Why are mathematicians saying 2+2 doesn’t necessarily equal 4? Why are protestors toppling statues of not only slave owners but also abolitionists? Why were executives at a leading nuclear research lab in America sent to mandatory training that described “focus on hard work” and “striving toward success” as problematic aspects of white male culture?
In this episode, James Lindsay joins us for a deep dive into what’s going on in our culture today. With Helen Pluckrose, he co-wrote “Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: James Lindsay, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
James Lindsay: I’m happy to be here again.
Mr. Jekielek: James, I’ve been digging into your book “Cynical Theories.” Wow, it is quite the opus. I’m just beginning to wrap my head around it frankly.
Mr. Lindsay: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about how you kind of first came into the limelight, briefly, because I think this is where some people may have come across your work before. You and Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose wrote a series of these, let’s call them, hoax papers and got published in what you call grievance studies journals. And this was the genesis of this book that you’ve now written. Tell me about that.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes. In 2017 and 2018, Helen and Peter and I embarked on an adventure to write as many academic papers as we could in a short period of time in fields like gender studies, cultural studies, fat studies, and disability studies—all these things that end in studies that we kind of collected under the title “grievance studies” because they talk about social grievances with relationship to those identity factors. And we tried to get as many of them published as we could. We got seven out of the 20 we ended up writing, accepted for publication.
The story got broken by The Wall Street Journal. Everything went public very quickly. And while we were doing the research to learn the relevant material in the so-called grievance studies fields, to learn critical race theory, to learn queer theory, to learn post-colonial theory, fat studies, disability studies, relevant feminist studies and women’s studies and gender studies—it just goes on and on—we, of course, collected rather copious notes so that we could understand those ideas.
In the background behind all of that, Helen had actually already decided she wanted to write a book explaining the postmodern influence on these lines of thought, and I had agreed to help her. And so we ended up with these huge, huge files of notes and detailed excerpts from the literature and our own explanations and understanding and grappling with those. Those became the backbone of “Cynical Theories,” which is what we ended up writing more or less as soon as we finished dealing with all of the media spree after the hoax papers broke and like every newspaper in the world, I think, almost covered it.
Once that settled down, Helen and I dedicated full time to taking those notes and turning them into something digestible and understandable for the average person who’s a little bit nerdy, I guess. It’s a heavy and dense book, it’s true. But that was the genesis of “Cynical Theories,” to try to communicate what we had learned in the process of studying those fields, in particular the postmodern philosophical influence on those fields.
Mr. Jekielek: James, this may sound a bit overly melodramatic, but what I’m getting from your book is that the people using these theories and applying these theories to the world, it’s like they seek to kind of restructure our whole conception of reality in the vision of oppression versus oppressed. This is a disturbing idea. This is, of course, a questionable idea. And are you actually saying that these people are trying to reconstruct how we conceive of reality?
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, your intuition is actually correct. The heart of these fields is actually a completely different conception of reality. Depending on how we want to parse things out, it’s probably most accurate to say that the conception of reality that you’re tapping into, this oppressor versus oppressed, which is called conflict theory—which originated with Marx, and then was advanced into the cultural arenas and identity arenas by the neo-Marxists and the Frankfurt School—that is the basis of the worldview that they are trying to reconstruct.
And to be able to reconstruct, they have to get the thing that exists currently out of the way. The tool that they have happened upon for deconstructing what currently exists is actually called deconstruction, which they took from Jacques Derrida, which is the postmodern influence. So you have a completely different way of engaging with knowledge, the way that it’s produced, the way that we communicate it, the way that it is taught in classrooms, from all the way down to very young children, all the way up through advanced doctoral degrees.
All of these interactions with knowledge have been completely reconceived in the postmodern way in order to serve an underlying critical theory ethic that sees the world in oppressed groups trying to wage war for their liberation against their oppressors, and having to do so in ways that are primarily subversive and falling outside of the normal structures and systems of society. And so it is those structures and systems of society that they want to take apart and replace with their own.
That is this critical theory vision, which is, in short, that which isn’t Marxist enough, according to the way they’ve now reconceived Marxism through culture, becomes oppression. And they have to dismantle that so they can replace it with this new liberatory vision, as they would call it.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about something that’s on everybody’s mind right now, frankly. And of course, Black Lives Matter is something that’s on everybody’s mind. It’s obviously a truth. Black lives do matter; they matter a lot. But the group Black Lives Matter itself espouses a very specific ideology. I think that from everything I’ve read in Cynical Theories, … your book speaks to this.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, I think so. The ideology that’s expressed in the official—it’s even tricky. There’s not technically an official Black Lives Matter. They kind of hide behind, “Well, there’s no official thing,” but they do have a website. If you go to their website and you go to their “about” page and “What We Believe,” you can read the things that they list. And you find some things that are fairly reasonable and some things that are definitely deeper within the ideology than most people would accept as being represented by the simple phrase, “Black lives matter.”
For example, dismantling the idea of the nuclear family is in there, marching with our queer comrades is in there. So something more is going on. And this ideology is really what we were trying to write about within the context of “Cynical Theories,” which is that there’s this broad constellation of what we called “cynical theories” that fall within this kind of critical theory school as it’s evolved into many new branches, including critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonial theory, and these certain studies of fields like fat studies and disability studies. There’s even critical studies of nutrition, critical education theory, critical legal studies. There’s tons and tons and tons of these. So this critical theory thing has kind of worked into everything. And that’s actually what’s underlying the Black Lives Matter movement, this critical theory ethos.
Now, why, in your mind, is this a problem?
Well, because a couple of things. Primarily, it’s that I actually care about the problems that it’s speaking about wanting to solve. And in caring about those problems, I want them solved genuinely and as well as possible. That requires understanding the problem as accurately as possible and adopting solutions that can actually work, which also requires understanding the situation that we find ourselves in correctly.
I have, after spending so much time deeply researching the critical race theory aspect of this for example, find very little reason to believe that it does any of that successfully. I think it points generally in the direction of real problems. And then its diagnosis of those problems is completely incorrect and its prescribed solutions are almost exactly backwards.
