The Trouble with Theory

“You don’t know about me,” Mark Twain wrote, “without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.'” So begins one of the great American novels. Lately I’ve been blogging about some problems in Unitarian Universalism, and today I’m going to suggest that you won’t know nothing about what’s going on without you have read a book called Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.

Much that would otherwise be inexplicable snaps into focus. As Sherlock Holmes said, “Every problem becomes childish when once it is explained to you.” Pluckrose and Lindsay map the links between the playful and seemingly innocuous academic postmodernism of the Sixties and the vile authoritarian putsch of Critical Race Theory as it is being used today to stifle dissent and ruin people’s lives.

You must read this book.

Of course, the Social Justice crew won’t want you to. They will marshal all sorts of specious but impressive-sounding arguments about why you shouldn’t. Part of the thesis of Critical Race Theory and the Social Justice movement is that dissent is not allowed. Nor is logical analysis. Logic is a tool of White Supremacy, you see. Your only option, in the view of these latter-day Inquisitors, is to bow down before their superior wisdom. The fact that I’m white means if I dare ask questions, I’m being defensive. I’m manifesting “white fragility.” My only proper stance is to feel guilty and remain silent.

You may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.

If you’re too nervous to buy and read the book, they have won. They have convinced you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

When I first read the Open Letter signed by hundreds of Unitarian Universalist ministers in which they attacked one of their fellow ministers, Todd Eklof, for having written his book The Gadfly Papers, I was baffled. How could these supposedly educated ministers possibly denounce the use of logic and reason? How could they say they were going to “name the harm” caused by a book and then never name the harm? How could they denounce a book without, in many cases, even having read it, and without quoting a single thing that it said?

Cynical Theories makes all of that dismally clear. Cynical Theories never even mentions Unitarian Universalism, but it’s as if Pluckrose and Lindsay were reading Todd Eklof’s email. They totally nail the toxic mindset that now governs the UU denomination — a mindset in which hounding a fellow minister and ruining his career while refusing to explain why or how you’re doing it is deemed a virtue.

I could go on. Maybe I should. I’m one of the few people the Social Justice warriors really can’t get at, because I’m retired and all. I guess they could get me kicked out of my local UU church, but only if I don’t quit first. I mean, I like the people and all, but the minister signed the Open Letter, so what are you going to do? For some reason this whole mess reminded me of a scene in Catcher in the Rye. You remember the scene. “Old Spencer started nodding again,” Holden Caulfield says. “He also started picking his nose. He made out like he was only pinching it, but he was really getting the old thumb right in there. I guess he thought it was all right to do because it was only me that was in the room. I didn’t care, except that it’s pretty disgusting to watch somebody pick their nose.”

It’s like that. These Social Justice people are picking their nose, they’ve got the old thumb right in there, but it doesn’t matter because it’s only you that’s in the room.

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12 Responses to The Trouble with Theory

  1. Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

    As a member of the Spokane UU church, I appreciate this piece. Todd Eklof plans to release another short book soon which discusses the events post distribution of The Gadfly Papers which will delineate the measures taken against him by the UU “higher ups.” Included in this book will be an appendix containing the written materials produced both by the UU inquisitors and by Eklof in response. I hope the author of this article takes a look at this when it comes out. Again, thank you for your support of our minister. I must say that UUs are not the only ones in the room because the wokies are spreading their invective throughout society. No place seems safe from them. We need to push back on multiple fronts against this illiberal movement which masquerades as being politically progressive.

    • midiguru says:

      I wasn’t going to mention it yet, but since you brought it up … Todd asked me to edit his book, and I sent him the edited file yesterday (2/8/21). It’s a very strong book, and I was very happy to have a chance to help out a little.

      • Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

        Your involvement in the editing of Todd’s book makes my comment look rather silly, but I didn’t know about it. Thanks for helping him.

      • Paul Alan Thompson says:

        Looking forward to Eklof’s new book, which I will purchase promptly.

    • Jack Reich says:

      Right on, Marian!

  2. Helen Pluckrose seems fairly sensible, but unfortunately James LIndsay seems to have gone off the deep end. He’s become a hard-core Trumper obsessed with conspiracy theories about the election, and with battling his enemies on Twitter. Therefore, I think it is unfortunate that he is associated with this book. I do not have a lot of faith in Lindsay’s statements. If he states that “so and so says X”, I would find it necessary to check the original to see the context. Hopefully Pluckrose did most of the work on the book.

    • midiguru says:

      I didn’t realize that about Lindsay. It’s a cause for concern, certainly. Thanks for mentioning it. On the other hand, though, I would have to say that canceling Lindsay’s book on the grounds that he voted for an idiot would be an example of precisely the kind of thing the book discusses — retribution against people who espouse unpopular ideas. What we want (what I want, anyway) is for ideas to be evaluated rationally and logically based on their own merits, NOT on the basis of who voiced the ideas or what other things that person may have done or said.

      For that reason, if there is anything in “Cynical Theories” that is objectively, factually wrong, please tell us what page it’s on! As in the Eklof affair, criticizing a book without citing instances of alleged problems within it is not acceptable.

    • Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

      Helen Pluckrose is a liberal, and the book contains a strong defense of liberalism. James Lindsay is a libertarian. Although I agree that Lindsay’s recent support for Trump is tragically misguided, the book “Cynical Theories” is solid, with no crack-brained conspiracy theories endorsed. I bought a copy and have never regretted it. I recommend the book to others.

    • Paul Alan Thompson says:

      It’s possible, even likely, that he is right about most things, and wrong about Trump. Isaac Newton was right about calculus, but wrong about alchemy.

  3. It’s not really that Lindsay supports Trump. I think that’s unfortunate. But Lindsay’s rationale makes some sense given his frame of reference. Lindsay’s rationale was that Biden would promote more “wokeness”. This strikes me as a weird way of weighting different reasons to choose different candidates for President. But, on the other hand, LIndsay’s whole program is anti-wokeness. Therefore, you can somewhat understand why he might want to take his pro-Trump position as part of his anti-woke program.

    What I think is disturbing is that he has promoted conspiracy theories on Twitter, put together from out of context facts and half-truths. That raises the question: did similar slipshod reasoning, including out of context facts and half-truths, slip into his book with Pluckrose? I hope not! But how can I tell without reading all the original sources to see what I think? So, from my perspective, I wouldn’t believe anything in the book unless I was familiar with the original source. This makes the book far less useful than it might otherwise be.

    • Marian Elizabeth Hennings says:

      I didn’t agree with all the conclusions in the book, but those few points of disagreement were not due to the book’s not being rigorously footnoted. The extensive bibilography is impressive. The homework has been done by these authors. I do encourage you to read it.

      • The problem is: I don’t trust that his footnotes supporting his arguments actually do support his arguments. Unless I had read the original source, I would always wonder: is that really what the source he cites is saying? Or is he perhaps taking a quote out of context, or spinning the source to make it seem more extreme than it is? So, as I said, that makes the book less useful to me.

        Books depend on trust in the author’s willingness to not claim support for their arguments where there is none. Once that trust is gone, you’re in tough shape. In Lindsay’s case, I already know that he is willing to rely on half-truths to justify conspiracy theories about the Biden-Trump election. So this undermines my willingness to trust other things he has written, even if they have footnotes that supposedly back his arguments.

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