Notes & Comments October 2020
Ideas have consequences
On recent developments in “Critical Race Theory.”
Longtime readers will know that in the past we occasionally featured little tidbits of absurdity from various bastions of academia under the rubric “From the archives of the academy.” These malodorous orts spoke for themselves, we thought, and we offered them to our readers without comment or explanation. If we have more or less abandoned the practice, it is not because there are fewer or less noxious examples to savor. On the contrary, the educational establishment is positively awash in absurdity these days, as the toxic, politically correct imperatives of identity politics impinge with increasing ferocity upon the moral and intellectual substance of our institutions of reeducation. Month in and month out, we find ourselves facing not an embarrassment of riches, surely, but a nagging and hysterical embarrassment of morally self-satisfied malice.
Accordingly, we often pause in this space and elsewhere in the magazine to chronicle some of the more notable specimens of this pathology, giving special attention to items that seem particularly outré or that come to us from the more elite precincts of academia. It is always nice to remind ourselves exactly what students (and their parents) are getting for the $70,000–$80,000 per annum they spend at the toniest institutions.
Prof. Riley gets extra credit for extending her attack on rigor to the notion of “Scientific knowledge itself,” which, according to her, “is gendered, raced, and colonizing.”
It would take too much space to recall all of our favorite freaks, but there are some performers from the last few years we remember with specific fondness. Particularly special, we thought, was Donna Riley, head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Prof. Riley’s contribution to our merriment was her attack on the very idea of rigor. In an article for Engineering Studies called “Rigor/Us: Building Boundaries and Disciplining Diversity with Standards of Merit,” she argued that academic “rigor” is merely a blind for “white male heterosexual privilege.” “The term,” she wrote, “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations—and links to masculinity in particular—are undeniable.” There is also the matter of making sure that the bridge you design doesn’t collapse, but Prof. Riley doesn’t bother herself with such pedestrian concerns. “Rigor,” she intones, “may be a defining tool, revealing how structural forces of power and privilege operate to exclude men of color and women, students with disabilities, lgbtq+ people, first-generation and low-income students, and non-traditionally aged students.” Good stuff, what? And Prof. Riley gets extra credit for extending her attack on rigor to the notion of “Scientific knowledge itself,” which, according to her, “is gendered, raced, and colonizing.”
We also think fondly of a contribution from Mark Carey, a dean and professor of history at the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. Back in 2016, he, along with three co-authors, published an essay called “Glaciers, gender and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” This 14,000-word knot of politically correct gibberish was published in Progress in Human Geography, “the peer-review journal of choice for those wanting to know about the state of the art in all areas of human geography research.”
At first, we suspected that this might be a satire or hoax. But no, the authors are earnest. “While there has been relatively little research on gender and global environmental change in general [how could that be?], there is even less from a feminist perspective that focuses on gender . . . and also on power, justice, inequality, and knowledge production in the context of ice, glacier change, and glaciology.”
The ubiquity of this disease inspires a certain weariness, we concede. As anyone who has toyed with Andrew C. Bulhak’s online “Postmodernism Generator” knows, there is an awful sameness to this nonsense that shifts quickly from hilarity to ennui. Nevertheless, there are at least two reasons that it is always worth reminding ourselves about these assaults on sanity. For one thing, people forget and need to be reminded. As André Gide put it, “Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.”
For another, the assaults are increasingly moving out of the academy proper and into everyday life. We have also noticed a marked shift in emphasis. Time was, issues of “gender” and feminism were in the vanguard. Race and racism would always be mentioned, ex officio as it were, but usually in a sort of supporting role. Increasingly, it seems, race has taken the place of gender and feminism as the organizing grievance du jour.
Just a few days ago, we got the news that David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh had been renamed “40 George Square,” in part because Hume had once written in a footnote (in his essay on national characters) that “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” We suspect that finding a white eighteenth-century European who dissented from that opinion would be a challenge. But at a moment when everything is viewed through the prism of race, an offhand comment from another time is an ostracizing offense. It matters not that Hume also denounced the “barbarous” practice of “domestic slavery.” His departure from contemporary politically correct sentiment is unforgivable. There is some irony, however, that Edinburgh’s Equality & Diversity Committee and its Race Equality and Anti-Racist Sub-committee have chosen to rename the tower formerly honoring Hume after George Brown, a laird, heaven forfend, and brother of an architect and real estate developer, i.e., oppressors both. Maybe social justice warriors can save face and start telling the world that the tower is in fact named after that other George, George Floyd, the black man whose death last May was the catalyst for violent riots in scores of cities across America.