So as somebody who cares about the problems that are underlying the entire movement and as somebody who wants to see the problems solved, I can’t get behind a huge now global effort to do them the wrong way, to misdiagnose the problems and propose solutions that don’t move us toward solving the problems at all.
Mr. Jekielek: So well, what are the solutions in this? This is kind of a living example, right? And I am hoping to, as we go through the interview, look at some different scenarios that a lot of people have questions about and of course a lot of people would want to support. I mean, why would you not want to support black lives matter as a concept, right? It’s sort of a truism almost that you would want to. But if that’s not what’s going on, what is actually going on?
Mr. Lindsay: Our friend, we’ll call her [that], at The New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah Jones, who is the architect of the 1619 project, which I know we spoke about some before, put it on Twitter—apparently accidentally or without realizing what she was doing because she later deleted the tweet—and she said that, “There’s a difference between being politically black and being racially black.” Being politically black means being a political black activist in a particular way.
A concrete example of this that played out was when Kanye West put on the Make America Great Again hat and said that he thinks for himself. And then Ta-Nehisi Coates, a very famous author who wrote “Between the World and Me,” said that he’s no longer black because he’s not politically black; he’s not taking the correct political positions.
And so it becomes very concerning when the phrase “black lives matter” now becomes ambiguous. Does it mean the lives of black people matter, which is true, or does it mean that we’re going to approach the concept of black lives through this very narrow, particular political lens that is full of very radical politics, like dismantling the family, for example, that most people may not agree with?
Defunding or abolishing police and getting rid of prisons are very, very concrete, radical agendas. These equity agendas that are even tipping into the point of having racial quotas for hiring, which is a very concrete problem that people have to deal with. These are the kinds of agendas that they’re pushing.
We can look at it in terms of scholarship where they talk about research justice, where they say that we have to now make sure that our researchers are primarily going to represent historically marginalized groups, and we’re going to forward their knowledge, we’re going to cite their literature, we’re going to give them prestigious appointments, we’re going to give them professorships, we’re going to base teaching off of their work, and we’re going to say take out elements of the Western canon that they feel have been overrepresented such as Shakespeare and—as I’ve been in a battle on Twitter for the past month about—two plus two equaling four even, which is apparently a white Western construction of math that denies other possible values.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, that’s actually a very interesting … example in the real world that there’s a real debate about this. Let’s jump to this one chapter you have in the book. It’s early on—I forget which number—but it basically talks about postcolonial theory. That sounds very heady and everything, and I didn’t, frankly, understand this realm terribly well. I knew a little bit about it before I read the chapter. But I found it very fascinating that this whole concept of postcolonialism in a way comes before all these other studies. It kind of fits into all these different disciplines that emerged afterwards. And this idea, we’ve heard it probably “let’s decolonize.” We can decolonize practically anything, right?
Mr. Lindsay: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: To most people, it’s really difficult to understand. So what is this decolonization that’s happening that people are pushing for? And is it in fact, as I’ve read at least, central to this whole new ideology?
Mr. Lindsay: Right. So we have in general with almost all of these cynical theories, as we called them, the expansion of concepts to apply to categories that they may not have applied to before. We name in the book that a theme of postmodern thought is the blurring of boundaries, including the dissolution of stable categories so that you can now apply words in more expansive contexts.
Perhaps the most obvious and familiar example of that would be the concept of violence, which even will apply in this postcolonial theory situation, which is now words are violence, the wrong kinds of symbolism are violence, but apparently burning down a target isn’t violence. So there’s this very topsy turvy expansion of the concept of violence.
Well, there’s also a very topsy turvy expansion of the concept of colonialism. And you have to understand that to understand the deep colonial project in terms of decolonizing everything. The narrow, and I would say proper, understanding of decolonization makes perfect sense. Nobody’s confused about it at all. If you have a colonizing entity, and it takes over another region, and it asserts its own politics and its own way of life into that context, removing that is the process of decolonizing, right? So it’s not complicated at all.
You can imagine, whether it’s the French or whether it’s the English or whether it’s the Spanish or whether it’s the Chinese or whoever it is, it’s gone in and now claimed another territory as their own, asserted their political hegemony over the existing order, and forced people to live by that—that’s colonization. And then when that occupying force or culture removes, that’s decolonization. Now you have political, you have institutional, and you have very material and legal issues of decolonizing and getting things toward some new state that’s maybe more like it was before the colonizing came in.
And then you also have this idea that people think differently and they act differently, and so you can get very expansive with the idea of colonization. The theory—and this sounds preposterous; I constantly have to warn people about that—the theory that we’re dealing with sees the Enlightenment in Europe as having been a uniquely unfair incident in all of history because science and liberalism are very, very successful entities or projects. Capitalism is a very successful project.
And these have been able to spread very effectively around the world, whether through direct colonization or whether through the process of people taking them up because they work. So it would be very difficult to claim that China today has been colonized by the West. I don’t think that that’s true in almost any regard. But you do see them very much driving Western cars, wearing Western brands, using Western mathematics, integrating Western medicine into their Chinese medicine practices, and in fact, typically in their hospitals, favoring them and using the traditional Chinese medicine as kind of the supplement rather than the core.
And so within the theory that we call postcolonial theory, this would all be seen as an act of Western colonization, regardless of if it was taken up willingly or not because they think that the Enlightenment itself, the development of science and liberalism was an act of cheating in human history that enabled a lot of real colonization. [In] the Americas, for example, for sure, lots in Africa happened, Australia, and all around the world, we could just start naming countries. Even in South Asia, in Southeast Asia, we have lots of colonization. India, of course, in South Asia, is the most prominent example that people might appeal to.
They see that not only the physical occupation and the legal occupation, but also the mental and conceptual occupation by bringing, say, science and liberal values into these other cultures is an act of colonization. So, decolonization now means removing all vestiges of liberal, scientific, enlightenment thought, which they would call Eurocentric thought, from anything that it has touched, which is why you can now decolonize literally anything.
