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‘Idea Laundering’

Don't look behind the freshly laundered curtain! (Cultura/Seb Oliver, via Getty Images)

In a must-read Wall Street Journal piece, dissident academic Peter Boghossian explains how b.s. woke concepts like “fat shaming,” “patriarchy,” “whiteness,” “intersectionality,” and suchlike make it into everyday discourse, despite being sham ideas generated by the Grievance Studies industry. Excerpts:

The reason you’ve heard them is that politically engaged academicians have been developing concepts like these for more than 30 years, and all that time they’ve been percolating. Only recently have they begun to emerge in mainstream culture. These academicians accomplish this by passing off their ideas as knowledge; that is, as if these terms describe facts about the world and social reality. And while some of these ideas may contain bits of truth, they aren’t scientific. By and large, they’re the musings of ideologues.

How did this happen? How have those working in what’s come to be called “grievance studies” managed to extend their ideas far beyond the academy, while convincing people that their jargon adds something meaningful to public discourse? Biologist Bret Weinstein, who was run out of Evergreen State College by a leftist mob in 2017, calls the process “idea laundering.”

It’s analogous to money laundering. Here’s how it works: First, various academics have strong moral impulses about something. For example, they perceive negative attitudes about obesity in society, and they want to stop people from making the obese feel bad about their condition. In other words, they convince themselves that the clinical concept of obesity (a medical term) is merely a story we tell ourselves about fat (a descriptive term); it’s not true or false—in this particular case, it’s a story that exists within a social power dynamic that unjustly ascribes authority to medical knowledge.

That’s stage one. After several more stages, all involving dishonest practices that pass off ideological conviction as substantive knowledge, this stuff is taught to students, who are tested on it, and whose academic careers depend on parroting it back to their woke professors. More:

Students leave the academy believing they know things they do not know. They bring this “knowledge” to their places of employment where, over time, laundered ideas and the terminology that accompanies them become normative—giving them even more unearned legitimacy. And this is why you’ve heard some of the terms we began with: cisgender, fat shaming, heteronormativity, intersectionality, patriarchy, rape culture, and whiteness. They’ve been laundered through the peer-reviewed literature by activist scholars, then widely taught for years, before being brought into the world.

Read it all. It’s important. It’s yet another reason why we have to pay critical attention to the intellectuals. They catechize students in this pseudo-knowledge, and those students graduate and enter into society’s institutions — including business — and bring with them the ideological crusade into which their woke professors initiated them. And believe me, it makes a difference. At The New York Times, for instance, a younger generation of woke writers and editors is pushing hard against an older generation of liberal writers and editors who, despite being leftish, believe in old-fashioned things like journalistic standards. It’s especially vivid in that newspaper, to which I have been a subscriber for years, and whose decline into wokeness (as distinct from being merely liberal) has been astonishing to watch. But it’s the entire media.

Remember political scientist Zach Goldberg’s experiment this past spring, in which he ran certain Grievance Studies concepts through the Lexis/Nexis database, to see how often they appeared in our press over the years? Among his findings:

You can access all of his results here.

We tend to think of propaganda as something generated by the state. This is a prime example of it coming from ideologues within universities, and making its way to the public via sympathizers in the mass media. Eventually, these lies become de facto truths, either because people really do believe in them, or the cost of questioning them becomes too great, so people conform. In time, younger people — those who grew up being socialized into the lie — don’t know any different. In my interviews for my forthcoming book on lessons we must learn from the communist experience, a Ukrainian immigrant named Olga Grigorenko, recalling her Soviet childhood, said “Nobody told me that I was living in a lie. I was just living my life in my country, the Soviet Union. Nobody said it was a lie.”

As she grew older, she came to see that in fact she lived within a system of lies. Her husband, Vladimir, spoke about how the ideology corrupted all knowledge. From the transcript:

Vladimir: For example, all history was represented as the fight between capitalism and the workers. It takes a really creative mind to see the system of classes from Marxism-Leninism presenting itself in ancient Egypt. But that’s what they did. All history books were filled with that point of view. The Florentine Republic was the equal of the Great October Revolution – things like that. All our history books were like that. Every scientific paper was supposed to have a prefatory chapter describing how Marx and Engels were geniuses in that particular field of science, and how their findings anticipated whatever this scientific article described. Any and all sciences had to show a connection to the decision of the party in a previous convention.

