They then try to identify two pernicious principles and four troubling themes that we will see again and again as we move through their book.
Postmodern Knowledge – radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is even possible.
Postmodern Politics – society is just systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what humans know and how.
Language and power are everything – truth is nothing because all claims to truth are just socially constructed. Reality is what leftists say it is – and this shall be imposed upon you. The four disturbing themes that follow the above two principles are:
The blurring of boundaries
The power and danger of language
The loss of the individual and the universal
Criticisms of postmodern thought are diverse and vast because it is really just meaningless promotion of obscurantism (deliberately presenting information in an imprecise and abstruse manner in order to forestall further inquiry and understanding). There is no reasoning with postmodernists – replies to reasoned criticism are just a cynical, arrogant F— U, like that sculpture.
Although postmodernist continue to muddy the intellectual waters, books like Cynical Theories expose it for what it is. Our two authors were part of the grievance studies hoax affairs that roiled academia, shining more light on leftist nonsense. Read about the Sokal Affair and Sokal Squared.
Roger Scruton sums it up this way: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”
Next Tuesday, we take a turn for the worst – applied postmodernism.
Pluckrose and Lindsay begin Cynical Theories (2020) by anticipating criticism from leftist academics. Some will accuse them of being racist right wingers (which they are clearly not). Others will derisively assert that the authors are deluded by a white, male, Western, heterosexual construction of knowledge. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, their critics will argue.
The master’s tools are reason, logic, science and liberalism, which have built the incredibly sturdy, majestic house of Western Civilization – it’s not perfect, but we’re extremely lucky to live in it. Postmodern philosophy tries to tear down our house but realizes it cannot do this with the “tools” of liberalism (democracy, universal human rights, legal equality for all, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason). It’s a good house. The only problem is that there has been limited access to it – that doesn’t mean we should tear it all down. “Equal access to rubble is not a worthy goal”, they write. So, let’s embark on a journey through bad ideas threatening to destroy our very very very fine house.
The first two chapters explore the origins of wrong postmodern thinking:
Chapter 1 – Postmodernism
Chapter 2 – Postmodernism’s Applied Turn
The next five focus on specific fields of grievance studies:
Chapter 3 – Postcolonial Theory
Chapter 4 – Queer Theory
Chapter 5 – Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality
Chapter 6 – Feminisms and Gender Studies
Chapter 7 – Disability and Fat Studies
The last three chapters explore the evolution of these ideas and presents the book’s conclusion:
Chapter 8 – Social Justice Scholarship and Thought
Chapter 9 – Social Justice in Action
Chapter 10 – An Alternative to the Ideology of Social Justice
It’s shockingly clear that none of these ideas are new. The authors cite countless articulations of the shameless intellectual bankruptcy of postmodernism. For example, endnote 22 in Chapter 1 points to Stephen R. C. Hicks’ book Understanding Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (2004). It details the outrageous ideological pivots and the abandonment of truth in leftist thinking.
Another, older pounding of postmodernism is on pgs. 395-410 of Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind (1991). I remain astonished that supposedly smart people continue to push this crap even as the wrongness of it all keeps getting exposed. Recall that we worked through “The Three Great Untruths” in The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) here from 11/27/18 to 12/31/18. Cynical Theories (2020) arrives at the importance of that book in Chapter 9. We’ll be there in 9 weeks. Next Tuesday, we enter Chapter 1 – where in the world did postmodern ideas come from?
Our next War Chest project is the impeccably well-researched new book Cynical Theories – How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (2020) by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. They have succinctly exposed the terrible errors and immorality of post-modern philosophy. I’ve been trying to do that here for years. I wrote on 1/29/19 why Leftist Philosophy is Bad. On 12/14/18 my post was Deflecting Leftist Losers and on 8/15/18 I wrote of The Unstable Paradox of Progressive Thought. This new book ought to finally put the issue to rest – it won’t
Why not? Well, because my and the authors’ points are “deeply subversive of opinions and beliefs to which many highly intelligent and well-informed people are wedded, and without which the world would perhaps be unendurable for them”, wrote Edward Banfield. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”, wrote Upton Sinclair. It’s incredibly difficult to communicate with or understand the cancel culture left. We shall nonetheless embark on a profound exploration of power, language and knowledge.
Steven Pinker explained in Enlightenment Now (2018) that opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable – but the post-modernist credo remains that reason is just a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed. Pinker notes on the back of Cynical Theories – people are bewildered by the “surge of wokery, social justice warfare, intersectionality, and identity politics that has spilled out of academia and inundated other spheres of life. Where did it come from? What ideas are behind it? This book exposes the surprisingly shallow intellectual roots of the movements that appear to be engulfing our culture”. Kevin D. Williams writes that social justice is a vague and infinitely plastic concept, which is the point. A nebulous moral mandate in the hands of people with armies and police at their disposal is one of the most dangerous things in the world.
Buckle your cognitive flak jacket and let’s watch these authors obliterate the postmodern nonsense that has infected our world like a nasty virus. It will be fun to watch the academic left (about the only kind there is), who are pathologically obsessed with power, get destroyed by our War Chest weapons of reality, morality and reason.
