It’s the hot topic, so I must weigh in upon it. No; that’s not true. It’s the hot topic and I’m relentlessly interested in the evolution of ideas and philosophy, and so, when I encounter something new, I do something a republican congressman or governor is incapable of: I do my research and try to learn. You’ve probably already figured out that a great deal of the topics I go into here are things I’ve become interested in, and I’m using the expedient of writing about them (once I’ve done my research and thinking) in order to cement the high points into my less and less reliable memory.
Someone who is an academic who has studied Critical Race Theory [henceforth: CRT] may have a very different view on the topic, which would be an important thing for us all to learn. But, I think, in good faith, that I’ve got this topic pretty much right, so I’m going to put my formulation out there, along with what I consider to be a great example of the domain of CRT, and let’s see how we do.
We have to start with modernism. Modernism is the philosophical thought-line that argues that: if we just try hard enough and keep working at it, we can figure everything out and establish some objective truths and build an objective morality and rational societies built on those objective understandings. I see modernism as the goal of convincing everyone of a set of things, using evidence and argument, and then we can move forward to achieve the common good based on those things. Like many atheo-skeptics I was probably a modernist, once: I believed that skepticism could destroy the old authoritarian thought-structures (mostly erected by religion, but some by monarchs) and replace them with a sort of utilitarianism of the masses. I would say, further, that utilitarianism is a modernist idea: we can establish some kind of “moral calculus” and make the best judgements of what works for the common good.
I first conversed with a utilitarian in 1992, when I was working at TIS; one of my co-workers claimed to be a utilitarian, and we had some fascinating lunch-table conversations, which resulted in my reverting to a cleaned-up form of the nihilism of my undergraduate years. It was unavoidable, for me, not to notice the fecal reek of bullshit coming from his arguments. “How does your ‘moral calculus’ work? Give me an example?” And every example was flawed, because, I noticed, he was only performing his calculus on whatever aspects of the problem he, personally, found interesting. For example, he was a vegan, and he had thought a lot about the morality of feeding, which – to be completely honest – I had not. So I was reacting Argument Clinic-style with nihilist tropes and found that I had accidentally demolished his belief in utilitarianism. Oops, sorry. Time to sit at another lunch-table.
Many philosophers credit Nietzsche as being one of the first post-modernists. And, for a long time, I did not understand that. For a long time, post-modernism was a joke of sorts. My dad being a professor of French history in the 60s through 80s, he was constantly rubbing up against French political philosophy. Dad went to a talk given by Derrida, one time, and left fairly quickly, concluding that he was witnessing a spectacular performance of French Bullshit. If you’re familiar with French philosophy, since Voltaire, there is a distinctly French Bullshit. In fact, I believe it was mostly invented by Voltaire. I will also say that Voltaire would bullshit rings around Derrida – after all, Voltaire bullshitted rings around the greatest European intellectuals of his time, because he was a Wu Tang Master of bullshit. This is relevant, because the method of post-modernism is all over Voltaire’s work – so, a fan of French Bullshit might argue with some success that Voltaire was the post-modernist, not Nietzsche. Except, Voltaire was also a modernist and was part of the great circle of modernist philosophers that did things like produce the Encyclopedie Diderot and translated and disseminated the works of Newton, and Meslier, and who began the spin-up of the machinery of relentless attacks on religion that tore the heart out of the Catholic church, turning it into an intellectually gutted cash-zombie that has been staggering around – intellectually disempowered – ever since. Having your intellectual foundations undermined and exploded by Voltaire is an experience that many other philosophers experienced when more overt post-modernists began using Voltairean tropes to weaponize extreme skepticism in the interest of destroying other peoples’ bullshit.
See what I did there? I tried to, with some success, I think, draw a line between the ancient skeptics of yore (Sextus Empiricus and Epicurus) to the modernists, who were moderate skeptics that rejected authoritarian thinking and brought The Enlightenment, to post-modernists like Nietzsche who completed the process of shooting great holes in authoritarian thinking. Ironically, Nietzsche was, himself, a big fan of the grand assertion, i.e.: he was an authoritarian thinker, himself. Hovering like the laughing buddha in the background of all of this is David Hume, who was an enlightenment skeptic who did most of Nietzsche’s work for him and – in my opinion – deserves some credit as well for destroying the modernist project.
The pinnacle of post-modernism is probably Michel Foucault. Foucault was a French Bullshitter who claimed not to be a post-modernist while simultaneously dishing weapons-grade post-modernism all over the place. Foucault’s concern was the relationship between power structures and the individual. The primary avenue he explored was how government and its prison system and practices interacted with the individual. He observed, rightly, that it was a bit off for a government to talk about “rights” and “liberty” and then have elaborate mechanisms for taking those away. This led to a framing of the discussion in terms of the power relationship between entities and its effect on their perspective. It’s dynamite stuff, intellectually: Foucault observed that a person who is a prisoner in a government lock-up does not experience the same government as a privileged citizen who is being rewarded for participating in that government as a good citizen. We say that these ideas are post-modern because they explode the modernist program of establishing objective truths and acting upon them. Foucault was like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, yelling, “Truth!? You can’t establish the truth!!”
