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The PC Debate, Sullied

Andrew Sullivan, at the intersection of Mad and Lib
Charles Murray

In times of perceived crisis, the American liberal mind instinctively reaches for reassurance in its great dream of impartial reason. The noble pursuit of above-the-fray truth is besieged on all fronts, the stout refrain usually goes, and the most urgent order of business, in view of this sorry state of affairs, is to subject the sanctums of our higher learning to bracing corrective discipline in the name of free and open inquiry.

Sometimes this plaint is indeed justified, as when self-dramatizing campus leftists have tried to bully or hector dissenting voices out of equal participation in university life. (Such occasions, despite the perpetually engaged persecution complexes of the elder liberal set, are surprisingly few and scattered.) More often, though, the vision of an unappeasably PC campus left serves as the occasion for the scowling, reflexive repudiation of any left-leaning idea as a menacing presentiment of the Stalinist gulag just over the horizon. 

Adam Moss’s New York magazine, a veritable diorama display of liberal groupthink at its most privileged and inert, has made alarms about the PC campus plague a cottage industry. Politics columnist Jonathan Chait routinely takes to its pages to document the latest PC putsch he’s imagined under his bed. And this week, Andrew Sullivan comes bearing the same frenzied tale of unhinged campus radicalism, in a dispatch bearing the sky-is-falling headline, “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” (Spoiler alert: Sullivan believes the answer is an emphatic, unqualified “Yes.”)

Like other self-serious pundits on the PC beat, Sullivan is writing here of the recent campaign at Middlebury College to disrupt a scheduled speech by Charles Murray, coauthor of the discredited neo-eugenicist tract on race and intelligence, The Bell Curve, and a similarly risible jeremiad on the moral decline of the white working class, Coming Apart. There’s no question that the Middlebury protest got rowdy, and inexcusably so when Murray’s faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, was grabbed by the hair and suffered a concussion. Any such assault is a crime, and deserves punishment as such.

If Andrew Sullivan means to preserve fully contextualized, historically informed debate, he has made a terrible hash of it here.

At the same time, though, it’s difficult to see just how Sullivan attributes the excesses of the Middlebury demonstration to the doctrine of intersectionality—a quite direct and simple account of how marginalized populations suffer multiple oppressions under intersecting regimes of domination. Patriarchy and white supremacy, for example, are not exactly the same but they intersect. If anything, intersectionality, as it’s been carefully spelled out by its originator, critical race legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is an exceedingly pragmatic concept, designed to promote unified coalitions on a notoriously fractious and sectarian American left. Contrary to the campfire-tale horrors that teem in Sullivan’s wholly fabricated vision of intersectionality, Crenshaw’s version is explicitly grounded in a politics of ground-up coalition building. In answering her critics, Crenshaw proposes that the scattered constituencies of the left affirm each other—and move on to the hard work of organizing. “The organized identity groups in which we find ourselves are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed,” she writes in her landmark essay “Mapping the Margins.”

In Sullivan’s surreal rendering of the notion, though, it possesses a sinister, thought-blotting allure, transforming vast swathes of our university student population into Maoist zombies—or, to adopt the bizarrely impressionistic logic of his column, insatiably redistributionist Cotton Mathers. After avowing that protests against Murray are “completely legitimate” and that the writer’s Bell Curve thesis “could be and was exploited by bigots” Sullivan rears back and delivers this drive-by assault on the intersectional idea, evidently based on nothing more than his viewing of a YouTube video of the Middlebury action:

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power. . . . But watching that video helps show how an otherwise challenging social theory can often operate in practice.

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante.

From Orwell to Mather to Dante in 200 words! If Andrew Sullivan means to preserve fully contextualized, historically informed debate as the beau ideal of the life of the mind, he has made a terrible hash of it here.

But on to the hermeneutics! It is, to begin with, a colossal genitive fallacy to detect in the theory of intersectionality the praxis of unruly public bullying, based on the casual viewing of a handful of campus activists chanting slogans that might provisionally align with some words and phrases adopted by Crenshaw and her critical race colleagues. It’s a bit as if, I don’t know, one were to point to Donald Trump as the fully weaponized culmination of the pin-factory-based social relations Adam Smith famously diagrammed in The Wealth of Nations.