We see at Rutgers the attempt to decolonize grammar because grammar became codified under Western ideals of clarity of expression and whatever other things, systematizing of language and so on. And so now we have to decolonize grammar and remove those systematizing influences from even how we speak and write. We have it in mathematics; we have it in—literally everything can be decolonized.
You most often, most directly hear it in terms of either decolonizing some kind of abstract entity, like decolonizing the workplace, not some specific workplace, but the workplace as a concept. Or decolonizing some subject like decolonizing the classics, which I don’t even know what that means when you start trying to [do it]. I mean, I do. I know what they mean by it is taking out the emphasis in Western thought on say Greek and Roman philosophy.
So it’s a very, very expansive idea of colonialism where anything that Western influences touched, you have to take the Western influence out and basically start again from scratch, not using any of the ideals, values, or virtues that were developed under the context of the Enlightenment and liberalism.
Mr. Jekielek: And hence the hostility to the nuclear family which would be one of the units of this system. So, essentially, what you’re saying, I think, is that a lot of the, let’s say, all the good that has come out of the Enlightenment needs to be thrown away and rebuilt from the ground up in the eyes of a new theory?
Mr. Lindsay: That’s right, because the underlying belief is that, if we might just call this all liberalism in the broadest philosophical sense, the underlying belief is that for any good that it achieved, it also achieved a great deal of evil, and in fact, it established the ability to have a new kind of evil that they are uniquely obsessed with, which is called systemic oppression. Systemic oppression refers to the oppression by a system, an existing system.
So you’re thinking maybe what kind of systems we have. Well, we have legal systems, you have institutional systems, we also have systems of knowledge, we have systems of language, we have systems of thought, and in particular, the Enlightenment or liberal system of everything—social order, language, knowledge, ethics—all of it is the system. And so everything that that system, every harm that that system either creates or allows becomes part of why it’s terrible. The goal is to liberate humanity from the harms caused by the liberal system.
It’s an absolute rejection of being able to see the thing in a broader sense where you see the good and the bad and realize there are trade-offs and everything and that nothing can be perfect. It is instead a hyper-focused analysis of everything that went wrong, everything that wasn’t the delivery of an absolute perfect promise of liberalism and the desire to throw the entire system away because it created those problems.
I mean, it’s a silly analogy, but we all say, “More money, more problems.” It’s very much like that: more technology, more problems. You see this very commonly in their line of argumentation. Well, if we hadn’t invented these high tech military weapons, we wouldn’t have been able to kill millions of people with them. Rather than saying, “Well, at the same time, we have these cities, we have these food distribution networks, we have all these functional things that make society work, we have skyscrapers, we have all these sanitation, and we have all this great stuff,” they just say, “Yeah, well, we also have the ability to kill millions of people with a single bomb” or whatever, and then that potential harm, to them, is so awful that the whole system that would create such a thing has to be scrapped in favor of something simpler.
Mr. Jekielek: I have to say this because it frankly just occurred to me. Is this where the hostility to America as a concept comes from?
Mr. Lindsay: Yes and in particular, that’s very much in the postcolonial context, because the United States was established as a British colony that required a great deal of death, a proper genocide of the indigenous tribes who lived here, not necessarily peacefully. I almost said peacefully because of the propaganda, but it certainly wasn’t peacefully [before colonization]. But it required the displacement and genocide of the people who already lived here.
And so they see the whole American project as a huge project of colonization. This also you see with the 1619 project being that they’ve tried to cast it as a project of slavery. Both of these things, of course, have elements of truth to them. But when you start looking at it, it’s also a point of fracture within their own ideology. They’re fighting over whether it was more of a postcolonial issue or a more of a race issue. So it’s sort of a messy thing, but you are correct.
They see all of the colonization of the Americas as the starting point of the failures of America. You can read this very, very clearly in “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, which was a critical historiography of the United States, much like the 1619 project with a different emphasis. Zinn’s opening chapter describes Christopher Columbus and how terrible he was. And then it’s all about that the very founding of America—this is the message that it’s saying—was this horrendous colonial project.
So the hatred of the West, and the hatred of America in particular, is tied very deeply into this postcolonial context, but also into the context of that “everything the Enlightenment produced must be wrong, because look at all of the harms that it brings with it.”
Mr. Jekielek: Now I’m thinking about the significance of the toppling of all these different statues. Why is it that even people that were, I don’t know, emancipators of slaves could be subject to this toppling?
Mr. Lindsay: That’s all consistent with this. The entire history of the United States is shot through with the problems of the Enlightenment. And all of that has to be torn down to start again. I mean, people think it’s hyperbolic—when you start seeing iconoclasm, like tearing down these statues, people will think it’s hyperbolic to compare this to what you saw in the Chinese Cultural Revolution with the destruction of the Four Olds or within the Khmer Rouge with the attempt to get to Year Zero, which resulted in the Killing Fields. But that’s exactly what this is.
It is the attempt to get back to Year Zero before the Enlightenment introduced systemic oppression into the world. And now the thing that has to be gotten rid of is not some old Chinese culture that maybe was antiquated or wasn’t revolutionarily Marxist enough or Leninist enough as Mao would have seen it, but now it is to get rid of Western culture itself, which the Frankfurt School in particular has been waging war openly on since the 1920s as the single object, Western culture as the single object that prevents people from taking up the Marxist revolution that Marx had predicted and didn’t manifest, and they couldn’t figure out why.
That’s what the point of the Frankfurt School was, to figure out why the Marxist revolution didn’t occur in the West. And you can read in Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks that it’s all these vestiges of Western culture—the family, religion. As you look into Theodor Adorno, you start seeing pop culture, mass media. You start looking into Herbert Marcuse, and it’s all about, he talks about, what’s his book, “One-Dimensional Man.” So it’s like that the way that the society flattens life for the average citizen down into one dimension where they just are satisfied with what they’re given.
