Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
I first came in contact with the authors of this book in a TV interview with them, in which they start by defining the concept of “wokeness” as the condition one has if you have a certain puritanical and compelling insight into power systems such as “critical race theory”. That’s as good and as simple as any I’ve heard and this book does a really good job of documenting this theory and others that form the basis for this wokeness culture we are now experiencing. In it, they trace the evolution of the dogma behind these ideas, from its origins in French postmodernism to its refinement in today’s activist academic fields, recognizable as much by its effects and manifestations, such as cancel culture and the leftist religion of “social justice”.
As the authors note at the outset, the progressive left has aligned itself not with modernity but with postmodernism, which rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naive or bigoted Enlightenment thinkers and, as they write, interacting with the proponents of this view requires not just their language–which in itself is challenging enough–but also their customs and even their mythology of “systemic” and “structural” problems inherent in our society, systems, and institutions. This is what they set out to provide in this book, and it comes at a timely moment when our liberal establishment, particularly in the elite academic community, even among those who are not themselves fellow travelers with the progressive left, are missing in action in defending responsible liberalism against the activist scholarship of the “woke”. A very instructive read.
Great Society: A New History, by Amity Shlaes
From time to time over the past year or so I have suggested that, in order to fully address many of the sticky issues of our day, it will be necessary for the liberal establishment that controls most of our key institutions to revisit the Great Society programs and proposals of the 1960s and early 1970s and admit that much of what constituted this massive transformation of our public sector has been a failure. Further, I have suggested that this revisit must be conducted between this liberal establishment and the progressive left because traditional conservatism has for the time being lost its primary place at the table outside the judicial branch. This book reconfirms this conviction for me.
The author begins her introduction with a question: why not socialism? That was the question on the minds of large numbers of the country’s “best and brightest” as they converged on the nation’s capital after the landslide election victory of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. As she notes, and as I remember, this crowd was confident and very ambitious, and underlying the new American ambition was a certain dissatisfaction with the pace of projects that had been launched in the 1950s: civil rights laws that had not desegregated schools, the construction of the interstate highways that didn’t seem to help the poor, urban renewal funding that could not meet the needs of all. Clearly, she notes, the country wanted much more, and faster, in every walk of life. The question was how to become great, while incidentally conducting a war to control communism thousands of mile from home. In the 1960s, the best and brightest and the American people chose a massive expansion of the public sector.
This book is all about the evolution of this process and how this confidence, ambition, and enormous hubris drove the Great Society, how closely this hubris and overreaching idealism parallels today’s leftist thinking, and how we continue to pay the price in so many ways.