One of the strangest things that seems to be a common phenomenon on the modern cultural Left is the idea that to engage with ideas and thoughts which you stridently oppose, even to understand them, is “problematic.” Giving them a platform. To give a concrete example at one point I saw a discussion about whether Immanuel Kant was kosher to read and understand, given his straightforward racist attitudes. As if reading and citing Critique of Pure Reason somehow imparts the taint of the author’s racial attitudes (or whether you should read a biography of Madison Grant).
This all strikes me as very familiar. As some of you know, I grew up in a very conservative and religious area of the United States, and the general concept of “forbidden books” was in the air with some of my friends. To give a concrete example, I was reading a biography of Charles Darwin once, and a good friend saw my copy and almost recoiled. He didn’t want to touch the book. He literally didn’t believe that the book was hexed or anything, but the associations with Darwin was too much for his psyche.
Perhaps a more clear and distinct illustration of this tendency is what happened in the 2000s when you attempted to understand the roots and causes of violent terrorism. Periodically we would post things on this weblog trying to be dispassionate and analytical. Inevitably, regular readers and even some contributors would lose their shit. The issue is that 9/11 was still raw and visceral. A non-trivial number of people in the greater New York City area had lost people. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the broad public support for it was in large part simply due to the need to “do something.” The events around 9/11 broke the American sense of control and comprehension. Focusing on Iraq refocused us. In the early years critiquing the rationale for the invasion, and even attempting to understand the causal basis of terrorism, were seen as what we’d now call triggering.
People who in other circumstances were entirely rational would just lose their shit if you attempted to understand the issue analytically. Osama bin Laden, like Adolf Hitler, had become a legend, a monster in the dark. An agent of evil that was supernatural. Perhaps more precisely, terrorism had become a supranatural phenomenon. Above analysis.
The echoes of that period in American history are striking to me today, except in a different guise. Neoconservatism is moribund. We don’t have the same sensitivities and concerns in that area. We can actually moot the idea of cost vs. benefit when it comes to foreign intervention. But now the cultural Left engages in the same sort of behavior, but about different phenomena.
Related to all this, check out this rebuke from the socialist Left against the “1619 Project”, The New York Times’s 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history. Obviously, I don’t agree on every single detail, and I’m very much not a socialist. But I think the piece captures the myths of the moment. These few sentences in particular strike at the heart of the matter:
The methodology that underlies the 1619 Project is idealist (i.e., it derives social being from thought, rather than the other way around) and, in the most fundamental sense of the word, irrationalist. All of history is to be explained from the existence of a supra-historical emotional impulse.
Anyone with a cursory understanding of American social and economic history could see that the 1619 Project was an exercise in propaganda. Too much “did not compute.” But most of the criticisms I saw were from the Right, and so were dismissed or ignored. The usual “historian here” Twitter stars were quiet. The 1619 Project was presenting sacred truths, outside of the purview of analysis. Facts were not going to get in the way of the idea. And that idea fed upon and nourished by emotions.