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Secular Scholastic Shakedown Scheming

The secular Scholastics of the 21st century will soon meet at the Sorbonne of southern California to discuss vital issues of the day at Thinking Gender, Imagining Reparations: 27th Annual Thinking Gender Graduate Student Research Conference. It’s free and open to the public. Here’s what’s on:

This year’s conference theme, Imagining Reparations, engages contemporary social, scholarly, and literary movements that push to reimagine and retheorize what freedom, justice, health, and care can look like. Historically, reparations have taken financial form with governments recognizing victims of perceived injustice by awarding them money. Such practices have depended on and have defined the law and dominant ideas of justice within states and empires. By contrast, marginalized groups today are reframing reparations as capable of addressing historical and ongoing abuses, evident in law itself and manifest in biological, environmental, educational, technological, institutionalized, political, and diplomatic violence. The daring to imagine new forms of reparative justice emerges from raced, gendered, and sexualized subjectivities, which inform movements that devastate the binary between theory and practice in their struggle to be whole. A broad and intersectional investment in reparations challenges the assigning of rights and privileges in the past, and it is an important tool in recasting the structures that impact our daily lives.

Thinking Gender 2017, Imagining Reparations, takes a cue from movements that conceive of violence and reparative justice intersectionally with consequences that shape and are shaped by gender, sexuality, race, class, ability, etc. We invite presentations of work from across disciplines that embodies this intersectional ethos and, in particular, envision reparations through the lens of gender and sexuality. Conference sessions will include ample time for discussion of work, emphasizing dialogue discussion, writing as important modes of conference participation, and exploring their potential as feminist, decolonial tools for learning and action. Imagining Reparations aims to create cohesion among a broad range of disciplinary engagements, theoretical stances, and practical applications by providing space for thinking together about the role of the academy in theorizing tools for collective liberation from gendered and racialized violence.

Intersection! Now we’re cookin’ with gas.

But seriously, can you imagine giving your life over to this cult? Could there be any greater example of the mocking line directed against the medieval Scholastics: that their arguments come down to asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The idea being that these are intelligent people arguing about abstract nonsense. These scholars can sit around UCLA all day long and “imagine new forms of reparative justice emerg[ing] from raced, gendered, and sexualized subjectivities,” but Donald Trump is in the White House, and the caravan moves on.

It’s easy to laugh at this stuff, and it’s impossible for sentient people not to. Nevertheless, I am mindful of conservative thinker Richard Weaver’s warning on this front, in the first chapter of his 1948 classic Ideas Have Consequences (which, if you are any kind of conservative, you must read):

It must be apparent that logic depends upon the dream, and not the dream upon it. We must admit this when we realize that logical processes rest ultimately on classification, that classification is by identification, and that identification is intuitive. It follows then that a waning of the dream results in confusion of counsel, such as we behold on all sides in our time. Whether we describe this as decay of religion or loss of interest in metaphysics, the result is the same; for both are centers with power to integrate, and, if they give way, there begins a dispersion which never ends until the culture lies in fragments. There can be no doubt that the enormous exertions made by the Middle Ages to preserve a common world view exertions which took forms incomprehensible to modern man because he does not understand what is always at stake under such circumstances – signified a greater awareness of realities than our leaders exhibit today. The Schoolmen understood that the question, universalia ante rem or universalia post rem, or the question of how many angels can stand on the point of a needle, so often cited as examples of Scholastic futility, had incalculable ramifications, so that, unless there was agreement upon these questions, unity in practical matters was impossible. For the answer supplied that with which they bound up their world; the ground of this answer was the fount of understanding and of evaluation; it gave the heuristic principle by which societies and arts could be approved and regulated. It made one’s sentiment toward the world rational, with the result that it could be applied to situations without plunging man into sentimentality on the one hand or brutality on the other.

As I see it, following Weaver, what’s important about this conference at UCLA is not whether or not they come up with a plan to achieve reparations that harmonizes doctrinally with their arcane categories. What matters is that they all come to the conference sharing a viewpoint that says that sex, race, and gender are primary categories of human identity, and that justice is defined by how power and resources are allocated to people within those categories. The point of the conference is to collaborate on an action plan to confront the world and bend its practices to the theory. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Thought question: What would you think of this conference if it were a gathering of scholars and graduate students in a given field to discuss ways to use their scholarship to help elect more Republicans (“for collective liberation from the liberal nanny state”), or to convert more people to Evangelical Christianity (“for collective liberation from the mental slavery of unbelief”)? Would you think that to be a perversion of scholarship via weaponizing it for political or cultural combat? If so, why is it appropriate for gender scholars to gather for the sake of collaborating on a common goal of political and legal change? Just asking.

Again, you and I might laugh at these pinhead progressives theorizing how to shake down guilty white liberals for subsidies to wheelchair-bound Latinx genderqueers, but attention really must be paid. The theory is the same one that legitimizes the mainstreaming of transgenderism. For example, the people at the top of the Obama administration who decided that all public schools must allow transgendered kids to use toilets and locker rooms of their preferred gender, or face government lawsuit, may never have shown up at a conference like the one at UCLA, but they have assimilated through academia its basic worldview — and tried to put it into action.

The prominent Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book To Change The World examines why the standard Christian narrative of how social change happens is wrong. Here’s a quote from a page that gives abstracts for each chapter of the book:

Ideas do have consequences in history, yet not because those ideas are inherently truthful or obviously correct but rather because of the ways they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.

This is not the place to discuss Hunter’s overall work in the book. I do want to emphasize, though, that ideas have consequences when they take over the minds of elites within elite institutions. The fragmentation and scattering of authority now upon us all may challenge this view, but I think it’s generally true. The real power of media elites, for example, is not that they tell people what to think, but rather that they define the borders of what it is permissible to think about. The minds of future leaders throughout the institutions of American life are formed at universities. If gender ideology maintains institutional hegemony there, then its precepts will come to be seen as normative, even by many future conservative leaders (of which a relative few will work for culture-forming institutions like media, television, filmmaking, and the like).

Point is, it really does matter how many disabled Latinx genderqueers can dance their wheelchairs on the head of a pin.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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