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Andrew Sullivan Compiles Many Recent Signs of the Return of Intellectual Sanity to America.

We’re still far away from actual head-clearing, but there’s reason to hope.


But don’t get too excited.

[9/11 was] an attack on the heteropatriarchal capitalistic systems that America relies upon to wrangle other countries into passivity. It was an attack on the systems many white Americans fight to protect.”


Good time, by the way, to revisit William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race.

Margaret Soltan, September 10, 2021 4:55PM
Posted in: defenses of liberal education

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8 Responses to “Andrew Sullivan Compiles Many Recent Signs of the Return of Intellectual Sanity to America.”

  1. TAFKAU Says:

    I find Andrew Sullivan insufferably smug and disingenuous on his best days, and this is not one of them. The real tell in Sullivan’s piece is his invocation of the First Amendment toward the end. He’s a smart guy, so he’s obviously aware that almost none of the supposed outrages that he catalogues has anything to do with government restriction on free speech. Wokeness is simply a competitor in his beloved marketplace of ideas, one whose success is brazenly exaggerated by people like Sullivan for partisan purposes. Now, if we want to consider a *real* threat to the First Amendment, we might look at those state legislatures that are seeking to ban, by law, the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools and universities, a point on which Sullivan, to his credit, has not been silent.

    Sullivan is, of course, free to choose his battles, but if the topic is corrosive ideologies of the early 21st Century, wokeness and CRT ought to fall well down the list. First, for all noise generated by the usual suspects, CRT has achieved very little purchase outside of a few academic departments whose enrollments are dwindling anyhow. Racists, homophobes, and sexual predators are certainly de-platformed more than they used to be and corporate America is (perhaps too) quick to eject any employee who expresses seemingly intolerant attitudes, but the former is morally and legally inoffensive (you have no right to someone else’s platform) and the latter (hair-trigger dismissal of non-conformists) has been the practice of corporate America since Slater opened his mill in Pawtucket, even if definitions of non-conformism shift with time.

    The other tell in Sullivan’s article is his discussion of genetics and genetic determinism, including an unfortunate nod to the odious Charles Murray. For one thing, it allows him to construct a strawman and name it “the left’s absolutist blank-slatism.” Worse still, it permits him to walk away from some of the nastier implications of his own argument. If genetics plays an outsized role in personal success, then what should we make of the fact that so much inequality exists and that it continues to be defined along racial lines. Unless he wants to argue the case for genetic inferiority–and he seems, in the end, not quite willing to do so–then he really has no answer to this question. CRT does, and if Sullivan believes that it’s the wrong answer, it would be helpful if he would offer up an alternative. In the end, however, Sullivan punts on this point: “Perhaps we can reach a place where we do indeed better acknowledge and understand the profound resilience of racism and sexism in this country’s history…” Sure, Andrew, any day now. It’s only been 402 (or, if one prefers, 245) years.

    I know I’m sounding like a CRT proponent here, and I truly am not. I find much of the CRT orthodoxy reductive and repellant. I just believe 1) that Sullivan is knowingly joining his ideological soulmates in turning a paper tiger into an existential threat; 2) that if the CRT extremists finally drag the rest of us to the table on the topics of inequality and bigotry, it’s all to the good; and 3) at a time when a radically different race-based ideology threatens the very existence of our system of government, all of the furor over CRT is at best a distraction and at worst a well-orchestrated diversion.

    (Sorry, UD, for going on a bit here…)

  2. EB Says:

    TAFKAU makes some good points, but CRT and its variants are not a harmless (because ivory-tower) diversion. In many other environments (I’m thinking the nonprofit world, philanthropy, social welfare institutions, pop culture, some religious denominations,etc) it takes center stage and therefore prevents other, more powerful and therefore effective analyses of race and inequality from entering the conversation.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: The first extended point Sullivan makes seems uncontroversial to me: Our dominant intellectual atmosphere coercively and idiotically reduces people to social identity tags and demeans/cancels people who won’t play along with the identity game. Art (for instance, the show he describes) is precisely that place where powerful opposition to a cynically driven and bureaucratically suffocating collective-identity culture expresses itself, and what it expresses is the obvious truth that the vulnerable, definitive glory of human beings is that they are complex, contradictory individuals who cannot be contained at all by the characteristics social justice warriors and their administrative assistants are trying to foist on them. The essence of liberal culture is the understanding and respect of the individual, and in particular the individual’s freedom to try to play out her personal truths unhampered by obnoxious people telling her what she is, and what she should be.

