Dissidents, Crackpots, and Bad Allies

How not to fight "wokeness"

Welcome, one and all! This is a special day: the debut of my newsletter on Arc Digital. There will be a full entry every week (sometimes on just one topic and sometimes, as with today’s issue, on several different topics). On some weeks, I’ll post additional content: extra, shorter entries, or Cathy Convos where I video-interview guests. The Cathy Convos will eventually be put on YouTube—but only Arc members get access initially.

And now, without further ado, my first entry.

To start with, let’s make one thing clear: I think the pushback against radical left identity-based progressivism, a.k.a. “wokeness” or whatever you want to call it, is not only a virtuous cause but should be a high priority for anyone who cares about liberal values, in the philosophical sense of individual rights, civil equality, freedom of speech, intellectual pluralism, and so on. Liberals who argue that left identitarianism is either a positive, pro-social justice movement or a trivial non-issue are sorely misguided; this is a fundamentally illiberal phenomenon in every sense of the word. (For details and reasons, see a debate in which I make this argument.)

Unfortunately, at this point, it is also quite clear that the “anti-wokeness” pushback includes some people who are pushing in a very wrong direction.

Exhibit A: James Lindsay, the crusader against “critical race theory” who decided to hitch his wagon to the Trump Train last fall. Until fairly recently, I somewhat warily appreciated Lindsay’s efforts. I thought he vastly overhyped the “conceptual penis” hoax intended to discredit gender studies by publishing a terrible paper; however, the follow-up “Sokal Squared” stunt carried out with Peter Boghossian and Helen Pluckrose was much more solid, despite questions about some of its aspects. Lindsay’s critiques of social justice/identity politics struck me as basically on-target, but often marred by an increasingly crude polemical tone. When writing about the “2+2=5” controversy over “woke math” last August, I noted that his valid points on the issue were undercut by gratuitous abusiveness toward pro-“social justice” mathematician Kareem Carr. 

(I haven’t read Lindsay’s recent book Cynical Theories, co-written with Pluckrose, which critically examines “grievance studies” and philosophical postmodernism and has received praise mixed with criticism.) 

Last fall, Lindsay decided to get on the Trump Train, particularly after Donald Trump seemed to embrace Lindsay’s cause by banning diversity training based on “critical race theory” at federal institutions. From there, it was a fast journey off the cliff. After the November 3 elections, Lindsay became a de facto enabler of Trump’s election-fraud narrative. Sometimes, he ran with a joke about how deniers of election fraud were exhibiting “election fragility,” a parody of “woke” theories about denial of racism and “white fragility.” Perhaps it was merely a “wokeness” fixation; but add Lindsay’s non-jokey tweets speculating that Trump really might have been cheated out of victory, and the “election fragility” gag starts looking more like a ploy to mock and dismiss concerns about Trump’s dangerous lies. In a February 5 appearance on Glenn Loury’s Glenn Show on Bloggingheads TV, Lindsay also asserted that there was a lot of “ambiguity” and strong evidence of “irregularities” that matched known patterns of election “misfeasance.” (Along the way, he repeated the debunked claim that in some places the vote counting was suspended and restarted again with a large jump in numbers.) Rather ironically for a critic of postmodernism and subjectivism, he noted that “there’s a feeling of manipulation around this election.”

It also notable, by the way, that Lindsay preemptively touted voter fraud—and a media cover-up—as an explanation for a Trump loss several days before the election.

More recently, Lindsay has been promoting the idea that the January 6 Capitol Hill riot was basically a harmless romp. On March 26, after Trump claimed on Fox’s Laura Ingraham show that there was “zero threat” from the rioters and that a lot of them were “waved in” and were “hugging and kissing the police and the guards,” Lindsay replied to conservative commentator Noam Blum’s comment—“Utter lunacy”—with: “Odds are, he's more right than anything else you've heard about the incident.”

