The Red Scare Revisited Part II

The almost amusing echos notwithstanding, there are some important ways in which our current cultural moment is different than that described by Hook. To bring these out we can make use of the useful set of ideas introduced by Hook in his title.

Heretics and Conspirators

A ‘heresy’ for Hook is a view falling outside of an orthodoxy of any sort, and he is quite willing to defend the rights of heretics so defined. Minority opinions, unpopular ideas, scandalous judgments, religious apostasy, mutterings unwelcome in polite society—pretty much any speech or thought someone somewhere puts beyond the pale is welcomed by Hook with open arms, and he makes no exceptions of the ideas animating Communism. Reading and writing about and teaching the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Stalin or Mao should not land anyone in any kind of hot water. Nor should trenchant criticisms of capitalism, democracy, the Bill of Rights, Christianity, or anything else held sacred in the US. To the contrary, Hook argues college students should be exposed to such ideas, and—importantly—the ‘democratic responses’ to them. In classic liberal fashion Hook celebrates a cacophony of ideological voices as a vital contribution to the common good.

What does not deserve protection are the actions of those engaged in conspiracies to overthrow the state…Keep Reading

The Red Scare Revisited: Reading Sidney Hook’s Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No, Pt. I

Sidney Hook’s Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No, published in 1953, tried to weave a way between the excesses of McCarthyism and what its author took to be the naive indifference to the real dangers of Soviet communism rampant among American liberals. Mostly known now as an embarrassing if well intentioned attack on Academic Freedom at the hight of the Red Scare, the book is actually an insightful exploration of the limits of liberal tolerance and the paradoxes of the liberal impulse to embrace illiberal beliefs in the name of free speech. If nothing else it can be read now as a reminder that today’s culture wars have deep roots. But Hook’s insights find eerie echos in todays shrill and divided politics.

Cultural Vigilantes and Tribal Liberals

Hook was convinced international Communism posed a serious risk to the US in the 1950s…Keep reading

A Review of Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls

Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls: Why Reality Matters to Feminism has its virtues. The book is well written, and compared to the levels of vicious vitriol normally accompanying work on transgender issues, it is generally even handed and fair minded, if a bit sharp and sarcastic at times. As one of the most visible and beleaguered defenders of the ‘gender critical’ take on transgenderism, Stock is known for wading into the most contentious online debates imaginable and she had been the occasion for some appalling attacks on academic freedom as result. In Material Girls Stock laudably tries to defuse things as she plays the analytic philosopher of her training, arguing with rigor and restraint, considering her opponents’ arguments with care, and searching for as much common ground as possible. Keep reading…


Homeschooling, Parental Rights, and a Child’s Open Future

The number of American children who are homeschool has grown exponentially in recent decades, but remains comparatively low—a reasonable estimate would put it in the area of 4% the school aged population. Many homeschooling parents are conservative Christians who go this route in large part for religious reasons, and these parents dominate the self-identified homeschool movement and its largest and most effective lobbying organization. This is also the population that most readily comes to mind when the topic of homeschooling is broached.

It might be tempting, then, to imagine homeschooling as simply another facet of the conservative evangelical world living at the margins of mainstream American culture, of a piece with the rural religious private schools teaching creationism and abstinence before marriage. A Harvard Magazine article profiling the work of Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet published last year—and the culture war dustup that ensued—suggests there is quite a bit more at stake. Keep reading…

The Spectrum of Sex: A Review

The Spectrum of Sex: The Science of Male, Female, and Intersex by Hida Viloria and Maria Nieto purports to show it is unscientific to believe there are only two biological sexes, that believing this is of a piece with bad things like eugenics, and that the world needs to do much better in how it thinks about and treated intersex people. In the first two of these goals I think the book fails. Oddly, it barely argues for the “spectrum” of its title, and the authors never explain what they think it would mean for biological sex to be a spectrum. While it repeatedly claims intersex constitutes a third sex category, its most impressive parts work against that conclusion. The authors also regularly abandon their project for the much more modest and less controversial goal of showing sexual expression—in physical traits and in gender—falls along a spectrum. For their part, the moral and political parts are mostly unsupported assertions even if its renunciation of mistreatment of intersex people is obviously sound.

That’s the bad news…Keep Reading.

Cynical Theories: A Review

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—And Why This Harms Everybody, Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay.

This book had little chance of succeeding. It is too ambitious, trying at once to be a history of postmodern thought, an account of its influence on contemporary political and legal discourse, a refutation of its philosophical underpinnings, and a defense of the liberalism it challenges. Its authors also made their names provoking and antagonizing the corners of the political and academic worlds they target here. Most readers will pick up this book already loving or hating it. 

I went into it with my own bias: there is, I think, is a lot wrong with what the book calls ‘Theory’ and what they identify as its contemporary political offsprings, but I’ve found Lindsay especially to be strident and superficial in the online polemics for which he is now mostly known. I expected a book that I would sometimes agree with, but which would be drearily reliant on caricatures and stereotypes. Perhaps because Pluckrose’s more moderate demeanor prevailed, the book is more fair minded than I expected, and reasonably if unevenly well documented and substantive in its arguments…Keep Reading

Trump’s Diversity Trolling

If Donald Trump has one natural talent it’s for trolling. I take trolling to be a kind of performative speech act akin to an insult, a use of language that succeeds by provoking a response in its very utterance. A good troll manages just enough truth to demand a response while exploiting context to create an outrageously misleading impression. When done well, this provokes so much exasperation, rage, and disgust that the troll’s victims are reduced to ineffectual sputtering that seems to confirm his outlandish insinuations. Once embroiled, the victim can reverse things only with an expenditure of time and energy that exceeds the troll’s by orders of magnitude. 

Trump’s recent executive order on diversity training may be one of the last things of significance he manages as president. Without explicitly saying so, the order targets Critical Race Theory and more radical sorts of Feminist Philosophy, and everyone knows it was a political stunt driven entirely by his desperate desire to be re-elected. Predicated on anecdotal reports from a highly biased source, the order was issued without even the pretense of an independent investigation of the targeted training’s prevalence, its full content, or its actual outcomes. Taken as response to the ideas it targets, the order is as convincing as guidelines on the use of fetal tissue based on The Center for Medical Progress’ Youtube channel.

That said, it is hard not to marvel at the order as a bit of trolling…Keep reading.

Some thoughts on Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works

Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works starts with a plausible and succinct definition of fascism—“ultranationalism of some variety…with the nation represented in the person of an authoritarian leader who speaks on its behalf.” It then identifies the features of “fascist politics”, or “fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power.” These “strategies” are “the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity.” Fascists deploy these tactics, Stanley suggests, to exploit existing or manufactured insecurities about or fears of parts of a country’s population in order to justify oppressive policies targeting political opponents and troublesome political minorities so that they can take control. Each of these is the focus of a chapter, followed by a brief Epilogue. Keep reading…