The End of Enlightenment
I have always assumed that the left, whether socialist, democratic socialist or left progressive, was motivated by a form of egalitarian idealism as espoused by Karl Marx and others. My research, as you dear reader would know from my commentaries, led me to understand from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, that egalitarian idealists have a specific set of moral axes that place greater emphasis on fairness and caring than on other moral axes such as loyalty, sanctity and liberty. But I also assumed that once these tendencies became known that reasonable people could enter into rational discussions to resolve common problems. Perhaps not to everyone’s complete satisfaction but at least an acceptable compromise (what I call a “not too unfair” outcome). This understanding is the essence of a national group I joined called Braver Angels where meeting participants would be divided between reds and blues the goal of which was not to score points but to understand the other person’s point of view. The COVID pandemic has made these meetings virtual but hopefully face-to-face meetings will begin again soon (if we can ever get COVID to stop mutating into more virulent forms).
But Braver Angels members are a distinct minority. The divisive confrontations wracking our country brook no compromise. There are no rational discussions. There are only absolutes. The opponent is not a fellow American with a different opinion but an enemy whose words are poisonous and whose motivations are evil and whose intentions are to destroy what we value.
Why is this? Maybe it was naïve of me to believe that we could use reason to resolve our differences. But this is America, a country founded on the Enlightenment belief in reason. The five hundred years of what we call the modern era has been a story of the erratic but enduring progress of civilization that relied on science to understand the natural world, that cherished the liberty of individuals that made us understand that our liberty depended on the liberty of others, and that embraced economic liberty to provide material progress for everyone. This is what we would call the classical liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith and others.
But today’s egalitarian idealists don’t seem susceptible to reasoned argument They reject logic and evidence. I had remarked on that in my commentaries about Critical Race Theory and antiracism. These concepts seem to depend on hypotheses not backed by emperical evidence, narratives (story telling) and the particular perspectives of their identity (their “truths”). The identities of identity politics refer to their own truths rather than The Truth. I found this very confusing.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, in their book, Cynical Theories, come up with a novel explanation for this rejection of logic, reason and evidence by the egalitarian left. They hypothesize that the rejection of all that is West by the progressive left arises from a mutated form of postmodernism that has been rampant in academia but has now spread to the general public (sort of like a lab leak). Postmodernism! What the heck is postmodernism?
Postmodernism is basically a rejection of the Enlightenment and the humanism, science and economics that goes with it. It is a denial that Western Civilization has accomplished anything good.
Sound familiar? That is what the left progressives have been saying for years now. It does not seem logical that an obscure branch of philosophy that developed during the middle of the twentieth century among principally French philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard could mutate into a movement that threatens Western Civilization, generally, and the United States of America, specifically.
As I understand it, the Frankfurt School of German intellectuals developed Critical Theory as a critique of the liberal ideals and values of Western Civilization from a Marxist economic perspective. Meanwhile postmodernism arose among primarily French thinkers and philosophers that viewed Western Civilization as systems of power that exuded from it methods of thinking and communicating that reflected the viewpoints of the dominant powers, forcing oppressed groups to think in similar terms and to view the dominant group’s perspective as normal, thereby reinforcing their continued domination by oppressors.
Over time, the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School became less focused on economics and more focused of the sociological and psychological aspects of power while postmodernism transitioned from the hopeless situation of the oppressed toward activism to liberate the oppressed many of whom are unaware of their oppression.
The fusion of concepts from the Frankfurt School and the postmodernists resulted in Critical Race Theory and other rejections of western ideals and principals by various identity groups including radical feminists, queer theory, postcolonial theory, transgender identity and intersectionality. If this seems like a lot of academic eggheads writing papers on esoteric nonsense that few understand I would have to agree with you. But these academic eggheads are filtering out of elite universities and into state schools and community colleges. They are well represented in ethnic and genders studies courses in these institutions and have branched out into sociology and psychology courses. Not only are they training the diversity, equity and inclusion administrators that are proliferating among local school districts, they are also infiltrating other institutions through the human resources departments.