Joel Kotkin’s final Section VII of The Coming of Neo Feudalism (2020) presents “A Manifesto for the Third Estate”. He’s talking to us! We, the “Yeomanry”; hard-working, responsible, moderately wealthy, engaged citizens who embrace “bourgeois” values. Chapter 19 (The Technological Challenge) warns us of a new technocracy by which elites claim a right to control our lives on the basis of their supposedly superior knowledge and morality. Chapter 20 (The Shaping of Neo-feudal Society) cautions that neo-feudalism is a threat to traditional families. Chapter 21 (Can We Challenge Neo-feudalism?) concludes by observing how the immorality, arrogance and hypocrisy of today’s clerisy undermine their goal of oligarchic socialism. We win, but only if we work at it.
It’s all about our power to resist cognitive/moral entropy and repel the Left’s attempts to forcibly impose their beliefs onto us. We must fend off feudalistic forces and resist the clerisy’s efforts to constrain intellectual debate. The widespread censorship and de-platforming or cancelling of unapproved views is a new form of technologically enhanced thought control.
We shall continue to value hard work and the fundamental ideals of Western civilization. A Neo-feudal order “would replace a focus on upward mobility and family with a desire for a comfortable, subsidized life, indulging in the digital mind-sinks that keep the masses in their metaphorical basements”. We happily undertake the moral effort and hard work of rejecting feudalism.
Next week, a new project! A book just published contains even more moral and intellectual weapons we shall load into an ideational armory that I call The Estate Planning War Chest.
Kotkin starts Section VI of The Coming of Neo Feudalism (2020) by pointing to Chicago – our quintessential class stratified neo-feudal city. Chapter 16 (The New Gated City) explains how cities have grown increasingly “bifurcated, with oligarchs and the upper clerisy living in the gentrified urban core, surrounded by propertyless and often impoverished masses on the periphery”. Chapter 17 (The Soul of the New-feudal City) discusses political polarization and the war on the suburban middle class family being waged by the leftist clerisy. Chapter 18 (The Totalitarian Urban Future) shows us a new “surveillance society” in which elites subjugate city dwellers with constant monitoring and control.
The “war on suburbs” is a hot button political dispute these days but the neo-feudal order of cities is indisputable. What has developed is a “new class of urban serfs who are forced into small apartments and work sporadically, often remaining dependent on subsidies”. One of the subsections in Chapter 18 is “Global Cities of the Damned”. I am vividly familiar with the stratification of Chicago because I often travel downtown, navigating my way through beggars and squalor to get to Court. No need for me to become informed about Lake Shore Drive – ‘from rags on up to riches fifteen minutes you can fly’; I drive it a lot.
Leftist writers believe the war on suburbs isn’t real or is just racist. Incoherent deceptive political arguments notwithstanding, the war is real. Kotkin ends Chapter 17 with this:
…“urban planners have a long history of ignoring or even disdaining middle-class aspirations for a suburban lifestyle. … the motive is often “class based”, an effort to revive the patterns of the premodern past, with defined hierarchies and limited opportunity for upward mobility or for improving the condition of those outside the upper classes. The attack on suburbia is, in effect, a way of socially deconstructing the middle class. Even as middle-income families are squeezed out of the urban core, planners wish to close off alternatives that majorities in fact prefer.”
Next week, we get to the final section of Kotkin’s book to find out if all of this is inevitable. Are there any more ideas that we, the embattled yeomanry, can put into our Estate Planning War Chests to protect our families from oligarchs above or revolting peasants below?
Kotkin ends Section V of his book by asking the “great question”, quoting the title of a 1990 book: What Are People For? Two recent articles tackle the topic. The first is from Steven Pinker, in his part of the latest book from www.edge.org – Possible Minds 25 Ways of Looking at A.I. (2019).
The touchstone of the Pinker piece is Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950). His point is that ideas (and people) matter! Popular books and movies evidence humanity’s fear of computer technology and artificial intelligence. Pinker writes that we should NOT be afraid of technology because of the causal power of ideas – our beliefs, values, norms, laws and customs. Technology does not determine social structure and cultural values – we do!
Deterministic views of human history are wrong because they ignore the causal power of ideas. In a healthy society, ideas flow free. A dysfunctional society (like ours right now) uses dogma and authority to coercively control people and ideas from the top down. Runaway artificial intelligence is not a threat. The real threat today is “oppressive political correctness, which has choked the range of publicly expressible hypotheses, terrified many intelligent people against entering the intellectual arena, and triggered a reactionary backlash”.
Ideas matter – but whose ideas prevail, which ideas are better? In order to see them clearly we have to acknowledge cognitive bias. The second article of interest is from an Australian lawyer who has some important observations on bias:
George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism (1945) explored the limits of reason, cognitive bias and the critical importance of “moral effort”. Modern discourse has become so infected with ideology that it is impossible to approach rationally. One must have preferences and recognize that some ideas are objectively better than others. In the battle against the bad, immoral ideas of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, socialism (collectivism in all its forms) it’s important to remember that our ideational enemies are so threatened by reason that defeating us takes precedence over truth, consistency and common sense. They must contend with “inadmissible facts”, which are true and generally accepted but cannot be admitted by the adherents of certain ideologies; or, if admitted, are explained away or dismissed as unimportant.