This is not the only issue on which Lindsay has gone off the rails. He has also been peddling, as Tim Skellett documented for Arc Digital in late December, bizarre conspiratorial claims about COVID-19, asserting that the dangers of the virus are greatly exaggerated, that lockdowns are the real threat, and that politicians want to keep things from returning to normal because they like having emergency powers. It comes as no surprise that he now hypes the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines.

People who go down the road of right-wing crackpottery often end up in pretty dark places. If anti-vaccination propaganda isn’t dark enough, one place where Lindsay has arrived is the argument, made on Twitter in late January, that the rise in far-right antisemitism is partly the fault of “woke” Jews. 

When taken to task—including by some very “anti-woke” conservatives—for lapsing into Jews-provoke-antisemitism rhetoric, Lindsay tried to backtrack without retracting; he posted a graphic which supposedly clarified his view that identity politics breed antisemitism right and left, but omitted his original point about right-wing antisemitism as a reaction to excessive Jewish “wokeness.” 

There is nothing particularly outrageous about the idea that the rise of identity politics on the left contributes to antisemitism in various ways. John-Paul Pagano is just one Jewish commentator who has written about it. One could make the argument that left-wing Jews who embrace a certain type of progressive rhetoric—e.g., the kind that singles out Jews as perpetrators of white supremacy or Israel as the root of all evil—may act as de facto enablers of antisemitism by giving it cover. 

But that’s light-years away from Lindsay’s argument, which is that some antisemites turn antisemitic out of disgust at Jewish radical leftism—a classic antisemitic trope. (A couple of years ago, the racist and misogynistic alt-right guru Stefan Molyneux pushed a more extreme version of the same theme on his podcast by claiming that Nazism was a “wild overreaction” to Germans’ legitimate fear of “Jewish-led communism.”)

In addition to being ugly, this argument is also stupid. If you’re not already antisemitic, the fact that some “nonsensically woke” person happens to be Jewish is not going to register as relevant in your mind. Perhaps at the margins, encounters with overly “woke” Jews may make some right-wing antisemites more virulently antisemitic; but that’s hardly the same thing.

For the record, I don’t believe that Lindsay, who has expressed strong concerns about antisemitism, is himself an antisemite. I do think that, having picked up right-wing allies and armies of right-wing fans in his battle against “wokeness,” he started flirting with far-right conspiracy theories. From there, it’s a short leap to “leftist Jews provoke right-wing antisemitism.”

From Contrarian to Crackpot

Lindsay is not the only “anti-woke” intellectual to take an alarming detour into batshit lately. Maajid Nawaz, whom many of us admired as a courageous and thoughtful critic of radical Islam, has disappointed most of his fans by flogging conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (including the idea that it was a plot by Communist China to impoverish the West) and the U.S. elections.

There are lessons here.

One is that, while dissent from mainstream culture is often good and necessary, there is but a short journey from dissident to knee-jerk contrarian to crank to crackpot. The temptation is understandable: if you question conventional narratives on various social and political issues, why not “question authority” on epidemics and elections, too?

It’s not a new phenomenon, either. Three years ago, I wrote in The Weekly Standard about the strange career of the late Lev Navrozov, the very gifted—in some ways brilliant—Russian émigré writer who was briefly prominent in conservative circles in the 1970s and early 1980s. 

Navrozov loathed and despised the liberal Western establishment, which he saw (not without justification!) as mired in progressive illusions about the Soviet Union and naïve denial of the Soviet threat. Eventually, his stridency on the subject got him banished even from respectable conservative media such as Commentary. He ended up at News World, the Unification Church outlet in New York, and later at Newsmax—where his columns argued, inter alia, that Slobodan Milosevic and Osama bin Laden were framed.

Despite his part-Jewish background, Navrozov also eventually ventured into blaming socially progressive Jews for far-right antisemitism. His son and fellow crackpot, writer Andrei Navrozov, went farther down; in 2012, he got dropped by a liberal Russian website, Snob, for a blogpost arguing that Jews had enslaved the West to the yoke of political correctness and would eventually unleash a tsunami of antisemitism. (A bit like that Lindsay tweet but longer, nastier, and far more unhinged.) Does right-wing crankdom always end in getting weird about Da Joos?