These woke postmodernists don’t want to reform America. They reject everything that America stands for. They believe that everything is socially constructed. Not only are race and gender socially constructed, so is the scientific method and mathematics. They reject universalist concepts like “all men are created equal,” equality of opportunity and judging people by the content of their character.
A pamphlet published not long ago by the National Museum of African American History and Culture described the aspects and assumptions of whiteness noting that “the ways white people and their traditions, attitudes, and ways of life have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practice in the United States.” The traditions and attitudes they ascribe to whiteness include self-reliance, the nuclear family, objective, rational linear thinking, cause and effect, hard work as the key to success, etc. These aren’t white assumptions these are American assumptions. The language of the NMAAHC is straight out of postmodernism. The museum may have taken the pamphlet off their website, but their beliefs remain the same.
You don’t have to read Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book or review the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to understand all the nuances of Critical Theory or postmodernism to understand what is going on. The bottom line is that the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the French postmodernists have morphed into a woke ideology that rejects the basic tenets of the Enlightenment and Western Civilization that are the basis for the American miracle: the equality of all people, the Rule of Law, equality before the law and they even reject concepts that most of us thought were unassailable; reasoned discourse, rational thinking, mathematics and the scientific method.
Because the goal of the woke ideologists is not to create racial harmony through a color blind society but to get some payback by creating an antiracist society by which they actually mean a counter racist society (keep in mind how they manipulate words), it would not be unreasonable for whites to react against the woke movement since the goal of the woke is to turn white oppressors into white oppressed. Given this scenario a violent white supremacist reaction in defense of its position could be justified. But a future envisioned by either the woke identities or white supremacy would not just be a dystopian postmodern world, it would be hell on Earth.
But the ideals and principles of Western Civilization, are not the aspects and assumptions of white culture (as the NMAAHC asserts) but universal principles that work for all people. Wave upon wave of immigrants have adopted these ideals and principles to achieve the American Dream. Not just European immigrants but immigrants from South America, Asia and even Africa. The hundreds of thousands of people camped on our southern border hoping to get a chance to come to America are not coming for Democratic handouts or for a woke tribal society but for a shot at the American Dream.
The woke ideologists don’t hate America because it doesn’t live up to its principles and ideals, they hate those principles and ideals and want to throw them in the rubbish.
So, it is up to us, all Americans, to call out this attempt to transform America for what it is. It is not an almost inevitable evolution to a postmodern future as they would have you believe but a regression to a tribal past and all its attendant horrors. Opposing antiracism, critical race theory, and forced sensitivity training by diversity, equity and inclusion trainers doesn’t make you a racist. Supporting the founding principles of America does not make you a white supremacist.
You don’t need to know the details of Critical Race Theory or the nuances of postmodernism. The woke ideologists won’t debate you. Your logical discussions and rational arguments are meaningless to them. Universalist concepts like all men are created equal and equality before the law don’t match the truths of their identities. Instead, they will attack you (most likely verbally). They will call you names like racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic. They will say you are a hater. You are unlikely to change their minds.
But you can change the minds of their enablers. All the naïve citizens that can’t believe nice words like diversity and inclusion are thrown about to provide cover for dark intentions. All the good-hearted schoolteachers who blindly follow where their union leaders are taking them. All the well-meaning suburban neighbors that don’t realize that the Black Lives Matter flags on their lawns don’t endorse a universal concept but support a group that denounces the nuclear family and brags about being Marxists. All the middle-class blacks who vote for Democratic politicians because they believe that political power can replace human capital. All the earnest corporate CEOs that believe they can forestall the enmity of the left by forcing their employees to take DEI antiracist training. All the well-intentioned donors to university endowment funds that that use those funds to give tenure to anti-American ethnic and gender studies professors. And also all the Republicans that think that loyalty to Donald Trump is the answer to the problems we face. We need to remind all these well-meaning but misguided people that it is our principles that are being attacked and we need principled leadership to fight back.