Intellectual backlash against post-modernism was, frankly, bad. There were jokes about post-modernism, but I think the post-modernists swept the battlefield, raising banners that depended on where you saw them from. Sorry, see what I mean? Post-modernist joke. What do you get when you cross a mob boss with a post-modernist? You get an offer you can’t understand. Etc. Actually that last joke was unfair and was probably written by a socialist professor at some university, because post-modernism is actually very comprehensible. It’s a skeptical method that David Hume would have been immediately familiar with, and it’s not a joke at all. It’s pretty straightforward: your interpretation of society depends on where you exist in the power structure. Duh. That is my first point, I would like to make to you: post-modernism is not a joke. It is a way of arguing and thinking that is utterly corrosive to authoritarian thought and it’s part of the grand intellectual tradition of skepticism. It is not intellectual nihilism, which makes “conservatives” fear-pee uncontrollably, and it is not cultural relativism. However, once you have used post-modern arguments to demolish authority, what are you going to fill the vacuum with? Cultural relativism or nihilism are two options, be careful which you choose.
“But, Marcus, what does this have to do with CRT?!” I hear your anguished thoughts. Well, that’s what I’m explaining. Once you understand Foucalt’s objection to authoritarian thinking, I can tell you that one result of post-modernism was that various philosophers tried to patch up the modernist project, because what else are you gonna do? Some of those philosophers were a bunch of post-Marxists called the Frankfurt school, who make “conservatives” so scared they hide in the corner and play with their own feces, because, frankly, they couldn’t understand the modernists who were trying to recover from post-modernism, either. This is where Critical Theory came in. It’s not a big deal, but the idea of Critical Theories is an academic’s way of saying “we can think about this, or that, in an organized manner, by promoting ideas about it that we think are good, and critiquing ideas about it that we think are bad.” Remember: our search for objective truths has been exploded, and (I actually think this is a great turn of events) intellectuals have gotten over trying to “prove” stuff, and are just talking about it and arguing about it. I refer to the Frankfurt school as post-Marxists because they still thought they were Marxists, but had realized that all of that Marxist/Hegelian dialectical bullshit was just a way of establishing an authoritarian argument that ratified the power-structure. Oops. “Well,” they said, as they picked themselves up and dusted themselves off, “the ideas are still pretty good.”
Now, we understand Critical Theory to be an intellectual pursuit in which we try to understand a thing, by poking it with a sharp stick and other things. I am arguing that it’s a response to the post-modern/skeptical challenge: Critical Theory is a way of trying to establish not necessarily objective truths about things but rather an understanding of how the thing under examination relates to the power-structure. It’s Foucault’s playground; it’s not post-modernist or modernist – it’s trying to understand the effect of post-modernism on the thing you’re trying to understand.
CRT is just that – that kind of thinking or method of thinking about thinking – applied to race. Boom. That’s it.
But, it’s not that simple. Because, as Michel Foucault would say, if you asked him about race in America, “America is Racism.” Boom. [Note, Foucault did not say that. I tried to put my words in his mouth and I refuse to apologize]. That’s why “conservatives” heads pop like the aliens in Mars Attacks when you play CRT with them. It’s not “critical” in the sense of Siskel and Ebert watching a movie and saying “this sucks.” The Siskel and Ebert of CRT are not saying “white people suck.” They are saying something much, much, worse – they are saying: “you cannot understand how racism affects you or anyone else in America because America Is Racism” Ow, ow, ow, ow. And, you know what? That’s the truth. It’s unavoidable. If you’ve been following me here for a while, you may remember the posting in which I argued that the North American colonies seceeded because of slavery, i.e.: racism. [stderr <- probably my best post] The US exists because of racism. I think that’s undeniable. The structure of its government is warped around a stake set in the ground: racism [stderr] – the electoral college was created to protect slavery. See what I’m doing? It’s Foucault’s move: you cannot analyze the US without taking white supremacy into account because white supremacy has touched every single aspect of its being. Here’s what the “conservatives” don’t get, but Ibram X. Kendi brilliantly explains: it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or asian or you’re “woke” or not – American racism still affects you because you were created in a society that is constructed around racism. That’s where the term “Systemic Racism” comes in: we are arguing Foucault’s maneuver and observing that there is no perspective from which we can talk about the US that does not have to take into account its racism, because the US as a system has embedded and built itself around racism. The “conservatives” who say “I don’t see race” are basically saying, “I don’t see water” – Bitch, you’re 98% made of the stuff! Your brain is full of it. Don’t give me that shit! You cannot use your brain that is made of water to say water does not exist for you.
By the way, if you haven’t read Ibram Kendi’s it is brilliant and fascinating. [how to be an anti racist] I listened to the audiobook because I like to hear an author’s voice when I can. It’s a great book, it’s like Kendi picks Michel Foucault up by the ankles and whacks you repeatedly over the head with him. Then stops and asks, “do you understand me?” and whacks you some more. There are a few parts where I feel he’s starting to sound a bit repetitive, but I forgive him: he’s writing for Americans, and they’re pretty stupid.
