May 7, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Why the GOP-fueled ‘controversy’ over critical race theory has nothing to do with critical race theory
Anything teaching individuals to think freely is dangerous to Republicans.
The right-wing media apparatus, which is global in scale, has lately been making a fetish of something called “critical race theory” (CRT). This has prompted academics to defend it. It’s not a radical political ideology, they say. It’s merely a form of critical inquiry. It is not the boogeyman it’s being made out to be. There’s nothing to fear.
I understand the need to defend critical race theory. Colleges and universities are beset on one hand by Republican fascists accusing scholars of indoctrinating students, on the other by anti-left liberals accusing the same of hostility toward freedom of speech. Meanwhile, administrations act more like corporations that privilege efficiency over research and teaching. It’s enough to think CRT is an appropriate hill to die on.
Explaining CRT’s particulars to people who seem to fear them won’t change their minds if you don’t also take into account that explaining them can be seen as intolerable aggression.
This, however, overlooks the larger dynamic at work. The more you defend CRT as an ideologically neutral mode of seeing and thinking about the world, the more the propagandists are going to do what they do best, which is terrifying the ignorant. More importantly, CRT defenders are not seeing the true nature of their opponents. From the authoritarian perspective, modes of seeing and thinking about the world are never ideologically neutral because once you learn to see and think about the world on your own, you don’t need authoritarian leaders to tell you what to see and think.
I risk making them seem like cartoons. I risk making people who treasure “traditional” and “conservative” and “Judeo-Christian” values look like they yippy-skippied over the Enlightenment on their way from the Spanish Inquisition to the 21st-century America. But it’s worth the risk given that most respectable white people, in my opinion, tend to overestimate the societal effects of liberal arts education. Critical thinking is so uncontroversial among respectable white people as to be barely worth mentioning. The authoritarians, however, see it quite clearly for what it is—an existential threat.
This is why the particulars of critical race theory don’t matter.1 (You don’t care about the particulars when you’re fighting for survival!) This is also why explaining those particulars to people who seem to fear them won’t change their minds if you don’t also take into account that explaining the particulars of critical race theory can itself be seen as intolerable aggression. What most of them fear is loss of social control. What most fear is loss of authority. Where you see an individual merely muddling through life the best she can, coming to the best conclusions she can, most of them see an individual whose ideological aggression is so monstrous as to justify any response.
Respectable white people look at the right-wing media apparatus, which is global in scale, and marvel at the fact that Americans consuming its propaganda inhabit a fact-free world. I think what they misunderstand is lying isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. Facts are available to individuals to see and think about on their own, free and independent of authorities licensed to say what individuals see and think. Facts, therefore, are aligned politically with perceived enemies. A rational response to facts is nonstop lying. So “alternate facts” are not a result of authoritarian politics. They are a first principle.
Critical race theory is not a political ideology, but it may as well be to the world of the right-wing media apparatus, which is global in scale. It might as well be because anything that teaches individuals to see and think about facts independent and free of groupthink compromises the integrity of the authoritarian’s grip on the group. Case in point is Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney. The Republican believes the former president tried bringing down the republic. She is factually correct. For the “crime” of seeing and thinking about the world on her own, she’s now being punished. The House Republicans are poised to purge her from the House conference leadership. The Republicans are not individualists. They are collectivists enforcing groupthink.
Respectable white people marvel at the fact that Americans consuming right-wing propaganda inhabit a fact-free world. As a consequence, they do not take it seriously. People who insist on inhabiting a fact-free world are not just ignorant—not when democracy depends on the ability of individuals to associate and organize themselves for the purpose of self-rule. When huge numbers of people inhabit a fact-free world, and collectivist leaders police the integrity of that groupthink, they threaten not only democracy’s ability to function minimally, but its survival. Liz Cheney is now being reassimilated into the collective. Democracy itself faces the very same fate. Do not marvel at these people and their fact-free world. Regard them as the danger they are.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.