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Chris Rufo is a figure of warm human sympathy
Chris Rufo—at least in longform—is charitable towards his “critical theory” or “woke” opponents, something many people find surprising. This is true regardless of the positions they take on “the culture wars” in which Rufo has a leading role.
If you don’t believe me, watch this interview. Interviewer is Magazine’s Bo Winegard, who (it’s fair to say) is also caught off guard by Rufo’s charity. Don’t worry, this produces an excellent interview.
Another person who—more stridently—responded negatively to Rufo’s charity is libertarian economist :
Chris has a much more sympathetic view of Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, Derrick Bell, and the critical theorists generally than I do. I see these figures and their whole intellectual tradition (narrowly, the Frankfurt School; broadly, Continental philosophy) as intellectually fraudulent. Chris decidedly disagrees. He values their search for truth, admires their idealism, and actually expresses pity for their disappointment with the real world.
Why do I deem the critical theorists intellectually fraudulent? Simple: Actual intellectuals construct arguments capable of convincing their critics, or at least the undecided. Which in turn means (a) starting with common-sense premises that seem obvious to people who don’t share your worldview, and (b) carefully reasoning from these obvious premises to not-so-obvious conclusions. In contrast, pseudo-intellectuals like Marcuse, Davis, Freire, and Bell primarily preach to the choir and appeal to emotion.
Read the whole piece. Caplan is pretty annoyed, and sets out good reasons for his annoyance.
Like Caplan, I think critical theory is hogwash. Like both Caplan and Rufo, I’ve also read a lot of it and, as an undergraduate, pretended to take it seriously/believe it across half-a-dozen subjects to get good results. I perpetrated a giant literary hoax to show the wider public what I really thought, though. My hoax was, however, an extracurricular activity. I wasn’t going to jeopardise coming top of the course by speaking my (actual) mind in university assessment.
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It is important to read one’s opponents, though. Rufo has “clearly read a giant stack of critical theory,” Caplan points out, “and frowns on his ignorant allies who dismiss thinkers they’ve never read”.
Unlike Caplan, I appreciate Rufo’s charity. However, I wouldn’t have perpetrated a giant literary hoax if I didn’t think this stuff was utter, vacuous nonsense, so why am I picking nits?
I think I know (in part) why Rufo has sympathy for the founders of these ideologies, especially their disappointed responses to reality. This is especially so when it comes to blacks and women.
A lot of feminist and civil rights leaders thought that removing legal impediments like Jim Crow and sexist hiring practices would create something quite close to equality of outcomes. John Stuart Mill thought this. Martin Luther King thought this. Germaine Greer thought this. This warm, comforting belief was not just common among people who became disillusioned loonies and Marxist fellow-travellers. Lots of smart liberals in good standing believed it, too.
But it didn’t happen. Not even close. Black-white gaps in the US, if anything, got wider.
I’m currently reviewing a book for another outlet (Remi Adekoya’s It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth) for which the TL;DR is, roughly, this: “black people can bang on about how morally superior they are as victims—while pretending Cleopatra was black—until the cows come home, but it’s like trying to fart Annie Laurie through the keyhole. Huge effort for zero reward.
Africa (where 90 per cent of the world’s black people live) is dirt poor compared to the rest of the planet. Wakanda isn’t real. 80 percent of the world’s great historic achievements came from either Europe + North America or China and the rest of the planet gets to fight over the scraps. That is the reality”.
Staring this in the face is like watching a beloved relative die of cancer. I say this, because I’ve had someone close die of cancer: my brother. I spent three years watching multiple myeloma take him off inch by painful inch. And believe me when I say I came up with a pile of useless rationalisations to deal with the conundrum of human loss and death. That’s what people do when someone dies horribly, and dies young.
Marcuse and Davis and Bell and Crenshaw and the rest—when they came up with their shitty, hack ideas—were trying to deal with the reality and the conundrum of human inequality. Suggesting “maybe, we’re just dumb” or “maybe having kids really does turn our brains to mush” is probably too much to ask of most people, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
As part of my undergraduate irritation with being taught a heap of crap I had to pretend to take seriously, I remember thinking that the stubborn persistence of unequal outcomes would only become more painful and glaring once legal impediments to equality were several decades in the rear-view-mirror. The result, I suspected, would be a worsening—rather than an improvement—in relations between the races and sexes.
[Mind you, I didn’t see gay rights exploding all over itself in the form of the transcult. This just goes to show it’s harder to be perceptive about one’s own group.]