Olga: But nobody believed in it.

Vladimir: But everybody knew that you had to say these things in order to be published.

More:

Olga: In high school and middle school, we had to write essays, like normal school kids do. But you never could write what you think about the subject. Never, ever. The subject could be interesting, but you never could put what do you think. You have to find some way to relate that to the communist view.

Vladimir: The general culture taught you this doublethink.

Olga: I remember when I was eight or nine years old, I came home from school and told my parents a funny anecdote about a famous Red Army hero, one that made him look bad. I just started to tell my parents, and my father looked at me and said, ‘Never do that again. Not in our house, not anywhere. Just stop, and forget. You can’t tell funny stories about communist leaders.’ And I was afraid.

Vladimir: Sooner or later, society would tell you what you shouldn’t say. And if you said it, you would end up in the camp.

We are reproducing that system here, in an American way. It begins with the ideological corruption of knowledge in the institutions of higher education, then moves out from there. How difficult do you imagine it would be within the New York Times newsroom, or any major American newsroom, to mount a serious challenge to the concepts of “whiteness,” “patriarchy,” and the like? In fact, we have an example of it, from this summer: the leaked transcript of the Times‘s internal town hall meeting, in which an unnamed staffer told editor-in-chief Dean Baquet that “I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.” Baquet declined the opportunity to deliver a Journalistic Standards 101 lecture to this person, and instead gave a fuzzy non-answer (read the transcript; you’ll see) praising the paper’s then-upcoming “1619 Project,” a massive initiative attempting to “reframe” American history around slavery. If you’ll recall, the 1619 Project was named for the year the first African slave arrived on American shores; the Times said that year, not 1776, ought to be remembered as the founding of America.

Recently, speaking to an interviewer from the World Socialist Web Site (of all people), leading Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton criticized the project as bad history. Excerpts:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.

Q. Are you aware that the glossy magazine is being distributed to schools across the country, and the Chicago public school district has already announced that it will be part of the curriculum?

A. I knew that its purpose was for education, but I haven’t heard many of the details of that, including what you’ve just mentioned.

More:

Q. You mentioned that you were totally surprised when you found Project 1619 in your Sunday paper. You are one of the leading historians of the Civil War and slavery. And the Times did not approach you?

A. No, they didn’t, no.

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Q. Could you speak on this a little bit more? Because elsewhere in her essay, Hannah-Jones writes that “black Americans have fought back alone” to make America a democracy.

A. From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.

Read it all. How bizarre that you would have to depend on the World Socialist Web Site to give a more nuanced, balanced view of slavery than you would find in The New York Times. Naturally, Nikole Hannah-Jones denounced this as racism:

And:

Get that? There are no facts; it’s all narrative. One historian’s account is as good as another. “Facts” become whatever is useful to the ideological crusade. This bad idea, along with these highly biased and unreliable claims about slavery and US history, has now been laundered so thoroughly that the most powerful newspaper in the world uses its authority and reach to further legitimize it, and spread the lies to the masses. Think about all the schoolchildren who are now reading the 1619 Project as part of their curriculum, and who will assume that it is the truth. How many of those kids do you think will have the capability, or even the courage, to question the narrative presented to them? This is how freshly-laundered bad ideas become the draperies the system depends on to keep out the light.

UPDATE: You think this stuff doesn’t matter? Read Matthew Continetti’s short piece on Woke Capitalism. It doesn’t conclude as standard conservative narratives do, by saying that companies are forcing PC onto us. Continetti says that young people want corporations to be woke:

America’s corporations, forever in search of yield, cannot afford to ignore the reality that young consumers are drifting left. The Millennial generation is politically moderate compared to the rising Generation Z. The ideologies of diversity, equity, and inclusion, of intersectionality, of gender fluidity, and of environmentalism, secularism, racial justice, and assaultive speech have become the cultural mainstream (to the degree one exists). Woke capitalism isn’t a passing fad. It’s a sign of things to come.

Corporate behavior evinces the dominant beliefs of society. In China, those beliefs are not pluralistic. And that is increasingly the case in the United States.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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