David Hume was a preeminent figure in the Scottish (i.e., the good) Enlightenment. He was the mild-mannered apostle of reason, or perhaps we should say “reasonableness,” to distinguish his common-sense and humane approach to politics and the vicissitudes of human life from the dark comedy of the French Enlightenment in which the words “reason” and “virtue” were always on its leaders’ lips but whose operation was clocked by the operation of the guillotine.
Until fifteen minutes ago, Hume was a cultural hero. Now he is to be enrolled into that index of summum malum, the fraternity of racists. What about his championship of such Enlightenment values as tolerance and individual liberty? According to Richard Delgado, a law professor and one of the founders of the discipline of “Critical Race Theory,” such enlightenment values are part of the problem. “[R]acism and enlightenment are the same thing,” this professor of law wrote, explaining that the concept of merit is “a prominent example” of “the kind of racism evident in facially neutral laws.”
Delgado was something of an outlier when he wrote this in the 1990s, the malign fatuousness of his ideas confined largely to the seminar room. Now such racial triumphalism has escaped from the academy. To employ a metaphor dear to the hearts of these new antinomians, the ideas of Critical Race Theory—above all, the idea that impartiality is itself racist—have “colonized” the boardrooms and human resource departments of major corporations. They have also, as the journalist Christopher Rufo has detailed, made astonishing inroads into major institutions of the federal government, where a cadre of highly paid consultants run consciousness-raising workshops whose constant theme is the perfidiousness of American society, especially its free-market orientation and, most particularly, the white, male actors who have dominated its history.
One of the agencies affected is the U.S. Treasury, where a consultant named Howard Ross—for a combined fee of more than $5 million—ran training sessions to inform employees that “virtually all white people contribute to racism.” The 8,900 employees of the National Credit Union Administration were treated to a similar catechism. America was “founded on racism,” they were told in a scripture right out of The 1619 Project, and “built on the backs of people who were enslaved.” America’s nuclear arsenal is manufactured at the Sandia National Laboratories. You might think that such an institution would be careful to distance itself from radical, anti-American sentiment. But Rufo has shown that Sandia held a “three-day reeducation camp for white males,” teaching them to “deconstruct their ‘white male culture’ and forcing them to write letters of apology to women and people of color.”
At the U.S. Treasury, a consultant named Howard Ross—for a combined fee of more than $5 million—ran training sessions to inform employees that “virtually all white people contribute to racism.”
Similar programs have infested many other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the fbi, whose “Office of Diversity and Inclusion” (who knew?) hosts weekly “Intersectionality Workshops.”
In brief, agencies throughout the federal government are home to a radical fifth column devoted to the destruction of the principles and institutions that undergird American society. Taxpayers have been funding initiatives whose aim is to teach us to hate ourselves. It is no wonder that President Trump, informed about these activities, issued an executive order last month banning the teachings of Critical Race Theory and kindred ideologies in the federal government. An ominous sign of how deeply ingrained those teachings are is the news, just out as we write, that the Centers for Disease Control have flouted that order and are proceeding with a thirteen-week program under the tutelage of Critical Race Theory in order to challenge America’s “white supremacist ideology,” dilate on racism as “a public health crisis,” and expose the country’s supposed “systemic racism.”
Critical Race Theory is prominent among the intellectual foundations of the hate-America campaign whose origins were in the academy but whose graduates have infiltrated every institution of American life. The operational side of this campaign, seen nightly on city streets from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., is fired by groups like Antifa, a loose-knit collection of violent left-wing activists whose roots trace back to Europe, and Black Lives Matter, a racialist organization founded in 2013. As one of the founders of blm frankly admitted, its leaders are “trained Marxists” dedicated to the destruction, inter alia, of free-market society and the nuclear family. An important mentor for the group is Eric Mann, a former member of the Weather Underground who was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
It is disconcerting to see genteel suburban lawns littered with “Black Lives Matter” signs when the movement is dedicated to the destruction of the society that makes suburbia possible. Lenin quipped darkly about the bourgeoisie selling Communists the rope with which to hang them. These capitulations witness witless liberals eagerly lining up to ascend the gallows.
Katharine Gorka got to the nub of the issue last month in The Federalist. “Black Lives Matter,” she wrote, “is not about helping black people. It is about using black people to achieve the co-founders’ revolutionary, ideological aims.” Exactly. Gorka goes on to note that “blm wants to overthrow the American system of deliberative democracy and ordered liberty and replace it with their Marxist hell.” blm would dissent from the word “hell,” of course, but that’s what Marxists always do when they are stoking the fires of utopia.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 1
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