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Soft Totalitarian Epistemology

Not being racist isn't enough, says Ibram X. Kendi; we have to be 'antiracist' (Waterstones screengrab)

Heather Mac Donald has published an important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, making public a deeply concerning instance of racial politics corrupting scholarship and public policy. The article is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but subscribers can read it. Excerpts:

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is a peer-reviewed journal that claims to publish “only the highest quality scientific research.” Now, the authors of a 2019 PNAS article are disowning their research simply because I cited it.

Psychologists Joseph Cesario of Michigan State and David Johnson of the University of Maryland analyzed 917 fatal police shootings of civilians from 2015 to test whether the race of the officer or the civilian predicted fatal police shootings. Neither did. Once “race specific rates of violent crime” are taken into account, the authors found, there are no disparities among those fatally shot by the police. These findings accord with decades of research showing that civilian behavior is the greatest influence on police behavior.

Mac Donald cited this research in Congressional testimony and elsewhere. When she cited it in a June 3 WSJ op-ed, things blew up at Michigan State. The university’s Graduate Student Union blasted the university for “the harm it caused” (the study), and went after physicist Stephen Hsu, who approved funding for Cesario’s research, forcing Hsu out.

And now, as Mac Donald writes, the paper’s authors have withdrawn it. From that PNAS page:

Mac Donald says the scholars falsely accuse her of saying that the probability of being shot by police does not differ between blacks and whites. Mac Donald says that it’s undeniable that blacks are more likely to be shot by police than whites, but that is because blacks are far more likely to be involved in criminal activity. This is extremely well documented. What Mac Donald disputes is that the shooting rate disparity is because of police racism.

Mac Donald says the withdrawal of the paper is a very bad sign for scholarship. If one can’t publish scholarship that runs counter to politically powerful narratives — as happened to Brown University’s Lisa Littmann, whose 2018 paper got on the wrong side of transgender activists — how can we know how to respond to facts in the world? Mac Donald says that if we don’t understand how policing works, there will be deleterious real-world consequences (there already are, Mac Donald says, with the spike in fatal shootings this spring).

Meanwhile, it sounds like Brooklyn College is going to be as enthusiastic about the new political orthodoxy as the Brezhnev-era Siberian Mathematics Journal was about Leninist ciphering:
From the Brooklyn College president:

What does this mean? Affirmative action grade inflation? Endless racial ideologizing of the university’s teaching? Here is a link to a collection of academic essays about “antiracist pedagogy” published by the University of Colorado. Excerpts:

If you grade writing by a so-called standard, let’s call it Standard English, then you are engaged in an institutional and disciplinary racism, a system set up to make winners and losers by a dominant standard. Who owns the dominant standard?

I really encourage you to spend some time reading that essay collection. It’s jargony, but it’s really important to understand what these educators are talking about when they speak of “antiracist pedagogy.” If you think it’s merely a matter of being more sensitive to the way race is spoken of in classrooms, oh my sweet summer child, do I have news for you. This is totalitarian madness. I’m not exaggerating: “antiracist pedagogy” is about turning the entire process of education into a paralyzing, endless process of analyzing racial and power relations, and inculcating this kind of radical racial suspicion within students.

In my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, I talk about how these radical academics, burrowing away within the institutions, produce social change. Excerpt:

In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”

This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who do not will leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

Your fate, reader, and the fate of your children, is being determined right now by intricate and abstruse works of social criticism and theory. You cannot afford to be indifferent to what is happening. More:

Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”

This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice—as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy—functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence.

Pre-order the book here if you like; it will be published on September 29. Whether you read it or not, please, please wake up to the ideological takeover of our institutions, and by the way the seemingly innocent term “antiracist” carries with it a malignancy that will poison anything it touches. Everybody should want to be against racism — but that’s not what this is! This is about colonizing and transforming academia with ideology. What Heather Mac Donald talks about at the beginning of this blog entry is only one form of the soft totalitarian program.

Ibram X. Kendi’s book How To Be Antiracist is currently No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has been in the top ten for ten weeks. This concept has gone mainstream.

I wrote this blog post on Sunday afternoon, for Monday publication. I’m returning to it late Sunday night to add some material from a powerful WSJ op-ed by physicist Lawrence Krauss, decrying the politicization of science. It’s paywalled, but the whole thing is accessible here, at least as I write this. Excerpts:

In the 1980s, when I was a young professor of physics and astronomy at Yale, deconstructionism was in vogue in the English Department. We in the science departments would scoff at the lack of objective intellectual standards in the humanities, epitomized by a movement that argued against the existence of objective truth itself, arguing that all such claims to knowledge were tainted by ideological biases due to race, sex or economic dominance.

It could never happen in the hard sciences, except perhaps under dictatorships, such as the Nazi condemnation of “Jewish” science, or the Stalinist campaign against genetics led by Trofim Lysenko, in which literally thousands of mainstream geneticists were dismissed in the effort to suppress any opposition to the prevailing political view of the state.

Or so we thought. In recent years, and especially since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, academic science leaders have adopted wholesale the language of dominance and oppression previously restricted to “cultural studies” journals to guide their disciplines, to censor dissenting views, to remove faculty from leadership positions if their research is claimed by opponents to support systemic oppression.

Krauss cites a number of actual instances of this happening, including the above case of the scientists withdrawing their paper because Heather Mac Donald drew unfavorable political conclusions from it. This is not a phantom menace. More Krauss:

Whenever science has been corrupted by falling prey to ideology, scientific progress suffers. This was the case in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union—and in the U.S. in the 19th century when racist views dominated biology, and during the McCarthy era, when prominent scientists like Robert Oppenheimer were ostracized for their political views. To stem the slide, scientific leaders, scientific societies and senior academic administrators must publicly stand up not only for free speech in science, but for quality, independent of political doctrine and divorced from the demands of political factions.

We are either going to have real universities, or we are going to have ideology factories. The time of choosing is now.

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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