That’s why the idea of Marxism is so dangerous. Its proponents cannot and will not listen to reason. Here’s a scary article:
…And you think you’re so clever and classless and free. But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.
– John Lennon – Working Class Hero (1970)
Part V of Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo Feudalism (2020) is “The New Serfs”. Chapter 13 (Beyond the Ring Road) points out that serfdom emerged in the Middle Ages, was ended by a new, strong working class and is now returning as the way society is organized, with a weak working class. Chapter 14 (The Future of the Working Class) introduces us to the “precariat”, a new growing global underclass with limited control over their work, living on subsistence wages. Chapter 15 (Peasant Rebellions) explores an ongoing peasant revolt against the Oligarchy and Clerisy, which could lead to dangerous upheavals.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) foresaw a dramatically widening disparity in property distribution as capitalism expanded. “The great field of battle will be property”, he predicted. And it has now come to pass, which is why you must keep a well-stocked cognitive and financial War Chest. The U.S. Constitution guarantees power will always be vested in responsible property owners; “propertied worthies”, as the Founders envisioned; or, at least propertyless people who are hard-working and smart enough to become propertied worthies. The problem now is that Elites are blocking upward mobility
The casualties of the culture War are millions of American families who once were secure but are now losing ground, “coming apart”, as Charles Murray puts it. They are being left behind in a proletarianization of the middle class. Those who remain secure, we the embattled Yeomanry, are survivors in a brutal class war. We are now threatened by an increasingly angry, discontent precariat, who are being held down by Elites intentionally causing cultural erosion in the working class. The Elite’s response to populist uprisings is revulsion. “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses”, a 2016 article announced. They see the political schism of our time as not between left and right, but between sane elites vs. the mindlessly angry masses. Leftist intellectuals suppress unacceptable ideas not by brute force but by characterizing them as deplorable, risible, racist, absurd.
There has consequently been a shift toward hard-left politics, particularly among the young and dumb. The murderous, failed concept of Marxism is making a comeback. That is certainly a threat but it is a distant, defendable menace because “oligarchic socialism”, with wealth redistribution subsidies (paid for by us) to the peasants will fail. As we’ll see at the end of Kotkin’s book, an emphasis on social justice through redistribution does not increase opportunities for upward mobility, but instead fosters dependency while consolidating power in the hands of a self-anointed elite few.
Kotkin ends this section by boiling it down to a simple question: Do people – not just those with elite credentials and skills – actually matter in this technological age? I and the writers I cite are here to tell you that people do indeed matter! The current push back against technological determinism is remarkable. Let’s take a tangent into that in the coming days.
Next Tuesday, we tour the soul of the gentrified, gated cities of the new feudalism.
Part IV of Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo Feudalism (2020) is “The Embattled Yeomanry”. Chapter 10 (The Rise and Decline of Upward Mobility) traces origins of the property-owning middle class to early Dutch culture with its roots in a strong work ethic and family values. The “Yeomanry”, as Kotkin calls us, is transitioning from a primary segment of western civilization to a shrinking, threatened minority. Chapter 11 (A Lost Generation) explains why children today, who are not lucky enough to have inherited our bourgeois values and wealth, are doomed to permanent serfdom. Chapter 12 (Culture and Capitalism) examines the critical importance of literacy and the nuclear family to success against threats from the other three classes (the Oligarchs, Clerisy and hordes of wretched, hopeless peasants being subjugated by the first two).
Kotkin is not just speculating about the doors to upward mobility being slammed shut for most. His endnotes are replete with evidence of growing; some would consider viciously mean, wealth consolidation. He cites a lot of the same books and articles I’ve pointed to for years, including Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (2011) my reading of which started this blog. Many writers seem to resent my clients’ fortunate position in the birth lottery that the hereditary aristocracy perpetuates. We are indeed situated in a hereditary aristocracy but with a copious portion of legitimizing meritocracy mixed in that morally justifies our moderate wealth. “Yeoman’s” work or share refers to good, hard, valuable effort. And that defines our class, not just the fortuity of being born to responsible parents.
Despite those that think we should feel guilty about our success:
We shall continue to thrive and heed Kotkin’s warnings that we’ll get to in a few weeks. The middle class is being eliminated, it no longer exists – just the four classes that Kotkin discusses (oligarchs, clerisy, yeomanry and serfs). Before our very eyes in real time there is an ongoing proletarianization* of the middle class. There soon will be no more middle class. If you think you’re middle class, you are not. You are either poor and uninformed or wealthy and insecure. I hope reading this blog makes you secure and informed.
* proletarianization is a Marxist concept whereby people transition from being employers or self-employed, to being wage slaves – living paycheck to paycheck, as part of what we’ll see next week, denizens of the propertyless “precariat” dwelling at the bottom of a feudal society.