Now, let me give you a beautiful case-study of what I believe to be CRT critique of the US. It’s from Robert Paul Wolff, who is the author of the brilliant In Defense of Anarchism but it’s from his book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man. I wrote a piece based on Wolff’s analysis of systemic racism in the US. [stderr <- another of my best pieces] What Wolff does is demonstrates very simply how it’s effectively impossible to stop being racist, once you have constructed a racist system. His example was red-lining. Sure, red-lining is a racist practice and it sucks and the people who did it suck, but even if the US were to stop red-lining (and don’t, for a second, think that they have) it still has massive downstream consequences for both Black people and everyone else. Black people’s household net worth is lower and white people’s is higher because the system was designed to produce that outcome and you can’t just say, “We stopped and now everything is fine.” Because it can’t be. Stop red-lining and Black people’s real estate is inherently less valuable than everyone else’s because the system that establishes the value of real estate is motherfucking racist. Please go read the entirety of that article; it’s not me writing it, it’s Robert Wolff’s work, so I’m not in the embarrassing position of assigning one of my own postings as a pre-reading for this lecture. I hated when my profs did that.
Michael, on the other hand, even though he has as good a job as Skip, will never be able to buy his own home, for his father has no assets that may be deployed to give him the down payment. The disadvantages of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Thoughtless social commentators will wonder why Skip is doing so much better by the year 2000 than Michael is, and will come up with elaborate cultural and psychological explanations, blaming low self-esteem [if they are liberals] or the lack of a suitable work ethic [if they are conservatives] but all of their fancy explanations will be wrong. The real explanation of the generations-long effects of explicitly discriminatory policies of previous eras , which continue to manifest themselves in dramatic inequalities of wealth, even after inequalities in income have been corrected by the marketplace or even by affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws.
Wolff, by the way, is one of those anathemas to “conservatives” – an actual Marxist, and a professor who used to teach African Studies at Columbia University, who is white (he stopped, when there were enough Black professors interested in positions in that department). He wrote that book in 2009, which is damn good for a grumpy old professor [wc] He’s still a believer in Marxism, which, um, I’m going to chalk up as a misunderstanding or something.
That, is CRT. What Wolff has done, that is so damaging to “conservatives” is to point out clearly how racist America cannot say “we’ve turned over a new leaf, it’s all OK, now.” It made me realize that I’m successful and well-fed because my parents, who both grew up in Minnesota (one side Norwegian immigrants, the other Irish immigrants and let’s just focus on the Norwegian side:) on land that the government gave my great great grand-father when they sent him toward Minnesota from Ellis island with the advice: “Square-heads go to Minnesota.” G-g-gpaw was a farmer and cut the land and built a farm and his kids grew up speaking American. But that farm was land still belonged to the Lakotah, who were being ethnically cleansed off of it, at that time. CRT and post-modernist analysis of the power-structure in the US make it impossible to talk about my g-g-g-gpaw’s coming here and being economically successful and founding a family that eventually had professors and big shot corporate lawyers and software entrepreneurs without taking into account that the government gave them a farm, for free. And you know what I’m going to say next, right? The government promised Black farmers “40 acres and a mule” and mostly reneged on that promise and for the few who did get land, bank lending practices and foreclosure were used to transfer the Black farmers’ land to white people. Thus, we cannot talk about “Agriculture in America” without talking about racism, because racism had a large part in shaping American agriculture in ways that are still affecting it today.
The “conservatives” who are complaining about CRT are complaining about the fact that people can perform that kind of analysis on every aspect of American life. And that, that analysis, hurts white people’s fucking feelings. Well, it ought to! And “conservatives” are afraid of CRT-style analysis of – well, basically every single aspect of American life – leading to demands that these tremendous wrongs be righted. That’s why they don’t like it, and the correct response to them is “kiss my ass.” And, “what can we do about this mess?” Because it’s a 400 year-long shit-show.
That cartoon has been making the rounds lately, and it’s pretty good. Another version would be to show the people where there is no wall, at all – and that’s the situation in which the structural problems in the system have been removed entirely, so that there is no question of equality at all. What would that look like in US society? A fair tax code, fair voting, fair banking, fair taxation, fair military service (bring back the draft and put some rich people in uniform so they can help with the wars that benefit them!) – everything’s got to be fair across the board structurally fair. Somewhere, the ghost of Michel Foucalt is laughing at me for being naive.
The problem, of course, which is why the “conservatives” do not like this, is that it means our civilization would need to be blown up down to the foundations, and something new and fair would have to be built. And that couldn’t be done until reparations was paid for the wrongs that have been inflicted. It is a mind-boggling task. One thing that I will say, in conclusion: the US didn’t have any problem taking away the Indigenous Peoples’ land, why not have no problem taking away all of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump, etc.’s money. Government, after all, is theft. So bring it, motherfuckers.
I expect some of you may disagree with my explanation of CRT, and that’s totally fine. Please help me understand better, if you think you do!
The same applies to all of my commentary on post-modernism and its relationship to skepticism and enlightenment philosophy. I suspect some of that may be arguable, to some of you. But please let’s not turn this posting into a defense of nihilism. If you want me to do that, I can, but let’s stay focused on CRT, please?