And there’s this entire deep critique that’s always been openly, explicitly against the Western liberal democracy ideals as the thing that stood in the way of the Marxist revolution and that needs to be chipped away at from within. That’s the underlying ethos that we see here. And so when you asked at the beginning, is this an attempt to deconstruct—well, you didn’t ask about deconstruction—but to take apart the existing order to replace it with a new order that’s built from the ground up, I think we’ve established that case now in three ways very conclusively, that that is the underlying objective here.
Mr. Jekielek: James, the incredible thing here is this is an attempt basically to reconstruct how we conceive of reality entirely. Frankly I’m still trying to wrap my head around that part, but you did mention Marcuse and the Frankfurt School.
I’m actually finding myself thinking about repressive tolerance and Antifa, again another applied example that a lot of people are concerned about or wondering about. Some people have been told it doesn’t even exist [or] it’s some kind of peaceful movement. Tell me about—I know a little bit about the connection of the idea of repressive tolerance and Antifa. But tell me how this ideology fits into what Antifa is doing now.
Mr. Lindsay: Okay, the concept behind repressive tolerance that Marcuse laid out—and this was in 1965, so that’s relevant because the riots that started in 1967 were very much inspired by the essay that was published in 1965. It’s like these pieces go together quite clearly. But Marcuse made the case that in any world in which fascism has ever arisen, which includes ours after, say, the 1920s, we are constantly, constantly under the threat of fascism arising again, and it is in fact an emergency.
He says that Western societies live in an emergency situation where fascism may come out at any moment. And the point of the essay, “Repressive Tolerance” is to say that anything that can be used as fuel or support for anything like a fascist movement cannot be tolerated. We need a new, different kind of tolerance that doesn’t tolerate difference of opinion, but rather absolutely stamps out, including by use of, as he phrases it, revolutionary violence to prevent the possibility of the arising of fascism.
This seems to be a misreading of Karl Popper, who obviously had written similarly about tolerance with his “paradox of tolerance.” So if you’re too tolerant for too long of the intolerant, then they can get to a point where they have enough strength to be able to enforce their intolerance, and there’s nothing you can do about it at that point. And so Marcuse interpreted this in terms of it being an emergency situation, and in terms of the need to use violence in a revolutionary sense to disrupt any possibility that fascism could take root.
So now anything that can be construed as fascist becomes able to be met with violence under this philosophy. It has to be stamped out; it has to be stopped. So with Antifa, one of the things that they are strongly focused on is the idea of the maintenance of the status quo.
The status quo is in a very weird, abstract sense, the thing conservatives kind of leaned toward. “Don’t change things too fast.” And so they believe that—and Marcuse is very explicit about this in “Repressive Tolerance”—that the status quo has been oppressive and is oppressive, and in the context, writing in 1965, I think he actually had much more of a point than he would have if he was trying to write it in 2020. And Antifa seems to be very expansive with the understandings of these ideas and interpreting them in a new context as though nothing changed.
But the claim was that the status quo itself is oppressive, and it’s filled with the tools of oppression, and therefore, anything that maintains the status quo is the seed of fascism according to this line of thought, and this is the line of thought underlying Antifa. So when you have a stable, orderly society that involves law and order and, in fact, has the police interrupt bad behavior, such as riots or looting or arson, and using state-sanctioned force to do so, that, according to this analysis, is a form of fascism.
And so Antifa is going to rise up in particular against the police or the police ever being able to use force, so now we get to, “Defund the police; abolish the police. The police are just a fascist arm.” But the trap that’s been set in the current mood is that there’s this mayhem happening in certain cities, and if the state—say it’s the National Guard, say it’s federal troops, say it’s the local police, it doesn’t matter—respond with force, they are now proving the point, as far as Antifa sees it and messages it, that they are fascistic and trying to control society and stamp out dissidents.
It turns out though, Antifa isn’t just Marcuse. It also draws very heavily, and Marcuse probably did as well, off of the French psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon. And Frantz Fanon is actually, in “Cynical Theories,” we position him as not the founder of postcolonial theory, but the founder of the whole postcolonialist line of thought that became postcolonial theory.
Fanon was a very revolutionary thinker and saw colonialism in very much the same way I just described fascism through Marcuse. They’re in perfect parallel. So Fanon believed that violence is necessary to overthrow colonizers and all aspects of colonialism in particular to restore the dignity of the colonized people. And so he openly advocated for violence in response to colonialism.
Now we just talked about how colonialism can be anything in a very expansive definition under these new cynical theories’ very blurred boundaries. And so again, you see the same pattern. But if you put the writings of Fanon together with the writings of Marcuse, you get the seeds of Antifa. And again, the justification is that society has been ordered by people who are doing illegitimate behaviors like colonization or who want to just maintain their power with the status quo, which is reinterpreted as fascism.
Stability in society is the definition of fascism that Antifa operates on. And those things, because of the writings of Fanon and Marcuse, have to be met with subversive activism, vigorous activism, and even violence to make sure that they can’t take root, they can’t establish themselves, they can’t gain a foothold where they could grow in the amount of power that they have to eventually either colonize and control people or establish fascism and control people.
This is the underlying mindset of Antifa, which is a decentralized but real organization. I mean, if you read some of the works that they actually have published themselves about themselves, they cite Marcuse, they cite Fanon repeatedly. There’s a book, an Antifa book published by AK Press, in fact, that is called “Black Bloc, White Riot,” which the title itself is an homage to Fanon’s famous 1952 book titled “Black Skin, White Masks,” and they refer to Fanon as dynamite in print, and say that he’s the most important, portent, and influential thinker because he justifies the use of violence against a controlling entity, which is what they see in the state or a stable society.
So this is why they feel justified, for example, to show up in the streets and cause mayhem or to break windows or damage property because the property is protected by the police. And they say that the law exists to protect property owners and that concentrates and steals the wealth of the community and puts it in the hands of corporations, which are in bed with the state because the police protect them and sanction business to be able to do what business does, and therefore they say, “Oh, well, the collusion of the state and business, that’s fascism. So therefore, we have to disrupt especially corporate but other business.”
