Cynical Theories

How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody

[Amazon Link]

Good deal: I got the Kindle version for $8.53. It's slightly more as I type.

The book is a critical examination of how postmodern epistemology mutated into today's—let's just be honest—raging dumpster fire of "wokeness", "identity politics", "anti-racism", and associated ideologies. But if you're expecting a polemic, you might be disappointed.

The authors, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, do a scholarly job on examining the roots, the so-called postmodernism from the 1960s and 1970s. Postmodernism was (at least) fun, full of irony and playfulness. But its main goal was in challenging modernity, including the liberal consensus on individualism, rationality, empiricism. It contains musings (some, the authors grant, insightful) about the nature of language, power, and knowledge.

Postmodernism murmured in your ear: Oppression and colonialism were built into your freshman calculus course. This appealed to folks who were bad at math, but nevertheless wanted the cushy jobs in academia.

But the (as near as I can tell, unanswered) objection to all this: how well can you construct an argument for your views when you've spent your heavy artillery on the pillars of rationality and language?

I suspect Lindsay and Pluckrose agree, but they press on nevertheless, showing how the various forms of activist scholarship grew from the roots of postmodernism, branching into theories: "postcolonial" theory, "queer" theory, "critical race" theory, "intersectionality", gender/disability/fat/etc. "studies". These all share the theme of anti-liberal individualism: your individual identity isn't particularly important, your membership in the relevant pigeonholed groups is what matters, and classifies you as either an oppressor or oppressed victim. (One quoted theorist distinguishes between someone who thinks of himself as a "black person" and someone who self-images as a "person who happens to be black"; the former being the acceptable way to think. Stay in your pigeonhole, fella.)

Lots of quotes of the resulting academic gobbledygook. But eventually we get to the present day, where the relevant fields of higher education have been successfully taken over by the activists, and the only remaining bones of contention is what to do about those obstreperous kids in your class who "derail" your indoctrination sessions by denying their implicit privelege, asking for evidence, propping up an unwoke narrative.

One thing the critical race theorists can't stand: criticism.

Pluckrose and Lindsay do bend over backwards to present opposing views fairly, which requires the reader's patience. They wind up the book with possible approaches to counter pernicious creeds. They explicitly reject illiberal measures to silence their opponents, instead advocating those good old tools of rational argument. (Liberalism can abide a certain amount of illiberalism, where the opposite isn't true: illiberalism sees liberalism as something that must be stamped out.)

It would be one thing if postmodern lunacy were restricted to academia. Bad enough. But its effects keep creeping into fields where it matters. Latest example, as described by Ben Shapiro

Now we learn that public health officials pushed for vaccine distribution not based on health risk but on racial factors. As the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported this week: “Every U.S. state has been advised to consider ethnic minorities as a critical and vulnerable group in their vaccine distribution plans, according to Centers for Disease Control guidance. As a result, half of the nation’s states have outlined plans that now prioritize black, Hispanic and indigenous residents over white people in some way.”

This insanity is rooted in eugenic concerns. “Older populations are whiter,” public health “expert” Dr. Harald Schmidt of the University of Pennsylvania told The New York Times in early December. “Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.” In other words, a disproportionate number of white people survive to old age; we should, therefore, give vaccines to younger, less vulnerable nonwhite citizens in “essential industries” and let Grandma die.

It's all academic fun and games until Grandma dies.