Here’s a snippet from a research list I’m on:
“Sex Differences in Intelligence: The Developmental Theory. Richard Lynn outlines the developmental theory of sex differences in intelligence. Boys and girls have about the same average IQ until the age of 15, when their average IQs begin to diverge. By adulthood males may have a four-point advantage over females.”
I’m willing to hypothesise that nearly all this four point gap will be thanks to a combination of preggy brain and those women who don’t recover from preggy brain after they’ve had kids. Add to preggy brain years of broken sleep, which slows processing speed and accuracy.
Preggy brain is something that anyone in a high-skill, complex professional role has seen from pregnant women. Suddenly, they can’t draft up a complex costs order meant to go before the court. Foul that up and you’re at risk of getting costs ordered against you, even when you won. Cue the clandestine recruitment of males and childless women from other divisions (often corporate finance, because we’re good at sums) to help out.
Who’s going to research that? No-one. Researching it would be, shall we say, a career-ending move. Which means everyone sits around playing “let’s pretend” about something some mouldy old academic happened to notice. Yay us.
The inequality of persons in combination with average differences between groups is part of life’s rich pageant—life’s rich tapestry as my mother called it. So is my brother dying young from cancer. Sometimes our responses to things like that are the worst of the lot because those things are hard.
Not just a well-titled REM album.
Does this excuse the critical theorists coming up with a lot of poisonous nonsense? No, it doesn’t. But it’s worth remembering how the law has long drawn a distinction between explanations and excuses. Yes, I know tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner1 is a wise aphorism attributed to Spinoza, Madame de Staël, and Tolstoy, but I think the explanation/excuse distinction is something you can borrow from us lawyers and use to aid your understanding.
If, like Chris Rufo, you perceive the sources of your opponents’ pain, you not only have a better chance to defeat them in argument. You also have the chance to guide people currently under their sway towards intellectual honesty.
A final aside
Caplan also expresses disquiet over the way Rufo hooks into libertarians. And yes, I acknowledge this is niche for my UK and Australian readers. There are few libertarians in either country. As a tradition it has no traction outside the US. Margaret Thatcher was a fan of FA Hayek, but neither she nor he were libertarians. Both fell within the tradition of British classical liberalism, which has no problem with a strong state and large areas of state economic control.
British classical liberalism also doesn’t draw a distinction between public and private in the same way as US libertarians (or even parts of US law).
19th century classical liberals like John Stuart Mill waxed loud and long about the “tyranny of prevailing thought and opinion” and how it was often as serious as state censorship. Libertarian “but it’s a private organisation” arguments—when applied to banks debanking people or companies firing gender critical feminists, say—have almost no traction in the UK.
When you see those deployed over here, you know they’ve made their way across the Atlantic in the same ideologically toxic boat as Black Lives Matter.
Caplan felt wounded by the tweet above.
I was unhappy, for many reasons. On the most personal level, I’m a libertarian, and I want to be friends with Chris. I definitely don’t want him to hate me. Furthermore, most of my friends are libertarians, and I don’t want anyone to hate them, either. On a more substantive level, I say that libertarians should support at least 80% of what Chris is trying to accomplish in the real world.
I’ve long observed how not a few libertarians actually support similar things to the woke. They endorse ideas that vary from utopian to frankly crackpot—everything from open borders to prison abolition to legalising all drugs.
And, in response, a few of the smarter libertarians have realised that in endorsing or aligning themselves with critical theory on certain issues (like open borders, drug legalisation, housing/homeless/YIMBY policy, defunding the police, radical individual autonomy like sex-work and trans), they’ve chained themselves to a corpse, because CRT/CT is so intellectually empty.
The upshot is—if libertarian arguments for a thing supported by both groups are in themselves wrong—it’s likely the policy idea is just shit, and should be chucked. Remember—while libertarians tend to be more rigorous and numerate than anyone from critical theory—they share with all intellectual descendants of the Radical Enlightenment a utopian and unconstrained vision of future possibility.
I could be unkind here and suggest that—unlike Marxists—the reason libertarians haven’t killed a hundred million people is because they couldn’t organise a pissup in a brewery or a fuck in a brothel.
This is why you get someone like libertarian-adjacentexpress concern that every single libertarian policy idea he’s ever endorsed is coming apart.
With liquor, we regulate alcohol content and enforce laws against unregulated manufacture and distribution. We have laws against underage drinking. We should be at least as strict with marijuana.
From a libertarian perspective, over the past two decades we have seen support for economic freedom decline. We have seen freedom of speech fall into disrepute. Marijuana legalization is a libertarian “cause” that seems to be moving forward. Pardon me if I fail to jump for joy.
Be careful what you wish for, and all that.
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“To understand all is to forgive all”.