    Part of what she is (to move to Sullivan’s second point) is her genetic inheritance. I don’t happen to think this matters much; I think how you’re raised counts for far more. But Sullivan’s right that the way the woke lie about this small but meaningful empirical reality stands for so much more that they lie about. When you build an entire ideology on your desire much more than on reality, how can anyone be surprised when innocent people are cruelly cancelled because they’re not exactly what you desire? Sullivan quotes from the Economist: “Classical liberals conceded that your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. Today’s progressives argue that your freedom to express your opinions stops where my feelings begin.”

    The Foucauldian bullshit at the heart of CRT – ideas like liberty, free speech, equality, individualism, and human rights are just covers for the vilest most reactionary Power – stinks today as much as it stank in my grad school days, and Sullivan’s right to take heart at some signs that its victims might be interested in fighting back against it. What Foucauldianism has become is the obscenity of strangers picking at your “covert white supremacy,” and people are right to be disgusted.

    And no – none of this sickening coercion is about government restriction of free speech. But you don’t need the government to shut down speech. You only need powerful bureaucracies like universities, some of whom not only DO suppression, but TEACH suppression.

    As to paper tigers vs. existential threats: As the headline of my post suggests, I’m largely interested in making a point about America’s intellectual culture, whose integrity I do think has been seriously (but not existentially) threatened by woke ideologues whose inhumane zealotry makes the “resilience of racism and sexism in this country’s history” more, not less, robust. We are far less racist and sexist than we were even fifty years ago, and the refusal to acknowledge this progress is Step One in the failure of the larger progressive project.

    We don’t need to be dragged by extremists to a discussion of inequality and bigotry – and what a fiasco such a event would be! We need to focus the immediacy of our attention, we decent complex imperfect free individuals, on the true threat: “a radically different race-based ideology [that] threatens the very existence of our system of government,” to quote you.

  4. TAFKAU Says:

    I agree that reducing people to social identity tags is idiotic. What seems less clear to me is that this is “[o]ur dominant intellectual atmosphere” rather than simply our loudest. Part of this, of course, stems from the difficulty of distinguishing between much-needed responses to systematic racism (which does exist) and annoyingly performative wokeism. There are many pundits willing to swoop in and blur this line in order to delegitimize all serious efforts to address inequality. (I don’t necessarily put Sullivan in that camp and, just to be clear, I definitely do not put you there.)

    Second, I think there’s a meaningful difference between demeaning people and canceling them. The first is, unfortunately, a distressingly normal part of our national political discourse and rarely has significant ramifications. The second—depriving people of their livelihoods—is quite a bit more serious. The problem is that, for all the noise about “cancel culture,” it’s hard to identify too many actual victims. (I assume we all agree that people like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer were appropriately canceled.) Even Sullivan is reduced to conveying martyrdom on that professor from Portland State who in reality canceled himself. Sullivan obviously hasn’t been canceled, nor has Applebaum, or even Charles Murray. I fear that we may be confusing that which is annoying with that which is threatening. (I can’t speak to the non-profit or philanthropic worlds, so EB may have a point there.)

    I consider myself a fully practicing liberal, in both the classic and modern sense, so I’m on board with respecting each person as an individual and not as the sum of her ancestors’ transgressions or grievances. I’m also a middle-aged white guy, so naturally I recoil at the notion that I have nothing useful to add to conversations about inequality or that my opinion should be devalued. But even Sullivan acknowledges “the profound resilience of racism and sexism in this country’s history…” The long-term solution to that problem may be found in liberal individualism, but the short-term solution, in my view, will not. Colorblindness in the face of persistent injustice won’t get us where we need to go. (Just witness the despicable use of Dr. King’s classically liberal comment about judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character in the service of eliminating most efforts to address racial inequality.) This is what I meant about CRT dragging the rest of us to the table to address these issues. If we don’t, then the worst voices on both sides will do the job for us and we won’t much care for the result.

