Letter on denialism


In  November, Politico published a profile of Claire Lehmann, the founder of the web magazine Quillette, which it hailed as the “unofficial digest” of the intellectual dark web. While acknowledging that many of the arguments on the site will never be considered “mainstream,” Lehmann presented her project as a well-intentioned effort to escape echo chambers and engage in intellectual risk taking. “We just want to capture the highly educated but open-minded, curious, heterodox audience,” she claimed, “wherever they are.”

For more than a few liberals and leftists, this will sound like a false advertisement for Quillette, which they view, and not without justification, as a reactionary force in the media landscape. The site has been a magnet for attacks on social-justice activism, and it returns with conspicuous regularity to “uncomfortable topics” like race science. But given its rapidly expanding readership—according to Lehmann, up to two million visitors per month—it’s worth examining what exactly Quillette’s readers say they are reacting against.

Quillette’s suggestion that our intellectual media stifles “open-minded” discussion is dismissed by its detractors as being made in bad faith. If anything, they say, there is too much “open discussion” these days; we have a president who will say anything at any time, neo-Nazis marching through university towns, and have you been on Reddit? Here, too, it’s fair to be skeptical: many calling for open-mindedness simply want to be able to say contemptible things with no consequences or criticism, and there are certain ideas that we refuse to countenance for good reason.

But which beliefs exactly should be judged as “out of bounds”—and who gets to be the referee? How wide is the circle of ideas that are not even worthy of discussion? Such questions are themselves open to debate, and the judgments we make about them in particular cases will tend to be provisional. Still, this is preferable to the alternative. For there is a growing cost to pretending we’ve arrived at a settled consensus about their answers, or to denying that they are even real questions.

A controversy over the phrase “cultural Marxism,” revolving around a recent New York Times op-ed, offers a helpful example of how such matters are often adjudicated—or avoided—in elite publications.

As a term of art, “cultural Marxism” has been in circulation for some time, and in recent years it has become a staple of outlets like Quillette. An article published there last summer, by the cultural studies graduate student Galen Watts, described it as a “social theory” holding “that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy.” In other words, cultural Marxism is the belief that our tastes and preferences—the books we read and the museums we visit—are determined by our racial, gender, and economic positions. Watts concludes that the framework the term represents is useful for “helping us to understand the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced” through culture, even as he cautions against seeing it as a totalizing theory of social and political life.

Writing in the Times in November, the Yale historian Samuel Moyn defined cultural Marxism very differently from Watts. In an op-ed titled “The Alt-Right’s Favorite Meme is 100 Years Old,” Moyn did not attempt to explain cultural Marxism or weigh its virtues as a social theory. This is because, according to Moyn, “nothing of the kind actually exists.” That is, cultural Marxism is not a set of beliefs to be understood or argued with but rather the product of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It can be compared to the “Judeobolshevik myth” in the early twentieth century, which was used as a rationale for exterminating Jews in Eastern Europe, and its main import today is as the ideological phantasm of internet trolls and racist murderers—like the Norwegian summer-camp shooter, Anders Breivik, and the white nationalist who killed eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, Robert Bowers.

Moyn’s main target, however, was not figures like Bowers and Breivik, who are unlikely to take their cues from the Times editorial page. What makes it urgent to expose the ugly roots of cultural Marxism, Moyn contends, is that the term has recently “burst into the mainstream,” where it is being employed by supposedly respectable commentators, politicians and intellectuals. As if by fiat, a high-profile example of this “mainstreaming” appeared just a few days after Moyn’s op-ed, in a column called “Liberal Parents, Radical Children,” by the veteran Times columnist and Twitter piñata David Brooks. Brooks wrote about the Turgenevian “generation gap” he believes is opening up in American society between older liberals who tend to be “individualistic and meritocratic” and young activists who have been influenced by what he calls the “cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy.”

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