I’ve been living in Academyville most of my life, which means I’ve met some of the villainous ogres the right-wingers hate: Marxists and Post-Modernists. I’ve never met two of them at the same time, though. I’ve also met Fanatical Capitalists. It’s a real slumgullion in here, but that’s part of the charm.
Enter Andrew Sullivan. Or rather, exit Andrew Sullivan, who has left his comfortable paying job slinging dull resentment of things he doesn’t understand to put on rusty armor, climb aboard a tired donkey, and begin a crusade against…critical theory? Which again, he doesn’t understand, but is absolutely sure it is about destroying the very fabric of society.
I’m no expert in this stuff — I tinker with spiders — so I tend to defer to the experts on the other side of campus, you know, the social scientists and humanities people. Unlike the Sullivans of the world, I’ve mingled enough with them to respect their intelligence and knowledge, and to know that they are as sincere in their use of intellectual tools as I am in trying to understand the genes and processes behind spider development and behavior.
So I listen when someone like Asad Haider analyzes Sullivan’s claims.
After a grandiose announcement that he was leaving New York Magazine due to a stifling political atmosphere, Andrew Sullivan has now launched a comedy career. In a post of his new “non-conformist” newsletter, Sullivan announces that he will present an analysis of contemporary “social justice” politics. This politics, he says, is the development of “an esoteric, academic discipline called critical theory, which has gained extraordinary popularity in elite education in the past few decades.” Critical theory, he says with what can only be dry sarcasm, is so powerful and omnipresent that it is “changing the very words we speak and write and the very rationale of the institutions integral to liberal democracy.”
Sullivan’s account is full of falsehoods and misinterpretations so drastic that they could only be the product of a refined wit. The neologisms he attributes to the tradition founded by thinkers like Theodor Adorno are: “non-binary, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, traumatizing, queer, transphobia, whiteness, mansplaining.” One can only hope that Sullivan branches into sketch comedy, so we might see a dramatization of Adorno’s reaction to such terms. “The intellectual fight back against wokeness has now begun in earnest,” reads Sullivan’s deadpan conclusion. “Let’s do this.”
To appreciate this joke you have to understand that there’s a second, “meta” level to it, which is that Sullivan claims to be defending principles of ethical journalism, rationality, objective truth, and informed debate, but he never refers to a single primary text of what he calls critical theory. Twice as funny.
That’s what gets me. These bozos are dead set on the idea that critical theory is evil, but over and over again they reveal that they haven’t actually read anything in the field, and don’t even have a grasp of critical theory 101. I say “they” because it’s not just Sullivan — he has a whole clown car of buffoons joining him in the same futile enterprise.
In the midst of this comic tour de force we’re introduced to other characters, who give Sullivan a run for his money: James Lindsay, better known on Twitter as Conceptual James, and Helen Pluckrose, authors of Cynical Theories. Lindsay should be recognized for one of the most audacious comic bits of this whole contemporary discourse: in an ornate blog post which claims to clarify the distinctions between categories while actually muddling them beyond recognition, he writes that postmodernists “drew heavily off the successes of Mao in his Cultural Revolution and used them to inspire Pol-Pot, who studied alongside them at the Sorbonne in Paris at the time, to go after a deconstructive Year-Zero campaign of his own.”
He links to a blog post by Lindsay which is amazing. Lindsay throws out a dense cloud of terms that he misuses, revealing that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but apparently thinks vomiting up noise makes him sound informed. The closest thing I’ve seen to it are creationist posts that spew out a chaff of molecular biology to totally misrepresent what the papers actually say. Maybe he ought to read Haider’s article to clear up some of his misunderstandings.
It’s quite a long and thorough article that summarizes many of the terms they mess up. I’ll just quote the relevant bit about critical theory.
According to Sullivan, “postmodernism is a project to subvert the intellectual foundations of western culture,” for which “the entire concept of reason—whether the Enlightenment version or even the ancient Socratic understanding—is a myth designed to serve the interests of those in power, and therefore deserves to be undermined and ‘problematized’ reason [sic] whenever possible.”
But as Foucault clearly explains, critique is not a destruction of every form of reason but a putting into question of who we are, what we think, and what we do, by studying the histories that have produced us. It doesn’t simply mean finding fault with things, “criticizing” things. Though it may certainly involve that, this isn’t what the “critical” in critical theory or any kind of critical thinking refers to. The critical attitude continues, in fact, a certain attitude of the Enlightenment, while also situating the Enlightenment in the history which is to be approached with the critical attitude.
As Foucault traces in his 1978 lecture “What is Critique,” in Europe the critical attitude arises in the context of societies in which people and their thoughts are governed by religion, and it reflects the desire not to be governed — or at least, not to be governed quite like that. Critique is “the art of not being governed quite so much.” Hence the critical attitude of the Enlightenment is to not simply accept what an authority tells you is true, but to independently determine its validity; not to follow laws because they are dictated by power, but because you have determined them to be just. Critique, contrary to Sullivan’s paranoia, is an Enlightenment attitude.
That’s precisely what I don’t get. Skeptics ought to be enthusiastically embracing critical theory, and even post-modernism, because it does all the stuff skeptics claim to appreciate. Read that last paragraph again. Only a Status Quo Warrior would think that is undesirable. But instead they’ve only embraced the fringe abuses of theory, and have happily adopted only the practice of the worst writers to string gibberish into bad essays and books.