    Foucault? Yep, I’ve detested him since he was first forced on me in grad school. And his perspective—which you appropriately label as bullshit—does influence some of the intellectual leaders of CRT. But at the street level, you don’t hear much discussion of French philosophy. Rather, most wokeism is a combination of frustration, self-interest, and (at the administrative level) CYA cowardice. The self-interest is predictable and the CYA cowardice is contemptible, but the frustration is real, authentic, and to at least some extent justified. And that, I
    think, is where we have to engage the woke. When a police officer kills a Black man by casually kneeling on his neck for eight minutes, our appeals to liberal individualism don’t help much. The woke see a clear thread between allowing dehumanizing rhetoric and the demise of George Floyd and too many others; to them, this is a case of my right to swing my fist landing clearly on their nose. I disagree, but I don’t think it’s a view we can dismiss out of hand.

    Meanwhile, as we all try to sort out how to move forward, people like Sullivan and Applebaum take advantage of our uneasiness and justifiable offense to create their own Foucauldian reality in which CRT dominates American higher education, arts, and culture. Their dog whistles are heard clearly by state legislators across the land who attach the titles Critical Race Theory and wokeism to every leftist critique of contemporary society and every program to acknowledge and address the “profound resilience of racism and sexism in this country’s history…” And another fool out in the hinterlands decides that CRT proponents and Proud Boys are just opposite sides of the same coin, so who really cares?

    I think we’re in general agreement on the critique of wokeism. Where we differ, I think, is on how much influence CRT truly has and what level of threat it actually poses for the liberal democratic project.

  5. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    I’ve been noticing, too, people to the left of me like a Venezuelan sociologist I know start to realize that a lot of the institutional “diversity” talk is going too far in an obsessive way. These are not right-wing or even middle-of-the-road people who are saying this kind of thing.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonathan: Yes. And that’s another good sign.

    In general, Americans overdo things. I really think it’s a national trait. My Big Fat Greek Wedding went over big, so let’s do another one, and a tv show, and I dunno a musical … And it just gets worse and worse. We always seem to push essentially decent ideas to a place where they’re scandalously horrible.

  7. Aging Immigrant Says:

    I would love to know the institution TAFKAU where works. The prioritization of race over all other factors is the real-world, end result of CRT, even if the core tenets of CRT are not openly espoused. The effect is a great silencing of speech and, indeed, self-censorship. Those of us who want to speak up about the incredibly destructive consequences of a race-first approach to all issues are fearful of saying anything aloud to anyone except our closest confidants. We look with great respect and awe to those writers discussed above who had the courage to call it out. That is the reality of university life today, except perhaps where TAFKAU works.
    One brief example: The Atlanta spa shootings, in which a young white man specifically went to two spas and killed 8, 6 of whom were Asian. I engaged 3 Psychiatry residents (2 female, 1 male), 2 of East Asian descent, one of South Asian descent in a 30 minute discussion of the event from a psychological perspective. The first response I got was, “Why do you want to explain a crime by a white man through a mental health perspective?” When I encouraged them to think beyond skin color and attempt to consider the psychosexual factors that may have contributed to this rageful act, they couldn’t move beyond the “Asian hate” angle. I was truly taken aback, as all three are very bright physicians who are poised to do great work to help people. But on this fundamental human issue, sexual frustration, humiliation, and outwardly directed rage, they simply couldn’t move beyond race. Of course, I don’t know the actual factors at play in the killer’s mind, but a psychiatrist must at least be curious and open to multiple angles of understanding. At the end, as we were walking out of our meeting, the male resident privately conceded to me, “You know, it’s a bit dangerous to talk up about these things.” It wasn’t a threat to me, it was a statement of fact, and I felt he was trying to convey why our discussion had been so constrained, in contrast to our discussions on any number of non-race-related topics.
    This example captures the core of the harm of a CRT-inspired, race-first approach to human problems: the intricate, delicate, humanity of an individual is scorched by a lens that concentrates light in order to burn.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Aging Immigrant: Thanks for providing this real-world example of how impoverished thinking gets, and how repressed needed voices become, when one element of complex human situations/individuals simply takes over.

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