Nor is it the case that intersectionality as it actually exists is merely Marxism casually warmed over for the sake of more vocal and scary identity-politics groupings. It’s true that the doctrine of intersectionality pivots off a critique of Enlightenment reason as a self-interested abstraction concealing a multitude of historic sins, in line with theories advanced by certain thinkers of the Frankfurt School. But that’s not exactly an outlandish or disreputable claim, as Ta-Nehisi Coates recently made clear to the keepers of university wisdom at Harvard. As for the Frankfurt School itself, it’s now enjoying something of a resurgence in explaining the rise of the Trump voter via Theodor Adorno’s model of “the authoritarian personality.” I guess that makes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross a bloodthirsty identitarian Marxist! Who knew?

What is it about the insistence that social domination takes multiple forms that drives soi-disant liberal devotees of sober and reasoned discourse so very crazy?

Meanwhile, the alleged religious components of intersectional thought are entirely a product of Andrew Sullivan’s feverish imaginings. As a descriptor of how overlapping oppressions function in the actual world, intersectionality demands no rites of expiation, confession, or in-group assent; it merely asks its own interlocutors to grasp that several forms of social domination can disfigure a single human life simultaneously. It does look with suspicion on certain ideological constructs—such as color-blindness and the broader rhetoric of individualist self-help—as strategic evasions of our shared social experience as it’s actually lived. But that is simply critical social thinking—not inquisitorial orthodoxy-enforcement, smelly or otherwise. What’s more, it’s a brand of social thinking that explains the dismal appropriation of such concepts by the reactionary racist right, as it goes about dismantling basic voting-rights protections—or promoting racialized theories of an “intelligence gap,” à la Charles Murray.

Sullivan’s distorted account of intersectionality is so fundamentally dishonest and anti-intellectual that we should be turning the hermeneutic tables on this played-out brand of Mad Lib culture-war alarmism. Why, after all, is it so necessary to thoroughly discredit a well established brand of race-inflected scholarship as a witch-hunt-style assault on all things learned, liberal, and decent? More pragmatically: If one is, for some reason, delusionally certain that the Koch-subsidized, AEI-sponsored Charles Murray is somehow denied his duly prominent platform in public debate, what good does it do to tar his critics with the epically broad brush of religious fanaticism? And what point is served by ascribing this set of unappeasably base and dishonorable motives to them?

[Intersectionality] operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

Again: You will scour the annals of intersectional scholarship in vain to detect even the faintest echo of any such thought or sentiment. (Really, Andrew Sullivan—try it; it’s not hard!) And to be irritatingly empirical here: Charles Murray was in no way banned; he was shouted at, harassed, and interrupted, and his inner soul, so far as we know, went completely uninterrogated.

It’s hard to read outbursts like Sullivan’s and avoid the conclusion that it’s not the intersectionalists who are embarked on the self-righteous campaign of generalized character assassination here. What is it about the insistence that social domination takes multiple forms that drives so many soi-disant liberal devotees of sober and reasoned discourse so very crazy?

That other Germanic fount of modernist subversion, Sigmund Freud, supplies a clue. Humanity’s reliably twisted internal dynamics of repression entail a great deal of projection, the old Viennese grand master insisted. So when the Andrew Sullivans of the world descry a Crucible style witch hunt in a simple category of sociological description, perhaps there’s something about straightforward leftist criticism that summons their own inner Grand Inquisitors to the surface. When Sullivan edited the New Republic, after all, he commissioned a long series of tendentious, dishonest hit pieces on the critical race theory movement. These works, like the Bell Curve excerpt Sullivan touted on the magazine’s cover were not exactly subtle; “The Bloods and the Crits” was the headline of the most notorious such hit job. It’s not hard to think that when a very public repudiation of Charles Murray and his work coincides with some stray chanted snatches of something vaguely sounding like intersectional theory, it must strike a very 1990s kind of chord in Andrew Sullivan’s troubled soul. So he dusts off the Orwell, reaches for his big-buckle hat and King James Bible, and calls down the furies of Michael Oakeshott on the heathen masses. Behold, oh embattled American liberals, your great defender of the faith!