This is the tortured mentality. This is the extreme interpretive frame in which these books that they do write and read are based. And the theorists are the same theorists we talk about in “Cynical Theories.” It’s all very deeply connected together in that way.
Mr. Jekielek: This is incredibly fascinating. It’s also, and again correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not an expert here, but we have what some people describe as cultural Marxism emerging in Marcuse, and then you have the applied postmodernist mentioned in Fanon. And so there’s a kind of a fusion of these two in the Antifa ideology, I guess [in] the way I read all this. And frankly, you don’t talk a lot about cultural Marxism in the book itself, and I found that interesting. You focus very heavily on postmodernism. But there seems to be a deep connection. I’m wondering if you could just speak to that.
Mr. Lindsay: There is a deep connection. And there are a number of reasons we didn’t talk about it much in the book. One of the reasons is that we actually have a limited scope, and the book is already long and dense. So we kept the focus of the book to the postmodern influence on this line of thought and we traced from the 1960s postmodern thinkers through to today, rather than tracing all of the various lines of thought. We may do this in the future, and I’ve done some of that on “New Discourses.”
The thing with cultural Marxism is that it’s also very easily discredited when you start talking about it because people see it purely as a conspiracy theory. And this is complicated because there is actually a conspiracy theory within it that’s sort of a backwards conspiracy theory in a very complicated way.
A little background, the overwhelming majority of the thinkers in the Frankfurt School were, in fact, Jewish. They definitely were talking in very high-minded tones, for the most part, about wanting to radically reorganize society. So now you have a group of Jews who are talking about wanting to radically reorganize society and overthrow it for their vision. And all of a sudden you’re going to have right-wing people jump on this without—I mean, extreme right-wing people jump on this without the necessary nuance and say, “Aha, Jews are trying to control the world.”
And so now boom, you have the Frankfurt School being characterized [by] an anti-semitic conspiracy, in terms of an anti-semitic conspiracy theory because they make the leap that the Jewishness is what’s relevant, where it’s actually the anti-liberal critique that’s relevant [not] their identities. It could have been made by anybody.
So, there is an actual conspiracy theory that got worked into all of this, which makes it very difficult to talk about. What cultural Marxism should refer to is not that conspiracy theory, however. It should refer very simply to Marx’s concept that’s called conflict theory, which is the belief that society is stratified into groups that have different access to resources and opportunities. We could just say the elites versus the prol[etariat]s if we want to. And those groups are fundamentally in zero-sum conflict with one another, rather than that it’s a much more complicated sociology.
This was Marx’s idea, and this is what underlies Marxism. Marxism is the application of this conflict theory to economic thought, particularly in the context of industrial capitalism, which we’ve already mostly had to grow out of anyway, which makes things even more complicated.
So when you take that oppressor versus oppressed conflict theory mentality, where it was the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat for Marx and you now say, “Oh, it’s the white supremacists versus the racial minorities they oppress,” or “it is the male patriarchy versus the women they oppress,” or “it is the heteronormative straight culture versus all of the sexual minorities they oppress.” And we could go on and on and on. When you take that same conflict theory and apply it to cultural features, or in particular with Marcuse to identity-based cultural features, now, you have something that could be called cultural Marxism.
And I want to stress the point that before Marcuse got very invested in identity politics in the 1960s, before that, the Frankfurt School tended not to get deeply into identity politics at all, but they still were doing a cultural form of Marxism by talking about cultural elites versus the cultural everyman, high culture versus low culture. And one of the things that they complained about was that a middle culture was developing and stealing away the ability to raise a class consciousness in terms of cultural class.
So all of a sudden, you have this middle class rising up economically, you have people who just want to go about their business and enjoy their lives and see themselves as a middle culture filled with pop cultural references, sports teams, and so on. This was what Theodor Adorno was really all about. It was that the main body of what would be the cultural proletariat was no longer going to be able to be agitated into hating their society because they were being fed stuff that they liked, for instance, football games and television programs and radio shows that they found amusing, and they were content with their lives.
And again, the whole point of the Frankfurt School was to figure out every way that Western people are made content with their lives and ruin it for them so that they would want to agitate for a Marxist revolution. So you have kind of different stages of this cultural Marxism as well. It wouldn’t even be right to call what’s going on now cultural Marxism because it’s really identity Marxism. It’s really rooted, the idea even went further to the point where being black is supposed to have a unique culture associated with it, which is, in my opinion, a very racist idea. But this is how the current identity movement thinks.
So it’s come in different stages, high culture versus low culture, then it became racial and sexual identity cultures and so on, into every facet you can imagine, now. There are 40,000 denominations of identity, you might say, isn’t this kind of cultural Marxist Protestantism or something where now there’s a million different ideas of what constitutes our culture? But that’s why what we see now looks like cultural Marxism and why it’s so difficult to call cultural Marxism and have it stick, so we avoided the term just to avoid unnecessary point-missing criticism that was sure to follow if we stuck it in there.
Mr. Jekielek: You describe how postmodernism is basically, I guess cynical is the right word. I actually looked up the word cynical multiple times while reading your book—I’ll tell you it’s kind of a funny anecdote on my end—but postmodernism, if I read it right, was deeply, deeply cynical of any what they would call meta-narratives that exist, right? So any sort of conceptions of reality, whether it’s the Judeo-Christian conception of reality and so forth, [postmodernism] basically said, “Begone with all of them.” And it sort of stayed theoretical that way, but then as it came into the supply phase with postcolonial theory, it actually, and I find this fascinating, it actually took on certain things. It kind of denied postmodernism in accepting certain basic truths, and we’re still staying here in this theoretical land, but I find that fascinating, and I’m hoping you can tell me what these truths are right now.