Mainstream institutions, including the media, arguably bear some blame for the dissidents’ turn to crankdom. The more they bend the facts to suit narratives and squelch dissent, the more skepticism and contrarianism they breed. (The younger Navrozov, for instance, was arguably a target of a genuine progressive “cancellation” in the 1980s: Yale actually changed its policies to oust him from a university-linked magazine because too many professors and alums hated its conservative bent.)  But ultimately, it’s your responsibility not to go off the cliff.  

That’s the first moral. The second is that crackpots do not make good allies. 

I’ve lost count of the times people on Twitter have said that “we” (the “anti-woke”) should band together instead of fighting over differences, that “we” need all the people we can get, etc. I’m all for joining forces with people with whom I have disagreements. But some things, like not peddling deranged conspiracy theories, are non-negotiable. If “we” need everyone we can get in “our” corner, then why not Molyneux? Why not Alex Jones? They’re pretty “anti-woke,” too. 

In any case, is Lindsay pursuing (classically) liberal goals? His latest cause is pushing legislation in several states that seems aimed to ban or severely curb not only coercive indoctrination into “critical race theory” but even the teaching of such material, and other “divisive concepts,” in public schools and colleges. This, despite the fact that Cynical Theories explicitly rejects such remedies as authoritarian. (It should be noted that Pluckrose, Lindsay’s co-author on the book, has vociferously dissented from his pro-Trump stance, though the two remain friends and have not ended their professional partnership.)

No less important, a visible ally who is peddling authoritarianism, demagoguery, and conspiratorial derangement can only discredit the effort. Yes, it’s unfair that the left is not held accountable for its cranks, haters, and crazies while some are already invoking Lindsay as proof that the “war on wokeness” was always a bad cause. (He’s nothing of the sort, of course—no more than Navrozov’s crackpottery proved anti-Communism was a paranoid delusion.) But fair or unfair, at this point, it’s impossible to cite Lindsay as a source of valid analysis without alienating anyone who isn’t already hardcore “anti-woke.” Whatever good insights he may sometimes have, he’s primarily useful at this point as a cautionary tale.

Harassment and Hypocrisy

And speaking of why I think that "anti-woke," despite its worst ambassadors, is a good thing …

I have been beating the drums since 2014 about the ludicrous double standards evident in the alarm about “online harassment” raised by progressives and especially by feminists. We’ve been hearing again and again about the “war on women” on the internet, even though available studies show that male internet users are at least as likely to experience severe harassment, including violent threats. (Women, especially young women, are more likely than men to report sexual harassment, while men are more likely to report verbal abuse; persistent harassment and stalking are equally likely to be reported by both sexes.) Online harassment is also framed as something that happens to progressive—and “marginalized”—social media users at the hands of reactionary trolls. That’s some of it, but hardly all, and some online harassment flows from left to right, or left to left.

Recently, the alarm has focused on the harassment of female journalists—first after New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz got some nasty blowback due to being mocked by Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show, then again after USA Today intern Brenna Smith was denounced by maverick journalist Glenn Greenwald on Twitter for promoting her article about crowdfunding sites preventing legal defense fundraising by Capitol Hill riot suspects.

I understand that being inundated with hostile and abusive messages can be depressing and intimidating. I’ve been there. Generally, my suggestion is to ignore the abuse unless it reaches the level of at least somewhat credible threats (e.g., ones that mention one’s home address or phone number, or other real-life specifics). Or unless it involves libelous accusations that can damage your reputation, employment, etc.

Such a smear campaign is now being directed, not for the first time, at science reporter Jesse Singal. (I’ve written about it before.) Singal, himself left of center, incurred the wrath of many progressive activists by challenging some aspects of social justice orthodoxy on transgender identity. Specifically, he has reported on “desistance” among gender-dysphoric children and teens (i.e., the waning of dysphoria and return to a gender identity consistent with natal sex) and on the more rare phenomenon of “detransition.” Singal does not, as some of his detractors claim, oppose gender transition for minors; he simply believes that a cautious approach is needed and that counseling which unequivocally affirms transgender identity can rush transition which is later regretted. He has also criticized arguments that deny biological sex.

