In the wake of the Woke

Cynical theories

Since Galileo’s discovery that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but the earth around the sun, it has become clear that we cannot completey trust our own perception, our own eyes. Reality is different from what we see and think. It has taken ages for this realization to reach everyone. Meanwhile, Galileo’s discovery spurred scholars to research and experiment in all sectors. They realized that not only the macrocosm, but the whole reality is different from the everyday experience.
Because there was nothing to find solid ground underfoot. Rene Descartes found this certainty when he stated: “I think therefore I am”. This is at the very beginning of what we call modern times, the Enlightenment.
In the mid-20th century, scholars began to question this concept. Is the knowledge of reality as we know it on the basis of research and experiment really reality? Is our so called knowing not affected by factors of which we are not aware. The French philosopher Michael Foucault came to the conclusion that our knowing and science are a form of the exercise of power. Knowledge is power. Not just about things, but also about people. So we didn’t just ask more questions about reality, as we did during the modern era. Our way of knowing reality also came under criticism. Uncertainty squared. The also French thinker Jacques Derrida went a step further. In fact, our knowledge of reality was not real factual knowledge, but a discussion that was not about reality itself, but consisted of words in a linguistic context. This philosophical direction is therefore called Postmodern.
Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain in their Cynical Theories how these changes in approach and knowledge of reality have led to theories and activism such as the Woke-movement, the Social Justice warfare, intersectionality and identity politics that are causing a lot of commotion and conflict in our time, starting at the universities, but gradually throughout society, especially in America, but also in Europe. Modernity and liberal values are questioned and replaced by the new Theories. These Theories have in common that they criticize everything, but do not tolerate any form of criticism themselves. They all have this trait in common, be it the postcolonial theory, the queer theory, the critical race theory and intersectionality, the gender studies, or the disability and fat studies.
How is it possible that this school of thought that questions everything is so convinced that it is right that it resist itself any form of critical approach? Why is het so dogmatic, quasi religious? Because they replace the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” with a new position amidst all the uncertainty about our knowing reality. Those who suffer, the minorities, have the knowledge of reality, because when you suffer, you are. You know for sure and that gives you the right to speak up. Because of that suffering or victimization, you are a part of those who have the same skin color or social disadvantage, gender or disability. This knowledge is therefore mainly linked to a group. Humans as an individual fades into the background. Just like the universal humankind. It is precisely these two sides of human existence that have been discovered by liberalism and presupposed as inalienably inherent to every human and society.
Pluckrose and James Lindsay do not deny that there is racism, discrimination and misunderstanding that must be combated. They do not deny that there are people who fall between the cracks, as with the sex division into male and female. But they show that the Social Justice warfare does not offer a solution on those points, but actually exacerbates the matter.
The authors defend the science that since the Enlightenment has been based on agreement of knowledge and fact through never-ending research. And democratic politics that is based on constant checks and balances.
Cynical Theories has a clear content and structure. The book is a consolation for all who feel uncomfortable with the manifestations of Social Justice in universities, in politics, society, in the media and in language. It is a welcome plea for common sense and liberal values like freedom includng freedom of speech and equality.

Martin Los
Cynical Theories, (c) 2020 Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Pitchstone Publishing 351 p.

Democracy cannot be taken for granted

Anne Applebaum starts her book Twilight of democracy, the failure of politics and the parting of friends, and ends her book with a New Year’s Eve party in Poland, the first in 1999 and the second 20 years later in 2019. She herself is American, married to a Polish politician. Their friends, but not any longer the same attended both parties, including well-known politicians, journalists, publicists from the West and the East.
Applebaum sketches the atmosphere at the first party, the eve of the new milleneum, optimistic and full of expectation. On the basis of the guests, what political positions they took and what their motives were, she describes the changes in Europe and America in the years that followed. Because a lot has changed in the political landscape. Brexit is a fact, in Eastern Europe in particular Hungary and Poland democracy seems to be getting out of the picture. Most European countries and America are confronted with populist ideas and parties.
It takes a moment getting used to Applebaum telling how many of the guests she names by name, including real friends of her and her husband, have changed their position. How they now defend visions and leaders in a way that was unthinkable at the time. How democratic principles and values ​​are meanwhile denied. In a number of cases, communication between former friends has been completely broken as a result.
But Applebaum’s book is not a gossip story. She does not go into private matters. She does try to explain how the democratic tide in Western countries is turning and how her then guests fitted in with those changes. It is very interesting to consider the trends she observes and to compare them with our own observations. Who were our personal friends back then in what we believe to be hopeful days on the brink of the new millennium, and who are they now? Have there been political divisions that run through friends and families?
This reminds me of an older colleague of mine, a jovial man, with many friends on all levels. He felt rich with them. He celebrated with them. It was a real unity without the friends hiding their opinions from him. “We agree to disagree” was his motto. Yet over time it happened that friends took different, sometimes for him incomprehensible, paths. He was surprised because he believed they were both heading for the same destination. At several crossroads, friends turned out to be taking other directions, on moral and political grounds. It didn’t leave him indifferent, it hurt him. Not that some friends took other directions in and of themselves. But that they had always had a different goal in mind.
The book ends with the New Year’s Eve party in 2019. In place of some old friends, new, often youthful friends and allies have come.
The atmosphere is less hopeful than in 1999. There are major concerns. Because on the basis of the examples of the friends of the past and the developments in the politics of the countries, it is clear that democracy is under attack from all sides. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. It is not a final destination. It must always be defended, even against former friends and allies. It must always be regained. That takes courage. We must again and again take the step of the sometimes shaky democracy. But there is no guarantee. For example, the global corona crisis can create a self-awareness that people and countries need each other. But it can also be the start of growing state influence and restrictions on individual rights, and nationalism .

Twilight of Democracy is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books 206 p. © Anne Applebaum 2020

(c) Martin Los