Mr. Lindsay: So the original postmodernists were content to just tear everything apart. And then you had these very critical theory-laden activists who stumbled upon this as it became popular in the 1970s and especially 1980s in the United States, who started to take up the ideas of deconstruction, but were very critical of postmodernism as well. So they were simultaneously critical of liberalism, being that they were critical theorists, and very critical of postmodernism in that it takes, as they said, a great deal of privilege to tear apart everything.
Only somebody with privilege could possibly think it’s possible to tear apart the lived experience of systemic oppression, as outlined by the conflict theories and neo-Marxism. And so they then concretized or reified the idea of systemic oppression. So this was a very pivotal moment in history where the theories of postmodernism and critical theory fused into a single thing to do identity politics. And the way that it did it was by setting aside—deconstruction applies to everything that they want it to except the experience of systemic oppression based on identity.
So identity itself and the lived experience of systemic oppression are real, objectively real. Everything else is completely not real and can be deconstructed. It’s just a functionary of power, everything else, so it can be taken apart with postmodern deconstruction. But the systemic oppression itself and that experience, that lived experience, that’s real, that’s solid, that can’t be deconstructed. Only privilege could possibly think you could deconstruct something like that.
The first tenant of critical race theory—they actually came out of legal theory so they tend to list things—is that racism is the ordinary, not aberrational state of affairs in society and all of its interactions. So that’s a very kind of abstract way of phrasing it. This was maybe written down the first time in the early 1990s, mid-1990s. By the mid-2010s, you have the theorist Robyn D’Angelo, who is very famous for her book “White Fragility” now—she is almost a household name; she needs very little introduction—saying that the question has moved. The question is not, this is the way she phrased it, the question is not “Did racism take place?” but instead, “How did racism manifest in that situation?” So you can see that the same thing is there.
Racism is the ordinary, not aberrational state of affairs in all of, they say, American society. Racism manifests in every situation, and it is the objective of the critical theorist to be able to point it out, to find it and point it out. [Here’s] a very concrete example that helps people understand. You could imagine owning a shop. And that’s a shop like a tailor shop where you have to help the customer individually. You’re working alone that day. Your race is irrelevant to this conversation.
Two people walk in at nearly the same time before you can get out from behind the counter to greet them. One is white, one is black. You have to choose who to help first. Racism is the ordinary state of affairs, not aberrational. How did racism manifest in the situation because it must have somehow? So you have to choose: white person or black person. If you choose white, the goal of this theory is to find out how racism manifested in that choice. And so they say, “Well, it’s clearly a matter of getting inside your head. It’s clearly a matter of you thinking that white people are first-class citizens and black people are second class citizens who need to wait. You have a preference for interacting with white people over black people, therefore you have chosen in a racist way.”
But if you chose the black person instead, again, racism is ordinary, not aberrational. Racism must have manifested in this situation, so it must have been behind this choice. They say, “Well, you don’t trust black people to be left unattended in your store, so you want to get them out as quickly as possible and deal with that person first because you trust a white person to wander around unattended while you help another customer, but you don’t trust a black person. Therefore racism must have been present.”
So racism ends up being the conclusion in every single situation that you find yourself in and you see this in every possible analysis, anywhere, anywhere you go. Did you donate money to Black Lives Matter? Well, if you did, either you didn’t donate enough—that’s racist—or you did it to make yourself look good—that’s racist. You just tried to make yourself look like a better person. That was in your own self-interest.
The second pillar of critical race theory is interest convergence, that you only do things to help other races in your own self-interest if you have power, so it’s racist. Or maybe you didn’t. But the reason you didn’t, obviously must be that you have a racist animus against black people which are being conflated with Black Lives Matter. So the goal is to find the racism in whatever happened no matter what.
And you can just come up with as many concrete examples of this—that you probably know somebody who’s experienced one of these now—as you want, and it’s because this is the underlying mentality. It is the critical ethos: to find the problematic that it knows must be there because of the conflict theory, oppressor versus oppressed dynamic, combined with postmodernism’s absolute lack of need to be constrained by the truth because the truth is merely politics.
So what you were really thinking doesn’t mean anything, partly because you were socialized into your beliefs by the racist forces of society, and partly because, as critical theory would have it, you have a false consciousness where you’ve internalized your dominance or if you happen to be a racial minority, you’ve internalized your oppression, and because you have false consciousness you need to be woken up from. You were not acting authentically. It’s a very, very consistent set of abstract concepts that have very real world practical applications that literally everything is racist.
Mr. Jekielek: Just listening to you describe this scenario, I truly understand why you called your book “Cynical Theories” because there’s no positive interpretation to be had.
Mr. Lindsay: That’s correct. Anything that has to do with systemic power cannot have a positive interpretation pointed toward the people who are alleged to be in possession of or benefit from systemic power. On the flip side of that is that somebody who’s systemically oppressed, according to theory, has to be interpreted where they’ve done nothing wrong, and so it literally almost removes their sense of agency.
And you see this expressed, it’s easy to say it abstractly, but you see it’s expressed very clearly when they, the people defending the riots, say, “Well, you have to think about how these people have been systemically oppressed for so long. They don’t even know that they’re not supposed to burn down a Starbucks.” Wait a minute, what? It’s a horrifyingly racist statement to make. But then the systemic oppression argument, because of the idea of false consciousness and the socialization that are at the core of this, removes all agency from basically everybody. Moral responsibility is no longer understood in terms of agency, but rather in terms of complicity with the system of power or not.
Mr. Jekielek: This is super interesting. You talked about intersectionality. That’s another difficult concept for a lot of people to talk about or to think about. But one of the things that you mention in the book, I believe, is how in intersectionality, you look at all the different oppression classes that someone might have, and you can reduce things down to a very small grouping, but never to the individual, never to the individual because the individual never has agency.
Mr. Jekielek: And this is a really kind of bizarre twist on this whole thing because it means “I’m never accountable for my actions, and there’s some bigger power that is similar across my particular grouping.” Presumably, I’m obviously one of the oppressors, but it doesn’t really have to do with my decision making. So that’s sort of out of my hands. It’s all kind of happening.