Since about 2016, Singal has been dealing with an increasingly vicious online campaign in which he was not only labeled a transphobe but accused of having a “creepy” obsession with transgender women and harassing them with inappropriate private messages. No one has ever produced evidence to back up these claims. It’s hard to see this as anything other than harassment and character assassination.

The harassment has recently intensified, partly because Singal has a new book out, partly because he’s a successful podcaster and Substack author. Last month, he was the target of attacks that went on for days, with the explicit purpose of undermining his livelihood. Charges of harassment and other unethical behavior were repeated with dramatic promises to produce “receipts”—but not just yet. 

And now the latest round: Tage Rai, editor for social/behavioral sciences at Science magazine, has attacked Singal as a “transphobic journalist who butchered data and then double-downed.” (In reality, in a 2018 post, Singal volunteered the disclosure that he made an error in interpreting the findings of a major study on desistance; but while his detractors immediately assumed that he had overestimated its prevalence and thus perpetuated “transphobia,” the correct results made a stronger case for desistance being common.) 

After Singal asked for evidence, Rai began to claim that he had received anonymous phone calls and then a “creepy phone message” from one of Singal’s followers. Others picked up the accusation that Singal had “sicced” people on Rai and harangued academics who dared to platform him. One person tweeted a thread (later deleted) which called Singal a “genocidist” of trans kids deserving of “capital punishment” and inquired, paraphrasing the famous words of Henry II inciting the murder of Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid us of this meddlesome scumbag?” 

To recap: here’s a journalist being systematically targeted for smears, abuse, and even threats because of his work. All this without one word from any of the good progressives—individuals or organizations—who are usually quick to show concern about the harassment of journalists. 

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the main purpose of these concerns is to shield the right kind of victim not only from abuse but from rude and unpleasant criticism by the designated baddies—the kind who watch Fox News or sympathize with Trump supporters. Singal is obviously the wrong kind of victim (a progressive, to be sure, but a heterodox progressive), and his tormentors are the “good guys.” And so, the proverbial crickets.

Speak Up and Shut Up

A couple of months ago, the brilliant John McWhorter wrote about the peculiar “anti-racist catechism” of our moment in which white people are presented with a list of contradictory demands: show interest in non-European cultures but do not culturally appropriate; have black friends but stay out of black spaces; speak up about racism but don’t center yourself in the fight against it; etc.

For a striking example of such self-defeating “wokeness,” see the mini-kerfuffle the other day involving Cher and her reaction to Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd.

The singer/actress has now apologized for two days for a (now-deleted) tweet that some people found offensive.

Here’s the text of that tweet:

Was talking with Mom & She Said 'I Watched Trial Of Policeman Who Killed George Floyd, & Cried'. I Said 'Mom, I Know This Is Gonna Sound CRAZY, But.. I Kept Thinking .....Maybe If I'd Been There,...I Could've Helped.

What’s wrong with it? Apparently, Cher was exhibiting a “white savior complex.”

Yes, the “white savior” phenomenon—the smug white person preening as a noble benefactor to grateful people of color—is real. But was Cher doing that, or simply expressing a normal human reaction (which she even qualified with “I know this is gonna sound crazy”)? You can fit anything into some “harmful” racial “trope” if you try hard enough.

Cher initially pushed back and had many defenders, but eventually caved.

What’s the point? To make white people feel that they can do no right and that anything they say can be used against them, turning them from “white ally” to “white savior” in one ill-judged moment?

This isn’t exactly “cancel culture”; no one is “canceling” Cher. But the spectacle of “allies” having to jump through hoops to avoid giving offense and making groveling apologies for non-existent wrongs is deeply off-putting.

And if we’re talking about white people not “centering” themselves in the fight for racial equality … whom do progressives think these apologies “center”?