Mr. Lindsay: It’s in terms of your positionality. That’s the phrase that they use in intersectionality. They call it positionality, which means the state of your social position with respect to the systems of power that they believe exist in terms of identity factors. So who you happen to have been born to be positions you, and so you are acting rightly or wrongly in this worldview under intersectionality if you are fully cognizant of all of your group identities, and then whichever one you happen to be speaking from or into, that you’re speaking authentically with the critical perspective of that so that you understand the way that the power dynamics are relevant.
And so again, your agency comes down to: are you supporting the systemic power that’s theorized to be around you, or are you doing what they tell you you have to do in order to resist or disrupt or dismantle or deconstruct it? So it’s a very bizarre thing that agency comes with doing exactly what you’re told. It’s a complete inversion of the concept of agency because only when you’re doing exactly what theory tells you you should be doing with regard to the systems of power that are bigger and beyond you, only then are you exercising agency as they say it.
So they have a complete theory of the individual, a complete theory of moral responsibility that is entirely detached from the one that all the rest of us understand. And it takes quite a bit of immersion and exposure to it to actually understand that the people who have become intuitively sensitive to this really are thinking through it in that way.
Their moral intuition has become aligned with the systems of power dynamic in the same way that a very devout, say, Christian’s moral intuitions will align with what the scripture teaches them about the way that their religion sees moral obligation in the world. And so you have this entire flipping of agency on its head, and this entire demand that you act in accordance with what we called in the book, the truth according to social justice.
Mr. Jekielek: This is pretty fascinating. I’m just reminded of an episode that we as The Epoch Times faced, and all of this gives me a lot more perspective on it. We had published a special edition, both in the US and Canada, and in Canada it was pretty widely distributed, about coronavirus, or actually CCP virus as we call it at The Epoch Times. And then the Canadian national broadcaster who I grew up with and respected came out and said this was some sort of a racist act. They produced multiple episodes on this and so forth.
There was a pushback. A major Canadian newspaper pushed back on this. This situation got worked out, but just this so bizarre that this happened at all, because we were simply talking about what the facts reveal, so to speak, right? But this was immediately called racist, and it was called racist by the Canadian national broadcaster. And when I listened to you talking about this, I thought, “How many people actually believe this stuff?” And if it’s not a lot, which because you say the rest of us, how does it have so much influence over our society right now?
Mr. Lindsay: Well, the influence question is a little more challenging. We actually are existing in a moment of moral panic, and people do not tend to behave in accordance with their better judgment during moral panics because they are so afraid of looking like they’re on the wrong side of any issue. And this, of course, has become very pronounced since George Floyd died in terms of the moral panic level, but it was already kind of at a boiling point before that.
Maybe partly because of the irritation to the left of Donald Trump’s presidency, maybe because theory has been escaping the lab also in the form of educating our teachers, educating our journalists. There’s an incredible social pressure, however, to fit, even whether you believe it fully, whether you believe it partially, whether you fully understand it or not, to fit in with this view of the world, and because of the nature of the internet, if you don’t, you will get a tremendous amount of blowback, usually very, very quickly, often with coordinated campaigns.
And so there’s been a very quick learning curve in terms of being able to say the things that will prevent you from falling on the wrong side of this online mob to some degree because it’s very responsive. It’s very aggressive. It’s just Chinese enough where I can say, maybe I can get away with saying, it models itself almost off of Xing Yi Quan, the very aggressive martial art from the general I think in the 9th or 11th century [12th century]. The Chinese invented [martial art], that just bowls people over and keeps them on their heels strategically.
So that’s what this does. These activists show up. If you say the wrong thing, they bully you into believing that you’re morally failing or that you’re too stupid to understand racism on these new, more complicated, sociological terms. They keep you constantly on your heels. So there’s not just the fact that this is being taught in our colleges and below to the point where people are vaguely familiar with the ideas, there’s also the issue that the social media environment allows a very quick real-world training for everybody who steps on a landmine.
And in this case, the West is not allowed to judge any culture outside of the West in a negative way whatsoever or hold them responsible, and if they were to do that, there’s obviously some sort of imperialism or racism involved in having done so, which is why you were accused of racism for saying that the actions of a literal political entity, whether by negligence or otherwise, led to the escape and spread of this virus.
So it’d be considered racist for you as a Westerner to accuse them of having responsibility for anything because that’s not your place to do. That would be holding them to unfair standards. That would be colonizing them with Western standards to say that they were responsible in any way. Or to even name them in complicity with something bad because it’s not acceptable. Again, the underlying ethic is always: does what’s being said support or dismantle or disrupt systemic oppression as theory understands it?
And so theory understands criticism of other cultures as supporting systemic oppression of those cultures. Therefore, you are in the wrong. You were supporting systemic oppression by making such a statement. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. The politics of its truth are actually the only relevant object. So this is a completely different worldview with a completely different set of ethics, a completely different relationship to knowledge, a completely different relationship to everything.
And it’s so aggressive. It’s so effective at bullying people into feeling like they’re either morally bad or stupid, like that they don’t get it. They don’t understand. These scholars have come up with all this great theory, and you don’t even understand all of its details. That it gets people who are otherwise smart and good to go along with it very easily because nobody wants to be the bad guy. Nobody wants to be the person on the wrong side of history. Nobody wants to be uncool and missing the trend of society. And nobody wants to, especially academics and other educated people, nobody wants to be the person caught out looking stupid.
Mr. Jekielek: To your point, well, actually two vantage points, okay. One is just simply I was watching this two plus two equals five debate, and it’s just all over the place. There’s so much discussion about this. And there were ostensibly people who are tenured mathematicians who were saying “no, there’s a good case here,” right? So for me, do I really understand mathematics well enough to say, “No, two plus two equals four?” It’s not even that I feel stupid. I just don’t feel qualified if this guy, if the math professor is saying, “Hey, there’s a legitimate case here.” James Lindsay, a student of critical social justice says two plus two equals four, why should we believe you?
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, this is really the thing, right? It’s very easy to tap into people’s fear. And especially if something like mathematics, which most people are not particularly competent at, and I don’t think they need to be particularly competent at it in general, it’s very easy to tap into the fear that they don’t understand.
And of course, that’s what Orwell pointed out in 1984. He very explicitly said that the worst fear isn’t that they’re forcing you to say or believe a thing, it’s that they might be right and you don’t know how to tell. And so, why should they listen to me? Well, because the evidence of your senses is still intact. Two and two actually do equal four. Every example that you can think of will work out that way. And if we start looking at the examples that they give, it’s actually fairly easy.
Even these people, and I won’t name any names, but these aren’t just seemingly respected mathematicians. At least two incredibly high level mathematicians have gotten involved. A Fields Medal winner, as a matter of fact, has gotten involved. One of the most highly recognized mathematicians in the world has also gotten involved. And they’re trying to point out that if you get really, really, really abstract with things that it’s possible to make these ideas mean different things, but this is actually easy to pick apart.
And I think that the key is: is the person that’s communicating this trying to clarify and help you understand clearly what the differences are? What’s really going on in each case? And how could this be misleading versus how could it be something clarifying? Or, are they trying to blow your mind? You’re like, “Oh, look at this. Everything’s more complicated than it seems. Everything’s mysterious.” I would actually say that’s the fundamental [purpose], and this draws off of a feminist theorist, Martha Nussbaum, who I very much like her work.
This is the difference between the teacher mechanism and the guru mechanism. The guru mechanism is trying to give you shock and awe and, “Oh, wow, look at all the bright lights and smoke and everything else. Believe me, believe me, believe me.” And then the person who’s trying to inject as much clarity as possible. For example, I could take one of these mathematicians that says, well, under these particular conditions, you could write down the symbols 2 + 2 = 5, and it creates a true statement. And then that’s confusing because they should also be explaining why those conditions are not the usual conditions and how because that’s the situation, it’s potentially confusing to everyday people.
And that this is why it’s very important to try to be clear about what we’re talking about, what context we’re talking about, not just saying, “Oh, well, there are other contexts and other contexts could change everything.” That’s just obfuscation. It’s a lack of clarity rather than trying to add clarity. And I think that’s so important. And the two plus two equals four or five issue is so clarifying for people because it’s so fundamental, it’s so simple, and it’s so easy to see when somebody is trying to make it clear what’s going on, versus when they’re trying to hide a variable or change the meaning of a symbol like changing the meaning of plus or changing the meaning of equals, or changing the meanings even of two or five.
Somebody even on Twitter tried to defend this by saying, “Well, if two and five as symbols actually mean something different, they mean different values, then you could have two plus two equals five or whatever you want.” But that doesn’t mean anything. That just means that if you wrote it down with this squiggle plus that squiggle equals some other squiggle. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t tell you anything. So the person who’s trying to cut through the fog to clarity is probably the one that you should trust. And I hope that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to make things as clear as possible, even though it’s all very complicated.
Mr. Jekielek: So the other thing I was just thinking about, as someone who came out of the human rights fields into journalism, is the kind of horrific consequences of this reality that you just described prior to us discussing two plus two equals four, that essentially you can see horrific, you can see genocides happening, you can see horrific crimes against humanity. But if you happen to be in a Western liberal democracy, you aren’t allowed to say anything based on this theory. That’s horrific to me.
Mr. Lindsay: Yeah, so you’re again, you’re not allowed to call out the bad behaviors—and we talked about this at the end of “Cynical Theories”—you’re not allowed to call out the bad behaviors of other cultures from a Western perspective because again, that would be seen as colonizing them with Western ideals and holding them to Western standards, which is not fair, even if those standards are scientific, even if those standards are [in the] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You’re not allowed to hold other cultures to other standards.
And the reason for that, as we discussed very close to the beginning of our conversation, is that this ideology is utterly, navel-gazing level, utterly obsessed with the emergence of Western civilization and values as they came from the Enlightenment and the establishment of liberalism politically, science conceptually, and capitalism economically, as the system. And so since it conceives only of the world, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of ethics, in terms of how, which is what I think we’ve established very clearly in our conversation so far, that only in terms of that system, the only system that’s relevant to them is the post-Enlightenment, Western, liberal, capitalist, scientific context.
And so anything that happens outside of that, not only can you not adjudicate it in terms that we understand within it, it’s wrong to do so. So for them, impossible to render judgment about, say, some other genocide, mpossible because we can’t possibly understand the other cultural context from within our own because it has its own logics, its own rules, its own understanding in relationship to the world that we don’t have, so we cannot understand it.
But it’s also morally wrong to do so because it reasserts colonialism, Western superiority and imperialism into the world, which is an abuse. And so much of what we’ve heard, you pick your favorite situation in which the United States has decided to intervene, either economically or militarily in the past several decades, and you’d hear exactly this rhetoric again and again and again. “It’s not our place to be able to decide our imperialism. This is an act of imperialism. This is actually making the situation worse. It can only make the situation worse. We don’t understand their context.” This point of view is very, very deeply established within the far left line of thought and in particular, in the critical social justice, as we’ve called it, line of thought.
Mr. Jekielek: James, this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. I want to recommend the book to everyone and hopefully more than just the nerdy folks as you describe them. “Cynical Theories.” I think it’s coming out in a few days. Any final words before we finish up?
Mr. Lindsay: No. I think that, I do want to say, with the nerdy comment, I do want to say that we did actually hire some friends, so we didn’t really hire them, I guess, we enlisted some friends who are not academic, and their names appear in the acknowledgments, to read the book and make sure that it’s accessible for every reader. The concepts are heady; the book itself is dense. It’s very, very difficult to read in a short span of time. It’s probably best digested a chapter at a time and let it sit for a bit, but it is accessible to any reader at least to some degree. A high school education should be enough but anybody with a college education should find it very accessible and easy to read except in terms of its density and depth.
Mr. Jekielek: James Lindsay, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Lindsay: Thank you, Jan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.